Friday, 7 September 2012

The name's Belitung

[Or Belitong, if you're a local. Or Billiton, if you're a stuborn English speaker.]

FINALLY, I successfully travelled to this curious little island last week. Curious, because it's a paradise that has been hidden for a long time right under our nose.

A little about Belitung:
It's an island off the northeastern coast of Sumatra that used to belong to the South Sumatra (now, together with a neighbouring island, Bangka, they form the Province of Bangka-Belitung). Before I went there, I had vaguely remembered Belitung as a rich tin and kaolin-mining island, thanks to geography class. But other than that, there was nothing very special about Belitung.

Then out Andrea Hirata's book, Laskar Pelangi ("The Rainbow Troops"). Mr Hirata, despite his Japanese-sounding name, is a native of Belitung. His book tells the story of a group of local kids, how they struggle with poverty on a land that is so rich, and how they work hard to achieve their dreams. The book highlights the impact that Soeharto's New Order regime had on the island; all the monopoly and exploitation imposed upon its mines. But it is the movie adaptation that, because it was shot on the real island, becomes a reference about its physical beauty. Shortly after, Belitung rose as a new holiday destination, partly because people are beginning to get sick of Bali (no offense. Maybe it's just me).


The book that started it all.


Getting there
There's no international airport on the island, so either you board a plane from Jakarta or a ship from Bangka. The first route is definitely easiest and shortest. There are two airlines serving direct flight to and back from Belitung: Sriwijaya Air and Batavia Air. Sriwijaya has more schedules than Batavia, and I personally trust it more than the latter. You will land on HAS Hanandjoeddin Airport in Tanjung Pandan, the capital of Belitung. Check for schedules here (Sriwijaya) and here (Batavia).

The second route is usually taken by backpackers who would like to explore Belitung, Bangka, and South Sumatra in one go. I can't give you a first-hand explanation on this, but here's a translation from a trusted travel website BelitungIsland.com:
Alternatively, you may board passenger ships PELNI or KM TRISTAR. However, they only travel to Belitung every 2 weeks. Travel by these ships takes approximately 24 hours, and costs less than IDR 150,000. You can also take the speedboat KM Bahari Express; it takes only 4 hours and costs approximately IDR 170,000. KM Bahari Express travels every day at 2 PM from Pangkalpinang (Bangka) to Tanjung Pandan (Belitung), and back again at 7 AM.


Bangka-Belitung tourism map. Click for higher resolution.


Staying there
Top three hotels are Lor In, Billiton, and Grand Hatika, but there are numerous other family-operated inns. We chose to stay in Grand Hatika because it's a 4-star hotel so le parents considered it safer for first-time travellers. The other two have good reputations too however. Billiton is also unique because it is a colonial building, but dear mother expressed her dislike due to the presence of a small but active Buddhist shrine (she does not hate Buddhism or anything Buddhist, just a little uncomfortable with Buddhist altars and prayer stuff). Check out Trip Advisor for more information.

Getting around
There's not yet public transport service on the island, but there are plenty of car and motorbike rents. If you stay in Grand Hatika, you can rent the hotel's car for a designated amount of time per day. Belitung is a small island. From its capital, Tanjung Pandan, to any corners of the island, it only takes approximately 2-3 hours by car.

If you're like me, I suggest you use a travel agent because they will plan not only your itinerary but also a car and a local guide that also functions as a photographer. Also it'll save a lot of time and energy, rather than wasting an entire day searching for alien places. BelitungIsland.com is very reliable, and the folks are fun, full of initiatives, and attentive to details (and yes, they have English-speaking guides).


Shield of the Province of Bangka-Belitung


Shield of Kabupaten (Regency) of Belitung


What I think
Before I went, I had browsed through pictures taken by three of my friends who had been there. ALL of them intrigued me. White sand, unspoiled turquoise waters, big big boulders. The latter is especially attractive because they are not found anywhere else in the country (and maybe in the world?). And STARFISH. You can find live, wild starfish on some of the islets that surround Belitung. Isn't that just great! I prayed and prayed that what I would get what I had seen. I prayed for the weather, especially, since my visit was near the end of August, which means the rainy season would begin very soon. (And talking about weather, I suggest going between May to August, with the best time around June-July)

The first thing I noticed about the island was the quietness. It isn't in any way desolate, just quiet. There are vehicles, but not enough to cause a traffic jam or pollution. What the people of Belitung call "city center" is only a large roundabout with a meteor statue at the center (there was a meteor that hit the island a long time ago). On the first day, we tried Belitung noodle. This noodle is a local adaptation of original Chinese noodle (many locals are of Chinese descent), but it has a lighter, sweeter taste. The portion is small, so while I only needed one, you may need more.

