In the immense archipelago that is Indonesia, naturally a lot of travel, as well as trade, gets done by sea. At any one time there are hundreds of vessels moving people and goods between the myriad of Indonesian islands. Some trips are just short hops while others can be mini-epic voyages.
State-owned Pelni is the most well-known and reliable company. It operates 23 large passenger ships (imported from Germany) which carry people throughout the sprawling island nation. A glance at a map of Indonesia will tell you this is no mean feat. There are hundreds of inhabited islands, many extremely remote, which need to be serviced and Pelni does a fair job of this. To be sure, it's no QE2 but a Pelni boat will get you there. The boats are divided into classes starting with economy. This truly is cattle class. Packed not just with people but various other creatures, it's roughing it.
Still, it can be a fun experience for adventurous types. The cabin classes, however, 3rd, 2nd, 1B and 1A (complicated but basically 1A has only two beds, the others more) are nice enough and the food better (economy is serious prison-style cuisine). You don't need to mingle, as you are forced to do in economy, and you can enjoy a scenic journey in pleasant enough surroundings. Pelni's ships sail in fairly punctual bi-weekly, sometimes monthly, loops taking in all manner of ports. If you miss the boat somewhere, you'll need to wait two weeks for it to come back again. Trips can be long; some families need five days to get back to their hometown.
An adult ticket from, say, Jakarta to Makassar (two nights) costs between Rp 365,000 (40 U$) for economy and Rp 1,170,000 (130 U$) for class 1A, while one from Jakarta to Bitung/Manado (four nights) ranges from Rp 680,000 (75 U$) to Rp 2,200,000 (240 U$). Tickets can be purchased at their offices and agents, and Pelni also has a good website (www.pelni.co.id) for schedules and other information.
Other smaller companies run boats, as do private owners, which travel great distances between islands. It's possible to take a boat across the gaping straits of Makassar from East Kalimantan to Sulawesi, for example. These boats are numerous but sometimes none too seaworthy. Occasionally a vessel is lost to the sea. It's difficult to obtain information about these boats outside the towns and cities they depart from.
The straits that separate the islands from Sumatra all along to Sumbawa are served by frequent, round-the-clock ferries that carry vehicles across too. These are short, inexpensive trips. Bali to Lombok is the longest at about 5 hours while Java to Bali is scarcely an hour. The further east you go though, the trickier it gets, with irregular schedules the norm. In addition to the regular ferries, the crossing between Bali and Lombok, which is very popular with tourists, is done by a few companies operating big-engine speed boats, and one even a catamaran. They leave from Benoa in Bali and Lembar in Lombok and take only 2.5 hours. Perama, a popular travel company, also operates a boat from Padangbai in Bali to the popular Gili islands off Lombok, as well as 2/3 day boat trips from Lombok all the way to Flores (and back) via Komodo.
An alternative way to leave or enter the country is to use the boats operating across the straits of Malacca, connecting the Sumatran cities of Medan and Dumai with Penang (Malaysia) and Singapore respectively, as well as the frequent ferries between the Riau islands of Batam/Bintan and nearby Singapore. These are, for the main part, safe and efficient.
Ferry Timetables & Bookings
Following are links to some of the main companies offering ferry services:
Pelni (Indonesia-wide services)
Dharma Lautan Utama (numerous Indonesian destinations)
Bali Ferry (Bali, Lombok, Lembongan)
Perama Tours (Bali. Lombok, Flores)
Sindo Ferry (Batam, Singapore)
Batam Fast (Batam, Singapore)
Wave Master (Batam, Bintan, Singapore)
Bintan Resort Ferries (Bintan, Singapore)
Falcon Travel (Batam, Bintan, Karimun, Singapore)
Pacific Ferry (Batam, Singapore)
Contributor: Nick Aarons