Monday, February 29, 2016

Safe to enter Indonesia/Tg Pinang now with bicycles!





Following our deportation from Tg Pinang 3 weeks ago, I was surprised at how fast the Indonesia Government has worked to tackle corruption. When I posted of our unfortunate experience, the blog post went viral and within days, it had 10000 hits.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness of many ordinary Indonesians who wrote in to show support and empathy and somehow, this reached the authorities. I was and still am humbled that MP of Tg Pinang the Honourable Ade Angga took an interest in the case and wrote to me to apologise, and assuring me that action will be taken.

This also made the news of the Batampos Newspaper and I even got another response from Mr Muchsinin Husien, the Head of Compliance of Directorate General of Customs, who informed me of an investigation into the matter.



Today, I got this amazing email from Mr Ade, MP informing me that they had a meeting with all the stakeholders involved. The 2 custom officers that asked for bribes were punished and I feel very sad for that. But we all make mistakes. However, the most important and good news for us cycle tourists, is that sports equipment (bicycles included) can come into Indonesia without requiring any payments.

Of course, this is subject to our bicycles returning with us when we leave Indonesia.

I am so heartened to know of Indonesia's resolve under President Widodo to eradicate corruption and its not just talk but fast action. All it took was 3 weeks to wrap this up and I cannot be more impressed.

So please my friends, let us continue to enjoy cycling in Indonesia, particularly Bintan and the other lovely Riau islands. Jan Boonstra, famous Dutch Carthographer who used to live and cycle this region describes Bintan as the best cycling secret in the Riau. The annual Tour de Bintan, held this year Apr 1, continue to be a world class cycling event and this is for good reasons.  Excellent and challenging cycling. Great roads, amazing scenery, countryside atmosphere and warm people.

Pic fm Bevancolles Blog

Here is an excellent video of our first Bintan ride done in 2009 by my friend Dr Kevin Soh. Bintan since then has undergone many exciting developments and we really enjoyed cycling the new highway from Tg Uban to Tg Pinang last year.

 


I have made several trips in the last 8 years and enjoy them thoroughly. So feel free to print this email out when you go, not that you need to after the message of no corruption is loud and clear.

As a gesture of gratitude, I shall be organising a Friendship Ride to Bintan later this year and do let me know of your interest if you are keen to support this ride.

God bless Indonesia and it's lovely people! Thank you very much once again to the MP of Tg Pinang Ade Angga. I am so honoured to be called your brother and hope to be able to cycle with you one day soon :)


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Just received this from Mr Husien as well. I am very touched by their warm welcome. I was praying that something beautiful would come out of this incident, and it has!

Dear Mr. Al, I would like to inform you the progress from the investigation we've done. We interviewed the three officers that were on duty at the time. They have been counseled that their actions are not in accordance with Customs' best practice. They have been given guidance and briefings to increase their knowledge for better service in the near future.

Thank you for your feedback and apologize for the misunderstanding. We welcome you to explore wonderful Indonesia in the future.

Regards,
Muchsinin Husein


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Just got word that this article appeared in Tg Pinang newspaper today - 1 March 2016. Amazing.


The article using Google Translate as follows


BATAM.TRIBUNNEWS.COM, TANJUNGPINANG - Provincial Legislative Council (DPRD) Tanjungpinang upset by the action of an individual officer of the Customs Tanjungpinang allegedly extorting tourists from Singapore, some time ago.
Parliament was then summoned the leadership of the BC Hearings Meeting (RDP) in Tanjungpinang Senggarang Parliament Office on Monday (29/02/2016) afternoon.
This case is still attention after a scene in the social media. Whereas, the rating was uploading the BC officers demand money in pribadianya blog.
Even the Deputy Chairman of Parliament Tanjungpinang Ade Anga directly communicate with tourists and then berinisitif held RDP.
Member of the Commission 1 Parliament Tanjungpinang Beni in the forum said that the behavior of employees of BC is very embarrassing and create a bad image of government Tanjungpinang.
Moreover, who is a senior official that it was impossible not to know the rules. "We conclude that there is an intention to blackmail," he said.
Beni said, the budget Tanjungpinang prmosi much absorbed to travel to foreign tourists visiting Tanjungpinang.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Deported from Tanjong Pinang, Riau, Indonesia


Welcome??? Maybe not, at least for cyclists.






