A wooden boat carries passengers from Belakang Padang Island to Batam Island. In this picture, skyscrapers in Singapore can be seen in the distance. (JP/Fadli)
If not separated by an ocean, Singapore's skyscrapers could be part of Belakang Padang Island.
But due to the seven-mile expanse of water, Belakang Padang has a totally different landscape from that of Singapore: They are as different as night and day.
"We used to take a wooden boat to Singapore. No passport was required. We sold fish and they paid in dollars, not rupiah," said Wak Haji Jantan, 65, a resident of Belakang Padang, recalling his heyday as a transboundary trader.
In the past, people from Belakang Padang could easily travel back and forth to Singapore to sell their products and purchase low-priced electronic goods. Many of them also worked in Singapore.
But strict security measures imposed by both Singapore and Indonesia in the 1980s cut off their freedom of traveling to the country.
Belakang Padang is one of 300 islands under the Batam City administration.
"But it (the development in Belakang Padang) is far behind that of Batam. Luckily we still have a pristine environment and it is not noisy like it is there," Jantan said.
Belakang Padang, which covers 4,202 hectares and has a population of 19,000 people, is located southwest of Batam and only 15 minutes away by wooden boat, locally called kapal pancung.
Everyday about 200 such boats serve the Batam-Belakang Padang route, a single trip costing Rp 8,000 (84 US cents). The boats are about five meters long and one-and-a-half meters wide. Life jackets are not available onboard and there is only a canvas roof to protect passengers from the rain or scorching sunshine.
Strong waves often rock the boats, especially when they encounter the large ferries that go to and fro between Batam and Singapore. First-time riders are usually gripped with fear when the small boats zig-zag up and down along with the waves, as if they could be drawn down into the water.
But the sailors are local residents who have an amazing ability to control the boats, thanks to their experiences riding the waves.
On a kapal pancung ride from Batam to Belakang Padang, two islands can be spotted ahead. On the left, with lines of houses along a densely-populated coast, is Belakang Padang; on the right a mile away is Sambu Island with large silver tanks seen at its edge. It is the national fuel depot for Sumatra.
A long time ago, when Batam was mostly covered by forest, Belakang Padang had already been claimed as a district of the Riau Islands Regency. When Batam built its first industry zones in the 1970s, Belakang Padang was left behind.
Batam residents would go to Belakang Padang to take care of government or administration matters, but now the tables have turned.
The existence of the Belakang Padang Special Immigration Office is proof that the island was once a bustling place. Even though it is now under the Batam city administration, which has its own immigration office, the office in Belakang Padang is still in operation.
Visiting Belakang Padang is like breathing fresh air. The friendly atmosphere is obvious on this island and the thick Malay dialect can be heard from every corner. It is different from Batam, where various dialects are heard.
There is no noise from vehicles, just the distant roaring of boat engines.
Only two four-wheeled vehicles are on the island -- a garbage truck and an ambulance. Some residents have motorcycles but none own a car, even though the roads are in satisfactory condition.
The only other type of vehicular transportation available are three-wheel pedicabs, which are used for public transport along with motorcycle taxis (ojek).
Many ojek drivers wait for passengers at the harbor, ready to serve people who get off the boats. It takes less than 30 minutes by motorcycle to go around the island for a Rp 30,000 fare.
Belakang Padang is a place to unwind where many come to relax and enjoy the serene panorama, far away from the madding crowd. The island is known as pulau penawar rindu, or an island to "sooth the longing hearts".
It has six districts: Tanjung Sari, Sekanak Raya, Pemping, Kasu, Pecong and Terong Island, and is notorious for its red-light district. Most of the clients are older men from Singapore, known as apek-apek, who usually visit on the weekends.
It is also known as the Island of Amat, the Dutch. Amat was a local man and tall with fair skin like a Westerner. He was probably an albino, but he was often referred to as a "Dutch".
People prefer to call it the Island of Amat the Dutch as they do not like the island's other name: Pulau Babi or, the Island of Pigs, so called for the many pig farms on the island that produce pork meat which is sold in Singapore.
Pork is forbidden by Islamic law, so many residents do not like the pig name.
Belakang Padang is also famous for its gasing or top spinning, a traditional game popular among Indonesians and Malays.
Jumain, a local resident from Sakanak village, received an award from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2006 for preserving the traditional game.
He had built a small gasing arena in front of his house, and was dubbed "president gasing". The modest gasing ground attracted many visitors, including the Malaysian culture and tourism minister.
Jumain died last year, but his love for gasing lives on in the hearts of gasing enthusiasts and the people of Belakang Padang Island.