Life in Jakarta – My Taxi Ride from Hell

As I wrote in a previous post I was a bundle of nerves about my first ever solo trip to Penang.  As it turns out, solo travel is pretty fantastic.  And I was ecstatic that my three-day jaunt to Malaysia went off without a hitch – well, it almost went off without a hitch.

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I spent my last hours in Penang cruising around George Town, taking as many photos as I could and buying vegetable samosas from my favorite street stall in Little India – I had promised to bring some to Aaron.  After five hours of walking around Penang, two delayed plane flights and one layover on Sumatra my plane finally landed in Jakarta at 11pm.  After a long day I was eager to get back to my apartment and just crash out.

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It’s probably important to note that I’d never hailed a cab at Jakarta’s airport before.  All I knew was that Blue Bird was the most reputable company.  So I hailed a Blue Bird taxi and, as I always do, I told the driver that I was going to Podomoro City (not only the complex in which I live but also a well-known landmark in Jakarta).  The smiling driver repeated the name, nodded his head and off we went.

Since it was so late at night there was no traffic (an anomaly in traffic-riddled Jakarta) and from previous experience I knew the trip should take around 25 minutes and cost 100,000 rupiah.  I called Aaron to let him know that I was on my way.  He asked me where I was and I couldn’t help but laugh at this question.  I said, “I have no idea.”  While I’d done this drive before, this city is still incredibly foreign to me.  I don’t know freeway exits or landmarks or anything really.  Not to mention everything looks different at night.  So I replied, “We just passed the second toll booth.”  Aaron’s exact words were, “Where are you going?  There should only be one toll booth.”  That’s when I got a little freaked out.  But given that no cabbie has ever had an issue getting to Podomoro City I shrugged it off, told Aaron I’d be home soon and I got off the phone.

As the minutes passed the high rises stared to fade into the distance.  A half hour later the meter was already at 100,000 rupiah, and as we got off the freeway I didn’t recognize my surroundings.  I had this feeling in my stomach that something wasn’t right.  The cabbie sped through the dark back roads of Jakarta.  And he finally pulled up to a dark apartment building and said, “This is Podomoro.”

It wasn’t.  I looked at the sign and it read Sunshine Villas (or something that in no way resembled Podomoro).  He assured me that it was in fact Podomoro, as if I didn’t know where I lived.  There was no one around.  The streets weren’t lit.  There were no taxi cabs in sight.  I had no idea what to do.  I didn’t budge from my seat and insisted that this wasn’t Podomoro.  Without a word, the cabbie started driving again.  When I asked if he knew where Podomoro was he said “Yes, yes.”  Suffice it to say I wasn’t reassured.  I had no clue what to do in this situation.  I don’t speak any bahasa Indonesia and he didn’t speak much English.  I didn’t have an internet package on my phone so I wasn’t able to look up our location on Google Maps.  I’m unfamiliar with the city and I had no way of directing him toward my apartment.

I pulled out a business card with my address on it in order to clarify where I wanted to go.  And that’s when the previously nice driver became uncomfortably angry.  He pointed at the street name on the card and insisted that we were in fact on the street on the card.  For the next 10 minutes the cabbie kept driving even though he clearly had no clue where he was going.  At one point I had to forcefully tell him to pull over so I could regroup and think of a landmark that was near my apartment that he might be familiar with.  I named Central Park Mall – a very well-known mall in Jakarta.  He didn’t say a word and he just started driving.  I asked a few times if he knew where Central Park Mall was and finally he humored me with a terse, “Yes, yes.”  Again, his words did not put me at ease.

After 10 more minutes I recognized a well-known sculpture that was nowhere near my apartment building and I realized we weren’t heading to the right place.  I asked again if he knew where we were going and but at that point he’d stopped responding to me altogether.

I had been in the car for over an hour.  The meter was up to 200,000 rupiah.  Typically I would have gotten out of the cab and just found another taxi.  But it was the middle of the night, in an unsafe city and there was no one around.  To make matters worse the driver was mostly sticking to freeways so there was no way to get out of the car even if I’d wanted to.

