Travel Insights

(Mis)adventures around the world with Abhi: That time I travelled to the Wrong Island in Indonesia

And then, it slowly dawned on us. Indonesia had another island – in fact an entire archipelago - named Karimun, in the Java sea! Although the proper name is Karimunjawa, people have been calling it Karimun for years, and Google had tricked me by showing me pictures of Karimunjawa instead of Karimun! We were, effectively, waiting for a ferry to take us to an entirely wrong island!

By Abhi

Travel to the wrong island? Been there. Done that. Enjoyed it nevertheless.
“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”.
The advertising tagline of the Jesse Eisenberg starrer ‘ Social Network’ could apply to things more diverse than Facebook. Travel, for example.
When one (read: me) wants to travel far and wide, and conquer all the countries of the world, it is IMPOSSIBLE that he would reach this milestone on a platform of rosebuds. There’s got to be a few thorns along the way. There are all the travel gaffes you make, the boo-boos you talk about over a beer with bored friends years later, and the times that you had to blah-blah your way out of a sticky situation. I’ve had mine too.

Pic1 Backpacking actually
Backpacking isn’t all beers and bongs as many imagine. There are the occasional famines too

Such was the case a couple of months ago, when it came to a rather simple weekend trip for me. You’ve probably read about the Dutch traveller who recently flew to the wrong Sydney? (The one in Nova Scotia, not the one down under). And on any normal day, I would have laughed at his story while sharing it on Facebook with the description ‘ROTFLMFAO’ and the choicest of emojis to go along with it.

If only, I had not made the same mistake a few months ago, myself. Oh dude, I feel your pain!

So, I live in Singapore nowadays, earning and saving money to prepare for my next long-term travel. Living in a small island nation means that I often take weekend trips to other parts of South East Asia. With many budget airlines like Airasia, Tigerair and Scoot calling Singapore their hub, regional flights are really cheap, especially if booked earlier. And then there is the option to travel by land (to Malaysia) or by sea to the nearby Indonesian islands of the Riau province. So the residents of Singapore – expats and locals alike – are constantly on the search for new weekend getaway spots.
In one of my Google searches, I came across an article by Tripzilla, which listed 8 gorgeous islands easily reached from Singapore. The first in the list was an island named Karimun, which had some waterfalls and interesting beaches. I have never heard of it before, so I did what I always do when I hear of a new destination.

I searched it on Google Images to see how beautiful the beaches really were. And they were gorgeous!

Pic 2 Karimun island google image search-1
This was what came up when I searched on google. How can I pass up on THIS??

I quickly rounded up a few friends, sent them the Google Images of the island, and they were sold! Getting to Karimun was easy. There were 4 ferries running daily from the Harbourfront cruise centre in Singapore to Tanjung Balai in Karimun island. And we booked the earliest ferry available at 7 am on a Saturday morning, along with a cheap hotel in Karimun.
We reached the cruise centre early morning on a Saturday, all excited for an amazing beach trip. And over some morning coffee we started making our plan a little bit more detailed. And that’s when we noticed that something wasn’t right. We were reading tripadvisor reviews, to figure out what activities to do in Karimun. And there were just 2! That was a bummer, but hey, we still had the Pongkar beach, right? I mean, those beach pictures looked stunning, with white, sandy beaches!  Right?

A search of Pongkar beach alone, gave us the below the results. Sure, there was a beach. But there was no white, sandy stretch as we had imagined. And for some results, there were a pictures of few girls popping up in the image search results. What on earth is going on?

Pic 3 Pongkar beach google image search
Pongkar beach looked NOTHING like the original Google Image search of Karimun

And then, it slowly dawned on us. Indonesia had another island – in fact an entire archipelago – named Karimun, in the Java sea! Although the proper name is Karimunjawa, people have been calling it Karimun for years, and Google had tricked me by showing me pictures of Karimunjawa instead of Karimun! We were, effectively, waiting for a ferry to take us to an entirely wrong island!

We scrambled. We hurried. There would be no internet on the ferry, so we quickly adjusted our plans on what to do in Karimun. There was a waterfall, of course. And then there were 2 beaches. Ok, not as beautiful as the ones in Karimunjava, but what the heck. We couldn’t stay in our hotel throughout, right?

We had a Disaster Recovery plan. Well, somewhat. So, we took that ominous ferry to Tanung Balai, ready for whatever Riau province had to throw at us.

