Four Hours in Indonesia

Kids at home in Tanjung Pinang, Bintan

Ferry route to Tanjung Pinang from Singapore (about 2 hours)

On my last trip to Singapore I took a day-trip to Indonesia, since several islands are so close to Singapore. I had a choice of either Batam or Bintan islands, both of which are just a ferry ride away. As I searched the internet for information about both islands, I was surprised at how little information was available on the logistics and what to do on such a trip.

Here is some information I wish I had known…

Which island?

  • Batam. Batam is closer to Singapore and a little easier to get to (see ferry information below). However, I didn’t see much on the internet that enticed me about Batam. There are shopping malls, some modern mosques and temples, and factories, but not much in the way of historical sites from what I could tell.
  • Bintan.Bintan is divided into two very different parts: the beach resorts on the north side of the island and the “real” Indonesian southern side. I wasn’t interested in beach resorts, and wanted the real thing. From what I had seen on the internet, Tanjung Pinang (TP) looked like a very interesting, authentic Indonesian town, and is the primary ferry port on Bintan. I decided against my hotel concierge’s advice (I think he was more concerned about convenience and safety than I was) and went to Bintan. I was very glad I did. Upon arrival, most tourists have a bus waiting to take them to the north shore resorts. I noticed one other person from the U.S. on our ferry ride over and the rest appeared to be Singaporean or Indonesian.

    Typical house on stilts in Tanjung Pinang

What about Indonesian visas (for U.S. visitors)?

  • As of September 2011, visas for U.S. citizens are purchased on arrival at the TP Ferry terminal. Cost was $10 USD, or $16 Singapore (Sing) dollars. Given the current exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.28 Singapore dollars, having exact US change (no change available) is a better deal. The visa document takes up an entire page of the passport, and is valid for 7 days.

What about language?

  • In my short stay on Bintan, English was hard to come by—I had to make a lot of gestures and do some writing of numbers. What a refreshing immersion just two hours from Singapore.

What about ferries?

  • Most ferries to Batam leave from the HarbourFront Ferry Terminal (southern tip of Singapore, by Sentosa Island resort) and are very frequent, about once per hour. Batam is only about a 45 minute ferry ride.
  • Ferries to Tanjung Pinang, Bintan leave from Tenah Merah Ferry Terminal, which is near the Changi International airport, on the southeastern side of Singapore. There are 3-4 ferries per day in each direction. I caught the 8:50 am ferry from Singapore to Bintan. Several ferry lines serve Bintan, mine was Falcon Ferries. I did not make reservations ahead of time; I simply got to the Ferry terminal about 90 minutes prior to my desired departure time to ensure I could get a seat on a Saturday morning—which was no problem—the ferry was probably 50-60% full. I understand the ferries are very full on Singapore holiday weekends, so plan ahead if that will be the case. I didn’t find the ferry websites too user-friendly, and it was easier just to go the terminal to purchase a ticket. The round trip cost was 50 Sing dollars or about $38 US. Don’t forget your passport! The journey took about 2 hours. The ferry served bottled water (free) and had some snacks available for purchase.

    Falcon Ferry Interior

    Our Ferry to Bintan, Indonesia

  • One other important note: You must confirm your return ferry trip by going to a local TP travel agency (best to do immediately upon arrival). The agency information is given with your ticket purchase. There is a small fee for this transaction (equivalent to $1.50 US). I decided to return on the 2:00 pm ferry, giving me about four hours on shore, which was perfect for my interests. Keep in mind that there is a one hour time change between the two countries, (Indonesia is one hour earlier than Singapore). My return ferry was only about 10% full.

What else?

  • There is an Indonesian departure tax (about $1.50 US) that must be paid at the Ferry terminal prior to going through security and immigration.

    Ferry Terminal, Tanjung Pinang

  • Indonesia is very inexpensive (although I am sure the resorts are not) compared with Singapore. Sing dollars seemed to be accepted about anywhere.
  • Food. I did not sample the local fare, since I did not want to spend time eating when I had only a few hours to explore, and I did not see much in the way of restaurants, just outdoor food stalls, and I was not sure of the sanitary conditions. I have eaten Indonesian food in other locations and enjoyed it.
  • Hotels. Since I took a day trip, I can’t speak about the TP hotels, although I saw one or two modest-looking hotels in my wandering through town.
  • There is a pier next to the ferry terminal with small boats (holding about 15 people) that take passengers to Penyengat Island (within view of TP) with the Sultan of Riau Grand Mosque. I didn’t figure this out until I was leaving, but it would be fun to take this ride next time.

What to do on Bintan?

  • I had no guide book on Bintan and finding information on the internet or even in Singapore was somewhat difficult. So, I “winged it” and decided to simply wander around the town of TP and see what I found. Bintan has had a reputation in the past of being a center of prostitution for those coming from Singapore, but I was glad to see no overt evidence of this upon my arrival. I was the only Caucasian (and tourist from what I could tell) wandering around the town, and received many stares, and invitations for scooter taxi rides. I was cautious with my small backpack, but never felt any concern for my safety. The longer I wandered around the more comfortable I got. Coming from Singapore, TP was a shock and quite fascinating. I was a bit shocked by the poorer conditions (and trash heaps under the stilt houses)—a huge contrast to the sparkling clean, vibrant and wealthy Singapore—and I was also fascinated by how different the culture and town felt from anything in Singapore.

    No need for regular trash pick-up!

    Fresh fruits and vegetables in Tanjung Pinang

  • Harbor. I wandered down a street and found myself at the edge of the harbor, perhaps a quarter mile away from the ferry terminal. There were little rickety wooden boats with small in-board motors waiting to take locals across the bay. Through hand waving and some writing, I arranged a private “tour” (45 minutes) of the harbor for about $10 Sing dollars. I highly recommend this little tour—seeing the old, large wooden fishing boats (with a style totally different than what I had seen elsewhere) anchored (and in some cases looking like abandoned ghost ships) in the harbor was fascinating, along with the homes and warehouses built on stilts in the middle of the bay.

    My harbor cruise boat

    House on stilts in Tanjung Pinang Harbor

    Fishing boat, Tanjung Pinang Harbor

  • Street wandering. Just wandering the streets with the shops was fun. Spices and every type of little dried fish (and other unrecognizable seafood) was available. I also went to a Buddhist temple and got a tour from a little lady who made a lot of gestures and grunts about what I was seeing.

    Buddhist Temple Tanjung Pinang

    Bales of little dried fishes

    Looking for a machete? Lots of choices!

  • Houses on stilts. Further into the town I found a housing area, and realized that the whole neighborhood was over the water. I wandered through back alleys and enjoyed seeing how the “average” Indonesian lived in TP, over the water, with wooden and sometimes cement stilt foundations, with no lawns to mow or cars to park.

    Waterfront property in Tanjung Pinang

    Hard to believe this street is over the water...

    Tanjung Pinang neighborhood on stilts

If you have an extra day while in Singapore and want a completely different experience, take a day trip to Bintan. It was a blast. Plan about 10 hours total for the adventure mentioned above.