Riau Islands

Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
Trip End Jan 28, 2005

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Sunday, August 8, 2004

Fri 30 July - Day 89
We say a fond farewell to the charming, friendly and helpful Soot and Sien Theng of the Cactus Hotel. For an extra 2 pound a night above the the Inn Crowd we received a very warm welcome and a very nice en-suite room, with TV and a kettle (big bonus as we still have M&S tea bags from home). It was worth every penny.

The ferry to Batam is a fast, medium sized ferry. It looks like a mini sea-cat and takes an hour. There are 3214 islands in the Riau Islands archipelago, spread across the South China Sea (many uninhabited and unamed). Batam and Bintan are the largest islands, both have seen rapid development in the last few years, especially Batam which has become the industrial centre for Singapore.

Despite their close links to Singapore, the Riau Islands are definitely Indonesian. We have no problem getting our US$25 each, 30 day visa on entry (if you catch the ferry to Bintan, you must already have your visa). The ferry wad fairly quiet, but the taxi rank at Sekupang (Batam) looks like the starting grid of the Indeonapolis 500, it's mayhem and every driver wants us for hteir co-pilot.

We had been hoping to catch a ferry from Sekupang to Tanjung Pinang (Bintan), but a taxi driver who speaks excellent English, tells us the next ferry isn't for hours and we'd be much quicker driving to Telaga Punggur to catch one of the hourly ferries to Bintan. To trust or not to trust.

After a quick team meeting, which was overlooked by hundreds of taxi drivers, and after checking his price against others, we decide to be driven to Telega Pungur by Irwan. It was an inspired choice.

The drive took an hour and cost 60,000 rupiah (3.80). Irwan, above and beyond the call of duty, also drove us to an ATM and the local out of the way Pelni office (passanger ferry company), who weren't much help. He was friendly and talkative, especially about his daughter, and eight month old twin boys. When we reached the port, he paid a fee to drive down and make sure we had the right ticket at the right price. He was a star and we felt suitably ashamed for not trusting him originally.

The boat to Bintan was a long narrow speed boat. It had a central isle with 2 seats either side, and held about 50 people. It was fast and bounced across to Bintan in 45 minutes.

'Border bandits, pimps and prostitutes ply there trade with scant regard for the law, and the island has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Indonesia. There's no reason to pause longer than it takes to catch a boat out.' - That was the onely Planets glowing reference to Batam, and the main reason we decided to stay on Bintan.

At the wooden pier we are met by hoardes of men offering rooms and lifts. At the end of the pier is the Wisma Gunung Bintan Jaya Hotel (it just rolls of the tongue) which has reasonable double rooms, with en-suite and TV for 124,500 rupiah (6.80) per night. We take it and dump our bags.

A small man who followed us all the way down the pier and into the hotel, is still waiting when we come back down. It's hard to tell his age, somewhere in the 40 -70 range, he's got one of those lived in , worn out leathery faces. He's convinced we will require the use of his taxi at some point during the day, and so follows us into the tourist information office (lack of information) and on to the tiny travel agents, who as luck would have it were Pelni Agents.

We finally get definitive information. The Pelni ferry will leave Kijang (also on Bintan) on Monday morning at 8am, taking 26 hours to reach Jakarta. There are four classes on board:
1. A two berth en-suite cabin 312,500 each
2. A four berth en-suite cabin 285,000 each
3. A six berth-en suite cabin 250,000 each
4. Economy - sleep where you can on the deck 185,000 each.
These aren't tourist ships so unsure of things we book a two berth cabin which costs 19 pounds 50 each.

We take a slow walk through town. Bintan is an hour behind Singapore chronologically, but its infrastructure and standard of living is a century adrift. The contrast is bewildering. Tanjung Pinang reminds me of one of those pioneer gold rush centres, only someones run off with all the gold, leaving a town full of hardened, suspicious, desperate looking men. And as we walk by, we seem to be the number one suspects. This is the first place where we feel uncomfortable and slightly anxious. Still we're only here until Monday. Aagh!

Tanjung Pinang is also our first real culinary desert. The handful of places we could eat at are serving almost exclusively meat dishes (chicken) and are packed with blokes, who really couldn't look any sterner if we had pinched all their gold, and couldn't stare at Rene more if she were completely naked. Even smiling gets a 'what are you smiling at' look.

There is a small bakery, with friendly female staff. Smiling is reciprocated. Potato croquettes with a small green whole chilli through middle, all round. Lovely warm potato, then crunch, BANG as they blow your head off. Rene removes her chilli, while I buy some water. They have a few small snacks, cakes and bread, all of which have a sugary coating.