The Tanjung Balai ferry terminal in Karimun was just like any of the other ferry terminals in any of the 17000 islands that make the giant nation of Indonesia. It was small, but functional, with a million people – half of them selling ferry tickets to unheard islands, and the other half buying them. After immigration (Indonesia is visa-free for Indians), we started walking to our hotel, which was just 800m from the ferry terminal.

And the first signs, weren’t so good. We found nothing of particular interest. About 4 or 5 Karaoke bars. A lot of restaurants. And one Chinese temple. But we moved on. After check-in, we hired ourselves a 4X4 and a local driver, and decided to head to the only 2 beaches of Karimun island. Pongkar and Palawan beach. (Note: Not to be confused with Palawan in Philippines. Or Palawan beach in Singapore).

I sobbed when I finally saw Palawan beach. It was not enough close to the pristine beaches of Karimunjawa which I had seen on google. But it was still a beach, albeit with a lot of garbage everywhere. And we were probably the only foreigners there. There were a sizeable number of school children, who were part of some scouts group. And being the foreigners, we were soon involved in ‘modelling duties’ i.e, posing with the kids for Selfies. At least that kept us occupied for a while.

After Palawan, we headed to the Pongkar beach. Again, not the whitest, sandiest of beaches. But at least Ponkgar was much cleaner, as there seemed to be no garbage anywhere on the beach. We found a spot to put our towels, and finally managed to get a little bit of beach-satisfaction.

A little while later, a large horde of locals came down. I say ‘horde’, because they came in multiple buses and jeeps, and easily numbered in the hundreds. Obviously, there was some cultural gathering happening here. At first, we cursed our fate. The getaway was finally looking a little respectably satisfying, and now the entire beach was being overtaken. Drat!!

But the mood slowly changed, when we realized that we could actually BE A PART of the cultural event. If you must know one thing about Indonesians, you must know that they are super-welcoming of foreigners. They noticed us, as we were definitely the ONLY non-Indonesians on the whole beach. They smiled. They waved. They gave signals for us to join them. And with a little bit of motivation, we eventually did.

They made us a part of the Ratan dance, and invited us to sit with them on a musical jam. Now, I must tell you that I am a totally tone-deaf dude, but even I was impressed at how easily I jammed with them!

Pic 4 Pongkar beach
                                                   Finally some beach time

With the sun slowly downing upon us, we had to take our ride back to the hotel. And then, we had a new dilemma. What to do in the city during the evening? There was no bar or club in Karimun. Those places which did serve alcohol, also seemed to come with a few other ‘shady offerings’.  We thought about going for a movie. Nah, not too many options for that. Catching dinner. Sure, but what to do afterwards?

Eventually, I succumbed to my worst nightmare. We decided to go for a Karaoke, with my tone-deaf singing skills! We asked our hotel, and they directed us to a decent Karaoke, which had a good package. For a 6-member Karaoke, we were paying only about 15 dollars per hour. And the sound system, was mean and sick!! I have to say, I never sounded better in my entire life! And would you believe it if I told you that we actually continued singing until the Karaoke place closed at 2 AM?!

The following day, we had the morning to kill, since the ferry was only in the afternoon. We did wake up early (I have no idea why), but were faced with the dilemma of where to go. The only remaining place in Karimun to visit, was a waterfall, somewhere in Pongkar, near the beach we went to yesterday.

So, again we gathered a 4X4, and drove out to the waterfall. Called Air Terjun (which means waterfall in Bahasa Indonesia. Duh!), we were told that we could actually swim in the waterfall. We did pack our swimwear….
…. Only to not use it. Air Terjun turned out to be more of a trickle of water, than a waterfall. There are man-made pools at the base to capture the flowing water, where we could have taken a swim if we wanted. That was, until we saw little kids swimming in those pools, and a whole bunch of adults watching us closely to see if we were going to jump in too. Common sense prevailed, and we didn’t. But we did gather around a local shop selling tender coconuts, and brushed up on our socializing-with-locals skills.
And then we went back to Pongkar beach before catching our ferry back to Singapore. After all, we came to Karimun for the beach, right?

About the Author

Abhi is a travel-blogger, who dreams of abstaining completely from a corporate life, and has decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He has been to 75 countries, and hopes to become the youngest Indian to visit every single country in the world. When he is not planning his next trip, he blogs about his travels at and is seen posting cat-photos on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.


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