Archive for the ‘Telunas Beach Resort’ Category

Letter from Indonesia: Batam and beyond

April 14, 2011

Batam, Jumat (Friday), Sabtu (Saturday), Senin (Monday)

Jumat

I imagine you will have never heard of Batam. You can look at it on Google Earth, if you are curious, or even open an old-fashioned book atlas. You will find it dangling underneath Singapore, just next to another island called Bintan and surrounded by many smaller islands and islets. Put them all together (minus Singapore) and you have the Kepulauan Riau, the Riau Islands, draggling along the northeastern coast of Sumatra.

Your correspondent has jagged another junket, this time to Batam and beyond, courtesy of a contact in the hospitality industry who has been hypnotised by this monkey’s claim that Biro Berita Monyet Putih is a ‘global media corporation’. Be that as it may, ever eager to go the extra kilometre to gather news from distant parts of Tanah Air at little or no expense, the Board of BBMP swiftly assigned Hanoman Nol Satu the task of idling through a long weekend on a tropical island.

Sriwijaya Air Jakarta–Batam return costs a reasonable Rp 800,000 (± USD 80) and takes one hour and twenty minutes. Naturally, we are late leaving, but not so late as to bother staff with making an announcement to that effect. We just wait. Patiently.

In the interim I had cause to reflect on why it seems a point of honour amongst airport food-sellers to never produce anything edible. It would seem to me a great business opportunity to offer good, simple and tasty food at, of course, extortionate prices. No one else gets close, apart from the extortionate prices. Even the soto ayam or chicken soup I had at the cafe before I went to the departure room was unremarkable. It’s hard to make a soto ayam unremarkable but these people managed it. I suppose that makes it remarkable. But I digress.

I was also able to reflect on how these sorts of air routes seem to attract lots of villagers. From Batam, the plane goes on to Medan, Indonesia’s second largest city and the transport hub of northern Sumatra, from which all can scatter to their villages near and far. It is possibly a universal fact that villagers know not the art of queuing—it is not highly developed in Indonesia generally—preferring instead the traditional milling and elbowing and sliding to the front while trying to look invisible. I felt obliged to explain to a chap in a camel-coloured, shiny safari suit who was creeping quietly past me that this was a queue and it started behind me, not behind the guy at the check-in counter, who I was behind. He found this startlingly amusing, guffawed, and looked about wildly, paused, read the sign above the counter, cheerfully declared it was the wrong airline and strode off, clutching his cardboard box tied neatly with blue string.

Anyway, about 45 minutes after the allotted hour, we finally all milled onto the plane, with the villagers with seat numbers in the back of the plane entering from the front and pushing relentlessly onward, wielding their cardboard boxes to great effect. Stranded, standing in a seat but a few tantalising rows from my designated spot, I could but wait as the tide surged past, warding off the cardboard boxes and large backpacks thrown about with gay abandon. Ah, the joys of air travel for the young at heart! As it happened, the flight was uneventful; I enjoyed my sweet bun and cup of water; I dozed; no villager attempted to invade my seat.

Banking to land on Batam, great yellow-red gashes of bare earth appeared in the dense green blanket of forest that covered much of the island. Batam Ampar, the main settlement, sprawled out from the slow, green sea around and over low, standalone hills, with more gashes of earth, rows of new housing developments, factory suburbs, cranes everywhere and long, straight highways carrying but a few vehicles. We were landing (flawlessly; congratulations to the pilot) in a boom town.

Batam enjoys special area status, with lots of breaks for foreign companies, who have set up shipbuilding and oil and gas support industries. Half an hour or so by fast ferry from Singapore, one of the world’s biggest ports, positions Batam to exploit its geography and cheap labour force. One of the latter met me at the airport (which was shiny and new-ish, in much better condition than Ngurah Rai airport in Bali): Ms Renny A.K., sales and marketing manager for Goodies of Smiling Hill, my junket hostess.

Ms R, as she will be known herein, is originally from Jakarta, had been here seven months and thoroughly enjoyed distributing bonhomie to all and sundry, so she was in the perfect job. Forty or so minutes later we had crossed the island from one side to the other, driven through Batam Ampar and reached our first destination, the aforementioned Goodies.

