Indonesian Public Transport: Bemo, Kupang Style

By Rivaldy Pandie

A decked out Bemo cruses the Kupang streets

A popular method of public transportation in Indonesia is the bemo. Compared to buses, bemos are smaller and it can carry up to 10-12 passengers. Although it’s smaller, people still like to travel around the city by bemo because the price is cheap.

Each bemo system in every province in Indonesia has its own characteristics. Not in terms of the vehicle, but mostly about how passengers are impressed because the competition between bemos is very tough. Sometimes fights even break out between the drivers or driver’s assistant. The assistants, called kenek, are the ones you have to pay when you take a bemo. If you come to Kupang, you will learn at least few things about bemos that you probably won't find in other places.

1. Modification, innovation, and creation

The basic color of bemo normally is green, yellow, or white. The others are red, black, blue, or orange. Kupang people are friendly but some of them are little bit picky, even for something as small as which bemo they want to take them to their destination because full green or only white bemo is a boring thing and sleepy. To get passenger’s attention, the bemo owners modify their bemo to be more interesting. Bemo modifications include mixing colors, adding posters from famous people (but not politicians), playing with simple words on its body, or giving it a unique name that they think is cool.

Intentional or not, those bemo modifications and accessories indirectly created the characters of bemo and I was thinking that there are three types of bemo personality in Kupang based on what we see everyday;

  • Happy bemo. Full of funny words or jokes that makes you smile. It never gets old.
  • Mellow bemo. This is kind of teenager bemo. I mean, you can find some poems about falling in love or words about heartbreak or things like that written on its body. Sometimes it writes advice about love too.
  • Religious bemo. Just like its name, it is clearly that you will find religious items such pictures of Jesus or a verse of the Holy Bible. I thought this is the reason why there is no picpocket in Kupang’s bemo compared to any others

2. Music is Bemo

Many kinds of music are played in bemos,such up to date pop ballad songs, rock music that beats your heart faster, or house music that makes you want to move your body. Some people even call bemos in Kupang "Moving discotheques". In fact, as long as the bemos keep operating, that music will keep playing on and on. The best time to experience "Moving discotheques" bemos is when in the evening. Upbeat music that plays very loudly combined with red and green lights makes you forget about the time you spend in bemo and suddenly all of your exhaustion is gone because you really enjoy the ride. 

Huge speakers under the passenger seats

Might it seem uncomfortable because the loud music could annoy you or hurt your ears? For older people the answer is yes. Older passengers ask the drivers to turn down the music all the time. But if you are younger and complain about the music, the other youth passengers will think you are uncool. So you have to pretend that the music is cool whether you like it or not and put on a happy face.  Actually, there is a correlation between the music and high school passengers in Kupang. It is said that the louder or harder the music, the more high school passengers the bemo will get. I don’t know if this is true or not for teenagers nowadays but it was valid for four or five years ago. I remember when I was at high school, there were a group of students waiting for a bemo. The Kenek asked them to go home on his bemo, but a student told him “we want to go home but not with grave music like that”. The students laughed together and waited two hours for a 'good' bemo. In the end, those student ended up cold because of their rudeness as it turned out to be a big rainy day.

3. Easy way to feel adrenaline

It is a common view to see young boys even children hanging or sitting in the small door used by the Kenek when a bemo is full of passengers. When the bemo is running fast along the road while you are hanging out the door, it feels like your heart beats just like the bemo’s speed and power. Although it seems interesting for some people, this is a very dangerous activity. Many passengers have died while hanging out bemo doors. So if you see that the bemo is full, just let it pass and keep waiting for another one so you can have a comfortable ride and arrive safely at your destination.

So, these are few things that you will find about bemos, especially in Kupang. For better or worse, the bemo is still the most popular public transportation for getting around town. For my last words I'd like to know if you have ever travelled by bemo in Kupang? And what’s the most interesting thing about bemos for you?

Kenek talks to a driver while the bemo pulls away from the curb

The Inside of bemo

The Inside of bemo

A kenek on the lookout for potential passengers

A kenek on the lookout for potential passengers