I have not seen the movie, Laskar Pelangi (or "Rainbow troops"), but have heard about it which was made in 2008 and had made the island instantly famous domestically. For years, the island had been known for its tin mine, next to the neighbouring island, Bangka, and it did have more domestic visitors only a few more flights from Jakarta were added. A few more three and four star hotels were built too, giving more choices to the travellers. Locally, the island is called Belitung and it has been on my 'to go' list for a long time, but somehow - despite its beauty, it was not 'inviting enough' for me as I felt it was not 'exotic enough'. So when my friend of high school days asked me to join her to Pulau Seribu ("one thousand island") near Jakarta over a weekends, my response was quick and short: Let's go to Belitung, to which she agreed.
Equally busy, I and my friend Praty exchanged a few messages over Whatsapp in the next few days to make our travel arrangement, and thanks to Praty, a week later, we set our foot on the Hanandjoeddin airport. Landed, I was relieved being
pick up by our guide, Erick, who took us to our hotel at Aston. It was too early to check in, so both of us decided to change and to get ready for the beach and after lunch, headed to the famous beach of Laskar Pelangi, Tanjung Tinggi beach, approximately 45 minutes from the capital of Belitung, Tanjung Pandan.
The island of which size is two and half of the size of Singapore has a total population of 300,000. The island along with Bangka island are one of the newest province in Indonesia. Besides known for its tin and "Laskar Pelangi", it is also known as the producer of white pepper in Indonesia. As expected, Tanjung Pandan was such a small and sleepy town; it does not have any cinema, mall or trendy cafes. I had come with zero expectation and was ready with what I saw. Despite its white sand, the famous beach of Tanjung Tinggi was relatively quiet when we arrived. I didn't get the typical 'adrenalin high' when I see beach, for which reasons my pictures turned out quite flat too (I didn't know how to explain this but my photographs were nicer when I took
them in a happy mood).
For dinner, we decided to check out Biliton Hotel which was owned and run by the Dharmawangsa Group (in hindsight, I should have stayed here). It's built in the former office of the state owned tin mining company, PT Tambang Timah. I suspect this company has a long history and might have linked to the former tin mining of BHP Billiton. When I googled it, I found out the founders, Vincent Gildemeester, Baron van Tyull van Serooskerken and John Francis Loudon and their party discovered a rich supply of tin on Billiton island (Belitung) on the first day of their landing on 28 June, 1851. It was established under the name of NV Billiton Maatschappij. The tin mining in Belitung ceased in 1958 when the company was nationalised.
We were greeted by the friendly General Manager, Wahyu, who not only showed us the rooms but also accompanied us during dinner. Only then we found out, there were more things to see in Belitung beyond white sand beach as he shared a few locations worth visiting such as Gunung Kubing ("Mountain Kubing") at the Southern part of Belitung.
When asked, our guide, Erick,
didn't know the location of the 'mountain' and was not sure about the road condition; determined, we decided to extend our stay at Belitung one more day and to move to Hotel Biliton on the 3rd day of our stay. Post dinner, I was excited for our island hopping excursion the following day and didn't miss the chance to have an in room massage.
The nice thing about taking a private tour was that you got to wake up at which ever time you wish and didn't have to be rushed. We started our day relatively easy on the second day. After our breakfast, we headed to the area near Tanjung Tinggi beach where our colourful wooden boat was waiting. It was a sunny day and the sky was blue. Excited, off we went to the first and most frequently visited island, Pulau Berlayar ('sailing island'). At the size of two basket ball court, the island was full of protruding granite rocks with bluesky in the backdrop, creating a contrasting and unique view. Most local visitors came to have their photos taken and moved rushingly to the next island. We had the island to ourselves after the crowds left
and freely invaded every corner of the island.
Our next stop was Pulau Pasir or Sand Island, which was basically sand dunes in the middle of the sea and was my favourite island (my happiness level shot up when I reached this place). The shape of this island changes depending on the tide, while the water around the island was knee high, crystal clear. This was one of the famous and most visited island, but thankfully no one lingering long enough to have a dip in the water. For the second time, we had the island to ourselves after the crowds left. In no time, we soaked ourselves in the water and absorbed all the energy coming from the bright sunlight. I told Praty that she didn't have to go all the way to Maldives to find white sand beach and crystal clear water as Belitung is one hop away by plane from Jakarta. By noon, we decided to head towards Lengkuas island, famous for its old light house, white sand and turquoise water.
