So you thought train travel in India was bad? Try taking one of the perennially overcrowded ferries around the Indonesian archipelago!
Fortunately, I haven’t been too experienced in catching the PELNI ferries around Indonesia. With the advent of budget airlines, I can now afford to fly from island to island within the archipelago – although wouldn’t it be cool to link Java with Sumatra in the west and Bali in the East by rail network bridges? Who knows, maybe in the decades to come this might happen. We might also get an underground road tunnel linking Sumatra with Singapore and/or Malaysia. Yet even if this does happen, it won’t be for a while yet, as Indonesia has an existing and extensive ferry network that covers pretty much the whole archipelago, and fares are very low so that almost all citizens can afford to travel!
However, as is always true in life, you get what you pay for. If you are going to shirk on budget airlines because they are too expensive, then you have to ask yourself what you will be letting yourself in for when hopping aboard the PELNI. Situations are grim. Very grim. Some journeys will take up to 24 hours and the living conditions inside these ferries are cramped and unhygienic. And not to mention safety is a big concern too, as many of these ferries sink in the ocean due to adverse weather and poor maintenance of the vessel (in fact, it’s much safer to fly).
The embedded YouTube video above (not my personal video) gives you a great and accurate overview of what to expect when travelling by the PELNI ferries, and might very well make you pay extra for that cheap flight instead!
Luckily, for the more spendthrift among us, there are “first class” cabins available, with very basic amenities, but these cabins are a must for those of you who don’t want to sit on the stairways and listen to Indonesian rock music for 24 hours. At least it is somewhere private with a mattress and pillow, where you can try to get your head down for a few hours and get some sleep.
Even as a backpacker, I think I would usually prefer to take the train rather than catch the ferry. However, Indonesia only has a rail network on one island (Java), so there is literally no way of travelling through Sumatra or Sulawesi or Kalimantan on the train; it has to be by road. Furthermore, when travelling from island to island, you cannot even go by road either, so you have to use ferries or the much more expensive option of flying. And although Indonesia’s economy is improving compared to what it used to be, and although there is much more disposable income in the average Indonesian household nowadays, most people still prefer to travel around the archipelago the cheap way – and that means hopping on the PELNI ferries and hoping that you can find a good seat (and hoping that it doesn’t sink…).