DEPORT - to force (a person who is not a citizen) to leave a country
Merriam-Webster


Wolves are known to wait patiently and attack stragglers especially those at the tail end of the sheep fold. We encountered something similar today as we cleared customs at Tg Pinang, Riau.  We were the only ones left after all the crowds went through due to our bicycles being the last to unload from the ferry.


We were all happy and cheery as we began what we thought was another exciting Lovethefold Adventure to beautiful Singkep Island, deep south across the equator to visit our friends Hardi and Devi.


The immigration officials were cheerful and one friendly lady officer remarked that she liked my Da Brim helmet! Such warmth and I replied with a thank you and a big smile. With our passports chopped, we proceeded to get our bags x-rayed at the Customs as per the normal procedure. Unfortunately, a very gruff customs lady senior ranking officer probably in her late 40s with thick gold bangles and rings asked very rudely for our papers to bring in our bicycles. She demanded if we had an agent and we haven't the foggiest what she was talking about as we have been bringing bicycles to the Riau Islands with no issue on numerous occasions. She was soon joined by another wolf, this time a dark, slimy ciggie smoking man who was aggressive and arrogant. He wore a brown leather jacket over his uniform. They both insisted that I accompanied them to their musty office, away from public eye for "negotiations".

There, they badgered me for $100 per bicycle or $400. I was shocked that they asked in Singapore Dollar and not their country's currency, The Rupiah! Very suspicious indeed. The purpose they claimed was firstly that Dabo and Tg Pinang were a non-free trade zone unlike Batam so bicycles were taxable, even though our bikes were clearly very used. My Tikit is 7 years old! Then they asked what would happen if we met up with an accident while cycling? I was really confused as now, were they offering bicycle insurance? When I told them I don't have that much money with me, their translator a very young man who spoke decent English was appalled and asked very condescendingly why I came to their country with so little money?

Mr Wolf soon went on a tirade about how he was asked to pay duty for ciggies that he tried to bring into Spore and so, it was now his right (and probably revenge) to ask me to pay "duty" for our very used bicycles. When he realised that I was not going to budge, he dropped the duty fee to $200, then $150 finally. At this stage, I was getting really annoyed as he started to point his finger at me menacingly with smoke coming out of his stained teeth mouth literally.

Dear Bro George at that time came in out of concern to see what was happening and nearly lost his temper at the sight of how these 2 wolves were going for the kill. Mrs Wolf then knew that this sheep was holding his ground and told us harshly to go back to Singapore. We were not welcome into Tg Pinang until we came back with more $, were her parting words. Then strangely, she made a concession later and said we could leave one bicycle at customs while the 4 of us could make our trip with 3 bicycles. But we were not leaving anyone behind! She must have figured out that our Bike Friday Tikit or a Brompton was certainly worth more than $150. Also, there was no way we would leave our precious steeds with them.


I told her politely and respectfully please don't scold us as we are friends of Indonesia and were here to enjoy ourselves. I shared that we were simply going to pay a visit to our friends who just had a new baby in Dabo, cycle a bit and that we are not crooks but law abiding tourists who unfortunately are not swimming in cash. I passed her my name card and told her that I am a Pastor whose call in life is not to make trouble but to bless people.

Unfortunately, she and her partner were not going to be blessed financially by us and she instructed us to take the next ferry back to Singapore which was 430pm, another 5 hours. We were being deported! Our bicycles were to be kept at the Customs Office until we left on the ferry. KC with a twinkle in his eye suggested we sneaked our bikes off when they were not looking but alas, we had already missed the 1130am ferry to Dabo and who knows what trouble we could be in if we did that.

Meanwhile, Berenda our most able Chief Financial Officer was being asked by the Fish Quarantine Officials why we were stuck and were not leaving. She explained that we did not bring the required "paper" and were in the midst of negotiations. They smiled and shrugged their shoulders.

