Sunday, 22 June 2008

Bianca goes to Batam, Indonesia

This was a trip down memory-lane....why I don't like to travel in the poorer parts of Asia. But to start at the beginning:

Doris and I decided to get out of the country for a bit and looked for some bargains in the local newspapers. We found some that appeared to be for some of the most up-market hotels in Batam, and at a good price.

This good price (S$68) for a 2D/1N 'Crazy Promo' included the ferry trip to and from Batam, 1 night accommodation including breakfast at the 4 star Grand Majesty Hotel, a city/shopping tour including seafood lunch, and land transfers.

Doris and I dragged ourselves out of our respective beds at 5.30am and left home at 6:30am, and caught the bus to Vivo City. After a false start we found our way to the ferry terminal and collected our tickets, paying our $21 taxes and fuel fees and then went looking for breakfast.

As we were wandering around we came across a model of a condominium which immediately looked familiar - turns out it was where we live :-)

We found something to eat and I found some ginger tea (just in case that ferry ride is bumpier than I thought) and then we made our way through customs. Of course this is where we found the good food court where we would have had a much wider selection to breakfast on. Oh well. We'll know next time!

The ferry finally started boarding about 10 minutes before it was supposed to leave at 9am (boarding was supposed to be 30 minutes before), but we still manage to leave on time. The sea was flat as a tack, so no worries on the sea-sickness front! The cabin of the Penguin ferry was air-conditioned and quite clean, so that was nice. They offered free bottled water (albeit in little air-plane water cups) too. I saw little old ladies filling their plastic bags with them, no doubt afraid of drinking water in Indonesia (don't blame them) and too cheap to buy their own bottles of water as we had done.

The advertised 45 minute ferry ride took just over an hour and went by the scenic route around Sentosa and a couple of other islands before heading off to Indonesia. Arrival and immigration was quick and painless - for me. I had to get a visa on arrival, and being the only non-Asian on the ferry, got quick service at the 'Visa on arrival' counter. The visa cost US$10 and was issued without me even having to sign my form. They also hadn't noticed the sex change I must have had since Monday when I paid for my trip, because the form was filled in stating I was male. Hmmmm not last time I checked!

Of course poor Doris had to wait in the huge long queue to get through immigration, since she has an ASEAN passport and didn't require a visa. Luckily I'd brought some entertainment along and could listen while waiting for her :-)

After getting through customs, we were immediately greeted by our tour guide, Pina,who told us where to find the toilets (didn't need to go yet, fortunately) and then where to find the bus. Doris and I spread ourselves over 2 rows of 2 seats each, hoping to both have window seats. The bus kept getting fuller and fuller and Doris asked the driver if there was room for us to spread ourselves out as we had, and he was all yes, yes, no problem. This was a lie, as the bus had every seat filled, including some that were fold-aways! (The Indonesians seem to have a problem disagreeing with you and will always tell you what you want to hear. I've noticed this here in Singapore too, though and have stopped asking if something is chicken, because you will be told that it is, only to find it to be tofu).

Pina told us lots of things, but since she kept reverting to Chinese (since most of the tour guests were Chinese Singaporeans) I had to rely on Doris to keep translating for me.

Doris was very sweet and let me have the window seat the entire time, and of course I took full advantage of it by photographing like a maniac. Most of the photos from the bus didn't turn out too well, because of the speed of the bus causing speed blur and for me to keep missing my photo's target! But at least the windows were fairly clean!

First tour stop was the Barelang Fisabililah Bridge. Quoting from the tour specification (can't call it a brochure, exactly!):

"...bridge connecting Batam to Tonton island is impressive with its 38-metres high spans and 642 metres in length..."

It's not the Golden Gate, but there's some nice views from it. And here we encounter the first of the reminders: people trying to sell you stuff - in this case it was cooked crabs(!) and other snacks. And they kept hassling you and hassling you and hassling you. The first would go away after you tell him no, several times, only to be followed by the next guy. Very annoying.

