A blip on the radar, another island lost in the Java Sea, a speck of Sumatra skipped over by guidebooks and travel agents, and the weekend haunt for a thousand tight-lipped Indonesians in on the secret—welcome to Belitung.
There are only two chances you’ve heard of this place: if you watched a 2008 Indonesian film called Laskar Pelangi—a heartwarming story set among the villages of Belitung—or if you recall the initial reports of an Indonesian plane crash from two Decembers ago—authorities first thought the wreckage would be closer to Belitung than Borneo.
For everyone else in the world, Belitung doesn’t exist. It might as well not be there. It might as well be squirreled away into nonexistence. Because no one’s really going there, right?
Except us, of course.
But how did we find out about it? The kids.
“You haven’t been to Belitung?” The students were incredulous. “You guys keep going to Bali and you haven’t been to Belitung?” They wouldn’t shut up about it; we thought their parents must be developing a hotel or a restaurant there. We thought it must be a private club for the wealthy. We thought it wasn’t for us.
But these kids – they wouldn’t leave any of us in teaching staff alone. They couldn’t believe we didn’t know.
Personally, I thought it was a hoax. I doubted the pictures I’d seen—mostly rainy-day shots of boulders on beaches—and the words I’d heard—mostly rumors around school saying “pretty good” to “really cool” but conspicuously lacking authentication by way of hard detail. I shrugged and said, “If it doesn’t show up in Lonely Planet, how great could it be?”
And it wasn’t even in Lonely Planet.
But here’s what pushed us out the door: the irony of living in Indonesia—the largest string of islands in the world, the owner more kilometers of coastline than pretty much anywhere—is that we don’t get to the beach so often.
Part of that is Jakarta’s fault. Or at least that’s whom we blame. The traffic makes it tough, the pollution makes it unpleasant, the population makes it congested. Any escape involves a pricey little jaunt out to the Thousand Islands, or inching over a traffic-choked series of roads stretching out to the west, or hopping on a plane and heading for Bali. But that’s the beauty of Belitung, as the story went: you can take a cheaper weekend away there.
The flight is 45 minutes from Jakarta’s hub, the fare half that of a boat to Thousand Island, and what you get when you land—well, that was the big question mark of the moment.
We booked, crossed our fingers, and took off.
After a bamboozling touch-down on rain-soaked runway outside a one-room airport surrounded by fog and clouds and forests, I was pretty sure I knew exactly why the world had never heard of Belitung.
Fast-forward forty-eight hours, though, and you’d find me in a different state.
You’d find me much more tanned, soaked and sore from snorkeling, and leaning back in a wicker chair as the sun splashed long yellows across a sleepy sea. Past the sea turtles flicking their snouts in the bay, past the chilled coconut resting in my hand, past the drowsing replay of the day rolling through my mind, you’d find me musing over whether or not the day’s little island hops were any worse than those in the much-acclaimed and fanfared specks of the mystical Maldives.
Yeah, that’s right, the high-dollar, world-famous, much-dreamed-after Maldives.
Here’s how Belitung happened for us.
We landed in the drizzles and gray, skeptical but aiming for optimism, and drove through weedy lots of one-story homes and paint-faded warungs. Traffic dragged, and to keep us from falling asleep, Andy asked the driver’s name.
“Riski,” came his smiling reply. He looked about nineteen, like this might be his first job.
“You’re risky?” I perked up. “A risky driver?”
He looked confused. “Ahh…. yes mister. I Riski.”
I was grinning at the thought of trying out a half-dozen corny jokes, but Andy just shook her head: Riski wasn’t going to understand, and she certainly wasn’t going to laugh. “They’re bad jokes, anyway,” she consoled me. “You’re better off without them.”
Chilly raindrops sprinkled the windshield. The young man, wiry with a faint mustache and vein-laden forearms, smiled into the rearview. “You need driver, you want Riski driver!”
At the hotel, things didn’t look much better. Actually, they looked too much better: the seaside pool was filled with Gucci purses and loud-mouthed upper-crusters with their high-heeled karaoke aficionados. Polo shirts and Gap shorts. Cocktails and cigars. Leather and hair gel. Meanwhile, the evening sky was drooping to the color of sock-washing water, and the restaurant looked double the price a meal we wanted. “Let’s go across the street,” we decided in unison.
