When I mentioned to Aloysius Tan of AAS that I would be going to Batam the day after I reached Singapore he asked if I were going there for the massage or seafood. Evidently Singaporeans go to Batam for entertainment and food. Cheaper golfing holiday is another attraction for the weekend hop-overs. Nearly 60 percent of foreign tourists are from Singapore and 15 percent from Malaysia. The island, which is almost identical in size to that of Singapore, as a free trade zone has become a fast growing manufacturing hub in the region. Ajo and his friends told me that the development of the island and proximate regions have been tremendous in the past five years. Added to this is the more recent increase in purchasing power of residents fuelled by over 50 per cent increase in wages, mandated by statute.
Batam is a heterogeneous society with diverse ethnicity and class. It is also a secular society with Islam being the dominant religion. 75 per cent of the 1.4 million population profess Islam while 20 per cent Christianity. Buddhists and Hindus make up the balance. Bahasa is the language which is similar to Meleyu spoken in Malaysia. Since 1970 the island city underwent significant transformations from a fishing village to an industrial zone and harbour. Free trade zone status in 2006, cheap labour and the proximity to Singapore improved the fortunes of the region. The government of Indonesia has also chipped in with policies to make Batam internationally competitive.
Ajo normally shops in the Penuin market every Saturday for fish, fruits and vegetables. However, he advanced it by a few days to replenish stocks which gave me an opportunity to see at first hand what goes on there. What struck me first was the cleanliness of the place - shopkeepers and other hired hands regularly collect garbage, hose down and sweep the floor and vending platforms. Batam is not a major agricultural area; most of the fruits and vegetables sold in the markets come from other islands of Indonesia. But, what is available to shoppers is fresh and reasonably priced. Fish and meat are sold in stalls adjacent to those vending fruits and vegetables. Shopkeepers are extremely friendly, particularly since Ajo is a regular shopper there and is known to most of them. There were many food stalls within the market too. Many new fruits, vegetables and varieties of fish excited me. It was a fascinating experience. Marketing is done in relative quiet and dignity.
On the way back home Ajo took me to the grotto of Our Lady in the St. Peter’s Church, the biggest Catholic church in Batam. I sought blessings of Our Lady for the health and happiness of Ajay, my son, who is celebrating his birthday today. The recently built church is large and imposing; appropriate for the large Christian population of the island.
Ajo had made arrangements for a taxi to show me around Batam. Adi used to work in the marine industry in Singapore for many years. He returned to Batam, his native, to become an entrepreneur a few years back. He has a taxi service with a fleet of seven cars, of which three are without drivers for customers who want to rent them for self driving in Batam. Adi turned up before 8.30 and Ajo gave him the final instructions by saying that Adi should look after me through the trip and day as he would Ajo. The greatest advantage of having Adi as the guide of the day was that he was extremely courteous, knowledgeable and proficient in English. The programme for the day was to go through to the Barelang Bay experiencing the Barelang Bridge. Barelang stands for Batam, Rempang and Galang, the three major islands that are connected by a string of six bridges. Three smaller islands connect Batam to Rempang. The six bridges are different in design and are named after the Riau Sultanate rulers between the 15th and 18th centuries. The bridges total more than two kilometres and span 50 km from the first to the last. The most popular and iconic bridge is the first as one approaches from Batam, the Tengu Fisabilillah bridge. It connects to the Tonkin Island and is a cable stayed bridge. Adi parked at various locations from where I could have exceptional views of the bridge. Later I walked across the 650 metre bridge and enjoyed taking photographs. All along the road on either ends of the bridge were stalls selling local food and handmade souvenirs.
Adi took me to the Vietnam Camp on Galang Island, where the UNHCR had set up a refugee camp on 16 square km for the ‘boat’ people who arrived into Indonesia in cramped wooden boats between 1975 and 1996. Most of the refugees were from Vietnam and hence, the name of the camp. The camp, at its peak, accommodated nearly a quarter million people and had extensive facilities for accommodation, health, youth activities, education and religion. The camp, which is now empty, has a museum and many of the older structures are maintained as tourist attractions. A couple of boats that ferried the refugees from their homeland to the island are also on display. Many photographs and paintings that depicted the plight of the refugees are poignant reminders of a ghastly history. On 24 March 2005 there was a get together in the Camp of erstwhile refugees.
On the way to the Barelang Bay I saw a lot of tourism related activity due to which virgin hills were being violated. However, I took solace in the fact that developments invariably involved landscaping and greening, whereby the environmental impact of most depredatory developments is minimised. The views on the way to the bay were amazing and Adi stopped the car at various points that afforded photo opportunities. The last few kms to land’s end is a mud road. I requested Adi to take me to the farthest point possible and in a short while we reached the place where the car had to be parked. It was the edge of the bay. I walked down a few steps and stopped in disbelief at the marvel that lay before my eyes. Vast expanse of waters of different shades of blue and green in perfect harmony with blue skies and patterned clouds gave the place a feel of paradise. Mangroves, strangely shaped rocks, sandy fringes of water front and wooden walkways that projected into the waters added to the beauty of the place. I walked on one of the wooden platforms that projected quite some distance into the sea and enjoyed absolute peace and calm for many minutes. I had to tear myself away from paradise because it was well after 1 pm and was time to start the return trip.
The highlight of the return trip was lunch at the Kelong Restaurant called Aneka Selera. The restaurant on the Galang Island seemed to be quite popular going by its patronage. Live fish were on display in various enclosures below the wooden platformed restaurant. One could select the fish that one wanted to have and it would be cooked in the style that one preferred and be produced in quick time. Adi ordered Crab, Gong Gong, vegetables, Squid and rice. The batter fried squid is possibly the best I have ever had; just that it was a bit more oily than normal. The crab was so juicy that I abandoned all civilised behaviour to get through it. It was the Gong Gong that took my breath away. Adi had told me, when he ordered the dis, that it was something I could not miss on a visit to the Riau Archipelago because it was only available here. When the order arrived it turned out to be sea snails with nothing but shell in sight. Adi demonstrated how to prize out the meat from the shell using a toothpick, discard the black end that came out last from the shell, dip it in chilli sauce and relish the boiled meat. It did take me some time to get used to the technique. However, I was not able to get past a couple of them because of the peculiar smell of the extracted meat, even though the taste was quite alright.
Pradeep and Ani, who I had met last night at the Teras Café restaurant, had invited us to dinner at Harbour Bay, the celebrated water front development that boasted some of the best restaurants in the city. I was told that, on a clear day, Singapore could be seen from where we were in the restaurant. The lovely evening, interspersed with jovial banter and serious discussions, went on over a huge meal of crab in pepper sauce, grouper fish, squid rings, salad with prawns and rice. The huge tender coconuts and beer provided lubrication during the course of the meal. Then it was pub hopping time. Ajo took me to the pub street, the happening part of the city. Large number of pubs lined the street and young girls kept customers company as they got through their drinks. All the pubs play loud music that makes conversation almost impossible. The smoke in the pub is an additional health hazard despite the exhaust. Many pubs have pool tables and the girls pair with customers to give them a good time at the game. We went through four pubs imbibing Malibu on the rocks. The pubs we went too were the Mad Cow, Tatwo, The Dog’s Bollocks and Chilly Bar. We made conversation with a few girls in the bar, but our order of Malibu did provoke some to giggle as it was considered too soft for men on a pub hopping mission! Regular visitors often purchase a full bottle and leave it labelled for future visits in case any of the precious liquid is left over.
What a day I had had.