Monday, April 25, 2011

Batam day-trippin

Batam and Bintan are two islands in the Indonesian Riau archipelago that are popular day-trip or weekender destinations for neighbouring Singaporeans. Bintan, facing the South China Sea, is popular for its beach resorts, while Batam is a good place to spend the stronger Singapore dollar on cheap spas and seafood. Batam also has the less salubrious reputation for its sex tourism. But so long as you steer clear of disco and karaoke bars and non-reputable massage centres, you should be able to avoid encountering this seedy trade. Legal and moral issues aside, tourists should really refrain from supporting this exploitative industry as it’s mired in human trafficking and child prostitution. To learn more about child prostitution issues and how you can help to prevent it or raise awareness, visit

Batam is a 45-50 minute ferry ride away from Singapore. There are a number of Batam ferry terminals with direct connections from Singapore’s Harbourfront ferry terminal, namely Batam Centre, Sekupang, Waterfront City and Harbour Bay. There are also ferries to Nongsapura, which depart from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, Singapore. A return ticket costs around 45-47 SGD (inclusive of taxes, terminal fees etc), depending on which ferry terminal you’re heading to and thus which ferry operator you’ll be travelling with. For ferry schedule and ferry operators’ contact list, see

Lately, my favourite reason for visiting Batam is to get my hair done at Sibel hairdressing, located at Nagoya Hill. Nagoya Hill is this sprawling complex, located about 5-10 minutes cab ride away from Harbour Bay ferry terminal. The ride probably costs around 15 000 - 20 000 ruppiah. To be safe, board only the yellow-plate licensed Batam Taxis, and also negotiate your price beforehand. Nagoya Hill is anchored by Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall, which was supposedly the largest shopping mall in Batam when it opened in 2007 (not too sure if the “largest mall” label still applies today).

Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall - Pintu Barat entrance (as indicated on its pillar)

The mall itself is pretty huge and if you’re an avid shopper on the look-out for bargain (albeit, not too fashionable) clothing, shoes and groceries, you might be able to spend a good few hours to half a day in there. There’s even a cinema, though I’ve yet to check out its prices and movie listings. There’s a Matahari department store too, which is good for browsing for clothing and buying Wacoal, the Japanese-brand lingerie, which some may find much cheaper than Singapore’s, as they are produced in Indonesia, but of course, the designs and range carried are different too.

There is also a Polo brand corner, which retails the popular collared T-shirts featuring a prominent horseback-riding polo player logo and other Polo merchandise. The brand is popularly regarded as the Indonesian spin-off brand of the international Polo Ralph Lauren brand, and as such, seen by bargain hunters as an economical (though not as quality) version of Polo Ralph Lauren, as the prices can differ as much as by 1/3, if you compare a standard logo Polo Ralph Lauren collared tee with a standard logo Polo collared tee. But there’s quite a bit of internet discussion on the authenticity of Polo and after much trawling, I’m still confused as to if the Indonesian Polo is a) a genuine spin-off brand of Polo Ralph Lauren, which for some reason, is licensed in Indonesia as Polo, instead of Polo Ralph Lauren; b) a legal “imitation” of Polo Ralph Lauren (which due to licensing chronology issues, cannot sue the Indonesian Polo, as the name was registered in Indonesia prior to Polo Ralph Lauren), with merchandise made intentionally to resemble Polo Ralph Lauren’s or c) there exist both Polo by Ralph Lauren and the Indonesian Polo in Batam, the later being a local brand unrelated to Ralph Lauren and thus the “fake”, while the former is carried at only certain retail spots in Batam. Confused yet? So far, most of the Internet findings have not been conclusive, this authenticity issue seems pretty much left to investigative journalism, if it’s worth the time at all. My take on this, is that if you come across the Polo brand merchandise while you’re in Batam or other parts of Indonesia for that matter, and happen to like its merchandise, decide if you feel that the price is worth the quality, not just the supposed brand-name appeal and make your purchase based on that. That way, if you find out that Indonesian Polo is not related to Polo Ralph Lauren, you won’t feel that you’ve overpaid for an imitation product, as you’ve paid simply for what you feel that merchandise is worth, sans its brand-name. But as to if you’ve unintentionally assisted in the infringement of intellectual property? Oops.

