Looking for a quick, hassle-free island getaway? One of South-East Asia’s best kept secrets is actually a pair of islands, the idyllic resort destination of Bintan and its sister island Batam. Popular with Singaporeans for spur-of-the moment vacations and virtually unknown otherwise, these two islands offer everything you’d wish for in a South-East Asian tropical holiday destination, and then some.
Bintan: Resort Island Extraordinaire
Located 45 kilometre’s south east of Singapore, the island of Bintan is the largest of over 3, 000 islands in the Riau archipelago. Despite being in another country (and one hour behind), Bintan is remarkably easy to get to from Singapore, being barely an hour’s boat ride away, and as such is a popular weekend retreat for stress-out executives and families.
There are a wide variety of accommodation options, ranging from the truly opulent to the more modest establishments. Regardless of how fancy the hotels are, all the resorts in Bintan are uniform in their family-oriented, wholesome appeal. The resorts also differ in their focus: some are known for their watersports activities, others for their great golfing and still others for luxurious pampering at their spas. As you can see, there’s something to cater to every budget and desired activity!
The two of the most popular resorts in Bintan are Bintan Resorts, a massive development to the north of the Island, and Nirwana Resort Gardens, which, true to its name, is set in over 330 hectares of lush gardens. Somewhat unusually, each resort offers at least three individual kinds of hotels, which in turn offer different types of accommodations, to cater to every budget and need. For example, there are rooms and suites under the Nirwana Resort Hotel, one bedroom chalets under Mayang Sari, two or three bedroom villas under Banyu Biru and two or three bedroom villas with a pool under Indra Maya. Incidentall, the villas each come with your own personal buggy, for jaunts around the resort.
There are plenty of things to do in Bintan, and as you’d expect from a tropical island, one of the biggest draws is the beach. From pure white sands to crystal clear azure waters and vibrant coral reefs, you’ll find everything you’d expect here, and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that watersports are Bintan’s most popular activities. Whether its kayaking, snorkelling or just floating in the water, there’s plenty of water-related activities for the visitor to indulge in. One of the more popular activities is scuba-diving, a pleasant prospect at Bintan as the waters are usually gentle enough for even novices. The best diving is between April and October, and there’s plenty to see — giant oysters, squid, nudibranches and sea cucumbers are just some of the things you can spot in the waters off Bintan. Occasionally, there are even dolphin sightings!
On land, the most popular sports activity is golfing. The island has several excellent golf courses, designed by such masters as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Ian Baker-Finch. A fair number of visitors, in particular the Singaporeans, make the trip across the waters just for the golfing, especially on the weekends. Fortunately, there are plenty of other activities — both organized and non-organized — for the rest of the family.
For those who particularly enjoy pampering, most resorts offer excellent spa amenities, with a wide range of therapeautic and beauty treatments; for the children, there’s everything from watersports to go-cart tracks, jungle tours and organized games.
With all the activities and entertainments available, many visitors never venture outside the boundaries of the resort, but for those who do, there are a number of interesting places to visit around the rest of the island. Usually, the first visit is to Bintan’s tiny capital is Tanjung Pinang, a quiet little town which tends to remind the occasional Malaysian visitor of Penang, twenty or so years ago. There are small, cement-floored grocery shops, stocked with everything from shrimp paste to toilet scrubs; streets where the most common motorized transport is the little kapchai, or motorbike, and not much else. Many of the houses on the waterfront are build on stilted and connected by walkways,
A ten-minute boat ride away is Pulau Penyengat. Nowadays home to nothing more than a sleepy little village, this tiny island was once the refuge of the Malacca Sultanate, which once ruled over the Malacca straits from the citadel on the Malaysian peninsula. When the Portuguese armada fell on their capital in 1512, the remnants of the sultanate fled here, where they set up court and established a flourishing trading nation, controlling many of the Riau islands and drawing visitors from as far as India and China. For a time, it was one of the wealthiest kingdoms in straits, but today, little remains except for the tombs of the sultans and a rare handwritten Qu’ran held in the keeping of the 170-year old mosque. Even if there’s little physical evidence left, the legacy of that ancient kingdom still continues, as the language of the sultanate eventually evolved in the languages of Indonesia and Malaysia; and today, the people of Riau are proud to claim that their Malay tongue is the purest and most original of the entire archipelago.
Batam: The Up And Coming Holiday Destination
20 kilometres away from Singapore and a favoured retreat for stressed-out Singaporeans, is the island of Batam. Unlike Bintan, Batam got its start an industrial centre, where many local and multinational companies settle their regional production operations. As a result, apart from business travellers, few people knew much about the island. In the past 10 years however, as international resorts and hotels began flocking to the island, Batam quickly became known as ‘that unspoilt vacation getaway noone knows about yet’, a reputation it still carries today, even as 5 star hotels spring up and word of its attractions leak out and spread around the region.
When comparing the two islands, share many physical characteristics with its sister island Bintan — long beaches, clear waters, and all. Also like Bintan, Batam is known for its excellent watersports and its well-tended golf courses, a particular attraction for international visitors. The difference between Bintan and Batam is that unlike the former, Batam has a wealth of budget accommodations, ranging from motels located in town to the rustic chalets by the beachside. The variety of accommodation choices makes the island a particular favourite of independent travellers who prefer to eschew package tours and jaunt around on their own.
Another area in which Batam differs from Bintan is in the activities available outside the resorts. Batam is aduty-free haven, and as a result the most popular activity is to indulge in retail therapy in Nagoya, the island’s main town. Nagoya offers plenty of little stores peddling everything from spirits to electronics at cutthroat prices. Visitors from Singapore and Malaysia who quake at today’s sky-high retail prices often nostalgically compare the price of goods sold here to those they purchased in ‘the good old days.’ Then there is Batam Centre, the island’s answer to Singapore’s Orchard Road, where the largest shoppinge centre — the Matahari — is located, as well as banks, atms, and other such necessities of life.
Another popular attraction in Nagoya is the Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya Buddhist Temple, though the locals don’t think of it as such. Many people still pray here everyday, paying little mind to camera clicks and whispers of the visitors. It is considered one of the largest Buddhist temples in the region, which is all the more remarkable for being built in a staunchly Muslim country. The temple draws thousands of devout worshippers from all around the region to pray and study.
Another sight sometimes visited is the controversial Dewi Kuong Imra monument. This statue is a tribute to the Buddhist goddess of prosperity and is located at the KTM station in Tanjung Pinggir. Much of the trouble surrounding it revolves around civic pride, as its massive 26 metre height makes it taller than the Garuda Nusantara monument at Batam’s international airport.
Apart from the shopping and sightseeing, there are also an abundance of clubs, discos and other night time entertainments available, mostly to cater to the fair-sized enclave of expatriates stationed on the island. As you’d expect from an island, Batam also has an abundance of excellent seafood restaurants. The really adventurous can even contemplate a trip to the highlands, where the temperature has varies from 16ºC to 26ºC and has been known to drop about 8ºC during the night.
The easiest way to get to Bintan and Batam is to make the water crossing from Singapore. Ferries to Bintan are available thrice-daily from the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal and dock at the Bandar Bentan Terminal.Ferries ply every 30 minutes during daylight hours between Harbour Front Ferry Terminal and either Sekupang or Batu Ampur on the north coast of Bintam. You may need a visa and passport, depending on your country of origin, so it’s best to check first with the Indonesian embassy before you go.