Bintan beckons for quick getaway amid pandemic, Latest Travel News - The New Paper

Bintan beckons for quick getaway amid pandemic

My recent trip to Bintan, Indonesia, raises a vexed question: Is a short holiday worth it, however desperately I want to travel, after two years of border closures?

Longer vacations have the consolation of more time spent in possibly mask-free exotic locales. But time is of the essence for a weekend getaway.

Previously, flights or ferry rides for a quick trip could be booked on a whim. Now, navigating through a fog of Covid-19 protocols is burdensome even when quarantine is no longer a factor.

When being 'kiasu' is counter-productive

On Feb 25, a group of journalists, myself included, travelled via the quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (Sea) on the first VTL ferry to Bintan, an arrangement that also extends to Batam, another island getaway popular with Singaporeans.

It is Singapore's first sea-based VTL amid a steady stream of VTLs by air, comprising flights to several countries in Europe, Asia and else where.

First, the elephant in the room. It is hard to embrace the hassle of Covid-19 paperwork. It is okay to admit this.

The trick to enjoying a pandemic mini-break, I discover, is to put aside a clock-watching mentality.

I was resenting how the time and energy spent preparing for my overnight stay felt disproportionate, considering I was going to be in Bintan for less than 30 hours.

During a pandemic, it is counter-productive being a "kiasu" traveller. (The Singlish term denotes the fear of losing out.)

I had to quit chasing sightings of the spectre of efficient travel, including chock-a-block sight-seeing and pool-lounging. When I decided to go with the flow in Bintan, I appreciated it more.

Potential pre-departure pitfalls

The Covid-19 regulations for travelling to and from Bintan include getting my vaccination record ready, downloading an Indonesian contact-tracing app similar to Singapore's TraceTogether, and undergoing three Covid-19 tests for my overnight stay.

There are two polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests - one done pre-departure in Singapore and another administered on-arrival at Bintan, as well as a supervised antigen rapid test (ART) at a Quick Test Centre or Combined Test Centre within 24 hours of returning to Singapore. (For details on test centres, go to this website.)

Still, some things do not register until you bump right up against them, especially given the dense thicket of travel protocols. (Go here for the full list and be forewarned that Covid-19 regulations can change quickly.)

For example, while I have travel insurance, I neglect to look closely at the fine print of my insurance policy - who does?

Alas, the officials at the customs desk at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal do, pointing out that I have to show proof I have insurance cover for at least $30,000, which specifically needs to mention provisions for Covid-19 medical treatment.

A brief interlude of urgent whispers ensues between both sides, before the requisite Covid-19 provisions are uncovered and the matter resolved.

Also, can we talk about the digital divide in pandemic travelling?

Downloading and using the PeduliLindungi app and, subsequently, submitting an online health declaration for entry into Bintan, is challenging for me.

For instance, the app does not allow me to key in my mobile number as required, as I and some of my travel companions are unable to change the phone country code from Indonesia's to Singapore's.

This means we are unable to scan the QR codes for entry into public places in Bintan, though the workers at various restaurants graciously usher us in.

The Indonesian authorities say they regularly look into such Covid-19 travel protocols, making changes where necessary.

Bliss in Bintan

After an hour on the high seas, the disembarkation process from our ferry at Bandar Bentan Telani Ferry Terminal is swift.

A PCR test comprising a nasal swab and, surprisingly, a throat swab is painlessly administered by health officials clad in protective pink jumpsuits, which even cover their shoes.

The PCR test at Bintan costs $30 with results out in about 1½ hours. In contrast, a pre-departure PCR test in Singapore can cost from $94 and results usually take 24 hours to process.

Children aged two and younger are exempt from such Covid-19 testing, though such costs are probably a consideration for a family with older children contemplating a weekend getaway.

We are given a BluePass token, similar to TraceTogether. Its $20 cost is refunded when you leave Bintan.

The vaccinated travel lane by sea takes us into the Bintan Resorts Travel Bubble, a vaccinated zone on the island that is 180 sq km. In comparison, Sentosa island in Singapore is about 5 sq km.

Bintan, battered but unbowed by the pandemic, still has the X factor, says the author. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

With the new travel bubble - comprising 16 hotels, two golf courses and attractions such as mangrove tours and a local zoo - Bintan now welcomes international travellers after two years, during which several hotels closed temporarily.

Preparing for the trip has clouded my expectations, which is unfair.

The truth is, Bintan, battered but unbowed by the pandemic, still has the X factor.

The surrounding South China Sea is jaw-dropping. Every glimpse of its calm blue vastness with flickering curls of white sea foam, whether viewed from a coach seat or hotel room, lifts the heart.

The Oceanview Infinity Pool Villa at the Banyan Tree Bintan resort, where I spend the night, is more mansion than hotel.

At 400 sq m, it is more than three times the size of a five-room Housing Board flat.

My villa has a private infinity pool that looks out on the empty sea, making you the king of all you survey.

The hotel experience is key to resort stays in Bintan and there is a wide range to choose from.

Natra Bintan and Anmon, two resorts that fringe the beautiful man-made lagoon at Treasure Bay Bintan, have rooms that look like Mongolian yurts and Native American tepees, respectively.


Doulos Phos, The Ship Hotel is the eponymous hotel made from a ship, whose 107-year-old engine has been left intact as an artefact. Its floors and rooms, known as cabins, tilt unevenly, "just like the sea", our guide says.

There is even a space by the prow where Titanic-loving guests can enact the "I'm flying" pose from the 1997 movie.

Rethinking travel

Time can flow differently when people are travelling. A curiously timeless feeling can take hold when memories are imprinted.

It is not just me waxing rhapsodic.

A 2012 study in the Psychological Science journal found that when participants encountered feelings of awe - akin to the experience of, say, looking at waterfalls - they felt that they had more time available. The research mentioned how "peak experiences" - which can include having a spiritual experience - often also involve a sense of timelessness.

Given the hassle of time-consuming Covid-19 travel precautions, perhaps it is time to set aside one's watch when roaming in foreign lands.

Instead, lean in strongly to the moments when you feel part of something larger, when you feel that time has stopped for a while.

For me, gazing upon the South China Sea in Bintan has this effect.

This, of course, does not cover all of Bintan's charms, but appreciating small pleasures works, too.

Writer Venessa Lee feeding an elephant at Safari Lagoi in Bintan on Feb 26, 2022. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Bintan zoo Safari Lagoi, for instance, has flocks of guinea fowl, whose speckled bodies and absurd chittering make me smile.

Officials in Bintan are rightfully proud of the Covid-19 measures in the Bintan Resorts Travel Bubble that keep the island and its visitors practically Covid-19-free.

Perhaps they do not realise it is the comparative Covid-19 freedoms that Singaporean visitors relish.

While Bintan has temperature checks that are no longer common in Singapore, there are small civilising touches I miss, which are available on the Indonesian island, such as the freedom to range between serving dishes at a buffet breakfast.

I squeal at the karaoke rooms at Treasure Bay Bintan on a tour. With karaoke effectively defunct in Singapore, it is funny how singing in groups to British artiste Ed Sheeran now appeals to travellers.

  • This media trip was hosted by Bintan Resorts and Banyan Tree Bintan. For more information, go here for Bintan Resorts' travel bubble and here for the latest VTL regulations.