Bintan is a unique paradise island and one of the main islands – in addition to Batam, Rempang, Galang, Combol, Kundur and Karimun – that form the Riau Archipelago. Located less than 70km south of Singapore, and about an hour’s ferry ride away, Bintan is about 2.5 times the size of its modern, sky-scraping neighbour with just a fraction of its population. Bintan’s convenient location and pristine beaches have made the island a popular destination for domestic holidaymakers and visitors from East Asia, but long before the island attracted the well-heeled tourist, it held strategic value as a trading post for its size and position between China and India. According to Chinese chronicles, the first inhabitants can be traced back to the 3rd century, and by the 13th century Bintan had come under the control of the Malacca kingdom, before falling to the Sultanate of Johor in the 15th century and becoming the political and cultural epicentre of that kingdom. While the island’s trades flourished, so did the struggle for control of its wealth, with internal feuds between the Malay and Bugis people, as well as land and sea battles against foreign invading forces.
Bintan’s importance as a trading port began to decline in the 18th century while under Dutch rule leading up to Indonesian independence. The resulting ethnic mix of Bintan today is a true melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Bugis and indigenous sea gypsy descendants who all contribute to a colourful local culture.
Before hitting the epic beaches, I’m eager to absorb the intriguing mix of local culture that stems from such storied history. So I begin my trip about a half-hour drive from the airport by exploring the city of Senggarang, where most of the houses are built on stilts over the water. The homes here can be accessed either from the front land entrance – usually on a boardwalk – or by the water from the back. My local guide Maradu tells me the rear entrance functions as the jump-on, jump-off point for the traditional boats, sampan, which are sort of like a water taxi mainly used to go to and from the capital city Tanjung Pinang, Penyengat Island or any other nearby islands.
In the same town there are a number of Buddhist temples, with the Banyan Tree Temple the most revered. It literally has a banyan tree growing on top of it, with sturdy old roots entangling the 200-year-old building below. Many of the older locals gather here to enjoy the shade of the tree, to relax and chitchat the afternoon away.
Nearby a large temple impresses with its ornate Chinese patterns, vibrant colours and stunning views out to sea. The Senggarang Temple Complex comprises many different temples, including the Sun Te Kong Temple, Marco Temple, Tay Ti Kong Temple, and also a Buddhist temple at the back. Most of the temples have been around for about 300 years, in parallel to the ethnic Chinese community. At the back of the Sun Te Kong Temple you can find a large Buddha statue and several other statues worn by time. Wandering this idyllic neighbourhood is an excellent introduction to local life and the local Chinese communities on Bintan.
From Senggarang we rent a small boat from a local fisherman to head towards the historic Penyengat Island. This small island houses many ruins and histories of the Sultanate of Johor. It was made the capital of the kingdom, which was in decline at the time of the Portuguese rule over Malacca. At only 2.5km2 the only transportation available on the island today are becaks (rickshaws). The slow breeze from the back of a becak is a distinctly Indonesian experience, and on a picture-perfect island like this, with the scent of the sea in the air, it doesn’t get any better. First we visit the tombs of King Ali Haji Fisabilillah (a Bugis commander and national hero who died during the battle of Malacca against the Dutch in 1784 and who the local airport is named after) and Raja Hamidah (the creator and author of the first Malay-language grammar book) along with tombs of other royals. History buffs will also want to visit the northeast end of the island where there are many fascinating Islamic relics; chief among them is the Grand Mosque of the Sultan of Riau, built over 170 years ago to commemorate the union of King Ali Haji Fisabilillah and the daughter of the sultan, establishing peace between the Malay and Bugis people.
Time for lunch. We leave Penyengat Island and Maradu takes me to tuck in to some grilled chicken at Ayam Penyet in the capital. Popular among the locals, the restaurant serves up free-range grilled or fried chicken, served with sides of fried tofu or tempeh and some fresh greens, all made extra tasty with Bintan-style fiery sambal. Fresh coconut juice washes it all down and is just the thing to cool off from the tropical heat. We then decide to work off our lunch with a walk through the distinctly Dutch wet market, where fishermen are busy bringing in their catches throughout the day. There is a variety of dried seafood for sale, a perfect souvenir snack for friends at home to get a taste of Bintan. The captain of our water taxi, Pak Said, suggests that we end the day by heading east towards Trikora Beach on the eastern coast of Bintan. Trikora is very quiet and still untouched with long stretches of pristine white-sand shoreline reaching from south to north. Fishing villages punctuate the seemingly endless beach and I spot one of the famous boat makers here hard at work next to where the grass meets the sand. Part artist and part naval expert, he crafts his boats using only wood-cutting and -shaving tools, sculpting elegant curves from large blocks, guided by his instincts and experience. As we head further north we come across nomadic Orang Laut (sea gypsies) in a small waterfront village where they stay to avoid storms. Day to day, the families live on their wooden boats, cooking and eating while hopping from island to island to catch fish with traditional equipment and to make a living. They are still very conservative and fairly shy, so please treat them with due respect if you encounter this unique sight. The northernmost quarter of the island has been converted into a tropical tourist playground, where the immaculate beach setting and blissful sea breezes are enhanced by a selection of some of the region’s most popular luxury resorts. And there are more underway, with investment coming in to build Bintan as Indonesia’s next holiday capital. I manage to catch the spectacular sunset from Nirwana Gardens resort, and as the sun dips down over the horizon, I reflect on my trip and can’t help but feel grateful to have experienced this incredible paradise, fuelled by history and filled with surprises. Bintan certainly leaves a lasting impression.
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