Traveling through Indonesia takes time. Because of its geographical layout this nation of many islands presents certain obstacles to the traveler. If you can afford it you can fly throughout the archipelago and move around quickly.
An alternative is to use the modern fleets of busses which travel through the night and utilise the ferry services to travel between the islands.
It goes without saying that the best way to see an archipelago is by ship. The waters of Indonesia are seldom violent in nature and travel by ship is mostly very comfortable. Because ships and large inter-island ferries which also carry vehicles are a cheap way of transporting large numbers of people in the world's fourth most populous country they are out there in abundance.
The national shipping line Pelni runs 20 modern ocean-going liners, built in Germany. These ships vary in carrying capacity and constantly criss-cross the seas of the archipelago stopping for a few hours in selected seaports. Traveling on any one of these vessels is an enjoyable experience.
The traveler with the time and knowledge could work out a timetable which allowed disembarkation at a port and staying over for a number of days before embarking on another Pelni ship.
This method of travel is rarely used by foreigners and so you are most likely to meet Indonesians on these ships and they make extremely friendly traveling companions. That is certainly one of the most interesting features of Pelni travel.
So what awaits you on your Pelni adventure?
First you must locate the local Pelni office and buy your ticket. This is best done from the phone book in the first instance. If you don't have access to a phone book you can always ring directory assistance which is 108 wherever you are in Indonesia. They speak English.
Find out when the office is open as it is sometimes (in Surabaya, for example) located a long way from the port, and ascertain its office hours. Also check out your timetable.
Next buy your ticket. There are three classes on Pelni liners. In some offices and for some journeys they only sell third class tickets and leave the sale and allocation of the other classes to the officers on the ship.
Third class is "deck" class. The lower decks are generally divided into large dormitory areas with communal showers and toilets. Rows of bunks (8 to 10) wide are the accommodation and there are racks for small items of baggage between the bunkheads. Food is provided from a canteen style kitchen three times a day. The cost of the food is included in the ticket. It is a simple Indonesian fare based upon rice.
When you buy your ticket you will be asked your age which is then included in the computer record and on your ticket. The ticket also indicates which bunk has been allotted to you. Having bought your ticket you make your way to the dock.
There you are confronted by a mighty ocean-going liner which is by far the largest ship to enter most of the ports which Pelni services. Luckily they have built special platforms with stairs to enter and leave the ships with ease. (These are pushed into place by numerous humans showing that there is still some power in numbers!)
When you board the ship you find the deck with your bunk number and finally make your way to your bunk. There you will be met by a crew member who will hire you a mattress for the period of your voyage for several thousand rupiah.
Nothing more remains than to divest yourself of your luggage and climb to the deck to farewell the people who are left behind in the port.
As the ship gets underway you feel the roll of the waves beneath your feet and the wind in your hair. At sea! It is time to explore your liner. The decks are spacious and the people are smiling and friendly. They all want to know where you come from and where you are going.
Facilities on the ship can include a "Bioskop" cinema showing films in English and there is a usually a live band playing at night from about eight till ten thirty in the dining room. There is a cafeteria for the occasional between-meals snack and a library and clinic are also part of the liner's facilities. Also in the largest Moslem country in the world there is, of course, an on-board mosque.
Facilities in the Second Class are located in a cabin which has no outside access and contains four bunks, individual lockable lockers and a WC/shower with hot and cold running water.
The First Class is similar but contains only two bunks and also a writing table with a window to the outside allowing some natural light to enter. As is often the case in Asia, if you compare the price of traveling first class by ship with that of flying economy, the ship is much cheaper and the comfort is much greater.
First and second class cabin passengers meals are served in a large dining room and are of a high standard. It is interesting to note that the built-in bar area in the dining room is used for the serving of the meals. No alcohol is permitted in these Moslem ships and none is sold on board.
The ships of the Pelni fleet give a new perspective to this wide and wonderful archipelago. They open many a door which would otherwise be difficult to enter. From Papua to North Sumatra these ships give the traveler access to many places which cannot be readily reached by other means.
For those of you who love sea travel using the Pelni line is one of the best ways of seeing Indonesia and its people. Take the time for a great holiday the Pelni way.
There are several well-meaning and unofficial web sites on the Pelni line. None are up-to-date in timetables or fares:
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