Shannon had a day off from school at the end of February so we decided to make it a three day weekend and explore a destination a little closer to home than usual. Since Shannon's birthday is at the end of February, her present was a trip for herself and her friend Dominique for the long weekend. There was perhaps an ulterior motive, since if Shannon had a friend along on a trip that would mean that Sandy and I were mostly free for the weekend as well. We decided to go to Bintan in the Riau Islands in Indonesia.
Bintan is the largest of the Riau Islands, the group of islands that is just south of Singapore across the Straits of Malacca. It is only about 25 miles southeast of Singapore. There is a special arrangement that Singapore has with Indonesia for Bintan. An area on the north side of the island is specifically set aside as a resort area. There are special incentives for investment which has brought a number of international hotels and resorts. Although it is still part of Indonesia, it is actually fenced off from the rest of the island and residents need a pass to enter the resort area. It's kind of a "Singapore colony". Singapore dollars are accepted - you actually have to get them to convert if you want to use Indonesian currency. The electrical outlets are for Singapore plugs, not Indonesian. It's a piece of Singapore in Indonesia. There are beautiful beaches and resorts. A great place to go for privacy and a quiet beach vacation. Not a good place to go to experience Indonesia. But we thought a luxurious beach resort for a long weekend didn't sound so bad.
It's easy to get to Bintan from Singapore. There are several ferries a day that leave from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, which is on the eastern tip of Singapore near the airport. The ferries are fast, stable, double-hull style boats that take about 50 minutes for the trip. The cost was about $50 S round trip. Visas for Indonesia are available on arrival at the immigration checkpoint. It looked like a pretty easy trip. We did some research and talked to friends here in Singapore and we settled on the Banyan Tree Resort. This was the most expensive resort on Bintan but looked really nice. We booked two bungalows that were set on the hillside overlooking the ocean. The resort also featured a spa that all three ladies were really looking forward to.
We left on a Thursday evening. Sandy and I took a taxi to the ferry terminal and met Shannon and her friend Dominique, who came right from school. The ferry terminal was nice and quite efficient. You could even check your bags but for a three day weekend we all managed with carryons. After checking in we went through passport control for leaving Singapore. I noticed something unusual when we did - the immigration people were all wearing bullet proof vests. Kind of weird - I had never seen that before. Later we learned that the evening before a convicted terrorist from Indonesia had escaped from a high security prison in Singapore. Quite an embarrassment for the government here. Anyway everyone expected him to try to get away to Indonesia (he had been captured on Bintan several years ago) so everything was at a high level of alert. Nothing came of it - it is several weeks later and there has still been no sign of the guy. But it did make the trip a little more exciting.
The ferry ride over was straightforward and exactly 50 minutes as promised. There was a big screen tv in the front of the boat that I would have found annoying if I was trying to read. But there was some wave motion - not bad - but enough to keep me from reading. Pretty soon we were pulling into the ferry terminal on Bintan.
We had an interesting experience when we arrived. As we were walking into the terminal, an Indonesian immigration officer approached us and pulled us to the side. He asked how many were in our group and said that he could expedite our visas. We knew that the fee for the visas was $10 US so we had some US currency with us. But he said we could pay in Singapore dollars. "Let's see. $10 US is $18 Singapore. Times four is $74 Singapore." At least that is what he said. Well, that's not quite right. Aside from the obvious error in multiplication, $10 US is only $15 Singapore. So the visas should have been $60 Singapore, not $74. No wonder he was so eager to help. He thought he could make a fast $10 US. But instead we said that we would be happy to pay in US dollars and had exactly $40. He looked disappointed, but took care of the paperwork for us. Pretty soon we were through immigration. We went to the Banyan Tree Resort counter and they arranged for two cars to take us to the resort. The ride was less than ten minutes.
The Banyan Tree Resort was really nice. Instead of a check in desk they had a lounge area with comfortable couches, soothing music and incense and flowers. We even got a drink of sweet ginger-tea. Normally I am not much of a tea drinker, but this was good. While you sat and relaxed a person from the resort took you though the check in process. Soon we were ready, we hopped on a golf cart, and were driven to our two villas. The villas were really nice, with a patio looking over the ocean. Each patio had its own hot tub (although in the tropics a hot tub loses some of its allure). The bedrooms were nice and there was a mosquito net over the bed just in case a bug got into the room. The bathroom was cool with a huge glass window in the shower. That sounds weird but since the villas were on a steep hillside overlooking the ocean, you would have had to be a quarter of a mile out to sea to see into the bathrooms. So when you took a shower you had a great view.
