Nicknamed ‘Kota Industri’, Batam has earned a reputation as a business centre and duty-free shopping haven. Mark Eveleigh visits Singapore’s closest island neighbour and discovers that ‘The Industrial City’ has a few surprises in store.

Words by Mark Eveleigh

Clouds scud across a clear sky, and yachts skip on trade-winds that not so long ago only carried Sea Gypsy fishing boats. Today, great cargo ships rumble across the horizon, dwarfing many of the islands they pass.

Until the early 1970s, the 3,200 islands of the Riau Archipelago were virtually unknown. Yet due to the unique success of Batam island as a business centre, the Riau province has one of the fastest- growing populations in the entire country. Batam has made a name for itself as a duty-free shopping haven and as a weekend beach resort hangout for escapees from Singapore’s concrete jungle.

The modern metropolis of Batam City spreads across an island where not so long ago only Sea Gypsy communities were to be found.

Little Batam island (it’s less than a quarter the size of Bali) is thinking big these days. The realisation hit me in an unlikely place: I was exploring Batam Miniature House Park, in Golden City, where 33 different concrete model houses stand as diminutive testaments to Indonesia’s spectacular diversity. In the couple of days I’d been driving around Batam, I had the impression that construction seems to be the big business of the moment. The city already boasts several huge malls (most notably Nagoya Hill, Mega Mall and Batam City Square), but I’d noticed that architectural styles here seem to be on an imaginative level that competes even with the 33 radically different styles at Batam Miniature House Park.

The mighty Tengku Fisabilillah Bridge rears to almost forty metres over the swirling currents of the channel.

Near the waterfront at Harbour Bay, I had seen the immense soaring bulk of Pacific Palace Hotel, built to represent a truly Titanic cruise liner, permanently anchored by its sheer concrete bulk. I’d been stunned to see the great faux-Roman twin domes of the Imperium Superblock Complex and the ornate façade of the street – looking like a transplanted section of London’s Regent Street – that runs back from the domes towards the river. Even little private houses seem to be built in imaginative styles that would seem impossible anywhere else: a family home surmounted with a roof that is a scale model of the Sydney Opera House, for example, or a vibrantly painted villa topped with what appear to be oversized clown hats…

The beautiful beach villas at Batam View are traditional timber designs with iconic rearing roofs.

The premier icons of Batam island, however, are the Barelang Bridges. Barelang takes its name from BAtam, REmpang and GaLANG, the three islands that this chain of bridges connects. The first and largest of the bridges as you head south is the mighty Tengku Fisabilillah Bridge. It rears to almost 40m over the swirling currents of the channel in a great swooping arc as it leads you southwards from Batam business centre to the rural Riau backcountry of Galang.

A troop of mischievous monkeys now haunts the grounds of Galang Refugee Camp.

Galang hit the world news in the 1970s when it hosted a huge humanitarian effort to find asylum for refugees – known in the international press as ‘boat people’ – from war-torn Vietnam and (to a lesser extent) Cambodia. As home to about a quarter of a million refugees between 1979 and 1995, Galang Refugee Camp became known as ‘the Gateway to Freedom and Humanity’. The camp had its own schools, hospital, Boy Scout camp, barracks and even prison. “If refugee camps must exist at all,” demanded a Straits Times front-page story at the time, “then why can’t they all be like Galang?”

Nha Tho Duc Me Vo Nhiem Catholic Church still holds masses more than 2 decades after the Vietnamese refugees left Batam.

Galang Refugee Camp, with its still-functioning Quan Am Tu Buddhist Temple, Cua Ky Vien Pagoda, and the Nha Tho Duc Me Vo Nhiem Catholic church, is still a poignant place to visit today. There’s a fascinating museum, and two replica boats stand in the grounds as copies of the vessels that were used by the ‘boat people’. The original boats were usually destroyed along with the fishing nets, to prevent the refugees from sailing onwards (perhaps into less hospitable waters). Near the carefully manicured Nghia Trang Vietnamese cemetery, an overgrown track leads
to Tin Lanh Protestant church, which has a reputation for being so haunted that most locals entirely refuse to even enter the track.

Jakarta to Batam

Flight Time 1 hour 25 minutes

Frequency 35 flights per week

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From Colours May 2016


5 Senses – Touch

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