I love cycling holidays because we always sleep so well. Getting up at 630am was easy and we enjoyed a nice sunrise. Our plans for the day were flexible. We could stay one more night here at Tg Batu or cycle northwards to catch the ferry to Karimun. As KC and I are folks that hate repeats and always game for new challenges, we decided on the latter even though we were warned in Singapore that bicycles were not allowed on ferries between there and Karimun. At the worse case, we could always fold up our bikes and hide them in trash bags.
With our bags packed, we mosey to the restaurant for a complimentary breakfast of fried rice and tea. Its always nice to eat with a great sea view and most unexpectedly, the owner of Gembira Hotel came to sit with us. Budy is a nice, young man in his early 30s who inherited the Gembira Empire from his late father.
Sadly, this empire of 2 flagship hotels with restaurants and even their own ferries have seen better days during the hay days 10 years ago when Tg Batu had a strong stream of tourists due to gambling and chickens, not the feathered but 2 legged kinds. Then, they even had a direct ferry from Singapore. Budy was very keen on getting more business especially with the cycle groups from Singapore and deserves our support.
Leaving Gembira, we rode past the Chinese food lane only to discover all sorts of great breakfast hawker delicacies and we could kick ourselves for filling up on the "complimentary" breakfast. Anyway, a lesson to be learned for the next trip as the variety will definitely satisfy the most discerning foody.
The Chinese immigrants have had a long history in the Riaus and the Vihara Dharma Shanti temple is one of many places of worship scattered around the island. We were grateful to the temple keeper Mr Tan, a very short man in his 70s, who was full of warmth and he offered to take us around.
I was fascinated with the stories depicted on murals and wished I could read the chinese characters. The whole atmosphere made me think I was more in China than in an Indonesian island.
We then started our ride north proper at 9am, this time along the Eastern corridor towards Urung, 20km away. Just 15 mins into the ride, we rode past a rambutan tree with numerous rich, red fruits all calling out for us.
It was magically to just pluck those red hairy delights from the branches, peel them with our bare hands and pop the white flesh into our mouth! I cannot believe that all this did not cost a cent.
Urung was reached in just under an hour of easy riding and at the T-junction, I spotted a newly erected but somewhat garish 2m high plastic pineapple replica that reminded me of the Malaysian town of Pekan Nanas. Despite it being a weekday morning, the town seemed bustling with all sorts of happenings.
I brought KC to the jetty and we had our morning tea of satay and otak otak (bbq fish in banana leaves) which was delightful. It didn't help that we parked our bikes beside the local pool parlor and the cowboys were giving it a lot of unwarranted attention. Thankfully, they were not too badly molested.
It was hard to saddle up after a nice meal plus the sun was getting warm. Nevertheless, we took our time and headed west and rode till we hit the turn off at 10.3km, just as Jan Boonstra, the Dutch cartographer recorded. This 14km stretch of road northwards to Kampong Asam is lauded to be one of the best in Kundur and we found that to be true. Nice gentle rolling hills, well surfaced, very quiet and we went through rubber tree, pineapple and durian plantations.
As it was getting to be quite hot, we stopped for drinks just 2km from the end of this road and enjoyed home made ice tea (with a bit of ants included FOC) with freshly made banana cakes. The nice stall vendor could not believe we rode from Tg Batu and she remarked that we were the first foreign cyclists she has seen there. Just 4km after that, we stopped again as it was getting hot and KC needed to replenish his "oxygen" stick supply.
There, we met the nicest person ever. This chinese Uncle took a liking for us and engaged us in the most interesting conversations. We learned so much from him about the economics, sociology and traditions of the area. One nice house could be bought for only US$20,000 and that won't even get half a COE (car purchase permit) in Singapore! Most chinese people will be in business and found anywhere where money is to be made. He shared with us which hotels to stay in Karimun and that was very useful. He has 2 daughters working in Singapore and one son in Batam and spends his retirement visiting the region though home base is Karimun. I was very touched when he gave us a generous portion of his excellent rambutans which was from his estate in Kundur.
Our ride to Selat Beria some 7km down the road was done in a quick pace so that we could beat the heat. We arrived there in no time and immediately booked our seats. S$2.50 was the princely sum! Ferries here depart almost every hour so we didn't have to wait that long.
