When you live in a tiny country like Singapore frequent weekend escapes are common. Friday night flights are quickly booked out as we are all vacation-starved. With only as few as 14 vacation days a year, they need to be efficient in time and which means that those not requiring a flight are becoming more and more popular. It is no surprise that Batu Batu, a private island resort only 3 hours drive from Singapore’s Central Business District, is an appealing weekend getaway, not least because of the beautiful clear waters and the gorgeous sea-facing villas.
About Batu Batu
Batu Batu is the name of the beautiful resort located on the private island of Pulau Tengah, in the Malaysian Johor Marine Park, about 20min by boat from Mersing and 130km north of Singapore. Before it became a luxury resort in 2013, Pulau Tengah was the set of a Swedish TV reality show that was the 90s predecessor of Survivor and from 2009 to 2012 it was part of the set of the French, Dutch, Belgian and Finnish Survivor series. That celebrity status has carried over to today’s secluded, pristine and casual atmosphere.
But well before the media descended on the island, Pulau Tengah was known as a dramatic set of another kind. In the late 70s, before it became a high-end castaway resort, the island was a United Nation’s Refugee Counsel Transit Camp which hosted up to 100,000 Vietnamese emigrants on their way to a new life in Europe and North America.
After the refugee camp closed down, a backpackers resort called Pirate Bay opened in the 80s. That was the precursor to today’s Batu Batu. The Chua family bought the island in 1994 and started to holiday on two two-bedroom villas that they built as family homes. In 2009, Dato Chua Jui Leng started building some of the resort using experimental pine wood from a plantation that he had acquired in the past. In 2009 Dato Chua’s daughter, Cher, and her husband, who resided in London at the time, got married and invited a few friends over to stay on the island. Their love for each other expanded to a love for the island and when Mr. Chua suggested he wanted to sell the island because it was too much work for a semi-retirement project, Cher and her husband decided to leave their bond-rating jobs in the City behind and come back home to take over the development and management of the newly created resort. The resort was completed in 2012.
In order to learn a completely new industry, they had friends and family stay in the first few weeks to learn the business and improve on the day to day operations. The resort only officially opened in 2012 under Cher’s supervision and a GM, but with close involvement from Dato Chua who remains involved in several areas like water treatment, generators, turtle conservation, government department interaction, plants and landscaping and buying the resort’s Christmas tree.
Arrival and check in at Batu Batu
As Batu Batu is located on its own private island you have to reach it by one of the scheduled or private speedboats the resort offers from Mersing. The fastest way to get to Mersing is from Singapore Changi Airport which is about a 3h drive depending on traffic at the border. If you are leaving Singapore during the peak hours you might also encounter traffic leaving the city but usually the main jams are at the border. Boat times will change each day depending on the tides at Mersing. Although they try to run boats at 11am and 3pm, this cannot always work as the tides may be too low at certain points on that specific day for the boat to get through.
If you don’t have a car, Batu Batu provides a list of car services that can pick you up and take you to Mersing and then be there upon your return. The drivers they suggest are professional and well tested. In our case, the trip from Singapore cost SGD160 each way. As taxi services are not allowed across the border, you will have to change cars at the border both ways but it is a seamless and hassle free process.
Once on the island, you will be welcomed by the clearest waters filled with dense marine life and the resort’s main beach area. A short walk along the boardwalk will take you to the main building where the reception and restaurant are. Check in is done with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and pretty views of rocky outcrops reminiscent of the Seychelles. You have arrived in paradise.
The villas at Batu Batu
Batu Batu is designed to look and feel like a Malay kampong or village. Most of the villas are scattered across the jungle and the best ones are set on stilts, high above and facing the sea. The views from the balcony are stunning and if it wasn’t because the island as a whole is gorgeous, you would want to sit there for the rest of your stay.
Most of the villas have one bedroom with a day bed that can be made up for the night and some have children annexes with a bunk bed for the little ones. There are also a couple of 2 bedroom villas in front of the pool where the Chua family used to stay. For the villas that are farther away from the sea, the feeling is like being in the middle of the jungle, completely surrounded by nature.
All the villas are designed using native hard wood, the experimental pine wood that Mr. Chua planted and made by the local carpenters. Inside, the rustic chic feel that pervades throughout the island is maximum and one feels like a modern day Robinson Crusoe, if he had the chance of designing a comfortable villa. The four poster beds with mosquito nets add a sense of romance and the oversized bathtubs call for a soak at the end of the day with a bottle of champagne. In the sea-facing villas, the sea can be enjoyed from the bed, through your toes.
The food at Batu Batu
The resort offers all inclusive board rates. The food is served at the main restaurant and consists of a changing menu of three choices of starters and mains plus dessert.
Breakfast offered a selection of fruits and pastries and a menu of cooked dishes like eggs or pancakes made to order. Ask for a coconut picked from the groves that fill the island’s dense interior. Lunches were light to put up with the warmer temperatures and sticky heat of the tropical weather whereas dinners were served in a more formal setting and with more complex recipes.
All meals were tasty, fresh and gave a choice of local and international fare. There was a good selection of wine and drinks, not included in the rate, to accompany meals. Our favourite part was the beach bar. Playing what I termed “Spanish summer” music, it was a great place to enjoy afternoon cocktails and sunset drinks on the beach. The cocktail list was fantastic with exquisite pina coladas, margaritas and other mixologist inventions that filled our evenings with great rhythm.