Leaving our bikes obediently at Wolves Den, we went to town for lunch, had a very lack-luster Nasi Padang after a bit of a walkabout in the afternoon sun. Somehow, we had lost our appetite. We got a SIM card so we could convey our apologies to Hardi, who was also upset at this whole incident. He wrote, "Saya sangat kecewa sama custom indonesia. Sangat memalukan..." roughly translated - He was very disappointed with the customs. Very embarrassing.

The SIM card shopkeeper sympathised with our plight and shook his head. Then, we took a van taxi to a spa at 3km marker to kill time. Indo Spa looked decent enough but they showed us an English menu where a normal tradition massage started at 270,000 rp or S$27. This was crazy in a place like Tg Pinang and catered mainly for tour companies. The incredible expression of my face brought it down instantly to $21. Still, we decided to walk out and the manager chased us and said would 120,000 rp do? That was more like it, and since we had to wait out for our ferry, we agreed. The soothing treatments did wonders to our dampened spirits.

We caught a friendly taxi van back to the jetty and found a nice cake shop where we sat and enjoyed a delightful afternoon tea. Strolling back to the departure jetty, we were asked to give Angpows (Red packets with $) incessantly from various strangers and that really made us want to get out of this town asap. Some of the staff asked why we were going back so soon and where were our bicycles? We just smiled. No need to say too much. Thankfully, the young customs officer who spoke English and translated our conversations allowed us to take our bicycles with no drama. I asked gently if he was a university graduate and he nodded, very pleased at the recognition of his English ability. Sadly, his bosses are such poor examples and I hope he doesn't follow in their footsteps. It is up to the younger crop of officers to make Indonesia better. We proceeded upstairs to clear immigration and never felt happier being on the ferry back to Singapore.


Every country has the right to decide who gets in and who doesn't. As guests, all who enter must abide by their rules and law. We respect that and it must be said that we are also not expecting any special privileges whatsoever as we are all merely just ordinary people. However, when it comes to blatant corruption, demanded in such a crass and rude manner, we are only too happy to be deported. After all, how can anyone enjoy staying in a place when the welcome mat has been withdrawn?

Arriving in Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal Singapore, we were greeted with the most beautiful of sunsets. The orange hue and warmth perked us greatly and we knew instantly that being in Singapore's terra firma was certainly the right decision. We nearly got devoured but survived. In my heart, I knew we were protected by a very able Shepherd.  

Real courage is when you know you are licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.  Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird. 

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Lesson Learnt - I will still continue visiting enchanting Indonesia because I have met many wonderful and nice people there. Despite today's incident, Indonesia remains a great country for bicycle touring known for its quiet roads, great culture, history and friendly folks. From the FB postings in response to this blog post, many have shared similar negative experiences and that is sad. Perhaps we can blame the CNY season or low salaries but to be fair, many have traveled smoothly with no incidents, as I had before.

However, I will not recommend entering through Tg Pinang with bicycles for now. The northern ferry terminal of Bandar Bentan Telani is relatively problem free as many Westerners and golfers go through there and is a better bet. Clearing immigration and customs at Batam Centre, then cycling 18km to Telaga Punggur ferry terminal, catching a ferry to Tg Uban, east of Bintan is another safer option.

Meanwhile, will be seeking clarification from the relevant authorities about their custom's policy on bicycle tourism so stay tune. I do hope that we bicycle tourists will be welcome as we play our part in building and fostering bridges of friendships with our neighbours.

Don't let these situations put you off and I hope you will keep exploring and keep riding. The world is 99% of the time, a very welcoming place!



Update Feb 15, 2016 

As at Day 5 of this post, there have been over 9000 hits, and requests for more information/interview by the local Singapore media. This is obviously an issue that resonates with many. I am truly grateful to all who wrote in, gave support and shared nuggets of wisdom and advice. Terima kasih indeed! However, it is not my wish to fan this small fire and I would like somehow for this incident to turn into something good, something beautiful to reflect the strong friendship and bond between the peoples of Singapore and Indonesia.


Update Feb 18, 2016

It is Day 8 and I have been very encouraged and impressed at how serious the Indonesian authorities are taking an interest in this case. Was surprised and deeply honoured when a Tg Pinang MP Ade Angga wrote to express support and promised an investigation into this unfortunate event. Then today, it made the news of the BatamPos, a local newspaper.



