Island Idylls in Bintan
Until this February, I’d never given any serious thought to visiting the holiday island of Bintan in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago. It took a solo work trip for me to eventually hop aboard a domestic flight from Jakarta, a journey that was slightly longer than the usual 55-minute ferry ride across the strait from Singapore. That hardworking city-state often looks to its larger neighbors for places to lepak, a word borrowed from Malay to describe the act of loitering around, to chill and do nothing. The broad perception among Singaporeans – and one that I also held until recently – is that Bintan is all about lepaking in beachside resorts; that it is purely geared toward weekenders looking to cocoon themselves in the smart hotels scattered along the island’s northern shore. How wrong I was.
Bintan, as it turned out, was raw and beautiful in ways I hadn’t imagined. The hour-plus drive from the airport to the resort enclave passed calm estuaries and inlets – places where I could imagine myself paddling in a kayak – framed by thick mangrove forest. Then we raced through a scrubby landscape with a slightly Wild West feel; my driver, Erizal, was going full throttle in a beat-up taxi with a large crack running down the left side of the windshield. It wasn’t until 20 minutes into the journey that I noticed how a large chunk of the steering wheel had simply gone missing, as though it had corroded through years of exposure to the salty sea air.
A brief security check and a sizeable gateway signaled that we were now inside Bintan Resorts, the name given to a 17,500-hectare swath of land designated for tourism, carefully master-planned and managed by a Singaporean-Indonesian investment company. Suddenly, something heavy fell from the boot with a loud clunk. “Ah, the taxi light!” Erizal chuckled. The vehicle came screeching to a halt, then he went out to retrieve the broken light and a rusted metal frame that had once held it to the body of the vehicle. I could see why the security guards were bemused when we finally arrived at the entrance to Laguna Bintan.
A working weekend was not what I had hoped for, but there were far worse places to be. Laguna Bintan comprised a golf course looking out onto a picture-perfect bay strewn with boulders, and a trio of lodgings catering to different kinds of travelers: perched on a forested headland was the all-villa Banyan Tree for couples wanting a bit more privacy, down the slope you had the family-oriented Angsana by the kilometer-long private beach, and beside it rose the newest of the bunch – the quirky Cassia Bintan for the millennial crowd.
Still, work was work. Sunday meant a jam-packed itinerary full of site visits accompanied by Iris, a Singapore-based marketing manager at Bintan Resorts who had generously forfeited her weekend to take me around the island. The best part of the day was an hour-long cruise in a small motor boat on the placid, mangrove-lined Sebung River. As we sailed upstream we came across an unexpected glimpse of the local history. Up until the practice was outlawed some 20 years ago, mangroves all around Bintan were chopped down and slow-burned in red-brick kilns to make export-grade charcoal. The traces of that former industry were visible on the riverbank, where an overgrown charcoal kiln suddenly emerged through a gap in the trees like a long-lost stupa.
Eventually the river narrowed to the point where the trees on both banks intertwined and enveloped us in a sun-dappled tunnel of foliage. Iris spoke in hushed tones as we glided across the mirror-like waters. “This is my favorite part – it’s like entering another world.” Soon enough, the young guide onboard pointed out slumbering (and venomous) mangrove snakes – their jet-black bodies marked with diamond-shaped patterns in neon yellow – curled up in the branches overhead. We also saw a monitor lizard taking an afternoon nap and tiny mud crabs skittering in and out of their burrows on the pockmarked banks. Alas, given the plethora of site visits that day, I had not thought to bring my camera along.
That changed when we headed eastwards the next morning on a half-day-long drive to The Residence Bintan, a brand-new beachfront resort that had opened just five days earlier. But first up was a detour to Panglong Village near the island’s northern tip, home to a community of orang laut – sea gypsies who have inhabited the Riau Archipelago since time immemorial. The road to the village dead-ended on an open field, where a Malay family from a neighboring part of the island had retrofitted a pickup truck to become a mobile stall selling fresh produce and everyday items like packets of instant coffee. Behind it, a small Catholic chapel and a musholla (the Muslim equivalent) stood side by side. Just as intriguing was a pair of disused, igloo-like charcoal kilns sheltered beneath a corrugated iron canopy. Their thick walls kept the air inside refreshingly cool. Panglong Village itself was a government-built arrangement of overwater houses roofed in corrugated iron and linked together by elevated concrete walkways; the residents shyly greeted us from the relative darkness of their living rooms. Maradu, my guide and driver for the day, said their close relationship with the sea (being exceptionally skilled fishermen) prompted some landlubbers to thumb their noses at the orang laut. “Other people say they smell of fish.”
We drove south along the coast, passing tens, perhaps dozens, of portable, thatch-roofed fishing platforms known as kelong. These had been beached on shore or moored in the shallows to wait out the rough seas of the northwest monsoon. Our next stop was Trikora, a series of brilliant white-sand beaches backed by bamboo-built thatched pavilions and a host of coconut palms, their fronds blowing freely in the wind. Just up the hillside, the Catholic sanctuary of Grotto Santa Maria was entirely deserted, leaving Iris and I to wander its limestone Stations of the Cross and an intimate chapel in silence.
Lunch comprised a spread of freshly caught seafood at Teluk Bakau Bay View Restaurant, a rustic, no-frills eatery mere meters from the beach. Iris, Maradu, and I tucked into barbecued fish coated in a tangy chili-tomato sauce, tender chunks of calamari, a heap of small remis clams, plus the local specialty of gong-gong (dog conch). But the star dish was the sweetest and meatiest steamed crab I had ever tasted, with claws almost the size of a human hand. That alone was reason enough to ponder an eventual return with Bama, and on this warm February day, I had not even considered the visual feast that was yet to come. ◊