As we sped along the highway it became increasingly clear to me that I was being taken for a ride.  No matter how many landmarks I mentioned or addresses I showed him, he wasn’t going to stop driving until the meter ticked up to an amount he was satisfied with.  I had been an all-too-easy target.  I sat in the backseat feeling utterly helpless and purely terrified.  My biggest concern was that he would just leave me in the middle of nowhere and I would be stranded in a sketchy city, in the middle of the night, with no one to help me.

I was scared.  But I took a deep breath and realized that getting upset with the driver or showing my fear wasn’t going to help matters.  I decided to just be as nice as possible.  I politely asked the driver if he knew of the Taman Anggrek mall (which is a 10-minute walk from my apartment).  He said he did – though I was sure he was lying – and he got on another freeway and drove.  There was nothing to do but stare out the window, fight back the tears, and hope that we weren’t going to drive further outside of town.

After another 10 minutes my eyes widened when I saw the giant lit-up sign that read Podomoro City.  I pointed and said, “Podomoro!  Podomoro!”  The driver started yelling at me.  Slapping his forehead with his palm saying, “You’re wrong.  You’re wrong.”  I didn’t really know what to make of this reaction.  He raced past the complex and merged onto another freeway.  I quickly got turned around and was immediately unsure of which direction my apartment was in.  My stomach sank.  Why had he gotten onto another freeway?

As each minute passed I was sure that we weren’t going back to Podomoro.  I seriously almost wept with joy when I finally saw the entrance to Podomoro City and told him to turn into the complex.  Again he raised his voice, started slapping his forehead and repeating, “You’re wrong.  You’re wrong.”  When we pulled up to my building he said, “You say Podomoro Center, no Podomoro City.”  I hadn’t.  And I’m not even sure that “Podomoro Center” exists.  The meter read 229,000 rupiah and I had been in the cab for one and a half hours – an hour longer than the trip should have taken.  Defeated, I halfheartedly tried to explain that I didn’t want to pay that much.  But because I was near tears and I couldn’t listen to him say, “you’re wrong” one more time, I paid him the full amount and just got out of the car.

I walked through my apartment door and just broke down in tears.  I had felt so helpless, so frustrated, so panicked.  Maybe I overreacted.  Maybe it really was a case of miscommunication.  But as I’ve heard time and again, even Indonesians get scammed by taxi drivers in Jakarta.  And they live here and speak the language!  I’m a foreigner, I’m a woman, I was alone.  I was an easy target.  In the end I learned a valuable lesson.  I need to have a backup plan for these situations.  And, never again will I take a cab alone in the middle of the night in Jakarta.

For anyone who’s going to take this same journey make sure to get a cab from the official Blue Bird taxi stand outside of the airport.  Do not just flag one off the street, like I did.  You should stand in line, tell the attendant where you’re going and you’ll be issued a white slip with your destination.  All taxis are metered.  There is a small surcharge (roughly $1 USD) but for this small fee you’ll be protected from getting scammed, like I was.

Have you ever had a bad taxi cab experience in a foreign country?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

38 thoughts on “Life in Jakarta – My Taxi Ride from Hell

  1. Oh dear, hope you have not been too traumatised by this experience. Actually, I’ve taken taxis from Jakarta’s airport late at night by myself before but I do have an advantage in that I’m used to where I’m going and I also usually go to the taxi station instead of flagging it off the street.

    I was reading this to Siti and she suggested that you learn of the specific direction to take, such as taking which toll, which expressway to make sure they head in the right direction. She mentions that because it’s such a big area, not every taxi would be familiar with building names in Jakarta.

    However, I can totally understand how helpless you feel not able to communicate with the driver. I once took a taxi in Seoul to get to a specific place and even had the address all printed out as reference for him. He let me off in some residential area but I had no idea whether it was correct so I just got off because he told me it is so.