The hotel, being at the end of the ferry pier, is constantly surrounded by moped taxis, small mitsubishi white van taxis and car taxis. It's chaotic. Next door is a small cafe. We venture down at about 7pm looking for food. We decided, following our daylight venture into town, that we're not oging out in the dark. It may be fine, but we're not going to put it to the test. So armed with pointing fingers and a phrasebook, we commandeer rice, a green leafy vegetable and some curryish sauce. Very nice too, washed down with a large bottle of Tingstao Beer at 80p, was about 3.60 cheaper than it was in Singapore.

The TV in our room has one English speaking channel, it's American, we drift to sleep watching 'Average Joe' or something similar, where a group of ugly men are competing with buffed muscle adonises for a gorgeous girl. Quality nonsense.

Expenses Rupiah 16,500/pound: Accom 124,500, taxi 70,000, Boat Batam to Bintan 38,000, Pelni tickets Bintan to Jakarta 625,000, Bakery 10,000, dinner 20,000, viasa US$50

Sat 31 July - Day 90
A wet and windy day in Tanjung Pinang, which kind of suits it.

Call to prayers at 04.20am had half woken us, and the knock on the door at 06.45 completed the job. We declined the dried noodle and chicken breakfast and went back to bed. We were in no hurry to get up and when we did we managed to find, to our surprise, a small internet cafe. It was packed with 11-15 year old boys playing computer games, the noise was deafening. They had a few computers upstairs, where it was quieter, so we spent a few hours emailing and surfing the big wide interweb for info on Jakarta and beyond.

A different circuit of town, but the same old expressions and stares. This is no tourist hotspot, we haven't seen a single other westerner. It's very wet and we soon head back to our hotel, via the bakery, and spend the rest of the day reading and watching the likes of Dinotopia.

A bottle of Tingstao beer for dinner, the cafe had no rice or curry juice left.

Fell asleep during 'Fear Factor', once Bobby Joe had been eliminated we lost the will to watch.

Expenses: Accom 124,500, phone 21,000, internet 16,000, bakery 10,000, beer 15,000, biscuits 10,000.

Sun 1 August - Day 91
We made sure there was no knock for breakfast this morning, but unfortunately there's nothing we can do about the call to prayers. It sounds like a particularly depressing Morrisey song played at a very slow speed, and no matter where you are, you hear it. It wakes you, then slowly sends you back to sleep.

Once again it's a wet and windy start. It's more like Morecambe than Indonesia. All day men sit out front on their mopeds, hoping to hook a customer. If it rains they put their plastic poncjos on. If ferry passengers break through the moped picket line, they are faced with small, battered, old Mitsubishi van taxis, where bench seats have been fitted in the back. If you make it beyond the vans, you are rewarded with a full range of 1970's toyotas straight off the set of Starsky and Hutch. Like their drivers, life has worn out and beaten up these stock car taxis.

Once the rain stops we find a small supermarket and buy some sandwich food. Thre are a lot more women and children about today, and we feel a little more comfortable walking about. We take a walk round the coast road, it's sunny but windy. About 32C. Rene's a litle concerned that the ferry is 26 hours and it may be rough.

Another lazy day on Bintan. Originally we had planned to explore more of Bintan, but the weather has put paid to moped hire, and it's been kind of nice to be holed up for a couple of days waiting for a boat.

Expenses: Accom 124,500, rice and beer 21,000, supermarket 20,000

Mon August 2 - Day 92
Woken at 3am by a terrific storm. Torrential rain and violent winds make the windows rattle and whistle, by daylight the tiled floor of our room is wet through, the rain having been blown through gaps in the windows, but at least the storm has passed.

Having been told to be at the port at Kijang at 7am, an hour before departure, we booked a taxi through the hotel for 6am. The taxi is outside, but it's broken down, so we have to wait for its replacement. The Mitsubishi van safely drops us off and we get our first look at the Pelni boat. It looks like a Manx boat that's done 5 years service without being painted. In fact it is exactly the same as an older Manx boat, A Lady of Mann.

There are two long metal gangways to walk up. One is for 1st and 2nd class, the other for everyone else. The dock is crowded with people, and half of them seem to be carrying all their worldly goods on to the ship, via the economy gangway.

The officers are all dresed in white uniforms, but this is definitely not the loveboat. Fully loaded, the KM KERINCI sets sail for Jakarta at 9am, leaving in her wake Bintan, an island where survival, for the vast majority, is the mail occupation.

At 11am a steward knocks on our door and gesticulates that lunch is served. Rice, fish bits and veg and some conversation with Jeff and Barb, who are Australians, teaching at an International School near Jakarta.

An afternoon of reading and sleeping (Rene) is followed by another knock at 5pm for a very ealry dinner. Fish head, rice and vegetable, and a slice of melon. There's more fish on a fishmongers pencil, but fish heads are extremely popular in this part of the world.

An evening chatting with Jeff, Barb and Angus, another International School teacher, passed quickly.

The complete darkness of the cabin and the motion of the ship had us asleep in moments.

Expenses: taxi 70,000, biscuits 6,000.
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