A trip to Tanjung Pinang, Bintan Island, Indonesia

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I’ve heard often during my time here on Batam Island that I should venture off the eastern coast to the next island in the chain – Bintan. The regional government offices are located in the city of Tanjung Pinang and the area is more like the real Indonesia than Batam is, I’ve been told. Until this past weekend, however, I haven’t been able to align such a trip with finding someone to go with me and di not want to go alone (just not as much fun).

So I finally made the alignment and we left at 9:30 am Saturday. Taxi  picked us up for the

Ferry loading at Punggur terminal, Batam

Ferry loading at Punggur terminal, Batam

45-minute (Rp 100,000 or US$8 – but Rp 150,000 on return trip with metered cab) ride to the Punggur ferry terminal, on the easternmost side of the island near the Kabil industrial area. The terminal was very busy and I was the lone westerner (bule) in sight.

Round-trip tickets were Rp 110,000 per person, or about US$10, not bad for a one-hour journey. There is also a Rp5,000 per person port tax each way. The Baruna ferry (Tel: +62-771-28578 in Tanjung Pinang, +62-778-479162 in Telaga Punggur) had comfortable seats and air conditioning, but no outside seating. It was full of Asians and one lone bule. Unfortunately, the windows were too high to see outside from the seats and too murky to take photos through.

Tanjung Pinang is located on the southwestern part of Bintan island and is the capital and largest town of the Indonesian province of Riau Islands. It is a port town and a trade center with ethnic diversity and with traditional villages and temples. It is a trading port between islands in the Riau archipelago.

In the Tanjung Pinang city, the low tide reach or the mud flat part was built with stilts and were mosquito and rat infested. Above these mud flat reaches, narrow piers or pelantars were built at higher elevations and the old city of Tanjung expanded with a maze of streets and alleys. The old pier with the name Pelantar II thrives as the fish market. The town has a large population of Chinese

The Dutch ruled over the islands for a long period, and their influence is distinctly discerned in the island. In fact, several people asked my companion if I was Dutch, which confused her because she was not aware of the island’s history. The population of Bintan Island was about 350,000 in 2004, but it looks much larger now. The citizens are mostly ofe Malay, Bugis, Chinese and the Orang Laut ethnicity. Tanjung Pinang’s population is listed as 134,940 in 2004, but the city is very large and there are definitely more people than that living there.

Some of the well-known sites of attractions are the Penyengat, Tanjung Pinang city, Raja Ali Haji Monument, the Colonial Graveyard, Chinese Pagodas, and Banyan Tree Temple

Once disembarked in Tanjung Pinang, we were immediately beset with taxi drivers, but

Tanjung Pinang street

Tanjung Pinang street

my plan was to walk to a downtown hotel and stay where I thought the action would be, where I could have the best local experience. So we walked three blocks, trailed by one persistent man and incessant calls for taxis for a ride. I was only carrying a backpack and my companion had a small rolling suitcase.

We made it to the Hotel Laguna, which looked modern enough on the outside and had an online rate of about Rp 300,000 US$25/night) but it was then I was made to realize that while I wanted an “Indonesian” experience, my companion lived that life every day and was hoping for something more upscale. So we called for a taxi to take us to my second option, the Aston Hotel, which turned out to be a Rp 100,000 ($8), 45-minute taxi ride.

As we rode around in a taxi for the next two hours, I was impressed at how much cleaner and well-kept the city was compared to Batam. The roads were in good condition and the housing looked better maintained than on Batam. I was told that this is because 1. Tanjung Pinang is a government center, and 2. the people living there have been there for generations, unlike Batam, which is basically 30 years old and most of the people come from other parts of Indonesia or Singapore. In Batam, they just don’t have the pride of community that exists in Tanjung Pinang.

On the way, my friend was busy on her smartphone and found a place on the beach, so we changed plans again. The driver was told we did not want to go to the resort section of town on the north side of the island and we thought he understood. One hour later, we rolled into the Bintan Resort on the north side of the island.

Rather than turn back, I checked with the registration desk – no rooms. The place was packed with Singaporeans, which is what the resorts in this area specialized in. So we headed back to the Aston. The driver wanted Rp 500,000 for his trouble but my friend badgered him down to Rp 300,000. I don’t think he was too happy about it.

The day before, I had checked the Aston online and the room rate was about Rp 500,000 per night through booking.com. There were just two rooms available when we arrived and we were given one with twin beds for almost Rp700,000.

The hotel is modern and the room was well-appointed but one of my main gripes

Aston Hotel room

Aston Hotel room

when traveling was realized – poor Internet service. The hotel touts its free WiFi but it was not usable, perhaps because the hotel was full and they did not have enough bandwidth to accommodate everyone. I finally gave up trying.

We did stop at one area where there were a lot of people, mostly for a large food court, but we noticed a crowd and headed their way. Turns out it was mostly Chinese milling around stalls where they were gambling – a definite illegal activity. I snapped a couple of pictures before a tall guy came up to tell me it wasn’t allowed and that I had to delete the photos. Not a chance! Why he would think he could dictate to me when there was illegal gambling going on, I don’t know. But I have two rather indistinct shots of the activity above.