Goodies is perched on a (presumably smiling) side of a hill down the slopes of which cascade decaying villas, the legacy of a failed Singaporean investor. Several of the villas have been renovated by the owner of Goodies and are long-term rentals. At the end of the walled estate, Goodies proper begins: a couple of swimming pools surrounded by a small, open-air and pleasant bar and restaurant. The pools were full of local kids when we arrived, who greeted this white monkey with plenty of cheerful ‘hello misters’, the paean of Indonesian citizenry across the archipelago when confronted with the sight of a bule passing by. I believe the cry is taught in schools. I have been offered no other explanation for its ubiquity.

The pleasant surrounds of Goodies at Smiling Hill

We immediately set about a late lunch from the menu of Australian and Indonesian dishes and, seeing that it was by now 4:30pm, had our first free beer. It’s a very happy hour (free beer) from 4:30 to 6pm on Fridays and the place was soon cheerfully crowded. I was introduced to numerous people, all Aussies working for, or running, companies associated with the two major industries. Most were male, some were female, some were married with kids, some were single. A fairly typical crowd of solid, down-to-earth citizens as one would encounter at any suburban barbeque almost anywhere in Negara Kanguru of a Friday evening.

Some of the clientele on a Friday night

Goodies is the brainchild of Mr Douglas Cole, 69, a citizen of Australia and resident of Batam now for several years. A refugee from the journalism, printing and real estate industries of the Great South Land, Doug had decided that it would be more fun to run a bar and accommodation in Batam than retire to Queensland. The assembled crowd were implicitly grateful that he had made the choice. Mr Douglas, as he is called by Ms R, took a shine to this bedraggled and poor imitation of a representative of the Fourth Estate and continued the free beer whilst chatting amicably about the state of the world, Batam and Goodies of Smiling Hill.

The good Mr Douglas of Goodies of Smiling Hill, smiling, as his is wont

I can report, if I remember rightly, that Mr Douglas is doing well and has plans for doing even better. There is great demand for accommodation in this boomtown and Mr Douglas has what is wanted, but not enough of it to satisfy the demand. If this little white monkey was given more bananas by the Board, he would be passing them to PT Smiling Hill Investments.

One of the bungalows

A typical comfy room at Goodies

As it was, Mr Douglas and Mr Hanoman ended up moving from one side of the pool to the other, where a farewell party was taking place for one of the Aussie blokes. The party was a mix of Aussies and Indonesians. Some dancing broke out, apparently led by your correspondent in response to the urgings of Ms R and the live band at the other end of the pool playing something Latin-ish. After wowing the crowd and bidding Mr Douglas good night, I was led away by Ms R and several of the party into town to another bar, for more dancing and, this time, cocktails.

I recall the entertainment area of Batam Ampar at around midnight being somewhat reminiscent of Blok M in Jakarta, with wide streets, lots of motorcycles parked around the place, numerous bars with bright lights, lots of guys sitting around looking bored and somewhat suspicious, lots of girls in high heels and the usual variety of costumes and bands of punters, mostly Indonesian but some bule, darting back and forth from one place to the next. After further impressive footwork and several cocktails, we returned to Goodies somehow or other and I retired to the pleasant room provided for me and slept the sleep of the just.

Sabtu

The next day, not too early—thank the gods and Ms R’s clever planning— after a hearty Aussie breakfast of bacon, sausages, eggs, tomatoes, toast, baked beans and litres of coffee, Ms R and I set off on the next leg of the junket. However, it was not without regret that I left Goodies. It was friendly to the maximum. You can take it from me that if you are planning a visit to Singapore, rather than waste your time in shopping malls and be arrested for chewing gum or jaywalking, I recommend you take the ferry across to Batam and pop into Goodies for a refreshing, fun time. Check out the details at www.smilinghillbatam.com or www.facebook.com/home.php#!/goodiesrestaurant.