    In the end, I was forced to walk for some time without having any idea where I was. I managed to get to the main road after a while and just decided to head in one direction, hoping to be able to get to a subway station. I lucked out, though. I managed to pass by the place I had wanted to get to while walking so I was just glad I managed to get there, even though it was some distance away from where I got dropped off. But I totally felt helpless because I had no idea whether it was correct or not and was left to the mercy of the driver.

    Hopefully, you feel better and know better now…:)
    sha recently posted…Stairs in Seoul – The Bane of my Existence

    1. I totally learned my lesson. I know in Malaysia it’s normal to wait in taxi queues but it didn’t even cross my mind when I was at the Jakarta airport. In the past I’d taken the Damri bus, so I’d never hailed a cab there before. For some reason I thought as long as I took a Blue Bird taxi everything would be fine. Now I know better! I agree that I need to get more familiar with the city. I should also get a data plan on my phone so that I can look up a map in case something like this happens in the future.

      Oh no. Your story sounds awful! It’s so weird having to put all of your trust in the driver. I would have gotten out of the cab to if I were in your situation too. I’m sure it was no fun being left in some strange area with no clue where to go. At least you found your way!

    1. It was so frustrating Emma! Not being able to communicate is the worst. I’m glad I can help people learn from my mistakes. Definitely take a cab from the Blue Bird taxi stand, no matter how easy it is to flag one down yourself. Waiting in line for a few minutes definitely beats getting lost in a huge city like Jakarta. Also, stick to Blue Bird taxis Despite my experience they are still the most reputable company and they are always metered so you don’t have to worry about haggling or overpaying. Are you heading to Indonesia soon?

    1. I was losing it. I was just so scared that he was going to leave me somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I’ve had that happen in other countries before, but I’ve never gone though something like this alone. It was not fun! Haha, I don’t know how well I handled it. I think I freaked Aaron out when I was an hour late and burst through the door crying!

  2. Ohhhh no!! Im so sorry about this… I dont think it was overreaction, I would be freaked out as you were!! I also have heard a lot about the taxi drivers from Jakarta, its so bad! Thank God you are ok and even with the stress and the money spent you learnt your lesson… Im sure next time wont be like this! It good to know these kind of things!!
    Packing my Suitcase recently posted…Istanbul in a short time

  3. Oh no, that’s not good at all. I would have been exactly the same as you were, it’s a horrible feeling not knowing where you are or where you’re being taken.

    My friend and I got duped by a taxi driver in San Jose, he picked us up from the bus depot and proceeded to drive us around for an hour, before dropping us off in a dark, horrible area late at night, he chucked our bags on the floor and sped off with the money we gave him without our change. We managed to get another taxi who told us our hostel was only round the corner from the Bus Station. Luckily I we were together, but I did feel really worried for a while there.
    Hannah recently posted…Mountain Style Celebration

    1. Your experience sounds so similar to mine! It’s really weird having to put your faith in strangers. And, yeah, I’ve had quite a few taxi drivers take the “scenic route” so they can run up the meter. But it gets really scary when the drivers refuse to drop you at your destination. I don’t know what I would have done if my driver would have done that to me! It’s awful that your driver just abandoned you in the middle of nowhere. And San Jose can be really sketchy! I’m glad you were at least with someone but regardless that’s really scary!

  4. It sounds terrible! I think that sometimes they even pretend to know less English than they actually do, just so you can’t communicate and tell them where you’d really want to go.
    We were scammed by the Blue Bird taxi in Jakarta as well. The driver took us to the wrong hotel (even though we clearly shown him the written address) and when we got out and handed him 100.000 IDR (the ride should cost 80.000 IDR), he said that he doesn’t have the change and just quickly drove away.
    Taxis in Jakarta are really a hit or a miss, you never know what to expect.
    Hope you’ll have better luck during the rest of your stay there.

    1. Yeah, the driver’s English speaking skills seemed to decline the further we drove. That’s a bummer you guys got scammed too! I’ve never had a problem with Blue Bird taxis until now. Thanks, I hope I have better luck in the future too!