Outside the hotel gates, we found a couple shacks selling Ramen noodles and instant coffee, a souvenir shop, a store featuring empty aquariums and plastic sandwich sacks of goldfish, and miles of desolate ocean-side forest scrub. It was, in fact, a far cry from the Maldives.
We chose the goldfish place. We wanted to see about a motorcycle.
And in Indonesia, if you want a motorcycle, just talk to the teenagers standing around with nothing to do.
The guys there, aside from stacking the plastic baggies of fish in enormous pyramids on the table, were absolutely not helpful about renting a motorcycle for the morning. They stared at their fish, talked about who might and might not need their bike tomorrow–glanced a little at us, sizing up the likelihood that we might crash or steal their precious machines–and asked if we needed any goldfish.
No. Mainly a motorcycle for the morning and some food for the moment. They talked some more. They made a half-hearted phone call. They offered us more fish.
The goldfish guys were a flop. Let’s walk on down the street.
Here’s the thing we were just starting to see about Belitung: it’s cozy, and it’s urban; it’s rustic, and it’s upscale; it’s got nothing, and it’s got everything; across the street from a nice hotel, you find Ramen noodles and goldfish. This is Belitung—isle incongruous extremes. It’s not the Maldives, not Bali. It’s rains and pools and Riski and all Belitung.
Even as we seated ourselves in the warung down the street, even as we ordered the homespun food from smiling locals, even as our eyes watered from down-to-earth spiciness, part of me still wanted to peg this island as a weekend get-away for the upper-class businessmen flying out of Jakarta and into fancy digs at the beach. But that’s just not true, as I was already observing—half the hotel guests sported conservative Muslim hijabs, and half the conversations we sparked up on the beaches were with local Belitungians, not Jakartan jet-setters. And while more than a few old-school Belitung faithful had holed up in the midscale Aston, the overall consensus, chatting with those in adjoining tables, and later on adjoining beaches, was that Belitung’s secret was getting out. The up-and-coming guesthouses have arrived and are thriving. The backpacker getaways are running strong.
Visitors here were online and smart-phone savvy. Selfies got snapped side by side with stacks of shrimp-flavored crackers (a staple souvenir from these parts). The rented motorcade shared the road with flip-flopped walkers and budget motorbikers. Welcome the blogger and the Instagrammer and the backpacker. Welcome the start-up homestay and the new property listing on TripAdvisor. Welcome the noveau middle-class of Indonesia.
Belitung is an island in a flux of identity crisis.
And that wasn’t helping it get anywhere closer to Maldives status.
But if Belitung has taught me anything, it’s that when you’re hungry and it’s getting late—say, past seven o’clock—and all this tiny world seems to have closed down, a goldfish shop is not the place to look for dinner.
Try the quaint little place a few hundred meters down the street.
Try the Aston’s security guards for a chance to rent a motorbike.
Those guys are great. They’ll smile a toothy sort of smile and say no problem—until you ask for a helmet as well. That will cause a little stir—a little frantic discussion about who among them actually uses a helmet on their bike, and whether or not they can swipe it for a day without his permission.
But these security guys will be so delighted to make a little extra rental wages that they will bring out a tiny silver briefcase when you return, look right and left to see that no one is looking, conceal the goods from the CCTVs in the corners, and then slyly click it open. Behold the sparkling contents, the lustrous treasure of the security men, the guarded secret of the motorcycle renters: a couple dozen over-sized stones ready to be fitted to a giant, obnoxious ring.
It’s called batu. It’s kind of a big deal in some circles around these islands. And the fact that I could buy some batu, well, it made me feel a little more like a local. I was kind of pumped. And a little amused.
Sadly, I didn’t get one. If I take that step, the next is to take up smoking and start napping on my motorcycle seat and considering Krupuk as a food group on its own. And I’m just not ready to get that local. Not yet.
What does Belitung have that the Maldives lack? How about fields full of giant boulders piled on top of some of Indonesia’s trademark fine white sand? Mix that in with some clear ocean waves, and you’ve got a playground just waiting to happen and begging to be explored.