At around 10:30am, Ms R and I, somewhat subdued, were driven back across the island to the port of Sekupang. The international ferry terminal, which looks brand new, is right next to the inter-island terminal, which does not have much to look new, or old, about, since it is a jetty with a floating wharf on the end.

The inter-island terminal

The local ferries are elegant, long, slim, wooden boats with outboards and a tarpaulin roof with roll-down sides in the event of rain. Parked around the place are many of these vessels, as well as larger cargo boats and the like.

Ferries at sekupang

We are met by Esa, a young chap who works at our destination: Telunas Beach Resort on Sugi Island. He’s a stout, calm, solid, young fellow. We chat away in Indonesian until I say something in English, to which he replies in impeccable, American-accented English. It turns out he’s Indonesian, the family’s from Manado in Sulawesi, not that he’s ever been there, and he grew up in Qatar, where his parents work in the oil and gas business. He studied hotel management in Switzerland and has come back ‘home’ to pick up some work experience. He chose an interesting place to get it.

We clamber onto the boat, which isn’t a public ferry but belongs to the resort, and off we go. It’s a typically beautiful day with a temperature of about 32 C, blue skies and the occasional puff of a zephyr. We motor out from the port past small islands harbouring ocean-going tugs with ‘rescue zone’ painted on their sides; floating drydocks loaded up with cargo ships being overhauled while others wait nearby in rust patches and peeling paint; something that might have been an oil rig, or perhaps not, with a pylon on each of its four corners, cranes in the middle and a helipad perched to one side; enormous barges with smaller ‘spacer’ barges nestling up against them; and a huge array of other vessels, equipment and workers.

The flotsam-spotter

Tiny part of the shipping industry

The bow of a tug

The three outboards make a hell of a racket and Ms R, tied up tight in her life jacket, announces over the top of the roaring that she is prone to motion sickness and she cannot swim. I pray for a calm sea.

There is little chance of anything but a calm sea, it turns out; we are skating on a sea of glass between clumps of green. I remember mentioning to Mr Douglas back at Goodies that the intricate sprinkling of islands that I viewed from the plane seemed utterly beautiful and was surely a yachtie’s paradise.

‘We’re on the equator,’ he replied. ‘No wind.’

So it’s like the Florida keys without sails. Or luxury motorboats parked for most of the year at packed marinas. The islands, which are mostly low but with the occasional hill, seem uninhabited except for the odd fisher’s house on stilts or signs of a landing place, perhaps for access to particular stuff inside the forest. Said forest, which is of a relatively low and uniform height, appears impenetrable, however, and making a path would take a lot of hacking and sweating. Nearly all of the islands we pass are protected by rings of mangroves, which, in one dramatic case, stretch from one island to another, completing blocking any passage. We wind through green, waterways between greener islands for an hour and a half, hardly ever seeing another human or vessel.

Typical watery passage

Traditional dwellings

We round a point and there’s our destination: a long jetty with grey, grass-roofed houses perched upon it. Behind it, a hilly island clad in the regulation green and a long, white beach. It has a dramatic, strong dignity, the jetty structure, and its uniform greyness lends it a slight sense of severity. The long, intricate wooden pylons give an illusion of movement, as if the buildings are wading through the sea, and make a visual echo of the roots of the mangroves on the nearby point. All wood, all weathered to grey in the sun and rain, it models the traditional fishing villages of these islands.

Telunas Beach Resort from afar

Getting closer

And closer

even closer

The boat sidles up to a wide wooden ladder, up which we are apparently meant to clamber. Ms R and I exchange dubious glances; being city folk we expected perhaps to be carried ashore. However, with a bit of a push from behind and some pull from above we manage the climb and are met on the platform above by a couple of chaps looking a bit salty and expectant and a lady in jilbab and brightly coloured conservative Muslim outfit, proffering welcome drinks: a tasty mixed juice.

The landing, to the left

Some of the legs

We are ushered into the first building on the jetty, which is the dining and lounge room with adjacent kitchen. More smiling ladies in jilbab bid us ‘selamat siang’ or ‘good afternoon’ from the kitchen and then we are in the midst of a gaggle of raucous teenage boys and girls, finishing their lunch. We are a little vibratory after the trip and find a quietish corner in which to take stock. And photos. The surrounds are very photogenic. Even some of the teenagers are quite goodlooking.

