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The Old Port of Jakarta – Sunda Kelapa

Vagabond Journey’s exploration of the world’s ports continues with the old, traditional port of Jakarta: Sunda Kelapa.

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I was in a port of a different kind. There were no tankers, no container ships, no massive cranes or heavy machinery. There was just a long concrete dock speckled with cargo trucks and hundreds of large wooden sailing ships which men were loading and unloading with light machinery and by hand. I was in the old port of Jakarta.

It was called Sunda Kelapa — Coconut of Sunda in Sundanese — and sits on an estuary of the Ciliwung River in what is now the Penjaringan district of North Jakarta. This was the city’s first port, and for an extended amount of time its most important one. In fact, what was to become Jakarta grew up around this shipping hub and, logically, because of it. Today, it is a rather obscure, out-dated port where only old, out-dated wooden ships still call.

These large traditional wooden cargo ships are called pinisi. They are traditionally two masted crafts that were first built by the Buginese of Sulawesi around 1600. This ships are said to have been modeled off of the Dutch pinnace, and resemble the Arab dhow combined with the fore-and-aft, larger sail in the front, rigging of a Western ketch. Though unlike Western sailing vessels their sails reef in against the mast like a curtain as they do not have a boom and the gaff does not lower the sails. The Buginese still build and sail these antiquated ships today.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (6)

Traditionally, pinisi are constructed on the beach. The massive lengths of wood needed to build these ships, which can be up to 50 meters long, come from the forests of Sulawesi and Borneo. Ironwood and Bangkirai are the most preferred types. In contemporary times long enough timbers are becoming difficult to come by, and rather than making inferior ships with planks that are too short, traditional boat builders “follow the wood” and migrate to places where the proper materials are available. This often means hacking out new villages in the jungles of Borneo.

These ships are still commonly used throughout Indonesia by the Buginese and Makassarese, but are more prevalent among more remote communities spanning the country’s array of outlaying islands. They are generally used to transport goods, like cement and timber, as well as for fishing; though can also be used for passenger transport and, during the battle for Indonesian independence, many were re-outfitted as warships. Generally, these ships tend to go to what could be dubbed traditional ports, like Surabaya, Banjarmasin, and Makassar, along with Sunda Kelapa, where they are in the absolute majority.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (4)

In the 1970s motors began being added to pinisi, thus starting the transition of making their sails obsolete. Now that an engine is nearly ubiquitous among these ships, most have removed their aft mast in exchange for larger compartments for the crew and many have even diminished the the fore mast. Oftentimes this mast is shortened and converted into a deck crane or is removed altogether. A new name for these boats soon evolved: KLM, or Kapal Layar Mesin, which literally means “Boat Sail Machine.” The 200 hp motors these boats are often equipped with gets them up to around 5 knots, so traveling on them is slow going though fuel efficient.

Hundreds of pinisi were packed in side by side all down the dock. They had names like Bungawali, Mitra Abadi, and Bwatam Pratama painted on their bows. I wanted to get on board one of them, and as I strolled I nonchalantly pondered how to go about doing it. What’s the protocol here? I just asked someone.

“How can I go on a boat?” I asked a guy in a bright orange vest who was working inside of shipping container that had been converted into an administrative office.

I didn’t think my inquiry was particularly challenging but he just peered at me as though it was a trick question. He moved his lips, stopped, then started again. “You just walk on,” he finally replied.

Apparently, there were no gauntlets of security and formalities here.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa

So I walked across to the Nur Hidaya, a giant ship that was appropriately colored aqua marine, and looked at the twisted, warped span of wood that served the purpose of a plank that ran at an extreme vertical angle up to it. I ran through a list of what would happen if I made a misstep and fell into the water below:

  • I probably wouldn’t drown. It would only be a five to fifteen foot drop depending on how far up the ramp I fell off at.
  • My camera and phone would probably be ruined. My passport and money would be soaked.
  • I would become an absolute laughingstock as the sailors and longshoremen that were nearby would invariably come running over to fish me out.
  • I would be soaked with oil slick/ port gunk infused water and would have to slop back to my hotel to change clothes.

