While most tourist attractions in Java and Bali are likely to be overloaded with tourists, there are other islands in Indonesia to which those looking for a break can head.
Bintan Island in the Riau Islands province off Sumatra is a great example. On the island, visitors can enjoy an idyllic island lifestyle while tracing the rich culture and heritage of its people.
Flights from Jakarta to Tanjung Pinang, the capital of Riau Islands Province, take about an hour and a half.
The 1,319-square-kilometer island is entirely encircled by white sandy beaches. Coconuts, durians, pineapples and dragonfruit thrive on this island. But the island prospers on tourism.
“About 60 percent of our revenue comes from taxes from hotels and restaurants on the island,” says Ansar Ahmad, the Bintan district chief.
The island’s revenue last year was about Rp 180 billion ($13 million).
Many of Bintan’s 150,000 inhabitants work at hotels and restaurants on the island, while the others are employed in tourism-related industries such as fisheries, plantations, handicrafts and transportation.
The local government is committed to expanding the tourism industry even more.
“Tourism has great multiplier effects for the people,” Ansar says. “Therefore we’re committed to developing more tourist facilities and attractions on the island.”
Bintan, despite its well-preserved beauty, is a hidden jewel on the archipelago. Last year only 324,000 people visited Bintan, mostly from Singapore and China. Only 11 percent of tourists were locals.
The main destination on the island is the Bintan Resort on Lagoi Bay, a two-hour drive from Raja Haji Fisabillilah Airport. The road is well-paved and winds past wooded hills, lakes and plantations.
Bintan Resort covers 18,000 hectares and is managed by Bintan Resorts Cakrawala, an Indonesian-Singaporean joint venture. There are already 13 resorts on the island, with at least seven more in the works.
“BRC has put on a lot of effort into Lagoi Bay,” says Abdul Wahab, the BRC group general manager. “We want people to enjoy Bintan and keep coming back.”
The company is also developing an international airport in Kuala Lobam, about an hour from the resort area, which it expects to complete in 2017.
“With the arrival of our airport in 2017, we’ll be connected to the international market,” Abdul says. “People can fly to Bintan Resort directly from their home countries.”
Each resort offers a rich variety of outdoor activities, such as beach volleyball, flying fox and paintball, as well as water sports. Some even have their own mini zoo.
At the Nirwana Gardens, for example, guests can choose to see an assortment of tropical birds or enjoy an elephant ride.
BRC is also organizing an Iron Man triathlon, to be held in the exclusive resort compound on Aug. 23.
“More than 800 people have already registered for the Iron Man event,” Abdul says. “By doing such activities, [we] will put Bintan and the Riau Islands province, as well as Indonesia, on the world map.”
The resort staff can arrange events off the beaten track, including a mangrove tour that features a ride in a wooden boat to see the spectacular variety of wildlife and plants in Bintan’s pristine swamps.
Not to be missed are Bintan’s kelong (“over the water”) restaurants. These restaurants comprise wooden stilt houses built over the swamps or the sea. They offer a fascinating array of fresh seafood cooked in local herbs and spices.
One of the most famous dishes in Bintan is gonggong.
“It’s the local version of escargots,” says Khair, our guide.
Gonggong is made of sea snails boiled in spices and served with freshly ground chili paste.
Another favorite dish on the island is ikan lebam, a kind of rabbitfish. The fish, whose flesh is white and supple, is usually grilled or cooked in a soup. Rich in protein and minerals, the fish dish is believed to enhance sexual vitality.
In the evening, these kelong restaurants showcase live traditional dances. The less shy can join the dancers and dance the night away.
“But you haven’t really been to Bintan if you haven’t been to the Penyengat Island,” says another guide, Selamet Ardiansyah.
Penyengat Island is located about two kilometers from Bintan and is reachable by a rented pompong, a wooden speedboat, from Tanjung Pinang. The boat ride takes about 20 minutes.
From the wharf, a small paved road leads to a neatly arranged row of houses, at the entrance of which stands a whitewashed gate, embossed with the figure of a scorpion — a fitting mascot, given that the island’s name translates into “island of stingers.”
But not to worry; you won’t find any actual scorpions stalking this beautiful island.
The name came from an unfortunate incident in the early 1900s, when a group of traders visiting the island were attacked by stinging insects.
“Back then, the island was known as Pulau Air Tawar [Freshwater Island],” says Hambali, a village elder, referring to Penyengat’s abundant natural freshwater supplies.
Everybody was free to take it, he adds, as long as they respected the local taboos.
“You must not boast about yourself on this island,” Hambali says. “Nor should you look down on anyone or anything on the island.”
The ill-fated traders who visited a century ago broke that taboo. And they were immediately made to suffer, or so the legend goes, as a swarm of stinging insects descended upon them from seemingly nowhere.
“They were attacked by bees, centipedes and scorpions,” Hambali says.
“They ran off to their boats and sailed away.”
The taboo, he adds ominously, still applies today.
Hambali is also the caretaker of the island’s historical Mesjid Raya Sultan Riau (Royal Mosque of the Sultan of Riau), built in 1832 by Sultan Abdurrahman of Riau.
Instead of cement, the builders back then used a concoction of egg whites, chalk, sand and clay to build the mosque.
“To date, this mosque has never needed to be renovated,”
Hambali says. “We just repaint it occasionally and change the lightbulbs.”
In the mosque’s foyer, on either side, stand a pair of massive wooden cupboards, their doors etched with verses from the Koran.
At the entrance of the hall, encased in a glass box, are old Korans handwritten by a scholar from the island, Abdurrahman Stambul, in 1867.
The mosque can accommodate around 100 people within its hall. The pulpit, gilded in gold, was made in Jepara, Central Java, in the 1800s and transported to the island by the sultan.
Outside, drivers of becak-motor (motor pedicabs) wait to take visitors on a tour around the island, which is home to the tombs of the Riau sultans, their wives, as well as their high-ranking officials.
The tombs resemble mini palaces from the “1,001 Nights,” with little domes and minarets, all painted in sallow yellow.
Our tour ended at the Balai Adat, or village hall, by the beach. Built in 1987, the structure is a replica of the original building, which was destroyed in the 1940s. Beneath the stilt structure is a freshwater well, whose water is said to be safe to drink without the need for boiling.
“According to legend, if you wash your face with the water from this well and drink it, you will be rejuvenated,” says Selamet, our guide.
The freshness of the water from the well, which is located only 10 meters from the sea, proves there just might be some truths in the old legends after all. (Jakarta Globe)
Accommodation in Bintan