In the evening, I received another post from the Head of Compliance, Enchik Muchsinin Husien writing in to apologise for his staff behaviour, started investigation and requesting for more information. I am very humbled to hear from another important man in the Indo govt.

For the record, it is not my wish to see these 2 officers prosecuted because like us, we all have our families to support. Truth be told, we all have made mistakes before and people have been gracious and kind to us. If the message is received loud and clear to the Customs Officials that corruption of any sorts are not tolerated in the future, that will be a most desirable outcome.

With all these assurances, action and warmth from our Indonesian friends, I feel that the Riau Islands are not to be avoided just because of this one-off incident (at least for me). I was hoping that some good will turn out from this and I believe it has :) They are deserving of our support and I have had nothing but the most enjoyable times discovering and exploring these wonderful islands on my bicycle, meeting so many lovely folks on my previous trips.

Let us all do our bit to build the warm relationship between Indonesia and Singapore, as well as other countries because at the end of the day, we are all neighbours, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers and friends or kawan kawan.

Update Feb 21 - According to this website, sports equipment (bicycles included) are allowed in duty free provided they return with the tourist. Therefore for our case, the custom officers were clearly wrong in demanding "duty" from us for our bicycles.

Restricted
• (Video) cameras, portable radio cassette recorder, binoculars and sport equipment may be imported by tourists provided also exported upon departure.




Sunday, January 31, 2016

Scootering again Day 3 - Chiang Saen to Doi Mae Salong 100km








I woke up early hoping to catch the sunrise over the Mekong and my effort paid off. It was special to see the beginning of a new day with the sun taking its time to light up the darkness. 


Today was to be a shorter ride so we had an easy morning enjoying the hotel's complimentary breakfast. I have always found these not quite up to scratch perhaps due to "mass" cooking and the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. Anyhow, we had fun practicing "serving one another" and at 9am, the Roscoes who stayed at another hotel showed up. 


We rode a mere 30 mins to the famous Golden Triangle where the countries of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and further up, China meet together at this point of the Mekong. It was good that we were there early before the tour groups came and had the place all to ourselves. The golden Big Buddha glistened in the morning sun and made for great photos. A couple of ladies presumably from China started posing for pics but they could not beat our resident model Doreen, who was in her element!


Our next stop was Mae Sai, the border town where people go for visa run to Myanmar. We took the "must-do" group picture with the Immigration Building, had a quick lunch at Top North Hotel and headed south along Highway 1 for 36km until we made a right onto the scenic 107 where we started our climb towards Doi Mae Salong.


Climbing up meant cooler weather and a more interesting ride through many sharp hairpin bends and that got my heart pumping even though we were on small 125cc scooters. I made a wrong turn, strayed and we ended up at a crowded flower festival where we enjoyed the best coffee ever. Felt rather embarrassed! The kind policeman then redirected me back to the right and noble path and cutting through the mountain ridges were nothing more than sheer magic.

We had to stop at a scenic point to soak in the magnificent views and it was one of those "Kodak" moments which was imprinted in our memories forever. Looking down the valleys and far into the horizon, the beauty was sheer magic. Where we stopped there were village kids playing soccer happily and their carefree laughter and joy reminded me of what childhood should be. 


We reached the hamlet of Mae Salong just before sunset and this town has a rich history. A former KMT Army hideout base, it was used to stage raids against the Chinese Communist Army. But when the war was over, the soldiers were given permission by the Thai King to settle here in exchange for their protection against the Communists. The town has a distinctly Yunnan flavour and most of the hotels and businesses are Chinese owned. Mandarin is widely spoken here and it truly feels like being in China.

Our hotel was the brand new Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel where our rooms offered amazing views of the mountain side. Everyone was thrilled with their rooms. Alastair and I sat at the balcony and broke out in praise to Him who created all these.


Dinner that night was at the hotel where we enjoyed a nice Yunnan feast. We had the famous stewed pork with buns, all sorts of fresh veggies including mushrooms, omelette, soup and enjoyed the different distinct flavor.

We all slept very well that night high up in the mountains of Doi Mae Salong, with natural air-conditioning and the freshest of air. Perhaps you could say we were all a little bit closer to God that night.

