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Vagabond Tales: The Curious Case Of Indonesia's Pulau Bintan
Of course you've heard of Bali, but have you heard of Bintan?
Of the 18,000 or so islands, which make up the archipelago of Indonesia, the same five or six names invariably pop up when it comes to Indonesian tourism. Bali, the Gili Islands, Sulawesi, Java, Flores, Sumatra ... but what about Bintan?
Believe it or not, in terms of overall visitor numbers, Pulau Bintan is actually one of the highest visited and most popular destinations in all of Indonesia. Located only 50 minutes by ferry from the urban metropolis of Singapore, Pulau Bintan is a favorite weekend getaway for Singapore businessmen and their families who are looking to leave the city behind and escape to Indonesia for a few days.
The only problem with this, however, is that Pulau Bintan isn't really Indonesia. Well, part of it is, but then there's a whole other part that simply, well, isn't.
Just in the same way that the island of Hispaniola is divided into Haiti on one side and the Dominican Republic on the other, Pulau Bintan is likewise divided into Bintan Resorts on one side of the border and Indonesia on the other.
Wait. Did you say Bintan Resorts? That's not a country.
Gallery: Pulau Bintan
The reason this is all very strange is that Bintan Resorts is not a part of Singapore. It's a part of Indonesia. When you step off of the ferry from Singapore, you still need to pass through Indonesian customs and obtain an Indonesian visa. After that little diplomatic formality, however, everything reverts back to Singapore and Western modernity.
Shuttles transport you from one luxurious beach resort to the next. Infinity-style swimming pools lap calmly next to thatched hut bungalows. Waiters offer to bring you a wildly overpriced can of Bintang beer, all the staff speaks English, and there are golf courses, a Club Med, and no fewer than 12 separate day spas.
Ok, so that's not that weird, lots of islands have overpriced resort districts. What's your point?
My point is that Bintan Resorts also has a fence around it. That's right. A fence.
There is a massive fence surrounding the entire Bintan Resorts complex, which separates the high-paying tourists from the low-income locals. There are checkpoints when leaving the resort complex, which are akin to a border crossing. There are guards, there is a guardhouse, and there is a fence.
You know where else has a fence? The border of the United States and Mexico. Fences are not welcoming. They are divisive, and they are meant to keep people out.
Granted, putting a fence around private property is not exactly a strange thing to do. What's strange about the fence around Bintan Resorts is that it almost seems to have nationalistic indications. While the fence inarguably draws a line in the socio-economic sand, it also appears to draw a line between two nations: Singapore on one side of the line, Indonesia on the other.
What gives me trouble is that I'm not sure if the fence is meant to keep Singapore in, or rather, to keep Indonesia out.
Again, this is all very strange, because despite there being a border on most maps, which delineates Pulau Bintan into two distinct regions, the entire island is, after all, sovereign territory of Indonesia.
So while relaxing by the infinity pool was nice for about a day, I'm not the type of explorer who is content to sit and lounge. I traveled to Indonesia to see Indonesia. I wanted to see what was on the other side of the fence.
Three days later, in the island's capital of Tanjung Pinang, as the 5 a.m. call to prayer exploded from the minaret of the local mosque, I suddenly knew I wasn't in Bintan Resorts anymore.
Having already spent two days outside of Bintan Resorts on the muddy beaches of the island's eastern shore, I now found myself in the frenetic capital of 200,000 people being woken in darkness to a city already teeming with activity. A motorcycle buzzed beneath my window, the muezzin seemed only to get louder, and my hungry stomach actively growled.
It may not be the beachside massage table from four days earlier, but Tanjung Pinang was a living, breathing, Indonesian city, and I was none too happy to go out and explore it.
Ambling to the waterfront amidst a constant swarm of motorbikes, I shouldered up to a food stall for a breakfast paid for with a fistful of rupiah. Despite still being half asleep, I was awake enough to notice the sideways glances and curious stares. There isn't much Western tourism in Tanjung Pinang, and after having spent 30 minutes on the street I still hadn't seen another foreign face.
While waiting for my food in a red plastic chair, I was approached by a man with minimal English who simply wanted to say hello. Through the broken words and awkward pauses, I came to understand that I was the first white person he had ever spoken to.
Nervous but thankful, after a three-minute exchange, which could barely qualify as a conversation, the man thanked me for my time and continued about his day. The rest of the morning provided much of the same.
Squeezing my way down the motorbike-clogged streets, groups of local children would giggle and yell a "hello!" in my direction.
Men waved. A few took photos. Sure, there were festering garbage heaps in the alleyways, stray cats, clouds of cigarette smoke, a foul stench, the perfect combination of diesel fumes and fish, and a cacophony of motorbike mufflers, which provided an overall soundtrack to the squalor. All in all, however, this was still a port town with some charm.
Hours before needing to catch my ferry back to Singapore and modernity, I was lucky enough to watch local teams participate in dragon boat races down by the harbor. Expertly navigating their lightweight craft, crowds cheered as a different boat took the lead and groups of schoolchildren played on the rocks. A live band performed traditional music to an appreciative crowd of local passersby as a barefoot merchant did his best to hawk a bucket full of dried fish.
Sitting back and examining the scene, I realized that here, on the other side of the fence, I was finally nothing more than a fly on the wall examining the whirlwind culture of everyday Indonesia.
Maybe, it seemed that fence around Bintan Resorts serves a different purpose; it keeps the manicured luxury of Singapore out, and the authenticity of Indonesia in.
Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the "Vagabond Tales" over here.