I stepped on and walked up. My weight made the thin plank bow which seems to have provided some needed friction. I got to the top and stepped over the simple wooden railing. A carpenter was fixing part of the deck. He glanced up at me but didn’t seem to register my intrusion as anything abnormal. I walked over and watched him drill a couple of holes which he rather masterfully fit with round wooden pegs with abject nonchalance.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (27)

Notice the on board crane that’s attached to what was once the mast.

Bags of cement were being loaded down into the hold through a large opening in the center of the deck. I walked up to the front of the ship and watched as the crane operator lifted these fifty pound bags up from a truck on the dock. The crane was an antiquated apparatus that was connected to the ship itself which utilized the gaff on what was once the fore mast. It rattled and sputtered, spewing thick black smoke with each heave of the coil that wound its rusted cables in and out.

I walked towards the rear of the ship. A sailor was sitting on a bench next to a thin ladder that lead to the second level. I greeted him and he smiled back. I asked if I could pass through and go up; he just smiled and welcomed me to pass with a motioned of his hands. I climbed the ladder that lead to a man-sized opening in the upper deck that I pulled myself up through.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (3)

The crew was splayed out on hammocks and the wooden benches that ran along the inner walls. They had just finished lunch — the cold remains of which were still sitting on the small stove that sat nearby — and apparently didn’t have much to do until the ship was loaded with cargo.

Their clothes were the simple, standard global fare — t-shirts, shorts, and the rubber sandals that are the staple footwear of the tropics — and looked as though they were shipped in from a Salvation Army donation center from a suburb of Omaha, which may not have been too far from the truth (read Clothing Poverty).

A guy with a green beenie explained that he lives on the boat for two weeks at a time — one week going out and another week coming back. He had a wife and six year old son in Jakarta, where he lived.

He then gave me a tour of the ship’s living quarters. The area where the half dozen or so sailors lived was more or less the size of standard bedroom in a working class home in the USA. It was divided into six compartments with a hallway blazing through the center. Each compartment was basically two bunks in a closet that even a diminutive human body would struggle to lay fully prostrate upon. It was more like shelves in a cupboard than bunk beds.

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (2)

I walked into the wheelhouse and found the contrast between the style and cleanliness of the room and the rest of the ship noticeable. The place was nicely painted and had neatly laid tiles on the floor. The old-style, spoked wheel helm nearly sparkled. It was a small oasis of tidiness in the heart of the otherwise beat and battered working vessel. The captain walked in. Other than being a little fatter and having authoritative mannerisms he was indistinguishable from the crew. He wore the same second+ hand clothes from the West and, of course, the rubber sandals. I said hello. He said hello. I half-expected an expedited eviction, but he just smiled at me. We talked for a moment about his work, and then he raced out of the cabin to yell at another ship that was ramming the sides of his in the crowded port.

This was a working port; it was gruff, it was dirty, smelly — it was for real, untainted by pretense. Though it was unromantically old, too current for nostalgia, a cling-on dangling off the periphery of the forward racing times refusing to be left behind. It was an example of an odd urban condition of globalism, where the uber-modern, sleek new city envelopes a genuine historic area where the culture and tradition has been virtually intact and allowed to adapt and evolve gradually. But the modernist revolution is looking down upon Sunda Kelapa from the new high-rise towers and shopping malls that are growing up around it. Like all revolutions it seeks to lay waste to all that came before it. There are plans to re-build and re-brand Sunda Kelapa. The Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation (JOTRC), a group of private and state-owned businesses, have claimed that the port is “messy, unclean and fetid” and have laid out an initiative to turn it into a “proper tourism site.”

The Indonesian Phinisi
Jakarta Post – Plan to redevelop Sunda Kelapa

Additional photos

Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (26)
Old port Jakarta Sunda Kelapa (25)

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Filed under: Boat Travel, Indonesia

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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