Pina did offer to take a photo of myself and my 'mother'. Poor Doris was not impressed by the implications made about her age. I thought it was funny, because - do I look Asian? Red hair, freckles and blue eyes? No....not really!

Some views from and of the bridge:

After 10 minutes of this, we got back on the bus and it was off past more shanty-towns and rubbish-tip dwellings...

and condominiums-to-be in the shape of palaces...

to the first temple. On the way there, the guide tried to sell us on a massage at $30 for 90 minutes. Doris had just had a massage on Sunday (it being Thursday) and I only pay my masseur $40 for an hour, so didn't think it was much of a bargain, and after much discussion between Doris and Pina we therefore declined.

The Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya temple (Asia's biggest laughing Buddha temple) has seen better days. It's a huge temple complex and appears to also be a monastery and a school. The little balcony on which the laughing Buddha sits is missing the guide rails and thus can't be walked on for close-ups. The interiors are fairly plain as well. The whole place is in dire need of a paint job and renovation, but then, so is the rest of the country ;-) I still managed to take 55 photos of it in our allowed 25 minutes, though. Even with the guide interrupting our sight-seeing to try, one more time, to convince us to take the massage.

Next step on our program was the much-awaited seafood lunch. Past an odd-looking church as seen out the bus window...

a mosque...

and various little shop-houses, Indonesian style...

as well as shanty-towns...

and Indonesian-style hawker centres...

we arrived at the Golden Prawn 555/933 seafood restaurant
"built at wood and bamboo over the sea"
(if sea is the same as lagoon). Appetising it wasn't, on first impression:

Something to get used to again, was the fact that there were 'non-smoking' corners, not smoking corners. Like back in the old days...people smoking anywhere with impunity. But the food was plentiful and tasted quite good as well. Since it came in stages and we were sharing it with 6 other people at the table, aside from Doris and myself, I couldn't tell people to wait to eat so I could take photos, unfortunately. Lunch consisted of chili crab (very yummy!), some sort of shells with little crabs inside that you use a toothpick to pull out (I had 2 and gave up on the others), deep-fried fish, some veggies (green Asian stuff I can never remember the name of), and some seafood soup (very salty, but still nice) and rice.

I took photos of the restaurant afterwards - a huge place that was on stilts in the water. It seems to be quite popular with the tourists, though there were also private family groups around the place.

By this time I was in need of a toilet but it suddenly appeared that Doris and I were being waited for - we hadn't been told any particular time to be back at the bus by, so we had taken our time. Oops. Doris said the toilets were all wet and not very nice anyway, and the guide assured me there was a toilet at the next stop.

Next stop was supposed to be a GTS Local shop to buy batik etc. Was never mentioned.

After that was supposed to be a Kuda Lumping Dance. Also no mention of it. At least not in English ;-)

Then it was off to the 'dry market'. This was basically a Chinese shop with snacks and Chinese traditional medicine type things like sea cucumbers and dried scallops etc. Doris said the prices were cheaper than in Singapore, but not so much cheaper it was worth-while buying anything to lug back home. I asked about the toilet and of course, it was a squatting toilet and no running water. I held on for the allotted 30 minutes for this shopping expedition, and I wandered off down the street a bit by myself and took photos of the surroundings. Such as this mosque I thought was under construction, but on driving by later on found to be in use already...

and the surrounding suburb...

and this one is just for Petra (the sign of the blue shop says "Petra Mandiri" - you can see it better in the Picasa Web Album - no idea what they're selling there.

And here my camera battery died. I replaced it and took about 10 photos and that too died. I was most upset, thinking this was it. No more photos. I'd have to come back again! But I tried again with the original battery a little while later and it worked again. I took another 50 photos on that and it's still going. I don't understand, but am happy I was able to continue to take shots!

