The communal table before me is piled high with Instagram-worthy drinks. Among them are a Cookie Mudslide, topped with whipped cream and Oreo cookies; a bright pink Shirley Temple; and a Maldives, which evokes the hues of the tropical landscape using mango smoothie, blue curacao and grenadine syrup.
Through the glass floor on the second level of Chemistree Cafe in Batam, I watch the trendy-looking, 20something waiters below load their trays with plates of meatballs and pandan pancakes, as I sip a non-alcoholic mojito the colour of emeralds.
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore – or in this case, not in the Batam we once knew.
“Batam’s food scene has changed rapidly, especially in the last two or three years,” says 36-year-old Chandra Rachman.
Better known by his online alter ego, Batamliciouz, Mr Rachman has more than 65,000 followers on Instagram and is the unofficial expert on where to eat in the city.
“A bunch of hipster cafes have popped up, like Chemistree Cafe and Pod + Leaf, and franchises have started coming too. People in Batam are so hungry, it’s like they want to eat the world.”
And they want the world to join them too.
Less than an hour by ferry from Singapore, the laid-back island in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago is perhaps best known for its affordable golfing, fresh seafood and seedy nightlife.
But that seems to be changing – and the emergence of hipster cafes is just the beginning.
In August, Batam held its first Festival Otak-Otak. Eighteen hotels and eight restaurants participated in the two-day celebration of the popular South-east Asian fish cake.
The same month, 115 people from 18 countries took part in the island’s third Nongsa Challenge, an increasingly popular cycling competition.
They are just two of the events that aim to lure travellers afresh to the region.
And there are still more attractions to come.
Next year, the island will open its first modern museum. The Museum Kota Batam will focus on the region’s history, spanning the Bukit Siguntang era (7th century) to the present day.
The 1,700 sq m building will house more than 100 items, with ancient manuscripts featured alongside digital displays. It will be the Riau Islands’ fifth museum, but the first to offer a more modern, digital concept. Batam, it seems, is on the rise.
“Many people who visit Batam haven’t been here for a while and can’t comprehend the change,” says Mr Gavin Sanders, general manager of Radisson Golf & Convention Center Batam – a five-star, 240-room hotel which opened in August 2016.
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lounge on Level 10, I watch as sunset bathes the Sukajadi golf course in warm pink and orange light.
“Batam had a seedy image years ago,” says Mr Sanders. “But now everything has changed and we want to help shrug off that tag.”
Abiding by the mantra that change begins at home, he is working to ensure that the hotel appeals to a wide variety of travellers.
Radisson now offers everything from weekly yoga classes on Sundays to an expanded kids’ club offering to free transport to local malls.
It also organises themed tours of the island that cover street food, culture and activities such as snorkelling, fishing and hiking, among other interests.
In what could be Batam’s more modest answer to Singapore’s famed infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands, the Radisson’s adults-only pool on Level 10 hosts monthly parties.
Rain or shine, DJs spin tunes on the open-air terrace while guests take in views of the city from one end of the pool and Sukajadi’s surrounding hills from the other.
It is a fun way to unwind after a day of sightseeing.
Type “what to do in Batam” into Google and the top three results that appear are Universal Studios, Sentosa and Kusu Island. The dilemma? All three are located in Singapore.
As a first-timer to Batam, this doesn’t fill me with confidence about the island’s sights. But as it turns out, Google is misinformed and I find enough to occupy a weekend.
Beyond the affordable spas, golfing and shopping for which Batam is known, there are several other sites worth visiting. Among them is Barelang Bridge, which Mr Sanders recommends for its “wonderful views”.
While Barelang is actually a chain of six bridges – connecting the islands of Batam, Rempang and Galang – the name is commonly used to refer to a cable-stayed bridge that links Batam Island and Tonton Island.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge it is not. But it has its own charm: Two giant upturned fans resting on a concrete ribbon, suspended above the aquamarine waters of the South China Sea.
In testament to the enthusiasm the structure inspires in Indonesians, a small lookout has been built, from where you can capture a picture of the bridge’s most photogenic angle.
When I visit, it is 11am and the temperature is almost 30 deg C.
It is blissfully quiet, save for the sound of birds chirruping in the trees nearby. A breeze offers momentary relief from the blinding intensity of the sun, as I make my way from the bridge, down towards a small jetty at the bottom of a cliff.
Singapore-based operator Sun-City, which specialises in eco tours, has organised a boat to take the group through the nearby mangroves.
I have been looking forward to pootling through the brackish waters in a traditional wooden longboat, so I am disappointed when I see a small ferry waiting.
The engines and the size of the craft mean we can no longer have a close-up view of the mangrove forest. We must keep our distance to avoid destroying the fragile ecosystem.
Indonesia has the largest tracts of mangrove forest in the world, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate.
“During the 1970s, mangroves occupied 24 per cent of Batam. Today, that figure is just 4 per cent,” says our guide, Mr Pandian Parthasarathy. “The biggest threat is human activity.”
He explains the critical importance of the mangroves – they help absorb greenhouse gases, protect coastlines and provide timber, plant products and fish to rural communities – a fact that hits home as we pass a small village on one of Batam’s outlying islands.
The island’s occupants are known as sea gypsies. The label conjures cliched images of seaside fortune tellers; women draped in headscarves, going about their business in bare feet and full skirts.
But the reality is one of a hard-working Muslim fishing community.
A family of four waves enthusiastically at us from their motorboat, as they arrive home to an overwater shanty made from wood and corrugated iron.
Here, fishermen typically rise at 4am and return with the day’s haul at around mid-day.
I enjoy the spoils of the fishermen’s work later that afternoon, as I tuck into a feast fit for royalty at Kopak Jaya 007, a seafood restaurant perched at the end of a kelong (an offshore platform made from wood).
Large platters of moreish salted-egg crab, black-pepper crayfish and steamed scallops with garlic jostle for space on the table.
Nearby, young Indonesians in hijab and bright pink lipstick pose for photos on a safety net strung over the water between two decks.
Yes, the rumblings of Batam’s change have surely begun, but let’s hope the island retains some of its uniquely South-east Asian heritage as its transformation continues.
- Several fast ferry companies operate daily departures from Singapore Cruise Centre at HarbourFront to Batam Centre Ferry Terminal. The journey takes about 60 minutes.
- Travellers to Batam may purchase a visa on arrival for seven days (US$15 or S$20) or 30 days (US$35). Your passport or travel document must be valid for at least six months after the date of entry.
- Ensure that you observe the signs requesting silence inside Batam Centre Ferry Terminal. Indonesian customs officials have been known to turn travellers back to Singapore for talking.
By Rachel Lees, Straits Times, February 2018.
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