This weekend was spent in Indonesia, a short one-hour ferry ride from Singapore. Palau Bintan is the largest of the Riau Islands that sit just south across the Singapore Straight, almost directly on the equator. Bintan and its neighbour island, Batam, serve largely as holiday get-away destinations for tired Singaporeans and Expats alike, but there’s also some local life in the remaining small villages around the islands. Other than tourism, the main industry is fishing, and they’re definitely not lying when they say it’s the best place for seafood in the area.
I arrived on the 11:10 ferry, getting into Bintam just after noon. Indonesia recently changed its entry requirements for Canadians from a $15-Seven day tourist visa to free entry, so customs was uneventful.
I was met on the other side of customs by a man holding a sign with the name of my hotel. There were ten of us in total coming over on the same ferry, and we all piled in to a large van for the one-hour drive across the island to our final destination.
As I climbed into the van, I was welcomed by a surprising but familiar sound: the Call to Prayer. I booked this trip so last minute that I didn’t spend very much time thinking about where I was going. I completely forgot that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, particularly farther to the north where I was visiting. The radio station was entirely in Arabic, and after the call to prayer ended two men burst into conversation. With my limited Arabic I can mainly just recognize sounds and letters, but I did recognize some numbers as well as the word “Ucht”, the Arabic word for sister.
The drive across the island was beautiful. The road was in pretty good condition, and on either side was incredible lush jungle that looked straight out of the Jungle Book. They changed the radio station to classical music, I assume for our benefit, although I would have much preferred to continue picking out familiar Arabic words for the rest of the drive.
The contrast in development between Singapore and Indonesia was immediately apparent as we drove through a few villages along the way. It’s amazing how much can change from crossing a small channel of water. The villages on Bintan were extremely run-down, and most looked like they didn’t have power. Most of the roads that ran off the main road were unpaved, made of bright red dirt, and looked well-used. Like Vietnam, there was an abundance of motorbikes, but the ones here were used for traversing the island rather than navigating the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City. There was also a number of stray dogs along the sides of the road, as well as some of the biggest roosters and chickens I’ve ever seen.
We went by a rural school tucked away on the side of the road, which is something I’m always really interested to see. I remember in Oman visiting the mountain-top village of Wakan where I got to see school girls being driven up and down the mountain in government-sponsored 4WD vehicles. Here, the girls all wore matching white head scarves and navy blue skirts; the boys had matching coloured button-up tops and pants.
We also passed what the driver confirmed was a wedding celebration on the side of the road under a giant colourful tent. I got a glimse of some of the guests, who were all dressed in beautiful colourful outfits. Someone in the van added that it’s quite typical to see this kind of celebration on the side of the road, but I have very little concept of his authority on the matter.
A few minutes before we reached our destination, the thunderstorm that had been threatening for the entire drive finally gave way, and some of the most intense rain I’ve ever experienced came thundering down on us, accompanied by some pretty spectacular lightning. Luckily, this is the kind of place that can be beautiful in the rain.