Water World – Indonesia’s Beautiful Boats

Welcome to the watery world of Indonesia, a diverse island nation comprised of a myriad of cultures, ethnicities and eco systems, where just a short voyage across the water can transport a traveler into an entirely new world. Although geographically separating one island from the next, these waters that divide the land also unite the country, for it is Indonesian’s relationship with sea that binds these vastly different islands and its people together.

The name Indonesia is coined from a combination of Latin and Greek, meaning Islands of India, but locals might more affectionately refer to it as Tanah Air Kita, meaning Our Land and Water.  Both titles reflect the unique geography of this nation, the world’s largest archipelago, that stretches along the equator for a staggering 5,000 km (imagine the distance from New York to California, or Madrid to Moscow.)

The exact number of islands that lie within these tremendous borders seems to rise and fall like the very tides that surround them.   However according to satellite imagery, Indonesia is comprised of a whopping 18,108 islands, a mere 6,000 of which are inhabited.  Despite having some of the largest islands in the world, almost any map of the country is dominated by the color blue, as more than 2/3 of Indonesia is made up of water.

Not surprisingly, today’s inhabitants of the Archipelago inherit perhaps the most sophisticated maritime traditions of our World.  It is widely believed that Indonesia was the birthplace of some of the world’s earliest water crafts, dating as far back as 40,000 years ago.  What originated as a method of transport to colonize far- off lands, has now become a way of life for many Indonesians.  Maritime shipping and transportation provides essential links between different parts of the country, while fishing plays an essential role in feeding it’s population of over 240 million people.

From modern super yachts to simple bamboo rafts, the colorful and creative sea crafts of Indonesia are a wonder to behold, as each one sets sail with a history and character all it’s own.  On my voyages with Sea Trek, every beach, dock or jetty offers up a new opportunitiy to encounter a new vessel, and marvel at Indonesia’s maritime roots and it’s love for the sea.


The name of the village of “Labuhan Bajo” in Flores can be roughly translated as “harbor of the sea people” The Bajo have always been fishermen, however,  tourism has offered a new way to reap money from it’s waters. Many village fishermen can now supplement their limited income by taking paying passengers on day trips to visit Komodo National Park.  Here a tourist boat stops at the idealic beach and snorkeling spot of Kelor island, before returning to the mainland of Flores.


The canals of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) make up roughly half of Indonesia’s 21,579 km of navigable waterways. On islands such as Borneo and Papua, these waterways provide a key transportation link in the absence of good roads and railways. Built on stilts over the water, this village in Pontianak relies on simple canoes as their main mode of transport to reach many inland areas.


The jutting bow of the traditional Balinese Jukung is decorated with an image of the mythical Gajah Minah (the elephant fish.)  Its fierce bulging eyes are thought not only ward off evil encountered in the waters, but  is also to bear the power of night vision and guide the junkung through the roughest of water all sorts of weather conditions.  It even protects from the sun, as demonstrated by these  Balinese girls sitting in its shade on the beach of Sanur, Bali


A motorized longboat slices through the waters of the bay.  Like most fishing boats, this one will ventures out into the coastal waters at night and returns with his catch before sunrise to sell at local seafood markets, and to trade with inland farmers for fruits and vegetables.


These little eco warriors from Komodo Village have discovered that waste doesn’t have to be wasted, for styrofoam makes a fine buoyant boat, indeed!  Other salvaged materials seen at sea might include jerry cans or empty water bottles fastened together… whatever floats!  Kampung Komodo, Flores


Painstakingly painted, these graceful Javanese vessels are very similar to their Balinese cousin, the junking. Using only one main cloth sail and in favorable winds can skim them ocean’s surface at a fairly rapid pace. The bamboo poles on either side gives this small boat a heightened degree of stability when out on the open seas.


A simpler version of a traditional wooden phinisi moors in the protective bay of on the less visited Eastern side of Bali’s sister island, Lombok.  In the distance Rinjani Volcano bathes in the early morning sunlight, before it’s 3,726 peak is covered in afternoon clouds.


Shaped like gigantic sea spiders, these boats are designed for one purpose only… catching squid!  The boats move at night, using lamps to tempt the unsuspecting cephalopod into their nets. Squid, or cumi cumi, is abundant in Indonesian waters, and can be sampled in any sea side village warung.


Rowing home against the incredible backdrop of Loh Liang bay at dawn, four fishermen paddle their way back to their village after a long night searching the seas for food.


The Pelni is the national shipping company of Indonesia. This national ferry system operates twenty-six ships that serve the archipelago, connecting all the main islands from Sumatra to Papua. It is the most economical way to get around the islands, but it doesn’t come without it’s headaches!  Most Pelnis depart on a bi-weekly or monthly schedule, and can often be an uncomfortable journey, even to those accustomed to “roughing it.”   This is me after disembarking from a long and exhausting  journey  from Sulawesi to Flores. The ferry was packed to the rim with boisterous travelers returning home to celebrate the Idul Fitri holidays that mark the end of the month of Ramadan.


Traveling in style, The Ombak Putih, a traditional Phinisi gracefully sails the waters of Komodo National Park. The history and craft of the Phinisi is so fascinating, that it deserves it’s own page. Stay tuned for a future blog that explores the amazing work that goes into crafting these traditional boats.