Indonesia to Singapore: Boat Trip from Hell, Part 1

Escaping from Indonesia to Singapore proves arduous on the never-ending boat trip from hell…

Indonesia to Singapore, Se Asia

Apologies for the quality of the 35mm film photos. Scanned photos and original negatives are no longer in good condition. They are after all from 1998.

For those of you that read my previous post on escaping Java, you may remember that the fast jetfoil boat from Jakarta to Singapore should only take 20 hours…

Boat trip from hell

The 20-hour journey from Jakarta begins…

Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore, Se Asia
Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore

Day 1 – Leaving Jakarta

Sharing a minibus with a couple of Danish travellers to the Port of Tanjung Priok, arrive at the jetfoil boat two hours before departure only to discover the boat is already rammed. Passengers scramble onboard pushing each other out of the way with too much baggage and goods. All seats are taken and there are no available seats left, although our tickets are for seats.

Walking all over the boat in search of seats, passengers are still being crammed onboard.

Instead of the 250 allowable passengers that the boat can carry, we learn that the captain allowed 400 passengers plus baggage.

The reason for this jetfoil boat being so heavily weighed down? Because the Pelni ferry we were booked on to leave earlier this week crashed into another boat and is out of action. So, the captain is trying to make up for the lack of another boat!

Ushered into a tiny room at the bow of the boat, discover later that this is supposed to be the prayer room and is already full with 10 other locals of varying ages – even a screaming baby. Stifling hot, humid, and without seats, my temper flares but to no avail. At least the journey is only for 20 hours…

This would have been a faster boat!

The boat finally leaves the harbour and instead of being a jetfoil that skims gracefully across the water, the bow ploughs heavily, deep down through the sea like a submerging submarine – it is frightening!

Macassar Schooner (Pinisi) entering Jakarta Bay

Barely an hour into the journey and too many locals are throwing up everywhere or wavering trancelike through sickness. The bow of the boat hits a swell, sprays a little refreshing water in, and instantly the open hatch in the small prayer room is shut firmly closed. The room becomes even hotter and the overpowering stench of vomit permeates the already thick sultry air – horrid.

Laying our sarongs on the filthy and oily damp carpet, we try to get a little sleep but it is hopeless so instead, take a stroll around the slowly moving boat.

Vomit and rubbish lay everywhere throughout the boat. Desks are awash with regurgitated rice and Pop Mie (2-minute noodles). Passengers vomit wherever they stand or worse still, dry-retching noisily. A disgusting pigsty awaits everywhere we weave around the boat, trying to dodge sick. To top everything off, cockroaches swarm the boat at nightfall, feasting on leftovers…

Day 2 – Bangka Island

ferry from Tanjung Priok to Bangka Island, Indonesia, SE Asia

Finally, morning breaks and everyone is looking forward to getting off this awful boat, after no sleep at all.

Expecting to see Singapore on the horizon, instead, at 6am, find ourselves at Bangka Island. Only half the distance travelled in 18 hours. How is this possible? It felt as though the boat stopped throughout the night but to only arrive at the halfway mark is depressing…

The ticket vendor in Jakarta advised the boat was headed for Batam then Bintan Islands, before the final destination of Singapore. No mention of Bangka Island was made. A dread crawls over me as I start to realise the ticket vendor lied while smiling and taking our cash.

Waiting 3 long hours watching passengers leave and more board the boat laden with goods, tempers are bordering on furious as our visas expire today. Hopeless, there is nothing we can do from this island but continue on this endless awful journey, in the hope that we reach Singapore soon.

Leaving Bangka Island

Racing back to the air-conditioned seating area at the boat’s top deck, more cockroaches await and swarm the cabin like a plague, as not much of an attempt is made to clean the boat while docked.

Hopefully, at least tonight will be spent away from last night’s tiny and stifling hot prayer room, which ended up with 40 passengers laying cramped together like sardines in a can. The dulcet tones of one lady laying beside me throwing up relentlessly into a paper bag next to my ear, throughout the night is something I do not want to experience tonight. Although the suffocating stench was dreadful, the hatch remained firmly shut for the duration of the journey. Locals were afraid that a wave would swamp the room and sink the over-loaded boat.

Last night, passengers slept in isles, stairways, and any skerrick of the deck that is available. The Jetfoil boat is so incredibly overloaded and unsafe. Life is cheap.