  5. Unbelievably frightening.

    Speaking of bad taxi experiences, I had a recent taxi adventure. While it wasn’t scary, it was frustrating. Recently (last Sunday, in fact), I booked a 5:30 a.m. taxi to take me and my dad to the Leeds Railway Station, where he’d catch a six a.m. bus to Manchester Airport. But the taxi that was supposed to come (according to my mobile phone) never showed up. We were getting frustrated at about 5:40, so I called the taxi company to explain that the taxi hadn’t arrived. They were able to dispatch another one quickly and we left about ten minutes later. Dad made the bus by one minute.
    Rashaad recently posted…A (somewhat unexpected) visit…

  6. thats awful!!! Things like that are so miserable and they always make me feel so angry and vulnerable. I’m glad you’re ok and hopefully this will just be a one time experience. Its so scary when you don’t know what people are doing or whats going to happen but it sounds you did everything you could. I would have just paid him too, sometimes getting distance from an experience is more important then the money.
    Rebekah recently posted…The Very Worst English Teacher

    1. It’s so weird putting blind faith in people. I have had nothing but good experiences with the taxi drivers so far. They’ve been super friendly and honest, so I was really taken aback by that experience. That being said I’ve had plenty of bad taxi experiences in my past travels so I shouldn’t be surprised. I hope it’s a one time experience too! I was super upset that night but now that I’ve been able to get some distance I’m over it. I don’t even care about the money; I’m just glad I got home!!

  7. Reading this made me feel sick, I’m so sorry this happened, Justine! This is horrible to say, but while traveling usually reinforces my faith in humanity, it has also shown me that most taxi drivers in the world – from Thailand to Kyrgyzstan to Hungry – just love taking advantage of people. I wish I never had to take another taxi ever. At least you made it back safely in the end!
    Silvia recently posted…Go to the Streets! In George Town, Penang

    1. Thanks Silvia. So funny that you mentioned Hungry. One of the craziest taxi rides I’ve ever had was there. My friend and I were stranded at a train station in the middle of the night. There was one lone taxi there. The driver spoke zero English and reeked of alcohol. But we had no choice but to hop in the car. He was so drunk and drove like a madman. I cannot believe we didn’t die in that car! I kinda wish I never had to take a taxi again too. It’s times like these that I miss having a car!

  8. OMG! I’m sorry this happened! How scary. I’m glad you got home safely. I think he was definitely taking you for a ride, otherwise why would he get so angry, instead of just trying to help you out? I swear, transit from the airport is one of the most difficult things to deal with in foreign countries. It’s just a breeding ground for scammers for some reason.

    When we landed in Bogota, Colombia (already kinda scared), we were immediately swarmed by taxi scammers trying to stop us from reaching the prepaid booth (which was not easy to find). We found it though, and the price was 1/3 of the price all the scammers quoted us!
    Shelley recently posted…7 Places to be Dazzled by Fall Foliage in Korea

    1. As time passed it became increasingly apparent that he was taking me for a ride. He was so nice in the beginning. Although his English wasn’t great we were talking and cracking jokes in the beginning. So it was really telling that his English abilities seemed to disappear and his temper was kinda ridiculous. Plus, I’m super sensitive and I hate it when people yell at me!

      I had the same experience in Bogota. I was scared too since Bogota’s taxis have a horrible reputation (even worse than Jakarta!). I never talked to any of the scammers but I guess I’m not surprised that they were asking for so much. So lame!