A fifty-minute motorbike ride—I mean the lazy sort of ride where the biggest challenge isn’t navigating beehive traffic but to keep yourself from staring oceanward and running off the road—north of the city lands you at a crazy place called Tanjung Tinggi. Here, huge slabs of granite lie sprinkled across the beach like some absent-minded giant misplaced his marbles and pick-up sticks. Huge rocks lounge everywhere—and you can climb on them! It turns the staidest, stalest, dried-up-est adult into an oversized kiddo wanting to scramble across a playground.
Tanjung Tinggi a heaven for rock-climbers and boulder-scramblers and anyone interested in testing their limits or patience for climbing atop big rocks for no real reason.
On top of the taller ones, your reward is views of more rocks, sand finer than pepper, and blue, blue oceans stretching out to a horizon dotted with, you guessed it, more boulders and more islands with more boulders. It’s a geographical and geological oddity.
And it keeps hyperactive English teacher types busy.
And it marks one for humble Belitung over the snobbery of the Maldives. That’s right, the days of lazing on a beach for no better reason than getting a really expensive tan are gone. Or the times spent turning the natural wonders of a crystal surf into a library—doesn’t the beach offer anything better than a place to read a book? —well, toss that out the window when you get to Belitung. Scramble on the rocks, bound over the mounds of granite. Video and photo the contrast of the beach—the tiniest grains of finest sand dwarfed by the immensity of the blackened granite mounds, and hypothesize about the nature of God and the universe, and try, just keep trying, to fit these scenes into the camera.
Lose track of time.
You can still get your tan, and read your books later.
The drawback to this all, at least for Andy and for me, was a drizzly sort of day with a gray curtain of cloud low overhead. The morning saw us embark on a long bike ride through the chilled drizzle, and afternoon, despite the clouds, left our skin a bit too red from underestimating the UV rays seeping through.
The plus side to all this: not many folks around. Yes, the pleasant family from Bandung, mom and daughters wrapped in hijabs, sons and husbands in shorts and wielding cameras, wandered into our frames every now and then. Yes, the selfie-marauding pack of cigarette investors—that’s all I can assume they are judging by the amount of tobacco they burned—waylaid me for a dozen minutes of handshakes and hello-mister pictures. Yes, the wandering, howling gang of teens giggled and snickered at everything they came across.
It was pretty empty. And those guys—those guys were just Indonesians enjoying their country. I’m glad they shared it with a couple of tripod-dragging foreigners intent upon reducing the natural beauty of the island paradise into a backdrop for a photo shoot.
After rambling the rocks, and sating ourselves with a couple coconuts, we packed up and headed back down the coast to Tanjung Kelayang.
The beach is wider, and the sand even finer. The horizon lies dotted with a dozen round isles of spritely palms high-fiving the sinking sun for yet another glorious day up top, and the whole place bustles with the energy of people going places. Tour buses pack off huge groups in matching T-shirts, family carloads spill onto the sand, and motorbikes like ours drag in the rest.
Boat launches are constantly coming and going. Kids in their undies play soccer in the surf. Tourists waddle to and fro in bright orange life vests, and boat operators smile and count their cash.
Because if there’s one thing Andy and I learned about Tanjung Kelayang, it’s that no one breaks The Code.
One price, every boat, regardless how many passengers. It’s the same rate. No exceptions. No foreigner price or local price. It’s all the same. It’s a cooperative. It’s all the same price. And it works. Time after time, the fishers and ferry-boat men smiled between puffs on their cigarettes and shook their heads. “Sama harganya.” Same Price. Or, “No local price—all same.” Or. “One hundred in boat or one. Same price.”
Bartering was useless. Pulling out the trump card of a KITAS ID card and a bit of Bahasa Indonesia were useless. The marketplace gimmick of walking away from the deal to spark a lower rate was useless.
We stalked up and down the sunset, snapping some pics and scouting the scene for tomorrow’s island hopping. In the end, our craftiest tricks proved useless; we were somehow stuck with the same price as everyone else for our island excursion.
But that would have to wait until tomorrow.
For the moment, there was the small matter of a sunset dinner of grilled fish to be dispensed with.
Yes, grilled fish. It’s an Indonesian specialty on every island that values a stunning fish fresh-flipped from the sea. Gut it and toss it on the coals; mash up some sauce and lemons and fixings; and get that rice ready for its supporting role. Yes, it’s grilled fish. Thick, juicy, tender fish dripping with flavors of the fire and the salt of the water.