Still ladened with passengers and cargo albeit not as bad as yesterday, the boat ploughs on through the day slowly, with not much to do or see until reaching the next island.

Tanjung Pinang, Bintan Island

ferry from Bangka Island to Bintan Island, Indonesia, SE Asia

Arriving at Tanjung Pinang in Pulau Bintan after another 20 hours sees Singapore almost within reach. So close but yet so far – Bintan Island is still Indonesia.

Confusion reigns, as nothing is announced from the captain. No one knows what is happening but the boat is definitely docked for tonight. Too tired to be angry, smelling of filth and vomit, the search for a bed for the night is on…

Overnight in Tanjung Pinang

The usual hawkers insist on knowing vacant Lossmens so drag ourselves from one place after another, but everything is booked. Trudging around with our gear for an hour until 11pm, exhausted, finally head back to the boat to try and sleep. On arriving, hardly any seats are vacant. Locals know the accommodation situation on this popular island just a stone’s throw from Singapore and stayed on the boat – inside knowledge always help.

Night falls to another sleepless night. Anxious and dreading exiting Indonesia on expired visas, hoping to reach Singapore tomorrow…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

17 responses to “Indonesia to Singapore: Boat Trip from Hell, Part 1”

  1. Len Kagami Avatar

    I know why you called this a boat trip from hell. The boat alone was scary enough. I thought for a 20-hour trip they would need something bigger 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I’m not sure if things have improved there since 1998, but it’s amazing the risks you take while travelling. That’s a thing I crave when travelling, it constantly pushes you out of your comfort zone. 😉

      1. Len Kagami Avatar

        That’s true! And such experience will last forever 🙂

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha,ha, it certainly does! 😉
        I really like your site’s theme – great work and hope that I can do such a good job with my site’s new design.

  2. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    Wow, that sounds like a truly awful journey! Must be on your top 5 list of the worst!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It was atrocious and one that’s burnt in my brain.
      It also helps that I have travel journals that I’m digitising. Funny how I read these and the memories come flooding back as though they were yesterday… 😉

  3. wetanddustyroads Avatar

    Phew … 20 hours now feels more like 20 days!! I almost got sick myself by just reading about this boat trip from hell – 400 passengers in stead of 250 … I now understand why so many of these boats sink (I suppose you were lucky – though, you probably didn’t had that thought at the time)!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I was surprised I didn’t get sick!
      On the contrary, the thought of sinking was always on my mind as I used to live on a bota for 21 years and during 1998 also, so well aware of the lack of safety.
      Hope things have changed, but doubt it really…

  4. nokbew Avatar

    Thank you very much for follow my little blog. It is a honor! 🤗😍📚📖🖋

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      No problem at all, I’ll check more of your work out soon… 😉

  5. Giovanni Augello Avatar

    Another great article for another exciting journey!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Giovanni and check back for Part 2 on Sunday!
      Hope you’re well and life is good. 🙂

  6. Yetismith Avatar

    Oh that was bad! It reminds me of a variety of experiences, but none of mine was anywhere near so bad. I once travelled on a deadhead leg from Bali to Singapore in exchange for helping to strip the ship that was going to dry dock. It would have seemed luxurious to you! Your transport was very dangerous…so many of those things sink! I had issues a number of times with passports in SE Asia. The Vietnamese had no sense of humour. My parents had to leave Thailand after over-staying (which was careless!). My Dad put a suit and tie on and produced his Laissez-passer. They were lucky. A colleague of mine, a Singapore Chinese travelling on a valid US passport over stayed in Thailand and was jailed. You didn’t want that to happen in Bangkok…I saw the prison once. Cages. I hope you exited Indonesia safely!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks for sharing your great stories! It seems that when travelling independently in SE Asia, but especially long-term, many people run into problems – makes life exciting right? 😉
      Your parents were so lucky. Agree that the Vietnamese officials have no sense of humour – I was almost arrested in Hanoi, Vietnam.
      You’ll have to wait until Sunday for Part 2 of this journey that was supposed to only take 20 hours!
      Appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

  7. sheetalbravon Avatar

    Woah! That was one excruciating journey. I was with you all the way, till the cliff hanger. Waiting for Singapore already.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Sheetal
      Thank you for the feedback and this was an awful journey and one I haven’t forgotten, but I’m also digitising my travel journals so makes the memory even more vivid!
      Hope all is well with you. 🙂

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