Singapore and Batam: A Perfect Couple

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Singapore’s famous cleanliness is true, Batam’s a nearby island worth discovering

Fishing village in Batam. photos by Kent E. St John.
Fishing village in Batam. photos by Kent E. St John.

By Kent E. St. John

If you’ve flown to the island nation of Singapore you most likely have come a long way. For me, the trip over was an adventure in itself. The world’s longest commercial flight — Newark to Singapore.

It was 18 ½ hours but I now understand why Singapore Airlines consistently ranks number one in surveys. The ethnic makeup of the passengers reflected the cities. Indians, Chinese, Malay and Anglo businessmen filled in seats in the flights two classes, Raffles and Super Economy.

While a Singapore sojourn was a big part of my plans, I also included a trip to the island of Batam in Indonesia. The blend of the big city and the exotic island is a perfect combination. It is a little known fact, but a chance to visit Indonesia can be done easily and will enhance your Singapore sojourn. Three-day visas are cheap and the country is deeply in need of visitors.

So Bloody Clean

So bloody true! Yet do not confuse clean with sterile. In many ways, the order and discipline make it a very easy city to explore. A great example was the low cab fare to the great zoo, a 30-minute trip for less than $15. Singapore is far more than Orchard street shopping and skyscrapers. It is a city of neighborhoods and different cultures. Eating is the number one sport in Singapore and can be done very reasonably.

You, as a visitor, are expected to follow the norm by leaving the drugs and chewing gum home. Use the many litter cans and watch where you light up a cigarette. It quickly becomes second nature and hopefully will remain a habit on your return. See website

At the Zoo

Paul Simon must have had the Singapore Zoo in mind when he wrote the words to “It’s all Happening at the Zoo”. It is the home of the world’s largest collection of primates monkeying around. Not since a safari in Africa have I been so close to the wild things! The system of moats gets you close–real close. Many exhibits put you right in with the animals in a walk through the zone. Screening keeps you and the animals together. Signs remind you to close the door behind you so; the Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches don’t mix with the white-faced Saki.

Orangutang at the Singapore Zoo.
Orangutang at the Singapore Zoo.

My personal favorite sector of Singapore was Little India. The smell of spices and jasmine garlands blended in an exotic crescendo. The small streets are filled with vegetable stands and food stalls pouring out curry scents into the humid air.

Jasmine Dreams

It is a place where you can get your future told by a parrot while sipping a teh Tarik. (the parrot pecks out the cards and the teh is a hand-pulled cup of tea). Two great temples to visit are Sri Veeramakaliamman and Sri Srinivasa Perumal. The Hindu gods and goddesses are resplendent. Check for more info.

Chinese Checkers

Chinatown is also a vibrant and busy community, if somewhat touristy. Many of its buildings have been rebuilt in the old style and shopping for kitschy items are the days’ events. Eating in stalls also tops the visit. I was asked, however, if I wanted a suit made at least ten times.

If I wore a suit I just might have. Two must-sees are again temples. The Thian Hock Keng Temple is Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. It is wonderfully decorated. Sri Mariamman Temple is Hindu and the city’s oldest. The entrance tower is colorful and covered with deities and floral designs.

Jasmin for sale in Singapore's Little India.
Jasmin for sale in Singapore’s Little India.

Muslim Meanders

To cover the city the Kampong area must be visited. It is the Muslim area and seat of the Malay royalty. It contains an entirely different view. The Gedong Kuning Villa is home of the last Sultan’s treasurer.

The blue-tiled Malabar Muslim Jama- Ath Mosque is a should-do. The former Malay Royal Istana is now home to a heritage center that showcases Singapore’s Malay story. The two main streets in Kampong are Bussorah and Arab.

Bussorah is lovely with its restored shophouses from the days when the area was a Malay fishing village. Arab Street is one of the best shopping venues for authentic goods. Both have fine restaurants brimming with atmosphere.

