Travels on Pelni, (PT Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia) by Jonathan Boonzaier

PT Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia, more commonly referred to as Pelni Lines, is something of an enigma in the modern maritime world. It is one of the very last shipping companies left that run true passenger liners on point to point liner routes.

The Pelni passenger fleet consists of 23 large, modern ships built at Meyer Werft in Germany. 14 of these ships are of around 15,000-gt and carry between 2000 and 3000 passengers in up to four classes. These are deployed on mainline services throughout the Indonesian archipelago on voyages lasting up to two weeks in duration. Another nine 5,700-gt ships carry just over 1000 passengers and are deployed on secondary routes.

A further three 2,600-gt ships, which were built at PT Pal Shipyard in Surabaya, carry 500 passengers and are used on routes that call at the smallest Indonesian ports. These are usually located on shallow rivers. The company also operates several ro-pax ferries and cargo ships, but these cannot be considered passenger liners.

After observing the smart-looking Pelni ships for several years, I decided to sail from Tanjong Priok, the port for Jakarta, to Pulau Batam, an island that lies directly opposite Singapore on the Singapore Strait. A 1st class single-occupancy ticket on the 25-hour voyage cost all of US$80, including meals.

I would be sailing on the KELUD, a ship that is rather bizarrely named after an active volcano in East Java. Its largest recorded eruption took place in 1586, when an estimated 10,000 people were killed, but its temper has not calmed since then. Over the past century it has erupted no less than 5 times, killing around 5,400 people in total, a record often equaled by the average Filipino ferry disaster.

KELUD's Funnel, © Jonathan Boonzaier

I arrived, as instructed, at the Tanjong Priok passenger terminal at 8am on 23 July 2004. The terminal was a massive warehouse-like structure, but inside it was quite clean and there was air-conditioning and plenty of seats. An attempt at security was made, although it would most probably have helped if the machines that we and our luggage had to pass through were actually turned on. There was also a very comfortable looking lounge for first class passengers but it remained firmly locked. Through the darkly tinted windows I could see the 14,716-gt MV Kelud alongside the pier.

Meyer Werft in Papenburg built the KELUD in 1998. She looked good Ða traditional, purposeful passenger ship with real portholes and long covered promenades. Lifeboats were where they should be, and so was the funnel. There were no private balconies nor any other cruise ship frills or fripperies. The Kelud appeared immaculate, from the green boot topping to the mustard-coloured hull, to the white superstructure and the yellow funnel with Pelni’s trademark red and white stripes. I could not wait to get aboard.

KELUD in Batam, © Jonathan Boonzaier


I didn’t have long to wait. At precisely 08h00 the doors to the terminal opened and the typical bedlam that surrounds any mode of transportation in Indonesia erupted in full force. Hundreds of passengers, clutching copious amounts of luggage, ran en masse to the three gangways connecting the Kelud to the shore and fought their way on board. This was understandable as many of them were travelling deck class and needed to get the best available spot. Dozens of porters in orange jackets carrying huge boxes and suitcases, and vendors selling everything from bottles of water to mats joined in the melee. There was a separate gangway for first and second class passengers, but nobody seemed to take any notice of this restriction, certainly not the Pelni officials tasked with keeping the boarding process in order. Avoiding the scrum, I took a stroll down the dock to take some photographs of the ship and the loading of some derelict-looking containers.

The KELUD, like all Pelni ships, has a small space on the foredeck where ten containers can be stowed. These were being loaded by the ship’s crane, and their dilapidated condition was explained by the way the crane operator was bashing them against each other during the loading process. I was quite surprised that the twine that held the doors closed did not give way and send the contents spilling out onto the dock.

Eventually the gangway crowds thinned out and I made way on board. I proceeded to the first class information counter where, after leaving an IDR 20,000 ($2.25) deposit, I was handed a key to cabin 6033, a spotlessly clean cabin not unlike those found on any modern European ferry. The room contained twin beds with fresh linen, a desk, a television, two lockable cupboards, and a bathroom with Pelni monogrammed towels. A window looked out over the covered deck running along deck 6.

Boarding chaos in Tanjung Priok, © Jonathan Boonzaier

It was now time to explore the ship. The KELUD carries 124 first class passengers in two and four berth cabins, 364 second class passengers in six and eight berth cabins that share public bathroom facilities, 594 third class passengers in open dormitory style rooms that have rows of beds that have at least got linen and pillows, and 804 economy class passengers who also sleep in large dormitories, but have much smaller bunks covered with black vinyl pads. An undetermined number of deck passengers sleep just about anywhere they can find a spot, including the floors of the dormitories, the decks and staircase landings.

