12 December 2007

Travel: Bintan

My visit to Bali had been my first trip to Indonesia, but I followed it with a trip to Bintan, an island about 40 kilometres southeast of Singapore that is a popular weekend destination for Singaporeans. Indonesia places a few more restrictions on visitors - you must get a visa (Visa on Demand) when entering, and in Bali, you have to pay an exit tax. But, that really just slows down your entry into the country, making the lines through Immigration a bit longer.

I have a colleague who goes kite surfing nearly every weekend, and the wind is now good at Bintan, so he heads there. I had work to do over one weekend, and he suggested I do it on the beach. So, I headed off early on a Saturday morning for a little W&R (work and relaxation).

Bintan basically has two sides to it, on a tourist front: the Singapore side, and the local side. My kite surfing friend likes to go to the local Indonesian side, where it is cheaper and less crowded. Apparently, the Singapore side is filled with high priced resorts and is somewhat cut off from the reality of the island, which is highly rural and could be characterized as developing, in an economic sense. The ferries that serve that side of the island are Singapore-owned and quite luxurious. The Indonesian side of the island is less resort-ish. And the ferries that serve that side are Indonesian-owned, which means they are focused more on getting lots of people on board than on making the trip as comfortable as possible. I didn't know all of this, and I took my colleague's advice to take the Indonesian ferry, which takes a bit longer to arrive on the island, but means a shorter van trip to the hotel. So, I boarded the Indo Falcon Ferry at Changi Ferry Terminal on a Saturday morning, hoping for a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat. I would get nothing of the sort.

The ferry was packed. It had two decks, an "upper" deck with a single aisle and five cramped seats on either side, and a "lower" deck with two sets of wobbly seats, three or four to a side. A sitting area in front of the lower deck allowed groups to sit around the perimeter of the boat, but it was full. I found a seat downstairs against the wall, so at least I had a neighbor to only one side. It was pretty cramped, and it would have been a miserable ride shoulder to shoulder on both sides.

The first thing I noticed was how much the boat rocked at the dock. It was up and down and side to side. I don't usually get seasick, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink (remember, I thought I would get something on board - no such luck), so I didn't think I would have a problem. But, a good part of the passengers did. The water was quite choppy for the first hour, and apparently you get it the worst in the lower deck (which is also in the bow of the boat). About 20 minutes in, a poor little girl behind me got sick. She was very quiet, but the smell indicated immdediately that something had gone wrong, and the poor child looked miserable. That set off a chain reaction, and for the next 30 minutes or so, it was pretty bad. I was okay, but a great deal of the boat wasn't. It was interesting to observe the following contrast: several buddies sitting together, some drinking beer at 9 in the morning, while their friends right beside them had their heads in plastic bags. I was glad to be in neither party.

We arrived at Tanjung Pinang, the largest city on Bintan, and then took a van 45 minutes out of the city to the hotel. It is a new hotel, and it is pretty nice, set in a very rural area of the island. There isn't much of a beach, just a sandy stretch leading to a low rock wall that borders the water. For about 200 metres, the water stretches out at around three feet deep, until you can see a clear line of demarcation where it drops off to greater depths. This keeps the waves down, which the kite surfers like. There were several kites on the beach with a couple of kiters on the water.

Kite surfing mixes the use of a snowboard-type board with a parachute-like kite, to which the surfer is attached via a body harness. The kites range from 6 to 15 square metres, depending on the strength of the wind. A skilled kiter can shoot across the water at very high speeds and then make high jumps by manipulating the kite in the wind. But, it apparently takes lots of practice, and the hazards that I heard of include being plucked out of the water and hung in trees, being attacked by territorial fish, being swept to sea (they do not wear flotation devices) and being unable to re-launch the kite after crashing. It is more dangerous that in seems.

But, I didn't have to worry about that. The hotel does not have any training kites, so I sat on the beach and did my work. Not a bad setting to work, actually. Read a little, write a little, gaze out at the ocean for a while. I could get used to that.

The surrounding area is countryside for miles, dotted with houses or little gatherings of buildings serving as residences and roadside stores. The hotel has a restaurant, and there is another at the end of the pier just a short walk away. But, after dinner, there is little to do. I sat with some kiters for a while, but most of them are wiped out after a day on the water.

The next morning was more of the same. A run up the road let me see a little more of the island, and I think it would be an interesting place to visit. I would have liked to capture many of the sights on the drive back to the ferry terminal, but the van's windows were covered in a poorly applied tint, meaning there was no way you could take a good picture. I did include some from the ferry terminals and the hotel. And I did get one picture of a scooter with several live roosters tied to the back. Every once in a while, a rooster would tilt its head to check out where it was going, which was hard for it to do, as it was hanging upside down.

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