We decided to rest and check out the hotel pool and go exploring in the early evening. I wanted to find the crafts market area I had read about and then get some dinner at an Indonesian restaurant.

After dark, we called a taxi that was recommended and went looking for the crafts market.  An hour-and-a-half later, we decided to head back to the hotel to try out the BBQ by the pool special (instead of Indonesian). On the way back, we passed through what I think was the area we were looking for. The driver didn’t have a clue what we were looking for.

The dinner was simply awful! One rice selection, one pasta selection, some ayam sate

BBQ dinner at Aston

BBQ dinner at Aston

(chicken on a stick), a seafood sate, beef so tough it was not worth trying, and some desserts too hard to describe.

Back in the room, I tried to get on the Internet but it also was a waste of time. The hotel provides free WiFi but the reception was worse than dial-up, which might have been because the hotel was full, with everyone trying to go online. Not very good for a 4-star hotel, though. At least the beds were comfortable and we were tired. I began to plot the new day, determined to take the lead and not depend on others for direction as to what to do or where to go.

A trip to another island was the plan.

Penyengat Island

Penyengat is a small island (about 2.5 square kilometers [0.97 sq mi] in area) located about

Penyengat Island

Penyengat Island

6 kilometers (3.7 miles) offshore of Tanjung Pinang, which was a religious, cultural and administrative center of the region in the 19th century of the Riao-Johor sultanate. The sultan had shifted to this place after Melaka was taken over by the Portuguese and he made it the capital of his kingdom. On the northeast end of the island many ancient Islamic relics are seen.

The Malay and the Bugis, to attain peace in the region, had cemented their relationship by establishing marital ties. Raja Ali Haji, who was the Bugis commander of Bintan and acclaimed as the hero of his people, married his daughter to Sultan Mahmud Shah of Malacca. The island was gifted to his daughter, Raja Hamidah. This union established peace between the Malay and the Bugis.

Following this, a grand mosque called the Masjid Raya was built on the island and is more

Mosque on Penyengat Island

Mosque on Penyengat Island

than 170 years old.  Hakka ethnic people and Indo-Malays reside here. And their village appears quite well off  Another historical fact is that in 1819 the Penyangat-based sultanate cooperated with Sir Stamford Raffles to hand over Singapore in exchange for British military protection.

After a poor breakfast at the hotel’s buffet, including bacon that was impossible to chew and orange juice that was orange drink, we took another 30-minute, Rp 100,000 taxi ride into town. Our driver took us to an office (?) at the ferry terminal where we left our bags in the care of a stranger and without any receipt. The ferry terminal to Penyengat was right next door.

The one-way fare to the island was Rp 6,000. To get in the ferry, you climb down some

Departure gate for Penyengat Island ferry

Departure gate for Penyengat Island ferry

concrete steps, no railing, and hop on the rocking front of the boat. The boat had a canopy and wooden slat seats situated too close to one another for a tall bule. It was packed and, yes, I was the only bule on board. In fact, I was the only one on the island while we were there.

Once we landed, we started walking along the paved pathways that circle the island. There is little to see, however, unless you’re into mosques. There were a few crafts shops and I stopped at one for souvenirs, buying a globe electric lamp made out of shells. Quite beautiful but it was obviously an impulse buy, as I don’t need a lamp.

Penyengat Island street

Penyengat Island street

The highlight of the day, and the trip, was lunch. We returned to the terminal pier, where there were several restaurants and chose the one closest to the water. There was a cooler outside from which you selected your meal from multiple types of fish (ikan). The fish was cooked to order and we had it barbecued while we waited at a table on the water’s edge. They might sound awesome but the shoreline had trash a foot deep right below us.

While we were waiting, a thunderstorm developed over Tanjung Pinang and we had a

Lunch on Penyengat Island

Lunch on Penyengat Island

front-row seat to the ensuing lightning show. Our lunch arrived, consisting of our whole barbecued fish (I had red snapper), some cucumber slices, white rice and chili sauce (not for me, thank you). When I ordered the fish, I thought it was enough for two but it was so good I ate it all, although not as completely as my companion did hers (nothing but a head and skeleton left of hers).

The rain had stopped and it was time to head back, see if our bags were still where we left them, and catch the ferry back to Batam.

Posted in Batam, Dining Out, Indonesia, Local Culture, Sightseeing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going crazy over election

We are in election season here in Indonesia. Last week, the balloting for legislative and district seats was held. The presidential election is scheduled in July. To an American, the whole process seems bizarre (although Indonesians probably say the same about U.S. elections). But the article below shows a really bizarre side of Indonesian elections.

Mental Health Problems Plague Indonesian Election Hopefuls

His body shaking violently, Sofyan screamed loudly as a traditional healer sought to calm the Indonesian election candidate, one of a growing number seeking treatment for mental health problems after polls last week.

