Portside with Pelni – the last great passenger ships of Indonesia

Southeast Asia Globe sets sail on Indonesia’s iconic Pelni ships, the last outsized passenger vessels to traverse the vast archipelago

Muhammad Fadli
July 1, 2016
Portside with Pelni – the last great passenger ships of Indonesia
KM Dobonsolo, part of the Pelni fleet, on its way from West Papua to Jakarta. The trip takes more than one week. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

In the far-flung Indonesian archipelago, one of the last great passenger liner companies in the world, Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia – better known by its acronym Pelni – bridges the nation like none other.

Owned by the government, Pelni operates two dozen ships crisscrossing almost a hundred ports across Indonesia.

Nautical nibbles: food supplies ready to be loaded onto KM Nggapulu in Makassar, a port city on Sulawesi island. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

The biggest of the vessels weighs in at about 15,000 gross tonnes and can legally carry up to 3,000 passengers, although most of the time the ships operate way over capacity as underpaid and overworked crew make extra cash by allowing additional commuters and cargo onboard. Nevertheless, the company has maintained an impressive safety record, with no major accidents since 1981.

Big move: passengers wait to depart from the Port of Makassar, the main hub for Pelni’s vessels. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

Boarding Pelni provides a unique window into the hopes, fears and struggles of millions of Indonesians striving to survive against the odds.

Spice of life: Haji Kisman, one of the richest people in the remote Banda archipelago, relies on Pelni’s ships for his nutmeg export business. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

One of Pelni’s longest regular routes sets off from Surabaya, East Java, and docks in Merauke, Papua, the easternmost city in Indonesia.

The voice: Zulaikha travels with Pelni’s KM Nggapulu as a singer with the ship’s touring music group. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

The voyage takes two weeks, passing more than a dozen ports and covering a distance of more than 4,000km – roughly the distance from London to Baghdad.

Standing room: Pelni ships can legally carry up to 3,000 passengers, but they usually operate way over capacity
Standing room: Pelni ships can legally carry up to 3,000 passengers, but they usually operate way over capacity. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

In an era of low-cost air travel, Pelni is a relic of a bygone era. Yet it remains key to Indonesia’s growing economy, playing an important role in stimulating businesses and allowing people to migrate for employment opportunities, all the while hauling goods into places beyond the reach of any other means of transportation.

Bright lights: the stage on KM Bukit Siguntang. Most cruises employ a touring music group to entertain passengers. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

Millions of Indonesians could not trade, travel or work without the company’s lumbering passenger vessels.

View from above: radio officer Hery Achmadi on the bridge of KM Bukit Siguntang. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

It is undeniable that cheap airfares have hit Pelni hard. Sustained by a government subsidy of $80m in 2014, Pelni carried only four million passengers in 2013, down from a peak of eight million the year before budget airlines ascended to dominance in Asia in the early 2000s.

Down below: a technician inside the engine room of KM Bukit Siguntang. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

However, by the end of 2014, the company had achieved a $500,000 profit. Pelni remains strong enough to sail against the tide of history, at least for a little while.

Lonely at the top: a solitary first-class cabin passenger on the West Timor-bound KM Bukit Siguntang. Photo: Muhammad Fadli

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