Riau Islands: Caribbean Adventure Asian-style

By Loren Xue

Riau, 10 December, 2012. Riau Islands Province, Indonesia, is often missed out as a leisure destination for travelers in South East Asia looking for an island getaway. The Asian counterpart of the Caribbean, the Riau Archipelago is made up of amongst others: Batam, Bintan, Karimun, Natuna, Anambas, Linga and some 3,000 other little islets - which makes for a varied travelling experience for those looking for an eco-adventure. The capital of the province is Tanjung Pinang on Bintan, the largest of the islands.

Anambas Island is a haven for humans and turtles alike.

Getting there is relatively easy. The Riau islands are close enough to Singapore and Johor Bahru that there are a few alternative ways of making the trip. Some people choose to fly in by plane to Batam via the Hang Nadim Airport, from Malaysia's Johor Bahru (Senai) or through Singapore's Changi. Taking a ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal in Singapore is probably the most accessible and popular, and not too expensive either. Or you can charter a boat from one of the terminals in Singapore or Johor Bahru if you are feeling rich.

Like the Caribbean Islands, the Riau islands afford the traveller plenty of water activities such as snorkeling, diving, and plenty of other little adventures such as mangrove exploration in small light boats, or hill-climbing. Of course, some islands are better than the others for diving, and some are better for adventures – and so you know which ones are good for what, here's a quick run-down.

Gonggong shells in their original state.

Batam is probably the best for hill climbing, trekking and dive spots, with Abang Island being one of the most favoured underwater spots. Bintan is top of the list when it comes to resort-living and mangrove exploration. There you can see fireflies in the night, go snorkelling off the beach and mountain (or at least big hill) climbing. The vibrant and healthy beaches on all sides at Bintan allow for a rich and rewarding experience, with tiny crabs and edible mussels that you can find and pick up from the sand. All these activities can be arranged with Bintan Agro Beach Resort.

Karimun is another destination favoured by divers as it offers lots of chances for colourful sightings of fish and sea creatures. Anambas – or more specifically Pahat Island, Penjalin Island and the Mangkai Island – boast conservation beaches that are the spawning ground for sea turtles, so if you go during the months of May to August you might get lucky and see some turtles laying eggs. And of course if you don’t see any turtles you can always go fishing. The waters in this area are especially fertile, which is why all the local fishermen anchor just offshore.

Resorts on most of the islands are plentiful – some resorts will encourage you to rent “villas” that are essentially little houses perched above the sea on stilts. Although most are quite basic, made of palm leaves and bamboo, some villas (Bintan Lagoon Resort for example) are big with a full dining room, a kitchen and bedrooms with a pool in the backyard and the sea close by. But in all of them, you hear the wash of the ocean when you sleep at night.

There is also the option of having the best of both worlds - staying on a kelong. Ones that tourists stay on are usually a floating establishment with a few rooms, with the bonus of trailing nets of fish beneath them. One very charming benefit of staying in one of these is that it feels like you're on a live-aboard boat, except it's a floating house, not a boat. You eat what is caught, fresh from the sea and your hosts will cook whatever they catch for you. This unique option is popular with sea-loving honeymooners and holiday-goers. A kind of rustic alternative to the Caribbean.

In Riau, jungles come alive.

For those who prefer land activities there are treks available on the various islands where you can make camp in the jungle and experience for yourself the incredible mossy floor of the forest, a wide range of land creatures and primates, plus the birds that populate the lush landscape. You can even investigate how rubber tappers extract raw materials from the forest if you want to, but usually you have to call ahead and arrange for that via a travel agent.

Food-wise you'll be pleasantly surprised at the low cost – especially of seafood. And while you are in the region, be sure to taste Indonesian mango and durian. The mangoes are somehow more fragrant in the tropics, and are eaten on their own, or cut up and put into little dishes. There are even food trails on some islands where you can eat as you travel, but generally speaking, food is best bought from restaurants. If you are adventurous, roadside stalls can yield rewarding experiences for your tastebuds – but only try it if you see the locals buying from them. Some dishes can be spicy, so be sure to taste the dish a bit before heaping a huge helping onto your plate.

Travelling around can also be slightly challenging for those who are prone to motion sickness, since the usual mode of transport between islands is by a ferry or boat. Smart visitors stock up on anti-seasickness pills. Lastly, biting insects can be a nuisance on some of the islands, so packing insect repellent is an easy way to help you enjoy the trip much more. It is a good idea to have a native guide to show you around, as who else to better host a traveller than a person who calls the islands home? One lighthearted and warm guide that we can recommend is Sapril, of EMKA Tours.

But no matter what way you travel, or who you travel with, you can be sure that Asia’s own Caribbean islands will have something to please you.

Photographs courtesy of Yuri Seperi and Loren Xue.

Ferry details: http://www.singaporecruise.com.sg

Batam resorts: http://www.batamholidays.com