By Indika Sakalasooriya
We were honoured and at the same time surprised to hear from a top Indonesian tourism official that we were the first official delegation of any kind—media or otherwise—to visit an island belonging to Indonesian archipelago of Riau Islands under the newly introduced visa-free arrangement offered by the Indonesian government to over 100 countries, including Sri Lanka.
Needless to say this made us—nine journalists from Sri Lanka’s leading newspapers and a TV station—feel special and privileged. The beautiful island we were in was called Bintan, which the people in the travel industry refer to as the Southeast Asia’s best-kept secret!
Bintan Lagoon Resort
To be frank, none of us in our team had heard about Bintan until an invitation came our way from SriLankan Airlines and Indonesian Tourism Ministry for a familiarization tour! Interestingly, Indonesia expects to position Bintan in parallel with its other tourism hot-spot, Bali—though tourism product Bintan offers differsdistinctively from Bali.
Worshippers at Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya
Dolous Phos, the ship hotel
SriLankan’s plans for Bintan and Batam
So, now you know where to go on your next overseas holiday! And SriLankan, the national carrier, is ready to take you there.
SriLankan flies three flights daily to Singapore and is now gearing to come up with a tourist package with SriLankan Holidays for Bintan and Batam.
They feel that Bintan and Batam being just a one-hour ferry journey from Singapore and the visa-free entry Indonesia has granted for Sri Lankans would make the two islands a hit among the Lankan travellers.
To add to the desirability, the hotel rates in Bintan and Batam remain relatively cheap if one compares the rates with Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand.
Singapore is a popular holiday destination for middle-class Sri Lankans and Bintan and Batam would be nice addition to that, SriLankan believes.
Bintan was just one-hour ferry journey from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. It is the largest of the Riau Islands belonging to Indonesia in the South China Sea.
Indonesian and Singaporean governments have been having plans to make Bintan—a tad bit smaller in terms of size to Sri Lanka— one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the Asian region since 1990s.
But very prudently, both governments left the task of developing and maintaining the tourism infrastructure in the island totally in the hands of a private company—PT Bintan Resorts Cakrawala—a subsidiary of Singapore stock exchange listed Gallant Venture Ltd.
Today PT Bintan Resorts Cakrawala operates about ¼ of Bintan by way of a gated community, a land area completely designated for tourism. The company is responsible for laying down and maintaining the basic infrastructure required for the tourism industry such as electricity, water and a road network to lure in top hospitality operators in the world to set up resorts in Bintan.
According to a top Bintan Resorts official, 15 resorts currently operate within their gated community and about 10 more will be open for business by 2020.
We, as Sri Lankans, after seeing so many blunders made by successive governments in their attempts to develop certain areas of the country—such as Kalpitiya—into tourism hotspots, felt that what the Indonesian government had done in trusting the private sector to deliver was massively progressive and extremely financially prudent.
On the contrary, Sri Lanka’s attempt in creating a designated tourism zone in Kalpitiya utterly failed as the then government tried to do everything on its own, crowding out the private sector, for reasons best known to the them.
Bintan Lagoon Resort
As we reached the ferry terminal operated by Bintan Resorts in Bintan, it took a while for us to go through the immigration, as the video recording gear carried by our TV crew caught the attention of the immigration officials. But we reached our coach parked just outside the ferry terminal without any incident. The coach was there to take us to Bintan Lagoon Resort, the largest and probably the most sought-after resort in Bintan.
As the road cut through a luscious green terrain, our guide, who accompanied us from Singapore, told us that Bintan Resorts planned to preserve at least 70 percent of the forest cover of its gated community, despite the new resort developments that were already underway.
Inside the ferry from Singapore to Bintan
As soon as we entered the area belonging to Bintan Lagoon Resort, the surroundings reminded me of the island in the movie Jurassic Park, where you get the feel that the place is literally untouched. But instead of the majestic dinosaurs, as we entered, what we saw were massive golf courses, in the background of an idyllic setting.
In fact, the property boasts of a couple of 18-hole amazing golf courses, under the names golfing legends Jack Nicklaus and Ian Baker-Finch.
Pool or mini-lake?
Our guide told us that we were to visit a swimming pool the next day we arrived at Bintan Lagoon Resort. As we wondered why bother about a swimming pool, which we get enough in Sri Lanka, it was only after seeing the swimming pool at Treasure Bay Bintan, we realized why it was in our itinerary.
Treasure Bay Bintan boasts of a swimming pool of a length in one kilometre, where even you can take a boat ride. That was exactly what we did on an electrically operated boat just to get an idea of the size of the water body. Several resort hotels are set to be built, centring the pool, a telling sign that Treasure Bay Bintan will be one of the most sought-after family-oriented resorts in the entire Asian region.
