Motor scooters are in plague proportions, every taxi driver has one hand constantly pumping the horn, and roads that start as autobahns suddenly turn into pot-holed tracks. Hey, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Singapore any more.
But we are only 20km away, on Indonesia’s Batam Island, and it’s only taken us an hour to get here on the Penguin ferry from Singapore’s Harbourfront.
Regular ferries shuttle Singaporeans to Batam to buy cheap clothes, and bring Indonesians to Singapore to buy mobile phones that work. There are big, excited, chattering crowds, competing with the Indonesian music blared out by the onboard TV in the corner of the ferry. The trip itself is an experience. We escape onto the windswept deck to watch the cargo traffic in Singapore’s port, then the Singaporean city skyline fading into the distance as Batam looms ahead.
The city of Batam is the richest and fastest growing town in Indonesia. Manufacturing and engineering have drawn in companies from all over the world and the industry has drawn in people from all over Indonesia.
Batam is not good at understatement. Off the beach they’re building Coastarina, a circle of man-made islands shaped like a map of the world. It’s nothing like the scale of Dubai’s island plan, but we’re pleased to see that Australia Island will be a dedicated green reserve.
Opposite the Central Ferry Terminal are the Hypermart and the Mega Mall.
Amid the red soil of new building sites, new housing is being thrown up everywhere.
This is where they send the coloured paint that nobody else wants. ‘Gaudy’ is the word that springs to mind.
In the shopping malls, agents are selling houses off the plan in new developments called Valencia, Madrid, Cambridge and…wait for it…Birmingham. Who cares what real Birmingham is like? If it sounds English, it sounds sophisticated and desirable.
The coast of Batam, like that of its next door neighbour Bintan, is dotted with resorts. Singaporeans flock to Batam for weekends of golf and girls, we were told. Rainforest is being sacrificed for golf courses and beaches privatised.
We are looking for less energetic pursuits, so we spend a couple of nights on the east side of the island at Turi Beach Resort, on a quiet, uncrowded beach with a pleasant pool (and an average restaurant by Indonesian standards, it must be said) then in town at the Novotel Batam, comfortable and generic on the inside, interestingly gaudy on the outside.
The Riau Islands become far more interesting for us when we go down to Batam’s scruffy Sekupang Wharf, board an open pancung boat, and head out into the South China Sea towards Sugi Island, and our favourite destination, Telunas Beach.
There are over 3000 islands in the Riau Archipelago. Most are uninhabited and many don’t even have names.
We notice one particular classic desert island – a single tree on a sandbank, and at high tide even the sandbank disappears. If you were shipwrecked there you’d have to climb the tree twice a day to keep your feet dry.
In the flat, shallow water, fisherman tend their fish traps. It’s slow work and they have time to give us a friendly wave as we skim past.
A sea eagle swoops the water and comes up with a large fish in its talons, the only time I’ve seen such an event not narrated by David Attenborough.
Stilt villages cling to the fringes of the islands.
An hour and a half after leaving Batam, we spot Telunas Beach around the bend. Regular visitors to RT’s LOTR will know how sold I am on this ‘rustic resort’, so I won’t lax lyrical again on this particular post about it being voted TripAdvisor’s number one destination in the area, the gentle lapping of water, the spectacular sunsets, the myriads of stars, the ethical owners, the generous, friendly staff…
I’ve been here many times, and it’s always nice to be back.
FURTHER INFORMATION: For more about Batam and its accommodation options, see www.batam.com.
The writer was a guest of the Novotel, Batam and Telunas Beach Resort.