Kangean Archipelago--Madura, Indonesia


I first heard of the remote Kangean Archipelago when reading an old book about the Dutch in the East Indies during the the last century.  I was struck by stories of a few brave souls who moved out to this hyper-remote little chain of islands that lies NNE from Bali, but is administratively counted as part of Madura, East Java—though laying far from Madura.

My first visit there in 1995 took 12 hours on an old traditional ferry from the eastern tip Madura.  These days it’s much faster—if you choose to take the express ferry—which makes the trip in 4-1/2 hours.  This fast ferry is long & slender & reminded me of a triple split-level deck double-long PT boat. 

The ferry company shamefully double sells all the tickets, so getting on & off the express ferry is the epitome of chaos.  You must be a bit assertive if you don’t want to be left hanging onto the anchor!  Even being assertive, we found our seats had already been taken, until a crewmember insisted that some passengers shift a bit & give us a tight place to sit.  Getting to the restroom while sailing meant stepping on people laying on the floor.

Once at the jetty of Kangean’s main island you can choose to take your time disembarking.  Here the pace changes dramatically from the rush to get on the ferry & the relative high speed of the boat.  Everything switches to slow, relaxed mode.  


Yet, it’s a big event in Kangean when the ferry comes in.  In the 90s there were only two trucks & two pickups on the whole main island.  They’d all show up to meet & unload the ferry.  Today there’s many more trucks, pick-ups & even a few sedans around.  Still most seem to show up when the ferry arrives & the passengers & produce parade off the jetty.

Friendly pick-up drivers eager to take you wherever you want to go.


But after a rough, nauseating crossing, it’s best first to get something in our now quickly settling stomachs.  So, we stop at a small kiosk near the jetty for a local lunch.  The stall owners—who only very, very rarely ever see any foreigners in this remote archipelago—are eager to serve us & to hear were we’re from & what brings us to Kangean. 

Kangean Madurese Nasi Campur (Mixed Rice)—excellent!

We know we’ve found the right place to eat as the ferry captain joins us, showing off his Bawean--another outer island of Madura—T-Shirt, chronicling the recent development of that remote place. 

We discover that—like everywhere—Kangean men enjoy sitting around after a day’s work swapping stories & playing chess—an Indonesia-wide obsession. 

A trip into the main town in the Kangean archipelago—Arjasa—shows a town that has grown hugely in the past two decades.  Formerly there were just a few old houses surrounding the town square.  A short distance beyond that ring of old colonial houses you only saw cassava fields. 

Today, you drive for a long distance east or west from the square & can’t see fields because the old road is lined solid with hardware & sundry stores.  Business seems to be booming with income sent home by Kangeanese who’ve migrated to work in Malaysia & Singapore. 

It’s also obvious that the population has burgeoned.  In the 90s they thought the population was around 75,000; now it’s counted at over 100,000.

In the 90s sleepy little town of Arjasa there was not a single telephone.  I could only call my home by using Telkom’s ham radio, with a Telkom worker in Madura holding a phone up to his ham radio speaker so my wife could barely hear that we’d arrived alive. Now, everyone has a cell phone—many of them Chinese smart phones. 

And after telling my travel colleagues to be sure to bring all the cash they could possibly need while in the Kangean archipelago, we found that they’ve recently opened two banks in Arjasa, complete with ATMs.  The new Bank Rakyat Indonesia branch reportedly set a provincial record for new account deposits shortly after it opened. Our Kangeanese hosts laughed that until recently there were a lot of overstuffed mattresses in Kangean.

I recall that in the 90s the town mosque was a small, dusty structure.  Now it’s been renovated & greatly expanded.  Not surprising here! The first time I stepped off the ferry in Kangean a local informed me that this remote Kangean archipelago, unlike much of Indonesia, is 100% Muslim—always has been & always will be.

Kids here are just like anywhere in Indonesia & anywhere in the world.  Always finding ways to use whatever is at hand to have fun,

and always sure that when they go out they’re dressed in the coolest clothes they can afford.

Check out my refletion in this Kangeanese boy's eyes!

Watch this space for future blogs that dig deeper into the largely unknown Kangean archipelago.

Like what you see in Indonesia?  Join us for our specially discounted—one-time-only at this price—Java-Bali Photo Tour with Matt Brandon, 14-21 September 2013.  And why not sign up too for the optional Borobudur-Jogjakarta extension through 25 Sept?


Hope to see you there!