Part of the lounge room

From the lounge room

Telunas Beach

Next, Esa shows us our rooms. Mine is the end cottage and is a neat, trim and tidy little affair with an evocative air to it that brings me much imaginative joy over the next couple of days. Simply lying on the bed and staring up at the detail of the ceiling, listening to the waves washing gently beneath and feeling the soft breezes blow through the place and across my body were almost sufficient to constitute an excellent holiday without anything of the other pleasures that Telunas Beach afforded. There’s a queen-size bed and a double bunk in an alcove. The bathroom has toilet and shower, mercifully with warm water, because later, when a storm visited and the morning temperature was almost cool, a warm shower was much appreciated. There was a little balcony with a table and two chairs, upon which Ms R and I would sit and chat from time to time, looking out across the limpid sea at the neighbouring island, the thick green of the forest or the sunset. It was all tremendously gorgeous, it would be fair to say.

Jetty to the cottage

A cottage

The room

Table and two chairs

View from the rooms balcony

View of Sugi Island from the balcony

There are only a few of these cottages; the rest of the resort is dormitories with bunks. I found this rather odd for a resort but it seems that Mr Mike and Mr Eric, the chaps who own the place, has a team-building and adventure travel consultancy. The student group, presumably one of many who visit, were bright kids from a Singapore school sent here to build their social skills through the usual mix of adventure and teamwork games. I’m glad it was them and not me trekking through jungle and undergoing canoe races and the like. I preferred the adult delights of lounging about doing absolutely nothing, dozing, taking an occasional stroll along the beach and even a languid swim in the warm, equatorial water.

Hard at work

Mr Mike and Mr Eric are increasing their catering for indolent adults: several new cottages are being built and more are planned.

Cottage construction zone

It was almost silent. The only impinging noise was the generator 200 metre away on the beach, that went flat out day and night. It would’ve been nice to bury it in a deep pit. But even the kids were well behaved, which is probably unavoidable given their nationality.

We were fed three times a day, buffet style, summoned to the dining room by the bashing of a stick on a piece of bamboo, a usual type of klaxon in the archipelago. The lack of choice at meal times made my stay even more enjoyable; one less thing to worry about. The West’s great claim is that more choice will make us happier. I have yet to see conclusive, one-size-fits-all evidence of that. Congratulations to Mr Mike and Mr Eric for paring it down to (comfortable, beautiful and delicious) basics. Ms R could only find one flaw in paradise: no cocktails.

Saturday and Sunday nights, huge electrical storms bashed on around us, firing great flashes of light into the room and battering the grass roof with tonnes of rain. But it wasn’t noisy like rain on a tin roof. It more purred. But the thunder was magnificent, pealing and cracking and rolling and groaning. It was much better than television, which, by the way, was not present.

Senin

Monday morning and it’s still raining. Ms R and I think we might be staying for another day or two till it blows over. Alas, no, we were disappointed. Summoned to the end of the jetty by Esa, we gingerly climbed down the slippery ladder onto the boat and off we went, both of us filled to the gills with motion-sickness pills.

Departure day boat

Loading the kids in the rain

But they weren’t necessary. Even with the rain and wind there were no waves worth mentioning and we powered along at full, deafening speed. After partying at Goodies and then chilling out at Telunas Beach, your correspondent spent the rest of the day in a dream (the double dose of motion-sickness pills helped), doing a bit of duty-free shopping in a brand-new mall (no Jakartan can easily go past a mall without a spot of shopping), until being deposited at the airport by Ms R, for whose kindness I shall be eternally grateful.

I can report that Sriwijaya Air was only an hour late leaving and the flight, once again, was uneventful. I slept, keeping up the tradition of the last few days. So, if you’re in Singapore and take my advice to have fun at Goodies on Batam, take an extra couple of days and head over to Telunas Beach. Tell Mr Mike I sent you. He may have a cocktail waiting for you by then. For the details, see www.telunasbeach.com.

Salam


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