Note- This piece is a longer read, but worth the time for anyone planning a trip to Indonesia.
I’ll start by saying what happened to me wasn’t even that bad, and I am not even completely sure if I was scammed or not. But when you’re put in an uncomfortable situation, as a solo traveler, and especially on your last day of a trip, it does put a sour taste in your mouth about the place you are visiting. Which is a shame, as Indonesia was, and is, an awe-inspiring place to visit.
I can’t explain the story without first mentioning the Gili Islands and the fast ferries from Bali to the islands. The Gilis, of which there are three (Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan, referred to as Gili T), are tiny islands off the coast of Lombok and are the source of tropical paradise fantasies- impossibly clear water, a diver’s paradise, accompanied by cheap beachfront bungalows, insanely fresh barbecued seafood and a relaxed environment completely free of cars and motorised transportation- a sweet relief after the chaos of Bali’s endless motorbikes and tourist buses.
Most tourists and backpackers arrive on the islands from Bali via the fast ferries. The fast ferry services are privately owned and operate to and from the islands, multiple times daily. However, Indonesian boat safety standards are lacking, and there are many tragic stories relating to sub-par safety conditions, crossings made in dangerous seas, and a lack of life vests or lifeboats on board. Several well-documented accidents have occurred involving tourists, including an onboard explosion in 2016 that killed two, and a shipwreck (though this incident was not related to the Gili Islands, rather to Indonesian maritime safety standards generally). Although accidents can happen with any form of transport, I would caution everyone planning a trip to research ferry operators wisely before purchasing tickets.
The company I went with, Semaya One, seemed to have a clean safety record, although not the most glowing of reviews- but that can be said for most ferry companies here. I had started my time in Indonesia in Ubud, and really fell for the place. Getting into the routine of daily yoga, trekking, and cycling, in a place with so much rich history and culture, was definitely something I could get used to.
After a few days in Ubud, I began the journey to Gili Air for the second half of my trip. I was picked up, along with a few others, by a shuttle bus and we made our way to the port town of Padang Bai- a popular jumping-off point for the islands. When booking my tickets, the operators also confirmed that the ticket price included both a hotel pick-up from Ubud and a transfer back to the airport, which saved the trouble of paying for an additional taxi, bonus. (More on this later.)
As an aside, Padang Bai is a bit of a nightmare- as soon as you step foot on the docks, you are inundated with vendors trying to sell you snacks, Bintangs, ferry tickets and tour packages, etc. That being said, I never felt unsafe, and people were respectful when I said I wasn’t interested. Indonesia is a country with extreme poverty, so I certainly don’t mind anyone trying to sell things or earn an honest dollar- as a firm believer in capitalism, they are allowed to ask, just as I am allowed to decline, albeit it is all very confronting.
After navigating the confusing boarding process, where no one seemed to know who should board which ferry, we departed nearly on time. Although hot and stuffy on board, there appeared to be adequate life vests and we arrived safely without incident, and the boat was modern and looked well-kept.
After staying up late in Ubud the night before, reading horrible reviews of other people’s ferry stories, I admit I nearly cancelled my trip to the Gilis, but am definitely glad I didn’t. I will write another post on this incredible slice of the world, and why it’s worth the effort to get to, despite the challenges.
Flash forward a few days later, the last day of my trip, culminating in a 10:20 pm flight back to Australia. Fail #1- I had booked a 3pm ferry back to Bali. At about an hour and a half crossing time of the Lombok Strait, I assumed this would leave plenty of time to make it back to the airport.
I arrived at the ferry dock an hour before my booked time, to check in and make sure I didn’t miss it. Ha. 3 and 3:30 came and went, followed by 4, and my anxiety was definitely starting to kick in. Not really one to miss flights, especially international flights, I was tired and looking forward to getting back home. A watched pot might never boil, but a watched harbour also doesn’t magically produce a Semaya One ferry.
As we wait, literally no information is provided and the staff at the check-in seem to have no idea where the boat is. They think it is still on a nearby island. Perfect. Meanwhile it starts to rain heavily, for the first time in days, at the exact minute I decide to use the dock bathrooms. This results in immediate flooding of the bathroom floor, somehow, soaking my handbag in a centimetre of water.
Yes, setting it down on the ground was dumb, and possibly an omen of what was to come. It also turned most of the dusty waiting area into mud and attracted a barrage of flies. The fact that I hadn’t washed my hair or worn deodorant in several days (#islandlife), probably didn’t help the fly situation. Batting them off left right and center, soaked in sweat from the heat and the rain, I finally began pacing back and forth, like a caged animal, waiting for the mirage of a ferry. Or, better yet, the real thing.
Finally, just shy of 5pm, the ferry arrives, after about three hours of waiting. Success! As the song goes, I can still make it to the church on time.
This is where things get weird, in case they didn’t seem that way already.
The ferry had indeed just been on another of the islands picking up passengers, Gili T. It was very close to full and there were few seats available. Of the ten or so of us that boarded, a few found seats but the rest were ushered to the upstairs seating area. This actually was better, since the upstairs windows opened much wider than the downstairs windows, allowing for more fresh air, and, I noted, the ability to swim through, in the case of emergency. Probably a terrible thing to ponder, but I have a weird habit of reading books on shipwrecks. And Tripadvisor reviews on Indonesian ferries. We set off and, interestingly enough, heading directly opposite from Bali and towards Lombok. Ok. Here we stopped to pick up some more passengers, no big deal but the clock was ticking toward 10:20 pm.