Next stop was the Polo shop, where we were given 30 minutes to shop. Again, we were not interested. It was mostly expensive stuff that we had no use for. And there was no toilet... Outside the door were all these locals trying to sell us wooden puppets, baskets, mobiles etc, as well as some guys trying very hard to sell us fruit. They were so persistent, one guy was trying to sell Doris 'snake-skin fruit' through the closed door of the bus (after having tried for at least 10 minutes while the bus door was still open and Doris could actually hear what the guy was saying). The fellow just went on and on and on, gesturing and pulling faces at Doris as if this would make her change her mind. Madness.

Then it was supposed to be a visit to Thoa Pek Kong Chinese temple. Also didn't happen.

Lastly was supposed to be a drop-off at Penuin street (Batam china town), but instead we were dropped off at Nagoya Hill shopping mall for 2 1/2 hours while the people who wanted the massage (a whole 2!) could have that and then meet us back at the shopping centre. But finally: a toilet! No toilet paper, but luckily Doris had given me some tissues at one point so the straits weren't quite so dire. At least it was a western toilet!

Doris and I wandered around the shops and then went to satisfy my caffeine addiction at the cafe on the top floor. Right next door to the cafe was a massage/spa centre. Out of curiosity we decided to check how much they were charging. It turned out to be $12 for an hour, or $15 per 90 minutes. Half what Pina was trying to tell us was a bargain!! So we decided that we would have an hour's massage, since we still had 90 minutes before having to meet the tour again.

The massage was quite good. Doris and I had little booths (mattress on the floor, separated by curtains) next to each other and the little masseuses came and first washed our feet for us and then got stuck into the massage. It was very similar to the massage I get here from my Chinese fellow, but this petite girl was harder on me than my usual masseur who probably weighs twice as much she does! The masseuse spoke no English, so it was just as well Doris speaks Malay (which is very close to Indonesian, she told me) and could translate for me!

Much refreshed, or at least feeling like we'd gotten a bargain, we went to wait for the tour bus. And wait. And wait. And wait... I didn't mind too much, since they'd been pretty punctual the rest of the day, but it was a bit of an annoyance.

Then it was time to take the people who'd only come on a day-trip back to the ferry, and then drop people who were staying, off at their hotels. Of course we were the last people dropped off, and the only ones at our hotel. Most people seemed to be staying at the Pacific Palace Hotel, which is pretty close to ours. Perhaps we should have too:

Our hotel, Grand Majesty, Batam is described as follows:

"New" 4 star Hotel
...located in the heart of Jodoh Town, Batam. Surrounded by shopping centers, banks and restaurants. It's the most exclusive classic designs and the outstanding tall building will outshine the surrounding by day and night.

Ummm. True. The surroundings are so awful ;-)

Before we booked the trip, we asked what the hotel was called before it became the "Grand Majesty Hotel", but were assured it was brand new...And as we were driving by it on one side, it certainly looked like it must be brand new, since the roof was a construction site:

but once we got inside and up to our floor and our room, the black stains on the ceiling and stains on the carpet didn't agree with the claims of being new. Nor did the aged yellow hair dryer in the bathroom. The stained quilt-cover and chairs....the stained towels, the toilet that had its water turned off since it leaks (and we couldn't figure out why it wouldn't flush, at first!), the water stains in every corner. Not to mention the cockroaches scuttling around. I killed the first one next to the pillow on my bed. The bedside table saw a few deaths. And the carpet stains were added to by the house slippers so thoughtfully provided by the hotel. I put them to use squishing the odd cockroach under my slippered feet.

After settling into our "Superior" suite 417, we decided to go look for dinner. On the way, we had a look at the swimming pool:

Swimming pool, well designed and decorated pools for adults and children. Fountain in the center to refresh you mind when swimming.

Yeah - I don't see any fountains either...and that's certainly not a refreshing view :-)

While we were at it, we thought we'd enquire into the spa options, since they were being so mysterious about prices and what's available on the 'net and on the ad poster for the spa that they had in the foyer. We understood the need for mystery once we read through some of the 'packages'. These were sex packages! Massage and orgasm for $50. At least that's what I understood Rastus to mean. When I enquired into what was involved in this 'rastus' thing she said "vagina". I guess this is the massage with "happy end" that I've heard so much about ;-) Needless to say, Doris and I decided against the spa packages. We'll just get them in Singapore for more money and with less sex involved.