It was great to arrive at the carefree domestic ferry terminal as my experience with Karimun International Terminal has been negative - too many blood sucking customs officials preying for a quick buck. After checking out several hotels, we settled on the Paragon Hotel as it was the only one that could offer us 2 separate beds for S$20 a room + breakfast.
Karimun is certainly a very different place from quiet Kundur. Evidence of wealth abound with flashy cars and glitzy hotels. The Maxmillian has rooms in excess of US$150! Retail shops selling clothes, electrical goods, food and other businesses abound and its certainly a very vibrant town. Come the weekend, I'm told all the hotels are full as droves of hormone charged tourists from Malaysia and Singapore descend upon Tg Balai - to sample a different type of Bird's Nest. So we were glad we planned to get out on Friday and went to book our ferry tickets. It was 240,000 or about US$24 for a one way return trip to Singapore plus tax.
We enjoyed a late lunch at a Nasi Padang eatery. Here, lots of different dishes are placed at your table and one is charged what is eaten. One dish that really stood out was the yellow curry fish which was really great. We spoilt ourselves with another massage after lunch. Be warned as this could be addictive and a very expensive addiction unless one becomes a Permanent Resident in the Riau islands.
It was nice to explore the town on foot for a change after our massage and to let our bikes rest. We paid a visit to the bustling night market. There were lots of different types of food on offer plus many interesting things on sale. I was however interested in having a non spicy egg sauce Cantonese noodles which I remembered having 4 years ago. A quick check with some locals found us wandering down a dark and quiet back lane, and bingo, we actually found this obscure haunt selling what I wanted. The 84 year old grandma invited us to sit down and her son made the noodles for us. It was a spectacle to see leaping flames coming out of the wok as he skillfully prepared our noodles, something he must have done for decades.
We retired early and I didn't sleep very well as there were a few mosquitoes trying for a night snack on my face. 2 were successful until I slept with my bike head scarf. Surprisingly, I got up earlier than KC and went for a morning stroll taking pictures of Tg Balai slowly waking up.
While walking around town I noticed many dutch lamp posts that were camouflaged among the existing infrastructure of shops and that got me all excited. It made me wonder what life was like 100 years ago.
I made it a point too to explore what was available for breakfast and was spoilt for choices at what was on offer at the many coffee shops. So much for hotel complimentary breakfasts! When KC eventually got up, we attacked Mee Rebus (yellow noodles with starchy gravy) and it was delectable especially its hot peppers.
We then took a morning ride to the coast and came across some old boats that have seen better days. This particular one was there in 2008 and it seems to have become a part of the permanent landscape of the area.
KC has always been fascinated with wet markets or pasars and we found one, smelly and wet but full of life with all sorts of local spices and produce available. It was opportune for us to come during the durian season and we delighted in polishing off one of these spiky beauties. What would cost US$12 per kg in Spore was 10 times less here!
Our last exploration for our morning ride was to ride to the newly developed Parade Square of Tg Balai. This is just 500m left of the international jetty and we were suitably impressed with the design but not the workmanship. Many of the carefully placed tiles have already cracked under the hot sun. Seems there is evidence of cutting corners here sadly.
We checked out of Paragon Hotel and headed for the jetty at 1020am with baited breath. Would our bikes actually be allowed into the ferry? With all the busyness of getting people through, no one paid any attention to us bringing our bikes with us. The authorities actually were admiring our foldies asking all sorts of usual questions like how light it weighed, how much it costs, how fast can it go etc.
After getting our passports stamped, we took our bikes and boarded the ferry home to Singapore without any fanfare. It was sad that our little adventure into a time warp that took us back 50 years has ended so quickly! However, our consolation was that Kundur is only a ferry ride or two away. Thank you so much KC for sharing with me in these Riau adventures!
ps: We still have an unused one way ticket from Spore to Sekupang expiring June 2013, so we shall be back...
A word about touring with Brompton and the T-Bag
I chose the Brompton for this trip because of its unique and unbeatable compact size. Couple this with the excellent Touring Bag, its so easy to travel with. Just 2 pieces of luggage. The Brompton also makes for a most compelling transport especially when we have to go on ferries and vans. Its upright riding position means a relax speed but what is the hurry? My only beef is its limited gearing for climbing hills and fortunately, there were not too many hills in Kundur. My appreciation for my 10 year old Brompton deepened after this trip.