I originally had hopes of taking the national cruise company directly from Bintan to Pontianak based on some random internet research. However, upon arrival, I found that there are no ships going directly to Kalimantan anytime soon. Finding good information, even locally, about the schedules for these boats is a bit confusing. Anyway, I found that the MWF flight from Batam to Pontianak would be better than the MW Pelni boat to Jakarta with a transfer there to Pontianak. But I was set on trying out the Pelni experience, as it is quite unique to the country. It is one of the few things that binds the country together, along with a common language. It is kind of like the interstate expressway system in the States, making long-distance travel possible for the masses, or something like that.
Classes and Comforts
On the KM Bukit Raya vessel, there are three classes of service available: first, second and economy. I guess I could have surmised that like plane travel, economy is the standard choice of normal people. But somehow second class seemed like a safer choice without appearing too ritzy. A
second class ticket runs about 15USD per day including meals, compared to just 5USD for economy. The added cost buys you a semi-private room with four beds and lockers compared with dorm-style bedding otherwise. Nice enough. The odd part, though, is that first and second class share a classy dining room where they take their meals, versus economy folks which just get a steal tray that they can carry about to whatever bench or deck suits you. I found this to be a little embarassing on the second day when the live band was playing in the dining room and people outside could peer in the windows and see us eating in our finery. The food was all right, but they really weren't missing much.
Roommates and New Friends
I shared with a couple guys who spoke a bit of English. They were nice enough to accompany me to meals and give me other pointers about when we should show our tickets and where to hang out and the like. However, they weren't big on conversation. Just smiled a lot. And showered a lot. Reza, the more outspoken of the two, was on his was to Jakarta for some classes in nautical matters, to aid in his work in Sumatra as a ship crewman. This was his first time on Pelni, and he already decided that the bus from Jakarta back to Pekanbaru would be preferred over this route. I was suprised he wasn't more enthusiastic about the business.
The ship didn't really lend itself to social interaction. The only real entertainment was the makeshift disco area on deck seven, that played loud music and peddled cola and snacks, all under the incessant wind and occassional rain and elements. I spent a lot of time sitting on the benches on deck
six reading various magazines and a religious book I had brought along. I found that many young people were brave enough to come up and introduce themselves and try out their English. I should have taken the chance to learn a bit more Indonesian language, but I did at least learn about different people and their travels. I met one young guy named Iwan, who had come to Bintan via Pelni on business. I couldn't tell whether he is selling printers or just their ink cartridges, but his energy was sure to win him success. He later introduced Hendri who is from an island near Bintan, but is going to college in Semarang on Java. He returns each year for two weeks before heading to college again. After finishing his industrial engineering degree, he hopes to get a job at Conoco, which runs some oil business on his island of Temba. Two other kids got off the boat at Montuk, after our first day. They would spend a short holiday with their friend from Bangka who works with them in Batam. All fascinating stories of people who really get around.
I found the whole Pelni experience to be quite satisfying, despite a touch of boredom. I recommend second class, a deck of cards, a dictionary, and lots of reading materials.