The one-hour ferry trip from Singapore Harbourfront to Batam in Indonesia is a little bit like traveling through a time warp. Not only do you arrive at the same time you left due to the change in time zone, but you soon notice that things seem to slow down considerably after arrival. Although the population of the island has grown rapidly over the last thirty years and is now estimated at 1.3 million, the whole place seems to operate at a far more leisurely pace than its city state neighbour to the north.
Something of a boom area and listed by Demographia in 2015 as the world’s fastest growing city, the local economy has mainly thrived on tourism and industry, with the island third only to Bali and Jakarta in terms of number of overseas entrants each year. However, the global slowdown in the oil and gas industry has hit the island hard resulting in a large number of job losses over the last couple of years. This economic downturn has possibly slowed the pace of life a bit more, though in many respects it has probably remained unchanged to the casual visitor.
The first thing you notice after clearing immigration at one of the four ferry terminals for arrivals from Singapore is how crowded the roads are. Cars and trucks vie for position with little respect for lane discipline, carefully picking their way through the swarms of bikes and mopeds that seem to be everywhere, some carrying a family of four, others laden with baskets of produce. Leaving the driving to someone else will most definitely help keep your stress levels to a minimum, unless you’re the type that needs to be in control at all times.
A short journey from the Harbour Bay Area brings you to Nagaoya Hill Shopping Mall, the largest mall on the island. It’s a low rise affair with its main thoroughfares designed to look like they’re lined by rows of traditional shophouses. The shopping focuses on fashion, both bona fide brands and cheaper imitations, handicrafts and souvenirs, and there is a sizeable food street offering all kinds of inexpensive fare to hungry shoppers. Head back to Harbour Bay, however, and you can enjoy some of Batam’s famous fresh seafood in a number of different restaurants, though Wey Wey Live Seafood Restaurant is definitely worth checking out. Choose your live fish, crab or shellfish from the tanks, say how you want it cooked, take your seat, add any other dishes you want, order your drinks and enjoy a sumptuous meal in casual surroundings at a very reasonable price. Be warned, however, that dining at low tide may mean your meal is accompanied by somewhat pungent odours from the harbour.
Not far from there is the Nagoya Entertainment District (NED), also known as Kampung Bule (which roughly translates as the ‘white foreigner neighbourhood’), packed with more than thirty different bars. The majority are behind closed doors, except, ironically, The Secret Bar, so you have to wander in to see what’s in store. Some will have girls pestering customers for drinks which can rapidly mount up to a huge bill, but you can sit and have a hassle-free drink in places like The Last Pub and The Cock and Bull. With fewer people around since the downturn the whole area is reportedly much quieter and restrained than in the boom times, but still the heart of local nightlife and there is something for everyone.
Away from Batam centre, on the southern part of the island is Barelang Bridge, one of Batam’s major tourist spots. Although the name officially refers to the series of bridges that join the islands of Batam, Rempang and Galang (Barelang is a composite of these three place names), most actually use it to talk about the tall bridge that spans the gap between Batam and Tonton islands. Since its construction around a quarter of a century, it has become a popular attraction with locals and tourists alike, some flocking to take selfies and pictures of the view, others to walk, talk and take in the sites.
Wander over the bridge late afternoon and you’ll see hawkers selling drinks and snacks, photographers offering to take your picture (and you’ll get an instant large format copy from the printer they have mounted on the back of their moped), and groups of people taking a stroll, taking in the stunning vista of the sun setting over the small islands to the west of the bridge. Quite a few locals also climb over the fence to sit on the ledge of the bridge and have a family picnic, enjoying the view and the cooling breeze.
A short drive from the bridge down the narrow Jalan Jembutan takes you to a small kampung, built on a wooden platform or kelong over the water. Walk past some houses and you reach Citra Utama 188, one of a couple of kelong restaurants in the area. The mood is casual, and in the early evening diners have a wonderful view over the water. Naturally all the seafood is freshly caught and is wonderfully prepared. The butter lobster is mouth-wateringly delicious and definitely recommended, though you can’t really go wrong with anything on offer. This place is a real must on any Batam travel itinerary.
The relaxed pace of life and a good choice of things to do make Batam a great choice for a short break away, and hopefully it can retain its charm in the face of rapid development.