Scootering again, Day 2 - Phayao to Chiang Saen 130km






Coffee Cowboys - father and son team!


Hot Wok - seldom goes wrong!



Waking up earlier than usual, I went to recce for breakfast and borrowed the hotel's bicycle for a short morning spin. Phayao is certainly a quiet, charming country town with hardly a Farang. Ended up walking at a nearby school running field where the locals were doing their morning exercises. Saying goodbye to Baanmagrood was hard as we received exceptional hospitality and made a new friend in Khun Kay.

Took the team for breakfast at an eatery near the bus station which served rice with numerous Thai curries where everyone could select their favourite ones. Then, it was coffee at the cafe next door.


All fuelled up, we rode out of Phayao back to Highway 2 heading north to the famous white temple, Wat Rong Kun. Here, we pushed out little scooters a bit faster, cruising around 70km/h and that helped cover the 75km quickly. I was surprised at how courteous the Thai drivers were and enjoyed our faster than usual morning ride.

I have been to Wat Rong Kun many times so I volunteered to look after the bags while the others went wandering. While enjoying a quiet lunch, suddenly the thunderous sounds of big bore Harley Davidsons descended upon us. A group of leather and tatooed bad-boy looking Westerners parked indiscriminately and had their lunch. Many tourists took pics of their large polished chrome steeds with great admiration but I knew somehow that all that glitters is not gold in life.


It is always nicer to take the unbeaten path and this proved true as we headed towards the mountains and valleys of Highway 1271. Skirting Chiang Rai Airport, we GPS our way and soon ended up scootering on beautiful quiet roads passing through quite small towns and freshly harvested rice fields. One very sharp curve in a small town caught many of us off guard but fortunately, no one crashed.

It was a big surprise for us to find a beautiful English style Cafe here in rural Thailand and we enjoyed this little oasis for too long. When it was time to leave, Alastair surprised us by clearing the cups and cleaning up. It is just so like him to always be so considerate and immediately, all of us followed suit.


30 mins after pressing on towards the Mekong River and unto Chiang Saen, I signaled for the group to stop as right before us were the most beautiful sight of rice fields bathe in golden sunlight.  We were awed at what we saw and had a great time just taking lots of photos. The field workers too were waving at us and moments like these remind me of the special bond we have as God's children. 


We soon arrived at the T-junction and turned left towards Chiang Saen at Highway 1290. What was supposed to be an easy ride skirting along the Mekong River proved complicated as road works and an unfinished flyover meant we had to detour inland for awhile before rejoining 1290. It was a small annoyance but soon, the sight of the Chiang Saen night market before us got us all excited. But checking in was the priority and we booked ourselves into the plush Mekong Gin Resort with swimming pool and all. It was nice to have a quick swim before dinner and that really was invigorating.


Thoroughly enjoyed our 10+ course dinner as we perused through the numerous night market food stalls. How much can one eat? It was a good thing we could share so that we could sample more till we were truly stuffed. So I thought! Once out of the night market, I spotted a road side stall with a flaming wok and I could not help myself but to order my favourite Pat Krapao Moo (Thai basil pork with rice) and managed to squeeze in some hot soya milk drink for a most satisfying ending.


Like many Thai towns, Chiang Saen would have the traditional Thai massage shops and we spotted one on our way back to the hotel. It was managed by middle-age heavy weight Thai Aunties and that can only be a good sign. The massage we received for a mere 200B prepared us exceedingly well for a good night's sleep and if only we could have one every single day of our life before bed!



Monday, December 14, 2015

Scootering again! Day 1 - 150km. The Mekong and the Northern Mountains of Thailand - Nov 29 to Dec 5, 2015.











It's not often I repeat a trip in the same year but we had so much fun scootering N Thailand in Feb this year that I had many requests to organise another one so soon. The key impetus for this came when my former Pastor Alastair Bain who has just recovered from a prolonged illness asked if I could take him along for my next one. He needed to tick off his bucket list and Alastair is such a special person to me, I had had to oblige and with great pleasure.