1st class cabin, © Jonathan Boonzaier


Deck class passengers camp wherever there is space, © Jonathan Boonzaier

1st and 2nd class passengers eat in an attractive restaurant, while third class passengers eat in a utilitarian cafeteria. Economy class passengers are served food on tin trays from a kiosk, and eat wherever the can find a spot. Open to all are an open-air snack bar aft on one of the top decks, a mosque, a small karaoke lounge, a video arcade, and somewhere deep in bowels of the ship, a movie theatre showing Indonesian movies.

Economy class, © Jonathan Boonzaier

I found the KELUD to be solidly built, well maintained, and surprisingly clean given the hard abuse she suffers from her passengers. The ship was obviously built low-tech to keep maintenance simple. There are no Ving cards to open doors, nor any vacuum-flush toilets. The interior is quite utilitarian, although first class areas are carpeted and the staircase landings have some attractive murals.

Pelni's DOBONSOLO in Tanjung Priok, © Jonathan Boonzaier

Tanjong Priok harbour must contain the most fetid water on earth. The stench was quite unbearable, and the heavy air pollution didn’t help matters much. I was impatiently waiting for the KELUD to cast off her mooring lines and head out to sea. Another large Pelni ship, the DOBONSOLO, inbound from Ambon and Surabaya, pulled in behind us shortly before our scheduled sailing time. At 10h00 the KELUD gave a loud blast on her horn indicating that our departure was imminent, but then nothing happened. Passengers were still streaming on board, while those on board lined the open decks and showered the dock below with fruit peelings, cigarette buts, and other litter. An old woman with a broom fought a loosing battle trying to sweep the mess into the filthy water. We were still tied up alongside by the time lunch was served at 11h30.

1st class dining room, © Jonathan Boonzaier


The dining room accommodated both 1st and 2nd class passengers. 1st class passengers sat in the centre section, where meals were served on tables covered with linen underneath a clear plastic cover. 2nd class passengers ate off plain formica tables. The menu was the same for both a plate of rice with some side dishes. Lunch consisted of chicken, fish, spinach and something made from tofu. Passengers got one small chunk of each. Afterwards a pudding and a slice of papaya were served. Stewards wore starched white jackets, but were for the most part quite indifferent towards the passengers. A nice touch was the monogrammed Pelni crockery.

At 12h00, two hours late, the KELUD finally left her berth and made her way past containerships and bulk carriers and out to sea. At anchor outside the port were five other Pelni ships either awaiting their next voyage or undergoing maintenance work. Four were sisters of the KELUD, including the brand new LABOBAR, which has some subtle differences to her exterior design.

The KELUD picked up speed as soon as the pilot was dropped. We headed north towards the Bangka Strait at a speed of 18 knots, and thus quickly left behind the foul pollution of Jakarta and Tanjong Priok.

As the ship made her way towards the Bangka Strait, and ultimately Batam, her passengers settled in for the journey. The passengers were a microcosm of Indonesian society, with merchants, traders, and other wealthier people populating first and second class. Family groups, university students and such occupied the third class, while the economy/deck class passengers were the poorest part of Indonesian society consisting mainly of unemployed young men and women from the overpopulated island of Java heading to Batam to seek their fortune. A handful of European and Australian tourists and backpackers were scattered throughout all classes.

Batam, over the past 20 years, has industrialized rapidly, becoming something of a cheap factory for Singaporean companies. Its economic growth rate is the highest in Indonesia, hence the belief among many young people that it can offer them employment opportunities that are hard to come by elsewhere in the country. Thousands of young people arrive via Pelni every week, and it is a well known fact that most of the men do not find work, while many of the more attractive young girls end up working in the brothels and massage parlours that cater to Singaporean men.

Nevertheless, the KELUD’s passengers were filled with a high degree of optimism and a cheerful attitude prevailed. Most of the economy and deck class passengers did what many Asians do to cope under uncomfortable conditions, they promptly went to sleep, turning the decks into a bizarre scene of intertwined bodies on cardboard and plastic mats. Of the remainder that stayed awake, the women set about organizing the food they had brought along with them, while the men headed out onto the open deck and proceeded to engage in a massive smoking marathon where the main object seemed to be to furiously smoke their way through as many cigarettes as their mouths and lungs would allow. Fortunately Pelni has decreed that its ships are non-smoking indoors, and this is the one rule that is strictly enforced.

A pleasant afternoon on deck ensued. Indonesians are by and large very friendly and most concerned about the negative image that the Bali bombings have cast on their countryÕs reputation abroad. Many of them would come up and apologize for what happened. Others were quite keen to strike up conversations about where I was from, what I was doing, etc.

