Setting sail for Sumatra: Riding the Batam-to-Medan ferry



It was time to do some island hopping. Our first stop in Indonesia, Batam Island, is like one gigantic strip mall—not the kind of place to waste time on your visa. Batam is, however, a strategic location for onward travel by ferry, with regular routes to Java and several places in Sumatra. We planned to hop directly down to Jakarta on the relatively safe and highly-regarded Pelni ferry, and had ended up in scenic Batam for exactly this reason.

Then it turned out to be Chinese New Year. Throughout Asia, population migrations that happen before and during this event border on biblical, as migrant workers scramble back to their families and the wealthy ship out on holiday. What this meant for us was that transport was crowded, and expensive.

We’d looked up information on Pelni ferry tickets from Batam to Jakarta, and all the blogger stories recounted how easy it was to buy first class tickets for cheap in advanced (as low as $40 per person), or buy economy class and negotiate into one of the many empty first class cabins at a discount directly on the ferry. Tickets for first-class cabins on the ferry before the holiday were over 1.3 million rupiah (more than $100) per person—way more than we had budgeted for. We debated trying to negotiate up from economy class once we were on the boat, but didn’t want to run the risk of them being full on a 29-hour ferry ride in a country that is notorious for packing people in to the brim, and uh, ferry accidents.

So we gave up on Jakarta and decided to head to Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra, via the 23-hour Batam-to-Belawan (pronounced Blawan!!) ferry. On the Pelni website, first class was a slightly more reasonable 780,000 rupiah ($60) per person, and it made sense to travel the island before the infamous agricultural fires turned the air into poison in late February and March.

To avoid purchasing bogus tickets, we headed to the nearest travel agent listed on the Pelni website, hoping the markup wouldn’t be too high. Nestled in along a row of car mechanics behind Nagoya city’s biggest strip mall, Sekilak Indah Raya PT’s sun-faded signboard and nicotine-stained walls didn’t really look like a reliable place to drop $120 on tickets to anything. We rocked up to the counter and made our request, and the travel agent pointed to a pricing chart for the Batam-Belawan boat where the prices were much cheaper than what we’d seen online. He mustered up his best English to tell us, “It’s promotion! Special price!” Sure enough, for just 380,000 rupiah ($30) we scored two very official-looking tickets for a first class cabin on the KM Kelud. Bam!!

The next day, we arrived at the Surabaya ferry pier one hour before scheduled departure and were met with a scene that you might call chaos. A crowd of several hundred people were pushing and shoving their way through a small metal gate into the security area for the ferry. Parents pushed their crying children in front of them as they inched forward, dragging rolly suitcases and gigantic backpacks behind. The ship porters, carrying cardboard boxes covered in packing tape and gigantic sacks wrapped in rope, sweated and grunted under their loads as they elbowed through the crowd without mercy. All the while hawkers shouted around the outskirts of the mass, trying to sell bottled water and snacks. Hundreds of eyes fell on us as we dove into the scrum, and a few people even managed a rhetorical “Hey mister, where you going?” despite their struggle. Mook kept his hand in his pocket, clutched around his wallet and phone. It was as crushing as a Tokyo rush-hour train.

Once inside and through the surprisingly meagre security, we boarded the boat and were escorted to our plush first-class quarters. The place had everything: a shower, (non-functioning) toilet, flat-screen TV, kettle, and a whopping four pillows. Most importantly, there was a functioning electrical outlet and two life jackets. If you ignored the cockroaches and weird sulfur smell, it was like paradise, and it was all ours for the next 23 hours.


Our royal chambers.. absolute luxury compared to the crowded economy dorms several decks below

Our royal chambers.. absolute luxury compared to the crowded economy dorms several decks below

The toilet was nicer than it looks, too bad it didn't flush

The toilet was nicer than it looks, too bad it didn’t flush


The ride itself was uneventful. People stared at us a lot, with both suspicion and curiosity, but everyone we talked to was friendly. The decks were constantly crowded. There were groups of men chain smoking, passing the time by drinking coffee and playing acoustic guitar, and women attending to groups of kids. Outside of the mosque there was an old man sitting on a blanket, surrounded by a huge crowd of people that were undoubtedly amazed by his sleight-of-hand magic tricks.

The meals were pretty bad (unless you love steamed rice) and most the locals brought their own fried chicken and chili sauce to supplement the bland offerings. Despite the rumours, they did sell beer at the kiosks on each deck, but it didn’t seem like a very hot seller with all the Muslims on board.

This was breakfast, carbs, more carbs, and a hard boiled egg

This was breakfast, carbs, more carbs, and a hard boiled egg

Lunch was a little better.. bon appetit!!

Lunch was a little better.. bon appetit!!

Like clockwork, we pulled into Belawan at 6pm the next day. Before we alighted from the ship, we were warned by several different people to watch our valuables and put our phones and wallets into zippered pockets. “Alles klar?” the porters laughed, trying out the German they’d learned from foreign crews.

Transport tip

It’s about one hour by mini bus from Belawan to Medan, the largest city in Sumatra and everyone’s first stop after the ferry. Outside the port there were of course shitloads of people trying to get us into their van, most of them already packed to the brim, with people hanging out the door. They pressured hard, “Only 50,000 rupiah each person! Same price as local!” By using the tried-and true-technique of leaving the port and heading to the main road, we were able to snag the same ride for 16,000 rupiah each.

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