  9. Wow, what a terrible taxi journey! It’s horrible when you don’t know where you are, put your faith into a taxi driver and they take you for a ride. I’m glad you have a back up plan from now on. I wouldn’t have paid half as much as you did though, but I understand you just wanted to get out and away from that situation as quickly as possible
    Adam @ Round the World we go recently posted…Tara River Rafting

    1. It wasn’t the best experience. Yeah, I hate that I gave him the money. I never know what to do in those situations. I know if I wouldn’t have paid he would have made a huge scene. The second I suggested that I didn’t want to pay he called another guy over who immediately took his side. I felt kinda ganged up on and I just wanted to be done with the whole thing. But I am curious if other travelers ever don’t pay or only pay part of the bill in those situations…

    1. Thanks Joella! It definitely gave me a scare. It’s interesting though, I’ve been hearing that the same thing happens all the time to Indonesian women. I guess it’s just the norm in Jakarta. Just to be safe, I don’t think I’ll be taking anymore midnight taxi rides alone in this city!

  10. Oh no, no, no! I’m sorry that you had this experience. I’ve had a lost taxi driver or a hundred, but they’ve always turned off the meter and pulled over or something. May this be the worst taxi ride of your life with other rides only going up from this point. Safe and happy travels!
    Hamilton recently posted…Reflections Before I Return to Ireland

    1. Oh he was so not going to turn off that meter. It was so hard to even get him to pull over. He insisted on just driving aimlessly to get the meter to tick up. Ugh, it was so lame but you’re right, hopefully my experiences will only get better from here on out 😉

  11. It was terrifying just to read this account. I am so glad that in the end the taxi driver finally let you out. It is certainly terrible that he held you “hostage” in his taxi until he got the amount he wanted, but what a relief that nothing worse happened. Is this a common scam in Jakarta?
    Cassandra recently posted…On Writing an Expat Blog

    1. After talking to some Indonesian women, I guess it is really common here. I’d heard that taxis drivers are notoriously shady in Jakarta and that you have to be really carefully to use a reputable company. But even then there’s still no guarantee. Even people who grew up here are taken for similar rides, which really surprised me to hear. The fact that I’m a foreigner and don’t speak the language makes me a super easy target too. But the good news is that I’ve taken a few solo taxi rides since and I’ve had no problems. And I now have internet on my phone so I always know my exact location so I’ll know if I’m being had!

  12. Wow, that is definitely some sketchy stuff! What a jerk! I’ll have to keep the taxi company in mind. I haven’t visited Indonesia since I was a kid (I’m Indonesian) and hopefully my limited Indonesian language will be enough to keep the jerks away T_T

    Glad you got back safely!

    1. I was super freaked out! He started off being so friendly but, I agree, he ended up being up a total jerk. I realize now that I did a lot of things wrong. Next time you visit Indonesia, make sure to get an airport taxi from the official taxi line. They hand you a white slip (if you don’t get that slip you’re in the wrong place). I did it the right way last week and everything went off without a hitch! I also now have an internet package on my phone (and Google maps) so I can make sure we’re going to the right place. It makes me so much more comfortable since i have no clue how to navigate this huge city! Oh, and knowing some Bahasa will help immensely. I really need to work on learning more 😉

  13. Oh wow, that reminds me of those times I still took taxi from work. I was told by the Embassy that Blue Bird is the safest. But I heard stories about some drivers who drove around knowing that the passengers had no clue. So, whenever I took a cab I would call my husband and text him the number on the cab’s door and the driver’s name. If something happened (God forbid!) my husband can call the taxi company. I heard that when a Blue Bird drivers made a mistake or received a complain, they would received a penalty ranging from pay cut to unemployment. We made a few complains before, and reported it (twitter or email) and they response promptly.

    1. Taking note of the taxi number and driver’s name is such a good idea! I haven’t had any issues since this experience, but sometimes I still feel a little on edge with certain cab drivers. The other day my driver was telling me how there has been a series of taxi rapes in the past week. He was going on an on about how someone hides in the trunk, pushes the backseat down and attacks the passenger who is always a woman traveling by herself. It made me SO uncomfortable! And it totally freaked me out!! Anyway, I will definitely be texting my boyfriend with the taxi info from now on! Thanks Imma 🙂

      1. Oh yes, I’ve heard about that kind of stories before, it’s like an urban legend (or not?)
        I remember many years ago there used to be some taxi companies that were so notoriously bad, some crimes were connected to them. One of the M.O.s was a person hiding in the trunk or the driver stop and let his partner in crime get in.

