The Riau Islands – Ugly Realities
I knew it didn’t have the best of reputations. Even the taxi driver taking me to Singapore’s Tanah Merah ferry terminal said it was a region renowned for “wine, women and song”. I’d even heard that they were a haven for piracy. And the Riau Islands, which are a part of Indonesia but only a short boat ride from Singapore, certainly come across as a rough edged, oddly uncivilised frontier, with a seeming touch of lawlessness. This is despite the fact that Batam Island is an industrial free port, and home to an increasing number of overseas industries and corporations.
None of this is to say that the islands are completely devoid of beauty and interest. Trikora Beach on the east coast of Bintan Island is said to be very beautiful. And Pulau Penyengat, off the coast of Bintan’s main town of Tanjung Pinang, is rich in history. However, a combination of Tanjung Pinang’s seedy atmosphere and bad weather destroyed any enthusiasm I had for visiting these locations.
A bus ride from Tanjung Pinang to Tanjung Uban did little to dispel my distaste for the place. The road passes behind a string of up market resorts that dot Bintan’s north coast. These generally serve as a playground for Singapore’s weekend holidaymakers. One senses that there is considerable resentment of the resorts by the local population, because the boundary fences are marked by ominous warning signs, threatening harsh action against anyone protesting their existence.
The general feeling of discomfort was reinforced on arrival by boat at Telaga Punggur, on Batam’s southeast coast. I was surrounded by three police officers dressed in menacing paramilitary gear wanting to see my passport. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, I was then immediately confronted by a horde of aggressive, aggrieved and spiteful taxi drivers. I took a miserable taxi ride through the drab, unremarkable Batam countryside to the northern ferry terminal of Nongsa, where I decided to take a ferry back to Singapore. It was a deep relief to get back. Compared to the Riau Islands, even sterile and soulless Singapore comes across as friendly and inviting….
The Riau Islands attract migrants from all over Indonesia hoping to secure employment, or to cash in by whatever means on their rapid development. This is perhaps a major contributing cause of the region’s ‘Wild West’ atmosphere. Those who are only visiting Riau’s resorts will be isolated from this, and will largely remain ignorant of the islands’ uglier realities. Overall however, there is not much reason for going to the Riau Islands, unless you really, really want to see Trikora Beach. Even then, there are surely many other nice beaches in much more welcoming environments….