In the Service of the Queen

The Colonial District certainly has maintained a charming aura. The buildings such as the old Parliament and Theater have faces from the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. Sir Stamford Raffles has left his mark forever.

Here you can still watch cricket games being played or stroll the river. Dining or an evening cocktail on Boat Quay is astounding and most likely the most photographed scene in Singapore. Stop by the Asian Civilization Museum. There are galleries covering different aspects of Asian culture. Of course a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel is a must even for jaded travelers. It is still a step back in time!

Boat to Batam

After the hustle and bustle of Singapore a trip to Batam, just 15 miles across the Singapore Strait, is a counterbalance. Bad reputations can lead to great places. Batam is a superb glimpse into a collision of old, modern and alien. It is also the gateway to the Riau Islands of which there are thousands. If you’re a shopper, there are infinite places to do just that.

If peace and solitude are your quests, it is also very doable and easy. It is quite different from the Americanized neighbor of Bintan Island. If a Club Med experience is what you seek, go there instead. If you want to savor a one of a kind choose Batam. Ferries run frequently from Singapore and a three-day visa is only $10. It can be gotten on arrival. Many Singaporeans are now heading there because of the low prices. Visa and ferry link with other important info

Nagoya Shuffle

You may be inclined to forego the main city of Nagoya. Do not! It is combination of Dodge City, Jakarta and Oz! Bird selling shops are side by side with working women bars and food stalls that offer every version of each Indonesian dish made. Ex-pats stroll around and children run free. The NED or Nagoya Entertainment District has just about every distraction known to man.

Not for the weak-hearted, but so very interesting. Try dining at the waterfront Golden Prawn. If male and single go to eat at a “pujasera”. Beer girls wangle around to get pints. Not the for-sale girls! Enough said.

Oceanfront Bali Style

For sheer island-style relaxation or adventure, the Nongosa Area is perfect. Of course, there is just the perfect hotel to go with it, the Turi Beach Resort.

The hillside location with Bali style huts is paradise. Pool and spa an extra bonus. To watch the sun go down over the South China Sea and the lights of Singapore turn on is amazing. The hotel can arrange diving trips or even a chance to swim with Dolphins! Hiking and mountain biking are also available.

Nongosa is also where you will find six golf courses as well as several small fishing villages. The top restaurant was Rezeki in the village of Batu Besar. The long pier over a sandy beach in a small village was unbeatable. The top choice was Black Pepper Crab. A messy but very satisfying experience.

Monk in Batam.
A Monk in Batam.

Vietnam Nightmare

A sobering trip to the refugee camp Galang where thousands of Vietnamese Boat People ended up will tug at your heart. Frames from some of the boats still remain. The jungle is rapidly climbing back over what was once internment for souls longing for new opportunities in other lands. The camp was run by the UN and is now a monument to those who passed through. The cemetery still glistens with white, a  testament to those who never left.

Sugi Satisfied

In the spirit of adventure and a very kind offer of a chance to visit 3 American ex-pat’s dream, I went to Sugi Island. There I had a chance to visit the most unique type of resort. Telunas Beach.

Brad, Mike, and Eric along with their families have opened up thatched huts over emerald waters. And have a unique approach to visits. This is a place that works in conjunction with the local villagers. Even the three hour trip by tuk-tuk boat was a thrill.

Galang Trees.
Galang Trees on Batam.

They also have courses in survival and education. The facilities are rustic to perfection! The food casual gourmet, and location stunning. In Mike’s own words, “not quite paradise, but damn close”.

Their responsible concept of tourism is a model that should be praised. I urge you to check their link!

Leaving Batam wasn’t easy. If you have more time opt for the ten-day visa on arrival for $25. It was a most enjoyable visit to a part of the world staggered by the 2004 tsunami.

Tourism is needed and this area was spared from any damage or death. The concept of the tsunami though has caused Batam’s good people financial hurt. Spread the word and head to one of the most interesting places in the world.