Then the beaches. My friends were right; those photos you see on Google Images? They were not Photoshopped. Belitung's beaches are truly, truly charming, and the gigantic granite rocks make everything even more SURREAL. One advantage of a local guide is that he can help you climb these rocks and show you spots only they know.

Due to the rocks, the sea water is very calm, perfect for swimming, splashing around, and snorkeling. The highlight of every trip to Belitung is island-hopping; using a fishing boat, you visit 4 to 5 surrounding islets. I went to Pulau Pasir ("Sand Island", literally a pile of sand in the middle of the ocean), Pulau Batu Berlayar (even more gigantic rocks!), Pulau Burung ("Bird Island"; not really an island but a fascinating rock formation shaped like a bird's head), Pulau Lengkuas (there's an 18-storey lighthouse here from which you can get amazing views of the ocean), Pulau Babi Kecil ("Small Pig Island"; was used for keeping pigs), and I think there was one more but I forgot the name. I especially love Pulau Pasir because this is where you can find the most starfish and sand dollars, and you can swim around this "island" because the water is quite shallow.

Well since a single picture tells a thousand words, I can make an entire essay with these:

  






Other fun facts about Belitung:

  • Locals speak with Malay accent.
  • Though the predominant religion is Islam, the Buddhist Chinese population enjoys a strong presence.
  • People are VERY nice and helpful. Authentic Asian hospitality.
  • It's surprisingly safe! I saw people left their cars or motorbikes with the keys still attached!
  • Cost of living is surprisingly high. Not high high, but high for a small island. A local explained to me that since people don't grow crops there, they are purchased all the way from Java.
  • Other than the beaches, kaolin lakes are also a treat! These are lakes formed from abandoned kaolin mining sites. They are multi-coloured; some are pink, some are blue, others are pale green. They're really quite beautiful. My mum, being a dermatologist, thought they looked like chancroids from above.
  • Since Laskar Pelangi, the nickname of this island is now "Negeri Laskar Pelangi" (Land of the Rainbow Troops).
  • No specialist doctors! Specialists are "imported" from Bangka or South Sumatra, and they visit Belitung only once every few weeks. True story.
  • If you wanna do specific photography, like maybe pre-wed shots with a lot of starfish, you can pay fishermen to help gather these starfish. Starfish are so abundant here they're almost considered pests, if it wasn't for travellers and divers who happen to be very fond of them.

6 comments:

  1. It looks heavenly! Is the top left picture one of the Sand Island?

    I can't believe star fish are considered pests there. I've never seen a live starfish before (except in aquariums, which doesn't count).

    Indonesia is definitely on my list of places to visit one day!

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    1. That tiny island? I don't think it has a name... But the picture was taken on top of the lighthouse on Lengkuas Island.

      Yeah, fishermen sometimes get frustrated because when they cast a net, it's starfish that get caught instead of fish.

      Make sure you tell me when you're visiting! Likewise I'm gonna notify you if I'm going to SA for whale watching or something ;)

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  2. Wow - I have NEVER heard of this island, and it's a shame since it's so beautiful. Can't remember when last I saw a live starfish (I think I was about 5 and the tide had washed a load of them out).
    Really love the pictures and if I'm ever in the area, I'll visit!

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  3. Blogger is so weird. I posted a comment and now it disappeared. I'll come back later to see if it appeared, but if not: I really love these pics! I want to visit for sure. Hopefully in the near future.

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    1. I think your comments all went to the moderation box! Hehe. I saw all two of them and now I've published them, as you can see :)

      Do let me know when you're here, I'd love to go there again myself!

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  4. Been there! Loved every minute. The fact that it is so "unknown" to the world outside Indonesia is what's keeping it lovely. But that strip-mining is taking is toll... :(

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Any thoughts...?