If I can recall my first trip to Batam was either in 1985 or 1986. I was still with KLM based at the airport. A friend had suggested a weekend day trip to Batam which was already a ‘talked-about thingy’ in town. One of the main attractions, if not the only attraction was the chance to purchase duty free items on the return. I had no inkling on how this island so near Singapore was like and so, I joined the big wave of weekend crowd on one Sunday. The departure was at Finger Pier Terminal in Tanjong Pagar. The biggest ferry operator was Auto Batam (the company has changed few ownerships over the years and if I am not wrong, it is called Sindo now) and looking at the mad rush on weekends, they should be doing roaring business. Personally, I will avoid big crowd if I can help it and I was in for a ‘rude shock’ when I arrived at Clifford Pier. It was so packed like sardines and people were practically shoving each other to move in. Granted no other choice, I had to go with the flow.
The ferry terminal in Batam was in Sekupang. The other ferry terminal was called Batu Ampar Ferry Terminal which is now replaced by HarbourBay Terminal in Jodoh. Both these two nondescript terminals were notorious for its touting activities. Tourists were harassed the moment they stepped out of the terminals. It can be frightening. We were spared as we travelled in groups and guides were there to handle for us. It was still like a noisy affair at the terminal. The long rows of coaches at the terminal well explained the huge crowd on any given weekend day trip to Batam.
Once we had settled on the coach, our guide will start the usual introduction to us. We were brought to this famous ‘Tua Pek Kong’ temple and we were told many had struck 4-D while praying for good luck there. In the 80s’, Singaporeans had already started ‘the kiasu’ syndrome and many will ‘chiong’ to be among first to offer prayers. I just explored around the premises and be amused. ‘Tua Pek Kong’ temple visit still remains one of the must go places in the tour program.
Another interesting must go place was at a road junction (I cannot remember the name of the road) which stood out as the one and only traffic light in the whole of Batam. Nothing spectacular about it for it was just like another traffic light we get to see everywhere. Because it was the one and only traffic light there, it became a ‘showcase’ to urbanized folks like us. Laughable, right?
But there was one place that I was hoping to visit which was the much-talked about radio station on the island. ZOO 101.6 was creating big wave when they went 24/7. Then, our radio channels did not run 24/7. People were tuning in on ZOO 101.6 and not long later, our local radio stations had to up the ante by going 24/7 too. When we arrived, it was a small building block. We were shown where the gregarious deejays were at work. Yes, ZOO 101.6 did cause an uproar on the radio wave then. Sadly, nobody talks about ZOO 101.6 anymore.
We had our seafood lunch ala ‘tourist style’ in between our tour. When we were at Sekupang Ferry Terminal for journey back, it was another ‘exhilarating’ experience. People were rushing to buy liquor and cigarettes at the terminal as if it was free. Well, that was the main purpose why most made this ‘hard-earned’ trip. As for me, I bought none of it. The terminal was also packed with people and this time, with loads of duty-free items.
However, this travel phenomenon did not last very long. Our super effective ‘chenghu’ were quick to tighten the loose knot by changing rules on duty free import from Batam. As fast it had happened, the weekend craze quickly fizzled out too. Now, people do not go to Batam just for duty-free items and Batam has more to offer too. I will cover this in my subsequent articles which will come in few parts. Stay tuned, people!