Since then, I’ve mastered the art of figuring out the public transport system soon after arriving in a new place, gotten comfortable with sitting alone in a restaurant without constantly checking my phone, and sharpened my gut instinct about people I meet for the first time. Where solo travel is concerned, I’d like to think I’m something of an expert.
While simply checking in at the airport used to thrill me, I now endure it with all the excitement of a student taking an exam. Occasionally, I even find myself bored by travel.
That said, all my solo trips have been at least a plane ride away from Singapore. I’ve always thought it was a ‘waste’ of holiday time to go somewhere near, when I can milk the same amount of time to head somewhere further and experience a more unfamiliar scenery and culture. For instance, my first time in Johor Bahru was in … 2016.
I’ve never been to Batam or Bintan either, having reckoned that these places were “so close” to home I could go “anytime”. I thought these islands had no ‘personality’; I assumed they were only packed with stuffy resorts and obnoxious tourists.
As much as I’m ashamed to admit this, as Singaporeans living in Southeast Asia, we also have a tendency to look down on our neighbours from Malaysia and Indonesia.
But since the start of this year, I’ve been so uninspired at work that I needed a break to rejuvenate myself. This would ideally be somewhere near enough that I wouldn’t have to waste precious time getting there.
And so on my 28th year of being alive, I finally decide to set foot in Bintan for a 2D1N visit.
On reaching Bintan, I hire a driver, Henri, whom I entrust to take me wherever he decides is good. I tell him I have zero plans and I’m open to try and do anything. It always amuses me how someone naturally cynical, like me, can so willingly put complete faith in strangers in a foreign land, but I suppose we suspend our normal sensibilities when we’re not in familiar environments.
More than that, as much as I treasure my solitude more than the average person, I am also disgustingly lazy. The last thing I want to do when I’m supposed to relax is wrack my brain to come up with a productive itinerary.
Besides, having travelled alone before, I figure it’s a refreshing change to have a stranger accompany me for a day. Having decided I will also disconnect, I make the brilliant decision not to buy data.
With my day (and life) in Henri’s hands, I throw all caution to the wind.
Afterwards, we take a drive around the various resorts in Lagoi Bay. Henri informs me that the late Indonesian President Suharto and the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew were in talks to develop the island, until Suharto’s fall more than 15 years ago. Since then, the island has been more or less in stasis.
I can certainly see how. So far, Bintan is living up to its stereotype: manicured greenery lining well-paved roads, unremarkable resorts overlooking untouched beaches, and unfortunately, no soul.
We stop at a spot overlooking a stunning sea view and a quiet, unpolluted stretch of beach, and I feel a touch of regret for not having bothered with Bintan in all my 28 years. I recall Henri chiding me earlier when I sheepishly share that this is my first time to the island: “This is your backyard! You never been?”
Never been, but never too late, I declare.
Lagoi Bay is already paradise central—but Henri shares that a Malaysian property developer, The Haven, is building a new resort hotel here. Apparently, they will be the first property developer to take a worthwhile shot at Lagoi Bay, making them trailblazers.
I predict hoards more privileged tourists will flock to the island to enjoy the white sandy beaches and clear blue waters, especially if the Bintan International Airport completes construction by 2020.
In that moment, I understand the allure of Bintan for Singaporeans: it’s near home, yet different enough to imagine that one has escaped far away from the monotony of everyday life.
It surprises me that I’m warming up to the idea of resort living, which I used to deride as basic and tacky AF. After all, I once championed hostels for the “experience” and “character”.
Still, there is no shame in this change in mindset. I do see the attraction of a fancy resort.
All it took was a beach. I am that easy.
On the way, we pull over at two roadside stalls, one selling otak-otak and lemper (a roll of glutinous rice seasoned with shredded fish), another selling tapai (fermented tapioca).
Both times, he says, “Want to try? Let’s try.”
We stand under the blazing afternoon sun, in the middle of nowhere, breathing in exhaust fumes and the fragrant spices. As we eat, my back is drenched and my eyes are dry, but the lempur melts in my mouth. All is right in the world.
At this point, I’ve already relinquished all expectations.
Few things irk me as much as advocates of solo travel claiming it will help you “find yourself”. Once upon a time, I was just as insufferable.
Truth is, setting such romanticised expectations for a mere holiday is recipe for disappointment, especially when the ordinary reality is far less grand.
If I had gone into Bintan (or anywhere for that matter) with that expectation, I might have just demanded a full refund right then. This is clearly shaping up to be a trip unlike anything I’ve seen in travel brochures or on Instagram.
On the adjacent lake floats an abandoned turquoise seal boat, matching the turquoise waters; beside it another rusty boat, this one with a bicycle attached.
The landscape in front of me resembles a dystopian reality a la Mad Max, and I am strangely enthralled by it.
As if to show me that this is not the only weird (and wonderful) thing Bintan has to offer, Henri then takes me to the 500 Lohan Temple. This tourist destination comprises 500 sculptures of arahats, each totally different from the next, but all with a distinct expression.