Ten minutes before reaching the island, it started to rain and soon became downpour. The wind blew so strong that we were soaked by
the rain in no time. Waiting for the rain to subside, we made use of the time to have our lunch in the boat. When the rain stopped, and the sea was flat, we could not help jumping into the water again, while Erick grabbed coffee from land. We didn't wait long as we noticed the black cloud started to move towards our direction, so we decided to head back to the mainland. Our prediction was correct, ten minutes before reaching the shores, the rain started to fall again, and the entire sky turned bluish grey. Cold and wet, both Praty and I decided to head back to our hotel soonest and opted for an in room massage again (one of the reasons why I love going for vacation in Indonesia). For dinner, we were joined by the husband and wife team, Kusuma and Shanty, General Manager of our travel agent, Belitungisland.com, and we were delighted to learn they would join us to go to Gunung Kubing the following day, as they had not been there!
The following morning, we checked in at Hotel Biliton, and while buying our packed lunch, we interestingly bumped into the Governor of Belitung
who was about to leave a local cafe shop, and I could not help greeting him and asking him about my request: to have an international airport which links Belitung to Singapore direct so that the tourism can flourish beyond domestic visitors. He said it's in the process as infrastructural budget has been allocated for the extension of the run way and turns it to an international airport.
Joined by our hilarious but helpful guide, Doni, we had a one and half an hour car ride to Gunung Kubing, with three quarter of the way, was a nicely paved road and the remainder was more like a one way road covered with wild plants on both side. It didn't occur to us we would come across anyone there; we were wrong. There were a few cars parked near the pond, where we alight and continued our journey on foot for another half an hour before we started climbing the rock. We could see it's a dry season as water in the pool was low and hardly dripped, so we decided to climb via the dried part of the rocks all the way up, with a few stops to catch
our breath. One hour later, we were relieved to see such a breathtaking view of the oil palm plantation among the lush green trees with water flowing from the top. The view reminds me of those spa resorts in Ubud as it looked literally like a natural plunge pool. Again, we waited for a bunch of teenagers crowding the place to leave, and finally got the space for ourselves. By the time we decided to leave and reached our car, it was around 4 pm; we headed South and checked out the most luxurious resort in the island called "Arumdalu", located in an area known for its mystics and less developed.
We didn't expect to see such a beautiful resort among empty lands and were glad we met the owner. The kind hearted couple was originally from Purwokerto, Java, but live in Jakarta. Initially, they bought lands in Belitung for the rubber supplies, but later on they kept adding the land acquisition and decided to finally build a resort. The owner who has an engineering background designed the resort by himself and had used many eco tourism concept such as recycling waste to fertiliser, utilised heat from air conditioning
system to produce heated water and grew organic vegetable plants using hydroponic methods. I was impressed. I have never heard about this resort before and would definitely like to come back and stay here, even though it was pricey. It offers cooking class and batik painting for its guests who could also rent bicycles and go for a fishing village excursion nearby. Only then, we were told why people meant by South Belitung being mystical; local Shaman could lift a drowning ship from the bottom of the sea without any equipment (don't ask me how they do though)!. Tired and full after our early dinner, we decided to return to the hotel, and just when the car was about to leave the resort compound on a dark sandy path, we spot a 1.5 meter black snake slithering crossing the path from our right to the left. Frozen, we all decided to 'let the snake go' before we moved our vehicle; my friend Praty didn't even allow me to take a shot of the snake! (later on I surfed internet and found out a crossing black snake from the right to the left would mean 'lucky' - to which my friends
laughed at my superstitious thought). I was glad we reached our hotel safely quite late in the evening.
Half heartedly, I had to leave on the following day, while my friend Praty decided to stay back for three more nights. I was wrong about Billiton. Indeed, it's such a beautiful island and is worth visiting as there were a lot more places and islands that I need to see. I was determined to come back again in the near future as I had yet to take my sunrise and sunset photographs of this beautiful island. Most importantly, we had great guides who were not only helpful but were also hilariously funny that made the entire trip memorable.
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