Seafood with a twist
After our excursion to the Treasure Bay Bintan, the organisers of our familiarization trip told us we were heading to a restaurant to eat some seafood for lunch. Again, we weren’t really excited, after all its seafood! Though we were somewhat careful, as so far Bintan hadn’t failed to pleasantly surprise us.
After a van ride of about 45 minutes, which took us beyond the gated community of Bintan Resorts, we reached a restaurant, which was built on wooden poles in water. As in many Chinese restaurants where you can select the fish you want on your table, this restaurant also gives you that option, but with a twist as the fish were not kept in artificial tanks, as is the case with a lot of Chinese restaurants, but in the water under the restaurant. Obviously the fish, which happened to be garoupas, were caged, but at least their cages were bigger enough for them to swim free before ending up on someone’s plate.
But to confess, more than the garoupa, we devoured chilli chicken the restaurant served—of course very different to the type of chilli chicken we get in Sri Lanka! Had it anything to do with seeing the garoupa alive before it was cooked for us? I doubt it!
MV Doulos Phos—the ship hotel
Probably the highlight for us in Bintan was visiting MV Doulos Phos, a US ocean liner, which was built in 1914, that has found a permanent residence on a piece of dry land close to the Bintan ferry terminal. The ship is currently being transformed into a 100-room hotel.
We were told that a Singaporean businessman saved the ship before it went to scrapyard at a cost of US $ 2 million.
It was a shame that we were not allowed to go inside or even near the Doulos as extensive construction work was ongoing.
But we had no doubt that Doulos Phos The Hotel, as it was christened earlier this year, was destined to become an icon in Bintan and tourist puller.
The following day we checked out from Bintan Lagoon Resort and bid goodbye to our amazing hosts. Though we could have taken a ferry from the Bintan ferry terminal to Batam, our next destination, the organisers appeared to have other plans. As to get a real feel about Bintan, outside the gated resort area, we embarked on a two-hour drive to Tanjung Pinang, the capital of Bintan. As we ventured outside the territory of Bintan Resorts, we really felt that we were travelling in the countryside of Sri Lanka. The clime, landscape, trees all looked so similar to Sri Lanka and even the architecture of the houses of Bintan residents resembled more of less Lankan rural houses.
We were told that despite it being little smaller to Sri Lanka, only 300,000 people inhabited Bintan. But we were wondering where all the people had gone as we found stretch after stretch of almost untouched land. But as we reached Tanjung Pinang, we saw where at least 2/3 of the population that we were told about were living.
The dancing act at Harris Hotel
Batam—a mini hotspot
A one-hour ferry ride from Tanjung Pinang took us to Batam, another island in the Riau archipelago. As we entered the island from the Batam ferry terminal, we sensed that Batam was no Bintan. First there were more people and second there was traffic on the road! In Bintan, the only traffic was a nonchalant iguana crossing the road!
It was raining heavily as we hit the road to reach our accommodation for that night, Harris Resort Hotel. But before that, we were told that we would be visiting a Mahayana Buddhist temple in the heart of Batam.
It was amazing to see that despite all the craziness in the world, Indonesia, where the largest Muslim population in the world live, still remains an open place for other religions and faiths. In fact, in Indonesia, Buddhism is recognised as one of the six official religions along with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Confucianism.
The Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya Temple in Batam is a large temple complex where almost every corner you find statues of Lord Buddha Maithree. Indonesian Buddhists of Chinese origin frequent the temple and is a major place of worship for them.
Batam is the industrial and manufacturing hub of Riau Islands. It has factories that engage in making electronics to shipbuilding and a sizable expatriate community. As a result, Batam has a couple of big shopping malls, a vibrant nightlife and a happening set of clubs and pubs in its Nagoya Business District, commonly known as NBD.
A dancing end
It was time for us to leave Batam the following day and the breakfast for us was arranged in another Harris hotel near the Batam ferry terminal.
As we thought it would be an uneventful and quiet morning, we were again proved wrong. Suddenly, the chefs, waiters and waitresses preparing and attending the diners started to perform a dancing act—a flash mob I would say— to the much delight of the diners. Specially the kids who were taking their breakfast with their parents were seen enjoying the act thoroughly and some even joining the dance!
This aptly marked an end to our journey to the two pristine islands of Bintan and Batam, as we awaited our ferry to Singapore and then
the SriLankan flight to Colombo from Changi.
The parting question that was thrown to our media team by the Indonesia tourism officials was ‘would you visit Bintan and Batam again’ and yes, you guessed it right! The overwhelming response was a massive YES!