        These companies has been shut down a long time ago. But I don’t know if there are copycats out there now, hopefully not. May be this is an old story that is still circulating, or may be the driver who told you this story was actually really care for your safety, so you’ll be more careful 🙂

        Once I had a discussion with my girlfriends about that same stories few years ago. I remember some of them said when they have to take a cab home alone at night they would ask the cab driver to open the trunk and so they can check no one is in there.
        I tried that myself once and the driver wasn’t happy at all! He put sour face all the way and I wasn’t really comfortable too. That’s why I came up with texting the cab number thing.

        Stay Safe :))
        Imma recently posted…Filofax Pages into a Mini Book

        1. So scary. I went home and tried to look up news stories about taxi rapes and found nothing online. I kind of got the feeling it might be a rumor that’s circulating around the city…hopefully that’s all it is. It is so terrifying and I’m sure I’m going to think about it every time I ride in a cab alone, which is all the time! I really do like your idea of taking down the information. I’m definitely going to do that from now on 🙂

  14. I’ve had almost the same experience as you with a Blue Bird taxi no less, though this time it was in broad daylight (I can’t even begin to imagine how your experience was being dark and all). I had clearly given the instructions to the driver which roads and exits to take, he even asked repeatedly the correct names of the roads and exits and he spoke quite good English which is rare for taxi drivers in my experience so I was assured that he understood me. I have taken the same route before but this was my first time alone. Anyway the driver asked a lot of questions, where I was from, how long I have been in Jakarta, how do i like it here, how it compares to other asian cities, etc. distracting me from looking at our progress on Waze. While I didn’t want to answer with as much details, I tried to be polite. Then I looked at my phone to check where we were on the map then looked up to see my surroundings and before I knew it, we went whizzing past the exit we were supposed to take. Too late, the car was moving too fast to change lanes. And much to my dismay, I found out that the next exit would take us twice the distance had we taken the right exit from the tollway. When I explained to the driver that we were now out of the way because he just went past the exit, he feigned innocence and insisted he didn’t know we were supposed to take that exit. I had to repeat the instructions that I gave him at the start and he had this look on his face like it just dawned on him that we were indeed off track. So we took the next exit and he had the gall to ask for more toll money! I had previously given him the exact amount when we were approaching the tollway. In the end, he asked for the same amount on the meter which was more than twice by the way, normally it’s only 50k rupiahs but in this instance I had to pay 120k. I was convinced that it was intentional on his part to miss the exit knowing that I wasn’t a local and he gave this little smile like I was a fool when I handed him the fare. I was so furious that I wanted to bang car door so hard on my way out, but I didn’t even shut it so he would have to go out of the car to do it himself.

    I’ve learned to take more precaution as a woman travelling alone and clearly a non-local. Even if you take the more reputable taxis, they can still rip you off by trying to distract you and still blame it on you for not being clear.

    1. It’s so frustrating! Back when this incident happened to me I knew I was an easy target because I am a woman and a foreigner. But I partially assumed it because I was so unfamiliar with the city that I didn’t even know we were headed in the wrong direction. But I’ve had the same thing happen to me, with Blue Bird, a couple of times since then. I got a cab about a month ago and knew exactly where I was going. I noticed that the driver was about to go onto the highway in the opposite direction I wanted to go and I told him it was the wrong way. He just waved me off. He literally took me on a ring road all around Central Jakarta. It was ridiculous. I even showed him where I wanted to go on a map, told him it was the wrong way, etc. and he just kept saying that we were in fact going the right way. It ended up costing 150k instead of 50k…so infuriating. I’ve heard this happens to locals, a lot, which boggles my mind. But it definitely doesn’t help being a foreigner and a woman! I didn’t want to pay the bill but I didn’t know what else to do, so I paid it very reluctantly. Ha, I like the tactic of leaving the car door open 😉

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