By Dian Hasan | July 16, 2010
Bali is in a league of its own. Indonesia’s most famous island is renowned as the very definition an exotic island destination. With her artistic people and their unique culture, captivating natural beauty, idyllic beaches, and of course some of the world’s most unforgettable hotels and spas. Annual international awards and accolades from the world’s travel industry attest to her allure. Some even swear that the Bali Style is emulated at resorts the world over.
It seems that Bali never ceases to capture the imagination, and all-things Bali are embedded deep in the psyche and always make for interesting travel writing. But let’s give Bali a rest, it’s not as if she gloats in the limelight, on the contrary the Balinese make it their responsibility to safeguard their culture against the ebb and flow of global trends.
Brand Bali. Her image overshadows the potential of Indonesia’s other travel destinations. The niche circles of travelers with special interest, ie. the surfers, divers and adventure travelers are already familiar with the the world’s largest archipelago’s offering. And the advent of the internet and social media is witnessing people share information. There are less travel secrets. And everyone wants to seek their own journey of self-discovery to “hidden” remote destinations. Or so it seems. Belitung Island is one such place.
A short 40-minute flight from perennially “macet” (traffic clogged) Jakarta, lies an under-appreciated and uncrowded tropical isle with arguably the best white sand beach in Southeast Asia.
When the Dutch were busy manning their colonies in the Caribbean and then Netherland Indies (present day Indonesia), they were referring to both as among the world’s most beautiful islands. They were not referring to Bali or Java, but Billiton (as Belitung was known during the colonial days) and the many islands scattered around it.
Belitung and the neighboring Bangka, were part of South Sumatra province, and are now independent as the newly-minted province of Bangka-Belitung, better known for its acronym Ba-Bel. Located on the east coast of Sumatra between the South China and the Java Sea, the islands are historically known for their tin mines and pepper. Surrounded by straits and bays, the sea around the islands is calm and shallow and has beautiful underwater scenery.
The beaches deserve to be called world-class; pure white with sand particles so fine, more akin to powdered sugar. Singapore has acknowledged this little known fact for years, they’ve imported it for their own manmade beaches back home. Beaches on Sentosa Island, home to Universal Studios, is just one place where you’ll find Bangka sand. And the sand’s high silica count is also used in glass making.
Belitung’s sparse population and remote location, away from Indonesia’s main island, has blessed her with clean beaches. And unlike volcanic islands like Bali, Lombok and even Hawaii, Belitung’s surrounding waters remain shallow for miles on end, giving the sea an incredible hue of turquoise and blue that is more common in Tahiti, The Caribbean or Maldives. It’s location on the eastern side of Sumatra protects it from dangerous currents and fault line that so often hit Sumatra with earthquakes.
A myriad of small uninhibited islands await discovery, ranging from defunct coconut plantations to coral atolls with beautiful underwater reef.
But the most interesting natural phenomenon must surely be the giant boulders strewn on beaches, creating abstract granite rock sculptures. Belitung is renowned for her “rock beaches”, made popular by 2008 blockbuster “Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops)“, based on the Indonesian bestseller novel by Andrea Hirata that featured the beautiful Belitung beaches as the movie’s backdrop.
The old Dutch lighthouse (built 1882) on Lengkuas Island, a short boat ride from Tanjung Kelayang beach. The lighthouse is approximately 60 meters in height (equivalent to an 18-story building)
A short boat ride in a traditional fishing boat takes you to Pulau Lengkuas (Lengkuas Island), for a visit to an old lighthouse from the Dutch era. It was cast in England in 1882 and shipped in pieces, and re-assembled by the Dutch. Ascending the top affords an aerial view of Belitung and her beautiful rock beaches.
Another popular activity is snorkeling, for an encounter of multicolored coral and reef fish. Belitung is also known for Chinese wrecks from different dynasties, a recent discovery was considered Indonesia’s oldest wrecks.
And what would Belitung be without tin? The main city, Tanjung Pandan, was built on the riches derived from tin mining, making Belitung as one of the biggest cash cows for the Dutch. Examples of colonial Dutch architecture can still be seen in and around Tanjung Pandan, including mansions, a school, hospital and staff housing complex some of which are still used by PN Timah and BHP Billiton tin mining companies.
In her heyday, Belitung was a hive of economic activity, attracting Indonesians from other islands, such as the Bugis from Sulawesi (Celebes), the Sundanese from West Java, and the Chinese who were brought in from mainland China by the Dutch to work the tin mines.
Belitung is slowly developing its tourism infrastructure. Currently there are sub-standard hotels and some better ones, but nothing to really write home about for international travelers. One is almost better off staying at locally run beach cottages that offer a more authentic stay experience.
Existing beach resorts are either too gaudy, catering to the local market, or are in dire need of refurbishment. But the unusual rock formations on the beaches remain, awaiting discovery. And prove the Dutch right, that Belitung indeed earns “The Caribbean of the East” nickname.