The team soon grew and what was so unique was that we had a family of 3 in Ying Chang, Doreen and 11 yo Mark. Then we had energetic young adults in Nic, Hilson and his girlfriend Iris. Siow Wei a retired banker whom I've know since US uni days in the 1980s and a born again biker signed up very early too. At the last minute, Pete and Jan Roscoe snucked in making our 3 generation team a largish 11. We rented 6 Yamaha Grand Filano 125cc scooters and The Roscoes a comfortable Suzuki Burgman 200 scooter. Our choice of using scooters are its ease of use, generous luggage capacity and the fact that this was a slow sightseeing ride where we would cruise 40-60km/h most times.


The route I planned this time was a bit different, going anti-clockwise from Chiang Mai to Phayao, then to Chiang Sien where the Mekong and Golden Triangle is. Then up the mountains to Mae Salong and down to Chang Dao where elephants are. Cutting westwards to the famous Highway 1095 towards Pai where we wished we could stay longer! Mae Hong Son is next, then southeast towards Mae Chaem and then back to Chiang Mai making this a 1300km trip.

Click here if you wish to see the route in detail - Thanks Ying Chang!

Many of the riders were pretty new to scooters but they are cyclists and seriously, if you can cycle, you can scooter as these are fully automatic and very user friendly. It is not necessary to have a license in Thailand at least as far as the rental companies are concern. 250B per day plus 50B insurance with a cash deposit or a passport as guarantee, you are on your way!

It was quite exciting to meet everyone in Chiang Mai coming from Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. At our welcome dinner at Jia Tong Heng, we had the privilege of having the bicycle legend Chris Wee and his lovely wife, as well as George and Wendy who were on a car and cycling trip. I was very touched when Wendy got me a most useful gift, Thai mosquito repellent!


Our stay at Lamphu House was comfortable as the hardware was decent with a swimming pool thrown in. At 890B, I would recommend it but the software or service was nowhere near the friendly and welcoming folks at Early Bird located at the next Soi. Alastair and I attempted an early morning swim 30 mins before the official pool opening time but were chased away! Nic and Siow Wei too had to pay 250B for a soiled towel the hotel alleged that they did. Sadly, customers come last at Lamphu House as far as we are concern.


Early Bird was so nice to arrange for our scooters to be delivered and truly, they are #1 to deal with. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the sticker on one of the scooters proudly proclaiming, "Fxxx the World!" and decided that particular one was certainly not for me.


We enjoyed breakkie at my fav place, Jok Sompet for Khao Tom, a Thai rice porridge. Coming out of Chiang Mai with a string of 7 scooters was a challenge with the traffic. Once on the outskirts, we refuelled and was shocked to find how under-inflated our tires were. That sorted, we made our way to Phayao some 150km. It was an easy and relaxed ride as we cruised the Thai countryside, surprised at how courteous the drivers were. This being the first day, it was a time of learning and getting used to the scooters for the newbies. We stopped to visit a waterfall and took breaks every 30km or so. It was great just to take it easy and smell the roses as things ought to be.


Upon reaching Phayao, we lost Pete and Jan through the traffic. That got SW and I scurrying in search of the missing Burgman. Nic, Hilson and Iris said a prayer while the rest made their way to Baan Ma Grood Hotel. While Nic was awaiting at the corner, lo and behold a white Burgman cruised pass him and all was well! Dinner was so "So Good", literally as that was the name of the restaurant located by Phayao Lake. We enjoyed the Loy Krathong celebrations at the lakeside later and send some hot air lanterns into the night sky, along with  many others.


Khun Kea the owner of Baan Ma Grood was so nice to accompany me later to make a booking for Thai massage. Great service really makes the difference and I would highly recommend this hotel. However while walking on a dark soi, she was nearly run over by a speeding motorcycle coming around a blind corner. My quick reflexes in pulling her inside to the kerb saved her! My good deed for the day... Unfortunately, the shop Kea recommended was full but the boys Nic and Hilson found another one. I declined as the lady negotiating the price with me at that shop did so while digging her nose for gold nuggets with her fingers. I still get night mares thinking about that!

We all slept very well at BMG and what a fantastic day it has been. Turning in with the distant sound of fireworks and crackers was hard as we were still so excited and it seemed the whole world was excited with us. I felt a bit guilty as I got here with absolutely zero effort and that is something I have to get used to in the next week or so.