Trying to remain positive, we then set off towards Bali, and by now it is late afternoon. For the crew, this apparently meant party time. As I was sitting on the top deck, I was a few rows behind the captain. I say captain as he was the one behind the helm, but his casual clothes and careless attitude of letting his crew run around selling Bintangs, a local beer, didn’t inspire confidence.
Once out at sea, the crew pulled out a laptop and put on some music. Again, no big deal to listen to music while you work. It is a big deal when you blast said music through the ferry loudspeakers (which, I’ll note, were never used for any sort of safety briefing), and you play vulgar rap at full tilt. (All I want for my birthday is a big-booty ho, one of the more memorable ditties of which I was not familiar.) I am actually a big fan of rap, but this was completely inappropriate in a professional setting, and was played at such a loud volume that I literally put earplugs in.
This was the stuff of torture camps, just add waterboarding and you’d get all the nuclear missile codes you could ever want.
Meanwhile, the crew continue to run around, selling beers and trying to flirt with backpackers, and the captain even cracked open his own Bintang and lit up a cigarette, ironically next to the No Smoking sign. In America, or Australia, you could report this behaviour to the business owner or to consumer affairs groups, but I have a feeling it would fall on deaf ears here.
The Scam (I Think)
The waves were getting a bit rough as the day turned long, but after a bit of turbulent water we eventually arrive back in Padang Bai. Back at port, I was one of the first off the boat, and therefore the first to be inundated by the group of men trying to organise transfers, sell food, unload luggage, etc.
‘Where to, miss?’, I’m asked, and I produced my coupon for the airport transfer. I am then surprised to find out that the shuttle to the airport is not direct, rather it stops at several other beach towns along the way are made before finally making it to the airport, about 3-4 hours later. I was not informed of this by anyone. This seems weird, but this in Indonesia.
I’m then told that if that won’t get me to the airport on time, I can get a private taxi, direct to the airport, for 500,000 IDR, or about $50 AUD. The thing is, there is no way to know whether this man is telling the truth, or if he is trying to get commission from a taxi booking by lying to unsuspecting tourists about the transfers provided by Semaya One. Considering my options, I am in an awkward position, as there is no one around of authority that you can trust to ask for accurate information. Not to mention the added stress of the heavy traffic all over Bali.
I decide there is no way I could risk missing my flight, and the small price of $50 was worth it to ensure I was able to get home, even if I might mean getting ripped off. Call me naive, but I like to believe most people are honest, but I can also easily imagine unscrupulous drivers waiting at the ferry pier and lying to tourists, in order to make a few bucks.
Decision made, I am quickly ushered to a ‘taxi’, or a van with a young driver who shared the same affinity as the ferry captain for blasting rap music at loud volumes. He was polite and respectful, but his driving was terrifying, to say the least (as were most drivers I experienced). Cutting in and out of motorbikes, accelerating at such high speeds he had to pull off onto the gravel breakdown lanes at stoplights to avoid collisions, and general insanity. I am then informed that he needs an extra $1 for the airport toll. Another annoyance, but the airport is nearly in sight, so whatever.
After arrival, I grab my bags and can’t get out of there fast enough.
“Tip for me?” he asked.
Later, I read more reviews of Semaya One, with other people mentioning that they were also recommended to get a taxi instead of using the company’s shuttle bus. I am still unsure if I got scammed or not, but, if so, at least it was only for a small amount of money and I still returned home safely. The ferry operator, Semaya One, should have done a better job of policing this situation, or should be more upfront with customers with the length of time to complete the airport transfer (assuming this was even true about the four-hour time.) Either that, or they are in on the scam, which is even worse.
I think the issue that really gets me with this whole experience is unethical individuals putting their own personal and financial gratification over the safety, and even lives, of innocent travelers who have chosen to visit Indonesia out of genuine curiosity and interest, and are more than willing to spend their hard-earned travel money on experiences and local businesses within that country. I know I personally shouldn’t complain, as I arrived safe and nothing really went wrong in the grand scheme of things, but ethically it really bothers me, especially after reading what others have been through.
There are many honest, amazing, and safe tourism and transport providers in Indonesia, but I can’t say I would recommend Semaya One as one of them.
Would I Go Back?
Yes, Indonesia and the Gili Islands, and especially Ubud, are unique and special places with a charm unlike anywhere else. I hesitate to publish this, as I wouldn’t want to put others off visiting the Gili Islands, nor do I wish to cause my parents any stress about their daughter rambling around Asia on boats of dubious origin. More so, I encourage everyone to visit Gili Air- the people are incredible and welcoming, and the island has so much beauty, above and below the sparkling sea. Also, the tourism dollar has definitely helped improve the lives of many families here.
Rather, just do your research regarding the ferries and try to make smart choices. (An alternative to the ferries is to fly to Lombok and get a boat from there, which is only a short distance of 10-15 minutes. However, I haven’t done much research on this option, as it is much less common, and it brings into the fold a related but seperate issue of aviation safety.)
Also, in an ideal world, try to make it back to Bali the day before your flight, just to be safe. I contemplated doing this but decided in a worst case scenario, I could charter a boat back if need be. Nine times out of ten this wouldn’t be needed, but for extra peace of mind, arriving a day earlier would take some of the stress out of the ferry endeavors.
I have travelled extensively and still had this unsettling experience happen, and I take pride in being someone who is very safety-oriented, pragmatic, and well-prepared when it comes to travel, making this slightly embarrassing to even write about. Yet, I still found myself in this situation. Therefore, I think the issues both of the fast ferry safety and of unscrupolous vendors on the piers are important ones to highlight, as travel to the Gili Islands becomes more and more popular.
My recommendation: Don’t let it stop you from going, just exercise caution.
Do you have any experiences, good or bad, with Indonesian travel? Would love to hear your thoughts below.