Monday, September 16, 2013

Weekend on Bintan Island

This weekend I took a weekend trip to Bintan Island with a few friends. Bintan, an Indonesian island, is only a 55-minute ferry ride from Singapore's east coast and is a popular destination for Singaporeans. Resorts owned by Singaporean companies dot the north part of the island, which is populated by tourists, whereas locals tend to live in the southern end. 

We first ate lunch at Cafe Idol in the Pasar Oleh Oleh market, a "traditional" village-type shopping area that clearly caters to foreigners. Shops there sold colorful clothing, keychains and knick-knacks. A tour guide drove us to the market from the ferry terminal, free of charge, as long as we spent $50 at lunch. I was a bit skeptical but the meal turned out to be delicious.    

We tried gado-gado, an Indonesian cold salad dish that consists of hardboiled egg, spinach, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a rich peanut dip. We also ordered rice, stir-fried vegetables, and a mixed platter with different types of grilled and stewed meat. 

Unfortunately, when we arrived at our stay, the Bintan Lagoon Resort, the skies opened up and rain fell heavily for the next few hours. In Southeast Asia rain falls so intensely, in heavy sheets of water. 

In the afternoon, the sky cleared up and we were able to explore the outdoor areas of the resort, including a fantastic swimming pool and beyond that, the South China Sea. The area is quite pristine and the resort kept the landscape nicely manicured. 

For dinner we ate a la carte at the in-house restaurant called Kopi-O. We each ordered what the menu described as traditional Indonesian food, and I chose chicken and beef skewers, again with a nice nutty dip.

The next day we decided to get out of the nice but touristy resorts area and head to the south of the island. The tour operators seemed surprised to hear that we wanted to venture south, towards the city of Tanjung Pinang and the temples in that area. The trip took 1.5 hours each way along small winding roads, in torrential rainfall. We hired a driver for the day to take us around for $110 SGD.

Once we reached Tanjing Pinang, the largest city in Bintan, we wanted to go the Sengerrang Island with the famous Banyan Tree Temple. In order to reach the island we chartered a small motor boat to take us across the water. At first the waters were so choppy that the driver warned us not to go to the island, but after awhile the weather calmed. This photo below is of the driver with us in the boat.

The island is a village on stilts. It is a mostly residential area, with houses built upon decks above the water. Our driver told us that most of the residents who live in Sengerrang commute to work across the water in the city Tanjung Pinang and own businesses. 

The Banyan Tree Temple is located amongst these homes. Old trees have intertwined and grown around the entire structure, which was created purely from stones and sand. 

The village was so peaceful and homely, with no other tourists in sight. People went about their day, hanging out in coffee shops, running errands, and kids kicked around a ball in the rain. 

We stepped into one local coffee shop to get out of the rain, which by that time had slowed to a light drizzle. A group of men had gathered in there to relax and watch TV. We ordered hot glasses of Indonesian tea that came with large sugar granules clustered at the bottom. We stirred up the sugar with the spoon. The slightly sweetened tea was soothing on the cold and rainy day.

Before we left for Singapore we really wanted to try fresh seafood. Our driver took us out to this restaurant called Ciu Yong Seafood, located out in the middle of the countryside at the end of a long and winding road. The restaurant is out upon a deck in on a large lake. 

The seafood is freshly caught from these large nets beside the restaurant, and you can actually go and choose the fish or lobster that you want to eat. For some people this may be a bit too close for comfort, but at least you can see that your food is local and fresh! 

We ordered several dishes, including this delicious stir-fried prawns with salty duck egg...

...and steamed grouper. All the dishes were fresh, and seasoned perfectly. 

The beautiful view from our table created the perfect end to a relaxing trip. From this trip to Bintan I realized that there are things I miss, from living in Singapore - pure darkness at night, for example, undisrupted by street lights, and wide open skies with stars, and the still quiet of nature. 

The water may be dirtier, the roads bumpier, the waiters slower, the buildings more haphazardly situated, but there is something almost comforting about life here - disorganized yet organic and beautiful.