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Seeing as Indonesia has 17,508 islands, I have 1 down and 17,507 to go. After only a few short days in this energetic archipelago, I know I’ll be back to Indonesia many times again.
Opting to treat ourselves to a night or two of luxury, we caught a ferry from Singapore to the Bintan Resorts complex on the island of Pulau Bintan. For those who have never visited the island, the island of Bintan is basically broken down into Bintan Resorts, and the rest of Indonesia. Occupying the entire northern section of the island, Bintan Resorts complex has its own ferry terminal, its own currency (Singapore Dollars as opposed to the Indonesian Rupiah), and a border with the rest of the island that is staffed by armed guards. A master planned resort complex specifically catering to Western clientele, the resorts are the epitome of tropical luxury.
Upon arriving in Bintan Resorts we chose to stay at the Nirwana Beach Club cottages, part of the larger Nirwana Resort complex that also houses the Nirwana Beach Resort. Guests at any of the Nirwana hotels are allowed to use the facilities in any of their hotels, and we definitely took advantage of the offer and spent some time lounging poolside by the Infinity style pool on the beach. With rooms running around only $60 (gargantuan breakfast buffet and ferry transport included), the place definitely makes all its money on the sale of overpriced beer ($7 for a domestic Bintang that will run you around $1 anywhere else in Indo). The resorts themselves are situated directly on sugary white sand coves that are frequented only by the handful of guests, lazy palm trees, and the occasional monitor lizard. Aside from its serene beachfront location, what really impressed me was the unparalleled level of service exhibited by every member of the entire staff. When monsoon style torrential downpours lay siege to the coastal complex, staffers are dispatched in covered golf carts wielding colorful umbrellas, waiting patiently just in case anyone wants to leave their room. While a deviation from what could be considered an “authentic” Indonesian experience, anyone looking for an affordable budget splurge just outside of Singapore need look no further.
Antsy to experience some traditional culture after loafing about the resort for a full day, we hired a cab to take us on the 90 minute drive to the east end of the island and the beach bungalow region of Pantai Trikora. Shacking up at a very empty Nostalgia Yasin bungalow complex, life consisted of little more than some cold Bintangs from the bar, and watching the tide go out from the over the water balcony. Too shallow for any sort of snorkeling or ocean sports, the ocean retreats each afternoon revealing gooey mudflats that local fishermen walk at low-tide in search of market bound fish and prawns The staff at Nostalgia Yasin is incredibly friendly, the village is full of smiling children eager to practice their English, and most importantly, the beachfront bar opens at 7am, which is always a plus. Bring the repellent and the mosquito net though, as the mozzies come out in full force once the sun goes down.
Needing to catch a ferry the next day to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, we caught a ride from Trikora through the rain-soaked villages and motorcycle laden roads (one family had 5 people crammed on their moto…5 people) to the energetic capital of the island, Tanjung Pinang. Not for skittish, Tanjung Pinang upon first glance has all the makings of your seedy port town. Festering garbage heaps line the narrow alleyways as stray cats feed on rats in the gutter. The only thing more glaringly apparent around than the ubiquitous smell of cigarette smoke is the amplified sound of the call to prayer from the local mosque. Taking a tip out of guidebook, in broken Indonesian we hunted down a spot named “Bong’s homestay” in search of reasonabale accommodation. Finally finding the place down a narrow alleyway strewn with dead chickens, turns out “Bong’s” was little more than an old man’s dingy house where he gives up his bed for money and opts to crash on a cot in his kitchen. Thanks but no thanks. We opted instead for the Laguna hotel across the street that offered AC and a free buffet breakfast for the same price. Sorry Bong.
Over the course of the next day Tanjun Pinang really started to grow on me, and I would actually recommend it to any traveler looking for the heat of a vibrant Indonesian market town. Taking in some dinner along the waterfront, we met an Indonesian man from Lombok who was seemingly the Indonesian equivalent of myself. A scuba instructor in the Gili islands, he spends three months a year traveling around Southeast Asia before returning to “those annoying tourists” as he called them. Halfway around the world, some sentiments remain the same.
The following morning I rose early in search of a postcard from a local market, and was greeted by one of the most functionally chaotic market scenes I have come across in all of my travels. Thousands of motorcycles zip past pedestrians carrying everything from baskets of grain to plastic children’s helicopters. Car horns and exhaust blend with the open garbage heaps, yet it all creates a dank atmosphere that simply authenticates the entire experience; this market isn’t some tourist show, this market is simply real life for thousands upon thousands of people. As luck would have it, later that afternoon we happened upon a dragon boat race that was being held down by the harbor front, where teams from all over the island were gathered to show off and race their traditionally crafted “dragon boats”. Gathered all in the square were hordes of local children all eager to practice their English and take pictures with the two white anomalies that somehow happened to wander into this port town. Even grown adults found it fascinating to snap their photo with us. I think we were more of an attraction than the dragon boats at one point.
Finally, confirming the reality that the world is indeed flat, upon taking a picture with a group of local Tanjung Pinang dragon boat racers, in broken Indonesian/English they asked if we were going to put the pictures up on Facebook. Halfway around the world, and some things never change…