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The landscape and character of Riau province is distinct from the northern and western rind of Sumatra. Rather than mountains and volcanoes, Riau’s character was carved by rivers and narrow ocean passages. Trading towns sprang up along the important navigation route of the Strait of Melaka, across which Riau claims cultural cousins.
For the port towns, such as Pekanbaru, and the Riau Islands, proximity to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur has ensured greater access to the outside world than the towns of the interior Sumatran jungle. The discovery of oil and gas reserves has also built an educated and middle-class population within a relatively impoverished island.
The interior of the province more closely resembles Sumatra as a whole: sparse population, dense jungle, surviving pockets of nomadic peoples (including the Sakai, Kubu and Jambisal) and endangered species, such as the Sumatran rhinoceros and tiger.
The Riau Islands are scattered like confetti across the South China Sea. The locals say there are as many islands as there are grains in a cup of pepper. That would be about 3214 islands in all, more than 700 of them uninhabited and many of them unnamed.
Pulau Batam and Pulau Bintam are practically suburbs of Singapore, with the attendant industry and recreation. In fact, the islands prefer to think of themselves as distinct from mainland Sumatra. Further away in the archipelago are the remote islands of Anambas, Natuna and Tambelan.