The Matahari supermarket is good for browsing for groceries and Singaporeans are wont to cart back boxes of made-in-Indonesia Indomie mee goreng instant noodles, which supposedly taste better than the made-in-Malaysia ones found on Singapore supermarket shelves. On this recent trip, I did not manage to check if this is still the case, given the pretty recent scare about the possibility of banned preservatives in the Indomie, although the Indomie imported into Singapore were cleared with a food safety probe later on. See Because they are hard to come by in Singapore, sometimes I buy back the Mie Sedap brand of mee goreng with jeruk nipis (lime flavour) instant noodles and Kusuka brand of flavoured tapioca chips (I especially enjoy the BBQ and sate pedas flavours). Keropok (deep fried crackers, of which Indonesia has an unusually large variety. Usually the sun-dried, pre-cooked versions are bought, to be fried back home) and Kueh Lapis (layered cake) are also popular snacks to cart back home. Matahari carries a range of keropok, but as for kueh lapis, the general preference is for freshly made cakes bought off bakeries or distributors for home-made versions (for example, such as the Isabella Massage House located in Nagoya Hill complex, which curiously offers sampling of kueh lapis and takes orders for its rather tasty home-made versions), rather than the pre-packed supermarket versions.

Nagoya Shopping Mall is also a place where Singaporeans can satisfy their nostalgic cravings for A&W fast food (especially the curly fries, root beer float and waffles) and Baskin Robbins ice cream, as these 2 brands are now defunct in Singapore. Don’t be surprised if you see Singaporeans making a beeline for A&W as soon as they set foot in Batam (or anywhere else in the region for that matter). It doesn’t matter if sometimes the queue is long and the wait turns out longer than expected for fast food service, or if on a bad day, the root beer float turns out flat and tepid and the curly fries limp. Singaporeans have an almost herd-like instinct to satisfy their long-drawn A&W cravings, if only because it was, after all, many Singaporean's foremost taste of American fast food, seeing that it was the first fast food chain to set up operations in Singapore, back in 1966. See:

While Batam is popular for its cheap seafood, I’ve unfortunately yet to come across one that I’ve liked enough to recommend. I’ve been to one or two kelong (fish farm/restaurants on stilts)-style seafood restaurants that are popular with tour groups, which while cheap, don’t exactly cut it quality and taste-wise. The only seafood restaurant I’ve tried recently at Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall failed to satisfy as well. Maybe I’m too fussy. My Batam hair stylist did recommend one on this recent trip, unfortunately, I did not have sufficient time to check it out. I’ll remember to post it if I ever do get to try it out later and if it turns out well. But if you do have seafood in Batam, you may wish to order “gong gong” - sea snails, which are supposedly a local specialty found only in the waters off Batam and Bintan. The snails are usually served simply steamed in their shells, with no dressing. You pull out the flesh by its tail or with the aid of a toothpick and dip them in the accompanying sambal chilli sauce and devour the mollusc whole, save for its prickly tail.

So instead of feasting on seafood, I satisfy my craving for Ayam Penyet. The famous one, with chains all over Indonesia and beyond, and I just found out, outlets in Singapore (Lucky Plaza) is Ayam Penyet Ria (Khas Ibu Ruth). It’s located at the Food Street of Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall (on its second level, most easily accessed by the Pintu Barat – west door entrance, where the A&W is located. The other entrance of the mall is on the opposite end, Pintu Timur – east door).

Food Street

Ayam Penyet Ria (Khas Ibu Ruth)

Ayam Penyet is essentially an Indonesian deep-fried chicken dish, which originated in Surabaya, East Java. “Ayam” means chicken and “penyet” means smashed or flattened, whereby the chicken is lightly smashed with a pestle to supposedly loosen the meat from the bone. The portion here at Ayam Penyet Ria is really tiny, kid-sized really. So if you have a hearty appetite, you may wish to order double portions or maybe add-on the other dishes – they have beef, prawn, fish penyet dishes too. I recalled from my previous visit, the soto ayam soup, while a tad oily, was delicious as well. The ayam penyet consists of a tiny piece of chicken drum fried to crispy perfection, some sides of cabbage, cucumber, basil, fried beancurd, fried tempeh (fermented soybean pieces) and the piece de resistance, the sambal chilli sauce. The chilli is so good, with such an awesome spicy kick, that I can only sufficiently express its flavour in the Singaporean colloquialism – shiok! For “dictionary” explanation of “shiok”, see: Then temper off the heat, with a nice, creamy avocado shake (a fail-safe drink in Batam – for me at least - made from the creamy avocado fruit ground to a milkshake-like consistency and laced with chocolate sauce). The Nasi Ayam Penyet (with rice) costs 16500 ruppiah (before 10% tax).

Ayam Penyet

Sibel hairdressing is located outside the mall, but within the Nagoya Hill complex. From the Pintu Barat entrance of the mall, cross over to the opposite rows of shops and head left, towards the end of the row, and you’ll come upon Sibel.

