A couple of days have passed since leaving Australia. Destination? Batam, Indonesia via Singapore, without a plan…
Looking back, travel in June 1998 was just like a time warp, compared to travel decades later in 2020.
Must apologise for the lack of photos in this post. This first leg of travel was a long trip without time for sight-seeing.
A little background
In May 1998, Indonesia experienced racial violence and riots against Chinese Indonesians, which left an estimated 1,000 people dead. Though, many more underlying issues such as lack of jobs and food also fuelled racial tension.
With flights already booked and no real travel plan in place, the path is laid open. New choices. New adventures. The desire to explore a new country smothers any apprehension from the conflicts in Indonesia, so decide to travel.
Australia to Singapore
But first, the long drive from Brisbane to get to Sydney Airport.
Driving over 900-kilometres from Brisbane to Sydney along the long uneventful highway that cuts the eastern coast of Australia north and south, we arrive at Sydney Airport.
Expansive Sydney airport seems a lot bigger than when I was here last in 1989 – everything changes.
Finding the check-in counter for Egypt Air, an endless queue of Arabs confirms this is the correct line for the painless check-in.
A non-alcohol plane, the very few westerners on this aeroplane are handed small plastic bags containing bottles of alcohol while boarding the Boeing 777. Our free bounty includes 3 bags, each of 6 travel-sized spirit bottles and wine but can collect more if needed!
Settling in for the not-so-long 8-hour flight, the surly flight attendants ignoring the boisterous and excited children, provide a good service, nonetheless.
Toilets are nauseatingly smelly and gross. Only one inflight video is on offer, for the duration of the flight. Remember those? How times have changed!
Imagine the revolution today, flying without full inflight entertainment – offering a plethora of movies, TV series, audio selections, and of course, USB charging points at your seat!
Landing in Singapore
Arriving in steaming Singapore at the ungodly hour of 02:30am, a wall of humidity hits you on leaving the airport – instantly, clothes slide dripping with sweat.
Buses don’t start until 06:00am and the MRT (train) until 05:30am. So, what do you do for 4 hours in a new city, during morning twilight hours?
Share a cab with a couple of other lost travellers, taking in the sights of soaring high-rises along the pristine clean streets of Singapore to the MRT. Passing only a couple of souls along the way, we wait for the city to awaken from its slumber. Need to continue on the next leg of this long sleepless journey.
Singapore to Batam
Sultry Singapore slowly comes to life as we make our way by train then a bus, to the bustling Harbourfront Centre ferry terminal. Should you feel the need, apparently it takes around an hour to drive from one side of Singapore to the other. Public transport is pretty efficient on the island, so settle on this to get us around.
With not-so-optimal mobile devices or technology back in 1998, travel information is hard to get your hands on. Especially the further you venture, leaving large cities behind. Asking locals questions seems to be one way to make headway.
Have you noticed that no matter where in the world you are, people travelling on public transport early in the morning, look solemn and grumpy?
Beware of wheeler and dealers at the ferry terminal.
Tried to buy tickets on the 45-minute “fast cat” at one of the ticket booths. The lady took one of our passports and proceeded racing up the stairs. I get too nervous when someone takes my passport. So, we run after her and get the passports’ back.
Apparently, once you hand over your passport, you’re obliged to buy the ticket from that seller. At SG$3 per ticket extra, decide to buy the cheaper SG$13 tickets. The Australian and Singapore dollars are equal, so anything is a saving, to stay travelling longer.
The ferry ride
Boarding the ferry with loads of locals, we steam ahead at the promised fast speed.
Singapore slides away as we pass dozens of large iron container ships at anchor, in the small busy harbour.
Pristine white high-rises emerge from lush green hills in the fading distance, as the ferry slips past small islets dotting the waterway. And, announcing that we’re nearing Indonesia’s Pulau Batam – only a stone’s throw away.
On arrival, prepare to be swamped by intrusive taxi and Becak (pedicab) drivers, vying for your cash.
Everyone has to make a living, so stay calm and politely decline, if you don’t feel comfortable. You can’t blame locals really and try not to be abrasive, as the Asian culture is very different from ours.
Wandering around until finding the boat to Sumatra’s Dumai, cars toot and locals on bikes ask if we want a lift. We definitely look like tourists and can’t hide – might need to robe up.
A little on Batam
Batam’s history dates back to 231AD when the island was first inhabited by Malays. Petroleum logistics started in the 1960s.
Although the largest city in the Riau Islands, Batam seems very poor, which is surprising as there’s oil on this island.
As usual, the wealth never seems to filter down to everyone or trickle down to even the poorest. Only 20-kilometres from Singapore’s south coast, the richness and modernity of Singapore is a stark contrast to Batam’s poverty.
Escaping the riots’ backlash
Landing in Indonesia a month after the riots in June, the vibe is still tense and raw. So, decide to bypass Java for a while and start travelling in the north of Sumatra, before heading slowly south. Mainly to escape any potential backlash of the previous month’s dangerous civil unrest, especially as pasty white foreign travellers.
Wanting to steer as far away from Jakarta and big cities for a month or so until the angry mood diffuses and calms down, decide on a bus to Medan in Sumatra’s north. Even though Medan was also a hotspot centre for the riots, two months previously.
We make travel plans up on the fly. To be honest, there really isn’t a plan. Though, I would love to get up close to an Orangutan at some point.
Check back next week for the next Indonesian instalment…