Cultural experience at it’s best and cheap way how to reach remote places of Indonesia (if you have enough time and patience). That’s governmental ship company Pelni.
For sure it is not experience for everyone. The prove is that during our 5 trips and 125 hours spent on Pelni boats we met only 1 another non-Indonesian couple on board. Locals are using it for it’s cheap price, so they can afford to visit their families from distant parts of Indonesia and transport goods to sell it somewhere else for higher price.
Introduction – traveling by Pelni
Ships are huge with capacity from 700 up to 1500 passengers depending on the vessel, where separate dorms have capacity around 100 mattresses. Ships are commonly overbooked up to 150% of capacity. It means there is not enough of mattresses and people are sleeping everywhere – on the stairs, in alleys, halls next to the toilet. And because seating plan exists only on the printed ticket you have to in reality fight for your mattress to sleep on.
It goes that far that once the ship comes to the port, some business oriented locals and porters run quickly through the ship and reserve empty places (in very aggressive way) only to sell it later to desperate passengers who don’t want to sleep on dirty floor. Once it happened to us as well and we had to pay 100.000Rp (after bargaining) for 1 mattress each as the ship was so overbooked and vision of following 48 hours on the floor infested with cockroaches was far from tempting.
That time we also received offer from the crew of the ship to sleep in their room instead of them. Initial price offer of 3.000.000Rp for the room bowled us over and we continued our search for empty mattress in awe.
Some vessels are in better conditions (Nggapulu, Ceremai, Tilong Kabila) and mattresses and toilets are in reasonably good conditions, some vessels are old and rusty (Tidar) with holes in the ceilings and infested with cockroaches . Even the best vessel is nothing like cruise ship experience. There will be always bugs and cockroaches, dirt and mess, because people don’t bother with cleanliness too much.
Toilets and showers are better to be used only in emergencies. Half of the toilet cabins are usually not working and locked permanently, the second half is disgusting and flooded in (hopefully) water. If none of the toilets is available, then shower starts to serve as toilet.
Tips for enjoyable trip
1. It is good (almost obligatory) practise to be at the port immediately after the ship arrives (usually 2 hours before next departure) to increase your chances to get good place to sleep. In our practise more empty places are usually to be found on lower decks and towards back of the boat.
2. The dorms (halls) should be air-conditioned, but in reality it is not always the case. If your place is in part without air-con it is boiling hot in there and sleeping on rubber coated mattresses makes it experience equaling to swim in your own sweat. It is not bad idea to have a sarong (or poncho in our case) to put under you – mattresses can be sometimes quite disgusting.
3. Some of the beds have also their own electric plug, which we enjoyed very much, because we could watch movies on laptop for long voyage hours. But not always we were so lucky.
4. If you have your own hammock or tent you can easily camp outside at one of the top decks. This give you your own space without being stressed if you will find a spot for yourself or not.
5. It has to be mentioned that despite their good heart some Indonesians can be very annoying. Playing loud music (something between indian style and karaoke melodies) and shouting at 1am, smoking in closed dorms (just next to “no smoking” sign), spitting and throwing rubbish on the floor are common practices. In the beginning we were shy thinking it is not our country and culture, but later on we started to create boundaries and asking them to put the music down or stop smoking inside. And they actually took it very well without any problems.
6. It is common sense to always keep your valuables close to you. We slept with our small bags attached to the bars between us and never have been robbed. The most dangerous part is probably getting on and off the ship in ports, because crowd of people is pushing and pickpocketing is easiest. So never keep anything in your pockets during that time, better hide it in your bag.
7. Especially during the boarding the crowd becomes very pushy, mainly because of porters. More luggage their bring into the ship more money they make, so they push hard. Add vans and trucks bringing cargo just centimetres away from the pushing crowds and panic emerges.
While traveling by Pelni you are eligible for 3 “meals” per day coming together with small bottle of water and sometimes snack or tiny bottle of juice. Meal time is announced in the ship radio, but if you don’t speak Indonesian you can just watch people coming with black boxes of food. Distribution time at the counter is usually limited to around 1 hour so don’t postpone if you are interested.
The meal is always same. Rice, small piece of fish (with strangely bitter taste it is the worst fish we have ever eaten) and some kind of cabbage. If you are really hungry or on very tight budget, it can do the job. Otherwise we always packed ourselves with pop mie (instant noodles in plastic cup), cookies and instant coffee before boarding, because there is unlimited free hot water on the board so you can do your own meals. In our experience the hot water is usually located on the 4th deck, but just ask around.
There are always few official kiosk on the board, where you can buy food and water. Bigger ships have even regular convenient store on the roof. The price is bit higher than on the land though. Beside that many local passengers use the opportunity and sell food, water, coffee, electronics and clothes during the voyage by walking through the ship and offering their goods.
Prices and ticket purchase
Edit May 2017:
“The Pelni’s system has changed, now people can take the premium class with private room instead of the economy class with the same price as the economy. To get the premium class, it should be booked online through Pelni’s online system at www.pelni.co.id, however, the latest time to book for the premium class is 3 days before getting to your journey. Note that if you have the premium class, the toilet feature inside the room is locked, it’s quite painful to use the “famous” toilets, however, you can always bargain to the ship crew to open the private toilet for you with a little extra money.”
When we traveled (October – December 2016) we paid following (per person):
- Makassar to Bau-Bau – 160.000Rp – 14 hours
- Bau-Bau to Kei islands (Tual) – 380.000Rp – 48 hours
- Kei islands to Banda islands – 110.000Rp – 12 hours
- Banda islands to Bau-Bau – 310.000Rp – 36 hours
The longer distance you travel the cheaper price per kilometer you will reach.
Tickets for travelink by Pelni can be bought at any Pelni office, but also from local tourist agents with small additional fee. We heard rumours that Pelni is launching online ticketing system, but considering how bad is their current website, we don’t give it much chance in near future. The website is still good enough to check the schedule for following month.
The schedule is announced always for following month only, so any planning more into the future is never certain. The schedule usually doesn’t change though, so you might get rough image of dates and frequency of ships there. Just don’t rely on it too much, the ship sometimes might go docking to be fixed or maintained and the schedule will change.
The best way is to come to Pelni office as soon as you can (tickets might be sold out already few days before the journey, so don’t leave it for the last day) check the schedule board there and buy tickets.
If you buy the ticket and later want to return it or exchange for any reason, you will lose 50% of the ticket price. Don’t ask why, but we had to do it twice.
We hope we didn’t discourage you from travelling by Pelni ships. Despite the hygienic issues, it is great way how to understand and socialize with Indonesian people while reaching distant parts of Indonesia for little money – especially Banda islands and Kei islands, All in all we enjoyed our time there (as much as it is possible) and are happy we did it. Because this is part of real Indonesia.