So, we found a little shack with a view of the setting sun. The proprietor opened up an ancient Coca-Cola cooler and splayed the options for us to choose from—row upon row of sleek, shiny scales, ice-bright eyes, and thick, muscular flanks. She described the flaky white flesh and the taste of each, and we flipped through smart phone bi-lingual dictionaries, and she patiently fixed her shawl and explained the fish again more slowly. She waited. She nodded her wizened face and answered. No hurry.
Her daughter and her kitten edged shyly from the corner to watch.
Andy and I said hello, offered some candy from our dwindling snack bag, and deliberated on the merits of each fish in the cooler. Minutes later, the grill was wheezing to life, and our chosen fish was being worked over in salt and lemon.
“Island hopping” gets a lot of buzz in this part of the world—and it’s not just about the strategy the Allied forces adopted in the Pacific when pounding back the Japanese fascists. No, around here, in parts where there are simply too many tiny specks of bejeweled sand and palm to appreciate, you hire a boat, visit several in a day—a sort of buffet of natural goodness, an all-you-can-stomach surfeit of sunshine and gentle waves, an excursion through the specks and blips that otherwise clutter maps with their crazy string of dots—that has somehow taken the moniker of WWII Pacific war-talk.
We showed up after 9—sun already blazing in the powder-blue sky—and found our guy. He was smiling and swarthy, smoking and polite, contemplative at the rudder and quiet on the shore. His shoulders rippled with the muscles gained from a lifetime of hauling boats in and out of the tide, of tugging molding ropes and scraping barnacles and lugging nets and anchors and whatever else these boatmen do all day under the unhurried sun of Belitung.
The captain, smile as broad as his shoulders, was more than happy to show us the way.
First stop: a tiny sandbank loaded down with so many of those enormous granite boulders that it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t sink. The island’s circumference can’t be more than a hundred meters; the weight of one of its boulders can’t be less than a hundred tons. Get ready for scrambling.
Around Belitung, the art of hoisting your flip-flopped self up and over these ridiculous boulders while somehow not smashing your camera to pieces becomes an art. The captain smiled and smoked as we capered about like children.
Then we left. We hopped aboard, called a friendly, “Ayo, Pak,” to the captain, and we were puttering across the glassy bay in search of further island glory.
Next stop: a sandbank again – though this time peopled with fat-as-walrus starfish and void of boulders. The only things to ruin your relaxation here are the possible sunburn you could incur and another boat of island-hoppers bouncing into your panorama photo.
The captain had another cigarette.
“He must have a treasure-chest full of those somewhere aboard,” I whispered to Andy.
I don’t know if she heard me, though. She was already scanning the horizon’s possibilities for the next island assault.
Stop three was the famous lighthouse of Pulau Lengkuas. Here, the Dutch fashioned a tower to ward of passing ships from the shallow bay stretching far out into the sea—presumably strewn with more of those granite boulders lurking beneath the waves, ready to wreck unlucky hulls. I think now it’s more of a tourist monument than a functioning warning system, but at least it performs that function well. A fifty-cent ticket gives you the right to climb a few hundred stairs and gaze in wonder and the transparent sea sliding away beneath you. Reefs in all their washed-out colors (they never glow from above the way they do within the water) sparkle through the drooping tide, and a parking lot of barks is anchored in the shallows.
The captains smoke—of course—and swap stories. They nap along the decks and sip cheap coffee. They watch the waves and ponder: just how many cigarettes I can buy after collecting the fee for today’s travel…
A hundred meters up, though, Andy was radiant in her photos. “This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Indonesia,” she told me for the third time. “I can’t believe I’m seeing this.” I nodded in agreement. It was a moment when photography failed, a moment when cramming that scene into the lens just felt a little sacrilegious, a tad under-appreciative, and a bit crass. We gazed across the waves at the islands we had visited, at the dozen more awaiting for the afternoon, at Belitung itself in the distance, and tried to trace the distant mountains of Sumatra against the ocean’s distant haze.