I’ve barely begun to take in these magnificently bizarre and surreal attractions that I forget we have yet to arrive at Tanjung Pinang. When we do, we decide we’re not in the mood for it and drive on.
In all other aspects of life, I would be reluctant to change my plans on a whim. In solo travel, whatever works, man.
It’s even more fascinating because her shop is right by the beach, in a hut that looks like it was built by her. The uneven wooden tables and chairs appear to be handmade from scratch too.
As we feast on authentic Italian pizza here on the east coast of Bintan, it occurs to me that this is the furthest thing from a town in Italy.
After she takes my order, I ask why she decided to pick Bintan, out of all the places in the world, to settle down.
“Not Bintan. Just Trikora.”
I decide to probe further.
“I moved here eight years ago. I’ve been to Bali, Lombok, and so on. I like it here most. I set up this shop with my husband,” she says.
“Oh? Where’s your husband?”
“He passed away already.”
Simona’s admission is all it takes for me to be reminded of my favourite thing I’ve realised about travelling alone: most people are more than willing to share their lives. All it takes is a little courage to ask. Sometimes, like today, the knowledge can be heavy and unexpected.
I’m no food blogger, but the pizza is legit stuff. The crust is thin, and the ingredients are haphazardly arranged. As it turns out, its unassuming presentation only masks the eventual explosion of flavours when I take my first bite—then another, and another, until we polish off two whole pizzas in 20 minutes.
Just before we leave, Simona and I exchange contact details, and I tell her I will stay in touch. I am already making plans in my head to come back to Bintan just for the pizza.
“No email. Whatsapp,” she smiles.
Sometimes I still catch myself amazed that I’m at an age where I appreciate ‘good’ spots to buy a home. I barely feel adult enough to take care of myself.
Henri finally drops me off at my hotel to spend the rest of my trip alone. I have grand plans: check out the hotel pool to get a tan in the late afternoon sun, sleep early, wake up to catch the 6AM sunrise, take a stroll along the beach, and have a leisurely hour-long breakfast.
My plans evaporate when I got back to my room and collapse, into the cool sheets.
After years of travelling solo, I no longer feel guilty when I pick rest over exploration. The whole point of being alone is that you can absolutely do whatever you want, whenever you want, without having to answer to anyone. And so I do.
That night, I skip dinner, laze in bed, and channel surf. I also shower with the door open, walk around without pants, and have my bag and clothes lay strewn all over the room. In Bintan, as in Singapore, I embrace the sloppy college dude I secretly am.
A famous Pinterest quote goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It was written about me.
Eventually, I set an alarm for 5AM and fall asleep to the TV in the background. It is 6:30AM when I wake up. I make a mental note to buy a new phone.
With just 2.5 hours to spare before my ride comes to take me to the ferry terminal, I head to the beach for some photos. Solo travel influencers often advise asking a stranger to help you take photos of yourself. Frame the photo before handing them your camera, then just tell them to click the shutter. Easy!
Except when the stranger you pick happens to have zero visual sense, and even less common sense, like the unsuspecting woman I have my sights on.
I’m not sure what she’s trying to capture in my photos, but it certainly isn’t me. I look like an ant. The horizon isn’t even parallel to the ground. So I take matters into my own hands.
To be specific, I try to use my phone’s self-timer.
I find a sandy ledge to place my bag, and balance my iPhone precariously, without a cover, on my bag. It slips off the first 23 times I try. I adjust my bag, making sure there are sufficient creases and folds to support my phone.
Clicking the shutter button, I realise I forget to hit the self-timer. The photo is a blur mess of my torso, a masterclass in how not to be an influencer. I time the next photo for 10 seconds—but in my excitement and exasperation, the phone slips again. While adjusting it, the shutter goes off.
The photo looks like … you know what, never mind. I, on the other hand, am hot and bothered. It takes a marathoner’s stamina to keep up with the self-timer.
If you need your ego taken down a notch or 10, travel alone. It keeps you humble.
While I didn’t “find myself” on this solo trip, I am reassured to know that no matter how many solo vacations I have taken, I will always be an amateur, which is fine by me. I don’t want to reach the point where I presume I’ve done it all that I’m no longer excited by new experiences.
The ability to continue being fascinated by simple, mundane, everyday instances is a privilege I hadn’t realised I had. It’s also one that I didn’t need to travel across the globe to appreciate.
As for whether I’m rested and ready to tackle another few months of work, there’s a higher chance of finding a passable photo of myself among the 79 botched ones on my phone.
The Haven is an award winning property developer that operates a luxury eco-resort in Ipoh, Malaysia. Fresh off their recent win at the 2018 Malaysia Tourism Awards (where they won the Minister’s Award), they now plan to bring their brand of eco-luxury living to the pristine beaches of Lagoi Bay, Bintan.