The facilities and activities at Batu Batu
The resort has eight beaches across a 3km perimeter that takes approximately 45min to walk but most guests stay around the pool and activity beach areas where most of the action happens. Just past the beach bar there is a fluffy beach crescent where you will be completely alone, the bar’s music still playing in the air carried by the wind.
The main area is great with an infinity pool just above the beach blending into the horizon. There are a few sun loungers scattered on the pool desk but this is an area that is usually taken over by families with children as the resort is family-friendly. If you get up early you will enjoy the mirror-like qualities of the water against the swaying palm trees. Stunning.
The activities area has a dive center where you can borrow snorkels and masks or book one of the dive excursions around the Johor Marine Park. Diving off the main beach is also possible for novice divers or for those interested to get their PADI Open Water certification as the shallow and warm waters are a convenient place to complete the practice lessons. If you are looking to see rich corals and maybe some sharks, you can organise a dive trip 45min further out for half a day. We booked that trip and it was well worth it. On our surface interval break we snorkelled around a rock in shallower waters and saw small sharks really close. The corals were in a very good state. On a lucky day you can also see turtles that the resort is working hard to preserve.
If you are looking to relax, there is an on-site spa ready to massage those tough muscles. Or just have a swim in the sea and let the waves give you a free, natural one.
Batu Batu’s conservation efforts
Batu Batu’s owners really believe in sustainable tourism and conservation, so a generous amount of resources are allocated to flora and marine conservation, the most visible of which is The Turtle Watch Camp project.
The Turtle Watch Camp started in 2014 when two of the dive instructors created a turtle hatchery at Batu Batu to protect the hatchlings from natural predators and human interaction.
Although turtles are threatened by natural predators like lizards that eat their eggs, the main causes of the decline in numbers is human driven. Poaching of sea turtles is motivated by the commercial value of their eggs or carapaces, the accidental catching of sea turtles by large fishing vessels and the destruction of sea-grass meadows, coral reefs and nesting beaches which are their natural habitats.
It is interesting to note that in Malaysia poachers mainly go for the green or hawksbill turtle’s eggs and not their meat. The reason for this is that the green and hawksbill turtles are said to be poisonous as they eat sea sponges. This may be the reasoning behind why the locals don’t dare catch them for meat – in case they get the wrong one!
Turtles also die as a result of getting tangled in plastic and other debris. If that wasn’t enough, their reproduction has been affected by the fast development of the coastal areas in Malaysia which has forced them to find new less optimal nesting places away from the tourist beaches.
The hatchery has been so successful and grown so much that it became apparent that the dive instructors and the resort’s staff were not able to manage the project alone and so the Turtle Watch Camp and its hero volunteer program were launched. The program runs under the supervision of a marine biologist and a project coordinator joined by the passion and commitment of visiting volunteers.
Like most conservation efforts, the success lies in being sustainable and involving the local communities in conservation. The team has turned two of the fishermen who used to be egg poachers into egg collectors and buys the eggs they bring to the hatchery so they don’t have to sell them into the market. Since the effort kicked off, 5,853 eggs from 8 other islands were brought to the project.
Ultimately, numbers speak for themselves. In the last two years, over 6,700 hatchlings of endangered and critically endangered Green and Hawksbill Turtles have been successfully released into the sea. If you are staying at the resort during the summer months, when turtles lay their eggs, you can request for a wake up call and the Turtle Watch Camp team will reach out if the eggs are hatching so you can join in the first steps of the little turtles into the sea.
Apart from turtle conservation, the resort is also committed to protecting and monitoring the flora and fauna on the island. There are more than 100 different types of bird sightings which you can see everywhere on the island and particularly in its dense interior. In the middle of the island, through a series of jungle trails, you can feel exactly like those first participants in the Survivor series. In the thick tree foliage and dense forest you will forget you are in a high end resort. But bring mosquito repellent because these little bugs are hungry and have an insatiable curiosity for warm bodies.
In 2016 the Turtle Watch Camp initiated Batu Batu’s coral planting project off the main beach in an effort to grow a reef and provide home to marine life around seven submerged Vietnamese pipes. The team is using recycled glass bottles from the resort attached to a concrete structure to form planting blocks and encourage coral growth. There are currently at 40 blocks and corals of various species have already started to grow on the structure. The resort’s efforts must be paying off because, despite the human presence, as we spotted baby sharks on the shallow waters of the pool beach every morning.
The service at Batu Batu
I liaised with Cher throughout my stay and she was as friendly and welcoming as a friend would have been. Hers is a labour of love and commitment to making it work. Everywhere we walked, the staff had a permanent smile on their faces and a friendly greeting was always offered. The team at the activities center, the dive center and the Turtle Watch Camp teams were all experienced, knowledgeable, passionate and friendly. They loved and breathed marine conservation and love. Their love for what they were doing and the accomplishments of the project were visible in every conversation. It is not often that one finds herself talking to the staff at a resort who are happy to work there as they would if it was their own. Such harmony is hard to achieve.
One of my friends visiting with me confessed this had been the best vacation he ever had. There was no doubt we had a great time. Despite the fact that we were a group of friends not looking to share too much of the weekend escape with families and children, we found our piece of fun and relaxation by the beach bar. Our villa was stunning, with the best possible views, and, even when we foolishly decided to walk around the island bare foot, after a massive storm and at low tide, we still had a great time playing Tarzan and Jane on our cross-island trek. After having lived in Singapore for almost six years, I am even concerned to write this review, for the little secret that Batu Batu may still be, will no longer be kept for my personal enjoyment.
Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of Batu Batu. As always, all opinions are our own.