“Don’t take my votes away. I have spent so much money,” he shouted, as the healer chanted softly and poured water mixed with flowers over his body.

Many of the approximately 230,000 candidates running for seats in local and national legislatures across the world’s biggest archipelago nation invested huge amounts of their own money to fund campaigns, but some are now paying an even greater price.

Some become stressed or depressed at the prospect of losing everything while others appear to have suffered more severely, such as one who reportedly went stealing his neighbors’ sandals before taking refuge up a coconut tree.

Thousands of candidates were treated for stress-related illnesses following the 2009 legislative elections, and reports in recent days suggest that the situation will be the same following the April 9 vote.

While many of those who fall ill are the losers, that is not always the case as the stress and cost of running campaigns can be enormous, whatever the final outcome.

“They have lost their money, land, houses, and one candidate even lost his wife to another man because he was too busy campaigning,” said Muhammad Muzakkin, from a traditional healing center on main Java island, who has treated 51 candidates for stress in the past week.

Many are willing to take the risk, however, as the rewards from gaining office in Indonesia can be huge — a businessman will find it is easier for his company to win contracts if he is also a politician, and there is ample opportunity to get rich by accepting bribes in a country with a notoriously corrupt political culture.

The lack of campaign funding from parties means that people seeking to run for office in Indonesia generally have to provide money, a huge undertaking that many underestimate before launching their political careers.

Sofyan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, sold two motorcycles and took out loans to raise more than 300 million rupiah ($26,000) to fund his campaign for a local parliament seat in Cirebon district, in West Java province.

This covered the cost of materials such as posters and also cash handouts for voters — something that is common in Indonesia although it is officially illegal.

Official results are not released until May but his political team believes he may be on course to win the seat for the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Nevertheless, he is worried something will go wrong and the prospect that such a huge sum of money could have gone to waste has sent him tumbling into an abyss of depression.

“I don’t know what to do if I lose,” he said.

Other candidates lose their tempers when they believe they have lost, with some storming polling stations and making off with ballot boxes while one angrily demanded the return of donations he had made to a local mosque.

Psychiatric units at hospitals have said they are ready to treat depressed candidates but many seek help from traditional healers in a country where indigenous beliefs remain strong.

Muzakkin from the clinic on Java said that healers there were using prayers to “shoo away the genies” plaguing depressed candidates, many of whom are at a very low ebb when they arrive.

“One man threw a tantrum and stripped himself naked so he had to be put in an isolation room,” he said.

The problem has started to concern the government to such a degree that it wants to amend legislation so that candidates are required to undergo a mental health check before they can run in elections.

Eka Viora, the health ministry’s director of mental health, said that the elections could be a “disaster” for candidates, particularly those who lose.

“They lose not only their assets and jobs but also their dignity,” she told AFP.

However political analyst Dodi Ambardi cautioned that it was also the responsibility of the individual candidate to assess whether they were up to it.

“It’s a risky gamble. If they are clearly not up to the task, they really should not be overconfident and bother to run in the first place.” - Agence France-Presse

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Election day in Indonesia

Actually, there are two election days here – one today for the national  legislature and local offices, and a second in July to elect a new president.

The world’s third-largest democracy after India and the U.S. has 185.8 million voters eligible to cast their ballots to elect 560 legislators to the House of Representatives and more than 18,000 local councilors.

Goodies Restaurant at Smiling Hill is one of the estimated 546,000 polling stations across the country. Polls were open early in the morning and closed at 1 p.m. Vote tally at Goodies would continue until about 9 p.m., with the counts forwarded to the capital, Jakarta.

I was struck at how orderly and quiet the Goodies polling site was. Men and women wandered in all morning, registered for their ballots at one post and then waited in a sitting area until their turn to vote came up.  They were then directed to the voting booths, four side-by-side areas with metal sides. Unlike in the U.S., the booths were not enclosed.

Once their ballots were completed, voters put them into four boxes, each color coded and representing national and local elections. Once their ballots were submitted, each voter then dipped their pinkie finger into a bottle of purple ink – their badge of honor and proof they voted (and also a way to keep anyone from voting more than once).

This election also determines which of the 12 Indonesian political parties can field a candidate for president in the July presidential election. A party must garner a certain percentage of the votes in the national legislative voting in order to nominate someone for president. One or two parties are expected to get the necessary votes, but other parties can combine their votes to field a candidate.

Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle’s (PDI-P), is the leading presidential candidate. He is a “people’s” candidate, very progressive and attuned to the needs of the masses as opposed to the elite.  His party is expected to be the big winner in the legislative elections today. His opposition will come from a former general and a politician who hails from the days of the Suharto dictatorship. There are still many Indonesians who would like a strongman president, much like Suharto, even though his rule was marred by corruption and mass killings. Go figure.

Indonesia is a young democracy, about 18 years old, and it was truly heartening to see the democratic process at work. Here is the view at the Goodies polling station:

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Posted in Batam, Goodies, Indonesia, political, Smiling Hill | Tagged , , , , ,