Meanwhile, fellow island hoppers came not-so-hoppingly up those final stairs. We exchanged obligatory comments on braving the hundreds of steps but that the view was worth it. We chatted about the corals out there. We got advice, and offered more in turn, on which islands were the best to visit. And then, of course, in the climactic moment of wonder, in the throes of the rapturous beauty we reveled in, in the glorious culmination of that unspoken bond we had forged with the new visitors, we got out the selfie sticks and snapped some Hello-Mister pictures.
The next stop wasn’t far at all. The next stop required a mere scooting around the corner of the reef for a nice spot to drop us in some snorkel-able spots.
That was nice. It gave us a chance to cool off after the brazing afternoon sun had sweated us through, and it gave the captain a chance to—yep, you guessed it—puff another cigarette.
But the reefs—you’ll want to know about the reefs.
Belitung does offer a bit of scuba action. It boasts a handful of dive sites reputed to be nice. The coral around Lengkuas is the most-visited spot for the snorkels, and it’s pretty OK. Really OK, actually. Even impressive. Certainly worth a gander or two.
They’re a nice distraction. They offer some lion fish and morays and some nice variety of coral. The colors are there, and the visibility not bad, and once you find yourself washed in those nap-warm crystal waters with the coral panorama spreading before you, I think you’ll be quite satisfied. Novice snorkelists will be amazed.
Hardcore reef-mongers, though, might flipper away from Belitung a little underwhelmed, but they’re probably missing the point. Belitung is not about the reefs—it’s about playful scrambling over the boulders, it’s about the adventure of scooting between the islands on a whim and a puttering diesel boat, it’s about a day to kick back and soak in the several wonders of this little blip of creation, and then to slip below and swim around and peruse more of the same. If you come only for the snorkel, you’ll leave a heavy-hearted. But if you show up for the aggregate wonder, the holistic island experience, well my friend, your smile will tell the tale more genuinely than your longwinded blog post can hope to accomplish.
What I will remember most from Belitung, though, what I will treasure forever in memory of that weekend, happened exactly there—right there in those mostly adequate reefs under the auspicious gaze of the Lengkuas lighthouse.
“There I was,” I’ll start, years from now, as I recount the story to lap-fulls of wide-eyed youngsters intent on hearing the stories of my wandering years, “There I was, ready to pack up and climb back aboard the boat, when all of a sudden—”
“That’s not how the story goes,” Andy will interrupt as she comes sashaying in from the kitchen with a tray full of cookies fresh from the oven. “Tell them first about how you were filming, the last film of the snorkel—”
“Get your hands off my cookies!” I’ll shout at one of the kids—the pudgy one with chocolate all over his fat cheeks. “I want cookies too!”
And then we might wrestle and tickle and giggle and never finish telling about what I saw in Belitung. Which will probably be fine with the kids, as long as they get cookies and wrestling. I should probably throw in a glass of milk as well. Then they’ll probably head off to bedtime after that, wondering what on earth that crazy man was going to tell them.
No, they probably won’t remember my crazy bedtime stories at all.
Even so, I’ll have to have a talk with Andy about interrupting my future stories with future cookies. I might need to buy her a cookie-cooking apron, too.
“But I don’t even bake cookies,” she will undoubtedly tell me.
“Yeah, well, just make sure that when you do, that I’m not in the middle of my Belitung stories.”
“You’re still telling that story of Belitung? The one where we saw the giant—”
“Yes! That’s the one—right when we were about to leave, and I decided to take the GoPro down for one last video, and as I was swimming, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this giant mass of—”
“Here we go again, she’ll say, rolling her eyes and popping another tray of cookie dough into the oven.
Oh, wait—the cookies were part of a different diversion.
Anyway, the point is that I’ll be telling this particular story for years to whomever has the misfortune of sitting near me when the hankering strikes. The best you can do is hope for some cookies to interrupt; otherwise, you’ll be forced to sit through me regaling one more time, how, just when I was ready to climb back aboard and scoot off to the next island—just when I was leaving the shallow reef for deeper water, just as I dove one last moment for one last video, I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a giant shadow sliding through the waves.
It was too large for a shark. Too large for a whale. Too large for anything I could imagine—a vague, bulky shadow slipping seamlessly through the water. What was that? What could be so huge? Its sheer mass beckoned me closer, my curiosity closing my own net around me. Still it swam, silent and graceful. What could it be? Closer. closer, until the sun struck its massive flank, and I saw, in that moment of rippling revelation, exactly what this was.