So, after having a good laugh at the spa menu we ventured downstairs and onto the street to see what could be done about dinner - with all these restaurants the hotel was supposedly in the midst of.....we didn't find any, but didn't venture too far away either, since it was dark and a bit scary out there. So we toddled back to the hotel and ordered dinner there. We'd looked at the room service menu before we came down, so we knew basically what would be on the menu and had picked out a couple of things to try. It was just as well, since the entire restaurant had one single menu to share amongst all its guests. One! Doris had a lengthy discourse with one of the waiters about this room-service menu and the menu situation in general. Apparently new menus are coming (and probably always will be, I reckon) and he very proudly told us that the room-service price is higher (though it was the same in the room price-list) and that people would just be charged more! I guess they haven't heard of false advertising in Indonesia...

Anyway, once we'd placed our orders we settled in to wait. They brought us water, which we ignored, since we didn't want to get Bali-belly. And we waited. And waited some more. After about an hour our food finally arrived. I'd ordered beetroot fettuccine with Pernod cream and prawns. It was awful. There was no Pernod. There was no cream within a mile of it, I'm sure. It was just plain standard white fettuccine pasta with a flour based sauce with some prawns. Baby prawns. Our other dish was fish with a black sauce with vegetables (if salsa can be said to be vegetables). This dish was absolutely delicious. Especially the sauce - veggies or not - even though it was really, really, really spicy-hot and nearly had me gasping for air. It was just as well the sauce was nice, because we both ended up using bits of that sauce to make the pasta edible.

Then it came time to pay our bill. We hadn't changed any money, because we'd been told (and also from Doris' experience, since she'd been to Batam before) we could use Singapore Dollars in most places. Only the hotel had an exorbitant exchange-rate - they wanted $21 for our $16 meal. After some back and forth about the exchange rate and deciding to charge the bill to the room and exchange the money ourselves with the money changers the next morning and pay it on check-out, we were about to go up to room. Doris decided to just check the itemised bill because it seemed a little high. Sure enough! They must have just picked the prices for the items we had out of the air. We happened to remember exactly how much both items were, and so there was call for the menu again - which took a while to find. They apologised profusely and fixed up the bill - which I happened to notice was manually typed into an Excel spreadsheet. You'd think they'd have the menu items in a little database - it's not like they have that big a range...

So then, it was off to bed after a big first day of our holiday. No bed bugs bit, so that was a plus :-)

We had this day 'at our leisure', so took our time with our ablutions before heading down to breakfast. I looked out the window after battling aside the filthy curtains and this is the view from our "Superior" room.

Wonder what the inferior rooms are like ;-)

Breakfast was located in the restaurant where we'd had our dinner and apparently consisted of an 'American' buffet breakfast. Not so much...Though they did have a person cooking omelettes for people. Doris and I found somewhere to sit - they weren't so quick with the clearing of tables, so had to sit right down the back. Then they didn't set the table for us and Doris had to request cutlery and serviettes. Which didn't mean they included cups - I had to ask for those later. Luckily Doris and I don't need teaspoons, because those didn't come with the cups either.

The breakfast dishes included bread (the sweet, almost-cake that you get in these countries), a couple of pastries, the mentioned eggs cooked for you, as well as some Indonesian dishes - cooked veggies and curried chicken etc. And you could also request boiled eggs. I had some toast and an omelette. Then went back for seconds in the shape of french toast (weirdest I've ever tasted) and cooked veggies (beans and cauliflower), since dinner hadn't included any. The coffee wasn't as bad as I expected. Bonus :-)

I used the toilet downstairs after breakfast, since I didn't want to risk using ours and having it not flush properly, and then it was off to sight-see. I asked what there was to see in the area (since there was a decided lack of tourist brochures in the lobby). The fellow at reception obviously didn't hear me or was totally unprepared: "What?" says he. How rude, I thought. Anyway, he told us that there was nothing to see in the area. We could go to the main street and have a look at the shops. So we did.

