Indonesia’s Pelni is the world’s last great true passenger liners company. In the age of cheap air travel, it is a relic of a bygone era. But in the far-flung Indonesian archipelago, where most of its area is made up of water, it still bridges the nation like nothing else—and provides one of the best way to get the sense of the country. It is possible to travel from west to east side of Indonesia only by boarding Pelni. One of its longest regular routes served by a single vessel takes two weeks one-way, passing more than a dozen ports and covering more than 4,000 kilometers, a distance further than London to Baghdad.
Pelni, an acronym translated as Indonesia Shipping Lines, is a government-owned company. Currently, Pelni operates 26 ships serving more than a hundred ports across Indonesia, making it also as the largest passenger ship network in the world. The company plays a vital role in stimulating businesses, allowing people to visit their families, migrating to find work, and hauling goods into places beyond reach of any other means of transportation. Pelni is to Indonesia what Indian Railways is to India.
A typical Pelni’s voyage is like a parading microcosm. Aboard any of its vessels, which almost always sail way over its capacity, are Indonesians from all walks of life, various regions and languages, all religion, tradition, and generation. The fact any voyage can take days means all the daily routines need to be played out aboard. But the journey is never unexciting. The passing hours are occupied with games, music, movie, conversation, laughter, or simply staring at the blue sea. The lack of space, and the absence of cell-phone signal, push people to connect: many are making new friends and some are even becoming lovers. Boarding Pelni is an unforgettable experience which provides a unique window into the life of millions of Indonesians who are striving to survive against the odds.