Decided I needed an adventure, so rose at dawn (around 6.30) and headed to Tanah Merah ferry terminal (on the East Coast, not far from the airport) to catch a ferry to Bintan Island. Bintan and Batam are the two largest islands in the Riau Archipelago, of the East Coast of Sumatra and just south of Singapore. Apparently there are Singaporean resorts all over the coasts of both, and Batam is basically a version of Singapore on holiday.
I headed to the main town in the islands, Tanjong Pinang, on Bintan. It is certainly less developed than Singapore – in fact, more like the third world! The ferry – fast, efficient and the Singapore terminal was run like an airport – was met by dozens of locals touting rides in their rusty taxies, on their motor scooters, in hotels, make bookings with their shipping agencies and god all knows what else. They were quite sticky and persistent, and I confess I was a bit nervous and considered getting straight back onto the ferry back to Singapore. It was all a bit much, especially as I hadn’t had any breakfast.
I finally got away and had a quick look around the town, then changed some money – for SING$50 I received some hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Rupiah. Two men in front of me in the bank were changing what looked to be their wages of maybe SING$1000 into Rupiah, and were getting literally bundles of notes six inches thick! These they were piling into plastic shopping bags, and they looked as though they’d need the help of a small wheelbarrow to get it all home safely.
Had some breakfast in a café, although I didn’t notice any actual coffee on offer, and went for a longer walk around the town. There are no footpaths to speak of, and any space at the side of the road is either a gutter, or covered in parked vehicles or hawkers with dirty looking food stalls. I had to remember about being careful what I ate and drank – never a problem in Singapore – so stuck to hot, cooked food or fruit that I could peel myself, and canned or bottled drinks.
Found myself in a suburban area of the town. Getting sick of the traffic and the attentions of scooter and taxi touts, I turned down a footpath-like lane (although scooters still whizzed past frequently). The houses were very close together and ranged from quite substantial brick and tile homes to basically slums made of bits of worn timber and rusty iron – what we could scarcely consider fit for keeping chooks in. Here the chooks seemed to live happily alongside the people, cats, dogs and what ever else was about. There was rubbish in any open area – clearly no services – and water seemed to be available from public taps every so far. I did, however, feel better in myself.
It was now early afternoon. Back at the centre of town, on the waterfront past lots of shops and houses on stilts over the tidal mud and accumulated rubbish, I found a bar overlooking the harbour and had a bottle of local ‘Bir Bintang’, costing around 9,500 Rupiah (about $2.00). Here, at last, I could afford to get drunk! Felt even better. Went and booked my place back to Singapore on the 18.10 ferry (I had been considering going back on the 14.10). Then had a wander around the commercial (if one could call the awful collection of tatty shopfronts that) district, but failed to find anything I wanted to buy. I did however find a café with a friendly proprietor who spoke quite good English and made me some delicious roti dahl for lunch.
The Lonely Planet guide suggested a couple of places to visit across the harbour, so I bravely chartered a longboat to take me to Palau Penyenget, an island across the harbour, and to Senggarang, a village also on the other side of the harbour. The island was once the capital of the local kingdom and, in addition to a somewhat more presentable village, held the tombs of various rajas and rulers, which was quite interesting. Senggarang was another stilt village whose main features were a number of Buddhist and Hindu temples (Indonesia being a Muslim country – the call to prayer in Tanjong Pinang happened every hour on (more or less) the hour. I felt like Lord Jim sat up in splendid isolation in my long boat, with an old boatman and a young boy to help out (he came in useful for bailing several times when the motor stopped mid-stream).
Back in Tanjong Pinang, to fill in the hour or so until my ferry left I found my bar again and polished off a couple more beers. On finding my way back to the ferry terminal, the nominated 20 minutes prior to departure, struck by the distinct lack of passengers, crew, immigration officials or even a ferry! I asked a policeman if I was in the right place and he said, yes I was, just wait here. Of course, what no one, not even the estimable Lonely Planet, had told me, was that there is a time difference between Singapore and Indonesia, with the latter being one hour behind (not, as one wit offered later, one century behind).
However, the terminal was at the end of a long pier in the harbour, and the sun was beginning to set making the whole scene extremely picturesque (it’s true that distance from the slums lends enchantment). Eventually a ferry and more passengers arrived and an immigration officer came to stamp our passports. There weren’t many passengers and as I seemed to be the only foreigner in this infrequently visited port this afternoon, the immigration officer (Ari) struck up a conversation with me to practice his English, and in the process gave me a delightful lesson in the Indonesian language.
I’ve traveled a reasonable amount, and whilst most immigration officers (outside of the United States) are polite, their comments are generally restricted to a grunt or at best ‘have a nice day’. This is the first, and possibly the only, time in my life that I’ll get a lesson in the local language from a country’s passport control officer, in the setting sun, overlooking a picturesque, remote tropical harbour.
- Makem = eat (or food)
- Manam = drink Tidak = no
- Ya = yes
- Apa = what’s
- Tidak apa apa = never mind
- Hello = hello
- Salamat Jalan = goodbye
- Terimakasi = thankyou
- Salamat pargi = good morning
- Salamat malam = good evening/night
- Salamat sore = good afternoon
- Salamat siang = good day
- Mau pergi kemana = where are you going?
- Jalan jalan = going around (or ‘here and there’)
- Sea-laut = sea
- Air = water
- Kapal = ferry
- Meja = table
- Sepato = shoe