Indonesia has an infamous record of deadly accidents in its water: after all it’s a country made of 18.000 islands connected by decaying ferries with close to no safety standards and little enforcement. It’s not difficult to understand how this mix can easily become explosive. Despite this macabre resumé, Pelni is considered to be a safe and reliable ferry carrier, and it has been for at least the last 30 years. Their last deadly accident was recorded in 1981, and shortly after Pelni renewed its fleet, buying second hand ferries from Japan that incredibly raised their standard of safety.
The many sea accidents in the Indonesian archipelago that you constantly hear of on the news, are mostly occurring with small private ferries and boats offering touristic tours in between islands.
While we were lucky enough not to be involved in any accident, we also had a bad experience in Komodo National Park, with a local operator.
We suggest you to keep an eye on the news and perform a recent search with a search engine to see if any recent event might influence your decision.
If nothing new happened, it means that you probably have good chances to arrive safe at your destination, but don’t build too many expectations! The experience with Pelni is still far from a luxury cruise.
Since we try not to fly for environmental reasons, we have actually used Indonesian ferries quite many times to go and come back from Kalimantan (Borneo), Bali, Sumbabwa, Flores, Karimum Jawa and Bintan.
In three occasions we had an overnight stay on the boat, and two of those were with Pelni in the cheapest available class. While in the second attempt we were quite lucky and got an almost empty ferry where we could “squat” a four bed cabin (without door) from the superior class all for ourselves, it hasn’t been the same the first time we used Pelni to go from Labuan Bajo in Flores to Surabaya in Java.
We actually have friends that remember of their trip with Pelni as one of the worst experiences of their lives and they would never do it again. While they did made it safely, they spent days in an overcrowded boat with very rough sea and hundreds of people vomiting non-stop: not an enjoyable vacation.
Our experience wasn’t comfortable but not even tragic. It’s true that there is serious lack of space in the ferry, that the filthy toilets get flooded after a few hours worsening their already precarious hygienic conditions, that the food provided is boring and extremely limited, but all of this is part of the Indonesian experience! Once you make it, you have a new great adventure to tell.
There is nothing better than photos to easily and completely describe what it is like travelling by ferry in Indonesia with the state owned Pelni company. That’s why after reading our discussion we invite you to have a look at the 25 selected pictures in our photo story showing the living conditions on board of a Pelni vessel, and decide by yourself if you are adventurous enough to experience life as a local!