This is the view from the driveway of the hotel:

We headed towards the main road, and walked past this little market. They were trying hard to sell Doris fruit again. Not has hard as the persistent little guy on the previous day though :-)

We wandered around, constantly being bothered by taxi drivers. They would slow down and pull over and ask us if we wanted them. Or if not, they'd be beeping their horns at us. Others yelled out to us, though this was obviously not a tourist area so they had nothing to sell us. When we got sick of this and it was getting rather hot, we decided to walk through a big long shopping mall with all sorts of cheap stuff, to another with more stuff. Lots of what must be second-hand phones for sale... Of course then we had people in there trying to sell us stuff, but it wasn't too bad. They weren't grabbing us or following us around, at least.

This interesting building we encountered after leaving the shopping mall(s). I really liked this structure. It looks sort of medieval to me. It's certainly falling down in parts. Doris suggested the sea was behind the building, which hadn't even occurred to me. So we decided to have a closer look - have to take photos, after all! I'm very glad we risked our lives crossing the main road to get there. The building appears to be used as a market and residences as well.

They even had livestock for sale. I saw a delivery of probably 2 dozen chickens by motorbike.

Behind the market was a pier (which I had to jump onto - there being a gap between it and the road - and no railing. Doris passed on this.) from which I could see shacks on stilts, with Singapore in the distance. And lots of rubbish dumped or washed up there. Not the most salubrious place to live, I'm sure!

We could also see the Pacific Palace Hotel from here, looking very much like a cruise-liner.

We'd had enough adventure by this time, and were hot and bothered - mostly by the heat and the taxis - so we made our way back to the hotel, through the somewhat cooler mall again.

I wanted to get some photos of the hotel pool, since it was too dark when we'd looked at the pool the previous night. We sat here for a few minutes, enjoying the breeze, before heading back to our room for a little rest in air-conditioned comfort before checking out.

We checked out without incident and were picked up punctually, by bus, for our transfer back to the ferry. Pick-up was at 12:30pm and our ferry departure time at 3:10pm. It wasn't too bad, since there's a huge shopping centre next to the ferry terminal. I went looking for a little evening bag to go with my outfit for my cousin's wedding, but didn't find anything quite right. We then went looking for lunch. The food court didn't have much activity, so we decided to head back down to the restaurants we'd seen, that were very busy. We obviously picked the wrong one, though. Everything we wanted was 'finished'. I ended up with a scrawny chicken leg with rice and a couple of bits of cabbage and stewed chili and little prawns with shell still on. Yeah....not so good. Poor Doris, who'd wanted fish, ended up with roast beef which had too much chili even for her! We'd been concerned we wouldn't have enough rupiah to pay for lunch, so Doris had ensured we could make up the difference with Singapore dollars, but it turned out we had exactly enough!

I then had to try the layer-cake which I'd heard so much about. It's a Malaysian delicacy. From what Doris told me, it sounds like a lot of work to make it: it's mostly egg yolk, sugar and butter and a little bit of flour, which is baked in a thin layer, then grilled enough to turn the top slightly brown, before the next layer is added on top. The slice I bought for $1.50 seemed to have about a dozen layers. I thought it tasted pretty much like a heavier consistency sponge-cake, so wasn't too fussed about it.

It was then time for our holiday to end. We headed to the ferry terminal again and went through customs and got on the ferry where I saw my first fellow white-person since we'd left Singapore. She turned out to be Russian, so no conversation there. It was nice to see the Singapore skyline getting closer...

going past Sentosa...

and the waters always full of ships:

And that was the end of our holiday to Batam, Indonesia. Would I go back? Probably not...unless I had visitors who really wanted to see it. But then I'd go for the day trip only. And I'd remember to bring lots of tissues.