Sibel Hairdressing
This is my second visit to Sibel and I made an appointment with the stylist Dorris Lee. While the prices at Sibel are slightly cheaper or comparable to Singapore’s salons (especially after you factor in the ferry tickets), I’m pretty impressed with Dorris’ skills (she proved adept at cutting my long hair, gave my friend a chic bob and her husband a rather spiffy cut too) and knowledge of her trade. Apparently, she attends overseas training stints and is thus able to keep up with the latest hair trends. She’s also conversant in English and Chinese, making it easier for non-Bahasa speaking customers. So, if you happen to be at Nagoya and are in need of a haircut, I highly recommend checking out Sibel and asking for Dorris. If you’re keen to get Dorris to attend to you, you may wish to call in for an appointment. She seems like the only senior stylist around and when I was there on a Saturday afternoon, she was pretty much swamped.

Another reason for checking out Sibel is for the hair spa therapy. It’s a 45 minutes to 1 hour treatment, whereby you get a hair wash, hair mask using L’oreal Hair Spa products, and a (I can’t help but use this word again) shiok head, shoulder and arm massage, and of course, finish off with a blow-dry of the hair as well. Sibel salon is overall rather nice and clean, and if you ask for the hair spa treatment, you’ll be ushered to the quieter upper VIP level, where the steam machines (part of the hair spa treatment) are placed. Should you be unable or choose not to head up to the second-floor, the steam treatment would be done with a hot-towel wrap, in place of the machine.

VIP section on second level

Sibel Hairdressing

Address: Ruko Nagoya Hill G2, Batam, Indonesia

Tel: (0778) 7493 529 (if calling from outside of Indonesia, the country code for Indonesia is 62, so its +62 778 7493 529). On subsequent visits, you may wish to ask them for their BBM (black berry messenger) number for appointments.

Hours: 1000 – 2000 (closed on Tuesdays)

Price: 160 000 ruppiah for hair spa therapy (other hair therapies are available from 60 000 – 90 000 ruppiah); 140 000 – 166 000 for hair cut by Dorris. Pay in ruppiah only. I forgot to check if they accept credit cards.

Tip: Ask to change into a tube-wrap before your hair spa therapy, if you do not wish to stretch your shirt collar, the shampoo boy tends to tug your shirt collar when they need to massage your bare shoulders.

We had our massage at Eska. Again, Eska is most accessible from the Pintu Barat entrance of Nagoya mall, in fact, you’ll find it just right across the road from the A&W.

Eska Wellness Spa Massage and Salon

In addition to spa and massage services, Eska also has a whole range of beauty and hair services spread out over its 3-4 levels – manicure, pedicure, facial and a hair salon on its first level. I tried the package 1 (240 000ruppiah before tax), which is a 2-hour session, which consists of a facial, massage and foot reflexology treatments. The treatments are mostly carried out in curtained partitions. I think the men and women massages are conducted on separate floors. If you book the spa package, which consists of a bath treatment, for example the 3-hours birthday retreat package, you should get a room that comes with its own tub. Otherwise for non-bath packages or ala carte treatments where you have the body scrub, they are mostly conducted in the curtained partitions and you will have to make your way to the common bathroom at the end of each floor, to shower off. Because I had three different types of treatment, I had to shuttle between floors for each different treatment, but it should not be much of an inconvenience to most abled bodies. While the receptionists at Eska are conversant in English and Chinese, in addition to Bahasa; most of the therapists are fluent in Bahasa only and speak at most, a smattering of English. But no matter, arm yourself with a few useful Bahasa phrases and you should be able to enjoy your sessions. For example, the therapist may ask you “sini boleh?” – which roughly translates to “is this ok?” And if you find the massage pressure good, you reply “boleh” (ok), but if you prefer it to be softer or gentler, you can say “pelan” (pronounced “per – lahn”), or if you prefer it harder or stronger, you can say “kuat”. It’s a little trickier with the facial, I find myself struggling to communicate that I prefer not to do extraction, unless they have a pore-closer/toner to apply afterwards. Yes, it’s a tad too specific to be effectively translated with my broken Bahasa. Though the therapist did try her best with her broken English to reach a compromise too. And as always, it’s good manners to thank your therapists with a “Terima Kasih” (pronounced “Te-ri-ma Kah-see”in Bahasa Indonesia, not to be confused with “Te-ri-ma Kah-seh” in Bahasa Melayu – spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei), and a nice optional tip.

Eska Wellness Spa Massage and Salon

Address: Ruko Nagoya Hill Blok R4, F3 & F3A, Batam, Indonesia

Tel: +62 778 7493866

Website: (convenient for checking menu prices and reservations through online booking form at Eska accepts ruppiah, Singapore dollars (at prevailing exchange rate) and credit cards.

Hours: 1000 – 2200

Tip: Eska provides complimentary 1-way transport, either pick-up or return to ferry terminal or hotel.

So, all in all, Batam can be a convenient and affordable quick getaway, where you get to indulge in affordable pampering and cheap grub. Just remember to factor in the 1-hour time difference (Batam is one hour behind, GMT + 7) if you plan your itinerary around the ferry schedules.