A million-strong school of sparkling silver fish.
There must have been a million—probably more. Each one was six inches of silver quickness; each one a miniature torpedo of flashing light. Each one flitting smoothly through the crystal water, a tiny cell in the tissue of a giant much greater than itself, much greater than the singular bulk of muscle bound into a single whale.
From one end of my vision to my right, the river of fish stretched indefinitely, flowed uninterrupted. The same for the tail of the creature extending to my left. In all, they formed a mighty serpent of light siding silently through the waves.
And armed with a merely snorkel mask and a GoPro, I plunged into its belly.
A swirl of the fish engulfed me—a tornado of gleaming eyes gliding past, around, and encircling me. Everywhere in my vision a gleam of sun-bright scales flashing an instant and being replaced the next by its brother. I swam within them—and they chased and redirected and went on their way. I swam against their current, and I grew dizzy with the smattering. I swam beneath them, and watched them block the sun from view. I pressed back up through their midst—their collective body split apart for me to spear upward to the surface.
This was a moment that assures you both of God’s existence and benevolence.
I’ve been to more amazing reefs; I’ve seen more vivid colors and much greater variety; I’ve witnessed the tiny creatures defying creativity and evolution. But I’d never seen this sort of schooling fish behavior—not up close, at least. Certainly not at this magnitude.
And here, in Belitung, right off the shore of the Lengkuas lighthouse, I was a part of it.
“They would rather have cookies than hear that story again,” Andy, that one distant day, will smile and tease me.
“Then you better start baking,” I’ll smile back. “While I finish this article.”
Right, so the last stop that afternoon involved a larger island—one that takes nearly ten minutes to cross on foot. It included a trek through some dense foliage, an off-the-radar eco-resort, replete with a guide with a dubious story about his family being killed in the Bali bombing of ’02 and being left an orphan to somehow be raised on Sumatra, as well as a sea-turtle hatchery with a dozen tanks of turtles in their various stages of growth preparing to be released back into the wild.
It also featured me, forty-eight hours after touching down in Belitung, well-tanned, soaked and sore from snorkeling, and leaning back in a wicker chair as the sun splashed long yellows across a sleepy sea. Yes, the sea turtles were flicking their noses in the bay, past the chilled coconut in my palm, past the drowsing replay of the day rolling through my mind. I lolled in and out of naps, musing whether or not the day’s little island hops were any worse than those in the Maldives: that benchmark of tropical island greatness.
This was known as Pulau Babi, whose eco-resort features back-to-basic lodging and a cheap plate of fried rice with a coconut on the side. Pulau Babi skips the experience on Belitung proper—the goldfish shack and the motorbike hassle and the dozen guys at Tanjung Tinggi clammering for a selfie with you. Pulau Babi sticks you right in the heart of the island hopping life.
It also left me with two legfulls of sand-flea itching after that otherwise amazing afternoon nap.
It was dark by the time our trusty captain put out his last cigarette and lugged the boat up the sandy surf, and tied it off against the night-arriving tide. It was dark as our motorcycle glided past the tiny village houses and through the narrow, but well-paved, streets of Belitung. Darkness and drowsiness settled over our Sunday dinner, and later we split a slice of ultra-rich chocolate cake, for today was Andy’s birthday.
“One of the special-est birthdays ever,” she told me through the chocolate-stained smile. “I just might want to come back here next year.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I winked back, grinning a more chocolatey grin than even the kiddos who will gather around to hear these stories years from now.
I had taken a day off work, so Monday featured an afternoon flight, and a morning of lounging around the hotel buffet and the pool. No rush on this island.
The tiny airport sits only twenty minutes away, and it’s not like there’s any traffic jam possible for a few dozen people heading that direction. So we stayed, and we lounged, and we soaked in the pool-side glimmer for another fifteen minutes, and another fifteen minutes, for another fifteen minutes, until our requests for later check-outs were denied, and we were forced to pack up and head out.
Twenty minutes to the airport, an hour’s wait for a delayed flight, and a mere forty-five minutes of a ride back to the smog-filled bustle of the capital.
“So that was Belitung,” we told each other while sweating through the exhaust-laden air of the taxi queue. “Why on earth are there not more people going there?”
Or perhaps more importantly: When on earth can we get back?