We had two full days at the resort to just kick back. On Friday Sandy had a massage and a bunch of spa treatments, so I had some time to explore on my own. I walked down to the beach and over to the next resort. I explored a rocky area where they offer a special dinner arrangement right down on the rocks next to the ocean. The place was expensive enough though- I didn't even want to know how much the dinner on the rocks was. The most interesting thing was how much work they went through to run a cable through a slot cut about 50 feet through solid rock to reach the platform for the table.
There was a beautiful beach right next to the resort. Sandy and I took walks on it a couple of times. Shannon and Dominique spent an afternoon in the surf playing around with bogie boards and trying body surfing. I went in just enough to count for a swim in the South China Sea. And there were very few people.
The resort had three restaraunts. The fancy one was an Asian restaraunt and the only one with a dress code. We passed on that. But another one served standard Western cuisine - I had a good steak there the first night. And their other restaurant was an Italian place with pretty good pasta and pretty good pizza. And it was great for lunch with a patio looking out over the water. The breakfast buffet was excellent with lots of choices and even French Champaigne. Quite decadent.
The weather was passable, but not really great. The whole time we were there it was overcast and we had a few rain showers. On the other hand it was a little cooler than normal so it was never too hot. Such is visiting during the monsoon. Even with the overcast, the coastline was beautiful. A sweeping beach, dense jungle, a rocky shoreline pounded by big waves. Off in the distance there was a constant line of ships visible heading in and of Singapore. In the far distance we could see the Malay peninsula and one evening just at sunset the clouds were backlit and we could see the skyscapers of the Singapore silhoutted against the sky. Beautiful.
The fauna of Bintan was interesting too. One afternoon when we were at one of the pools a monitor lizard came walking through. Looking it up afterward, I think it was a water monitor. It is related to the Komodo Dragon, which is the largest land dwelling lizard. This guy was about four feet long and just took his time meandering through the pool area before he disappeared into the rocks. A beautiful animal - made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park.
But we had an even more interesting encounter than that. It started with a mystery. Our first night at the resort, while we were reading in our room before going to bed, we could hear an occasional noise outside, like something landing on the patio. In the morning when we went outside there was quite a bit of debris on the patio. There were a number of nut-like fruits laying about - that was obviously the noise we heard. These hard nuts - a little bigger than the an acorn and quite hard, had made a noise when they hit the wooden patio. And all over the patio was a bunch of debris - it looked like an animal had shredded or peeled the nuts and the remains were all over the floor. Kind of like those country and western bars where you throw the peanut shells on the floor. Now the mystery was that there was a roof over the patio. It was open on all the sides, but there was a thatched roof that completely covered the patio. That first morning I must have spent fifteen minutes looking around and I was completely mystified. I could see that maybe some animal had tossed the nuts onto the patio (although why was beyond me) but how all the debris got there was a total mystery. I had to admit to being completely stumped.
Well the next morning we were up and getting ready for breakfast when we heard a loud clunk outside - obviously a nut had just landed on our patio. So I went outside to see what was going on. Sure enough, the patio was covered with nuts and debris again. So I looked up at the roof to try to see if there was any kind of gap where the nuts could be dropped. I didn't see any. But looking into the shadows carefull I did see something. There was a bat hanging there! So that was the explanation. Bats would get a nut off of one of the trees and carry it with them. They would grab the underside of our thatched roof and hang upside down and take their time peeling and munching on the nuts. So everything fell onto the patio. It didn't matter that there was a roof over it - the bats were on the underside of the roof.
I didn't say anything to Sandy, but a little later she noticed the bat up there herself. From that point on we spent very little time out on our patio. In fact Sandy had me open and unlock the door so that she could zoom in and out of our room with minimum time spent on the patio. Personally I wasn't very worried about the bats - they zoomed in and out so fast that you could barely see them. But Sandy zoomed in and out of the room almost as fast as the bats. She especially liked it the one evening we came back from dinner and the bats were having a party. Our one local bat had apparently invited his friends and there were six or eight of them up in roof. But we only saw that many once. I actually thought it was cool to be able to see the bats up close when they were just hanging there. Ususally they find very hidden spots to hang during the day. Sandy didn't seem to share my fascination with the bats.
Overall I was plesantly surprised by Bintan. I have been to Sentosa Island on Singapore where the beaches are clearly artificial, way too crowded and looking out over a parking lot of ships lined up to get into the harbor. Bintan was very pretty and much more natural. Ok - so it is artificial in that it is not the *real* Indonesia, but having peace and quiet and privacy isn't such a bad thing either. I liked it.
There was also a nice shop at the resort. We were able to get some cool Indonesian craft items to bring home. On Sunday when we left we got to the ferry terminal early so we could check out the shops there. We found some really nice things there too. I got a Bintan Resorts tshirt and baseball cap. So in my opinion the trip was a complete success.