Quite what has inspired Indonesia’s love affair with small wheels will probably remain a mystery but it seems as though the country has embraced the modest wheeled vehicle like no other. Many countries have their iconic forms of transport: jeepneys in the Philipines; decorated trucks in Pakistan and the London Bus, just to name a few, but Indonesia has adapted bicycles and motor bikes to perform a whole range of functions.
You won’t get very far, anywhere in the country before you find someone selling food in the street from some kind of wheeled device. Some are powered by motor or pedals and others are simply pushed but all have honed the efficiency of food production in a microscopic area down to a fine art. Usually concentrating on doing just one dish, maybe with slight variations, you can be pretty sure they do it well and with low overheads and bulk buying ingredients they can often sell it for less than you could cook it yourself. Being mobile they can move to where the business is throughout the day or night. Street food is such an institution that the president has even ordered government officials to use these little local vendors to avoid the lavish spending we all associate our politicians with.
Indonesia’s take on the rickshaw is the becak (pronounced bechak), which comes in motor and bicycle forms but has the seats at the front to give you a better view of the vehicles hurtling towards you as becaks are unconstrained by the usual rules of lane usage. Statistics for the mortality rates are not available. Cycle becak operators are characterised by their lack of understanding of supply and demand economics, hence can often be seen sleeping whilst waiting for some customers to appear because there are far too many of them in the area.
The pinnacle of moto-becak style can be found in northern Sulawesi, where boy racers must have to spend economically unviable amounts of money to make them look cool: spoilers, flares and wings are in but the most important feature is a monstrous sound system, with the bass speakers in the seat to give the passengers an audio massage as they ride.
The most surprising niche in the mobile business market has to be children’s entertainment. Often hanging around night markets in some parts of Indonesia are kids rides, decked out in flashing lights with fairground music squeaking out of tinny speakers. Some of the larger ones are powered and towed to where they are needed but my favourites are totally human-powered. One man pedalling furiously keeps the kids in their seats moving, while the lights and music send them into that reverie that only three-year olds can know. The operators had no need for gym membership as they got a serious workout each night.
Others, such as the ones below combined pedal power with a small motor when needed. No need to go to the fairground as it comes to you.