Dinnertime comes early on a Pelni ship. The stewards, who were now wearing red jackets, served it at 18h00. The change in uniform did not improve the surly service or the small size of the portions, but at least the food was pleasant enough.

After dinner it was time for passengers to attend to their religious affairs. The mosque on Deck 7 was filled with Muslims on their knees, bowing and praying in the general direction of Mecca, while immediately below, Christians were in the restaurant clapping their hands and singing “What a friend we have in Jesus”. I took another walk around the deck and dreamed of drinking a Bintang beer. Pelni ships are dry for both religious and public order reasons.

Later in the evening a band and singers entertained in the restaurant, which attracted a large audience of line dancers, while karaoke singing took place at the outdoor snack bar. Unlike my experience with this activity on Chinese ships, the Indonesians are good singers and their songs quite melodious, so it was rather pleasant to sit up on the deck under a moonlit sky as the ship sailed on through the night.

At midnight I took one last walk around before going to bed. It didn’t take much to figure out that the 3rd and economy class passengers were going to have an uncomfortable night. In the large dormitories the lights and television sets were left on throughout the night. My cabin was a peaceful haven in contrast, and I quickly fell fast asleep.

The illusion was short-lived. At 04h30 the PA system let loose with a loud wailing noise as Muslim passengers were called to prayer. This was broadcast on the general alarm channel so there was no way to silence it. The wailing went on for about 10 minutes, but the noise pollution would not end with that. Having decided that most passengers were now wide-awake, the crew began the non-stop series of PA announcements that plague Pelni ships throughout the day. Every 15 minutes or so there was a long and incomprehensible diatribe that would go on for several minutes. My Bahasa Indonesia is extremely limited, but I could make out that some announcements were to advertise the food being sold at the snack bar (who on earth wants a Hamburger at 05h00?), while others were instructing passengers not to throw garbage overboard or smoke in indoor areas.

By 06h30 I had given up trying to sleep through this barrage of announcements and went to the restaurant to have breakfast. This consisted of a boiled egg smothered with chilli sauce on top of a plate of rice. Nothing else. It was not my idea of a 1st class breakfast, and my mood did not improve when the steward told me that there was no milk or sugar to go along with the coffee. With breakfast out of the way I returned to my cabin in order to get some more sleep. There was nothing else to do as a tropical rain shower was drenching the ship. All the deck class passengers had moved indoors and trying to walk around the interior of the ship was all but impossible.

By mid morning both the skies and my bad mood had cleared up and the Kelud was making her way through the Riau Archipelago. The islands looked very attractive from a distance, with white beaches, crystal clear waters and the occasional fishing village. Despite running at full speed, the KELUD was unable to make up for the two-hour delay stemming from our late departure from Tanjong Priok the day before. Thus we were treated to yet another lunch complete with the band to entertain us.

The ship entered the Singapore Strait at 13h00, passing closely by the casino ship LEISURE WORLD. With Singapore to starboard, we headed into Sekupang Harbour on Batam, were we were tied up alongside the Pelni pier by 14h00. Bedlam broke out once again as almost all passengers tried to disembark at once. Getting off the ship itself was not too much of a hassle, but the police then herded us into a stiflingly hot shed where over 1000 people fought to put their luggage through a single scanning machine. Scrums and shoving matches broke out; the police entered the fray to try calm things down. I ducked behind a counter and left the building via the back door when nobody was looking.

Pelni is facing stiff competition from the plethora of discount airlines that have sprouted up since the deregulation of the Indonesian skies some years back. Passenger numbers are plummeting and they are facing a loosing battle trying to win back passengers, especially those that used to travel in first and second class. The Indonesian government is underwriting the company’s losses, but at the same time they are looking at other ways to survive. Their oldest Meyer Werft-built ship, the KERINCI, is about to be converted into a cruise ship for a new subsidiary called Celebes Cruises. I was shown some drawings of the ship’s intended new interior, and they looked quite attractive in a basic kind of way. There is also a plan to rip out the lower accommodation decks of some of the other ships and replace them with vehicle decks in order to earn revenue from ro-ro cargoes. There is still a demand from the poorer Indonesians for 3rd and economy class berths, and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the company’s latest Meyer Werft delivery, the 15,100-gt LABOBAR, carries only 3rd and economy class passengers.

The latest Pelni ship - LABOBAR, © Jonathan Boonzaier

All text and photos © Jonathan Boonzaier 2004

Update March 2011 from Martin Cox:  In 2008 the company took delivery of a new pax/container ship 14,030-gt GUNUNG DEMPO. This latest vessel can accommodate 1,583 passengers, and is also designed to carry 98 twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEU). The GUNUNG DEMPO is 146.50 meterd long and 23.40 meters wide.


Add a Comment