Fine white sand spills from between the rocks onto a gentle beach where painted wooden vessels nuzzle each other and a handful of people dip their feet. For a moment I feel a pang of loss as we pass by without stopping, but when I widen my gaze a dozen similar configurations of boulders, white sand and coconut palms come into view. It’s as if the beaches are clamouring for visitors but there aren’t nearly enough to go around.
With the help of Rusty, a self-styled tour boat captain and beach shack restaurateur, I’m exploring a chain of uninhabited islands off the coast of Belitung, a modest island between Borneo and Sumatra. In 2009 this beautiful coastline starred in the one of the biggest box office hits in history, but unless you’re a late-night SBS movie buff you’ve probably never seen it. That’s because the film is Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Troops), a runaway success for the Indonesian film industry that sparked a mild boom in domestic tourism for this otherwise obscure island, once known only for mining. For me, it’s clear that the potential here has barely been tapped.
Rusty drops me off at Burung (Bird) Island, where a picnicking family waves to me through a cloud of lemongrass smoke before I hit the beach. On all sides of the island boulders lie like giant marbles cast by the handful. They tumble down from among the palms and create private patches of sand along the shore. I briefly lament that there’s no surf to break over their haphazard arrangements. But, in a region revered for surfing, this stretch of beautiful, calm water is obviously overlooked by the masses – and that’s no bad thing.
Visitor statistics show that 91 per cent of Australians who visit Indonesia go direct to Bali, and few venture much further. Yet locals proudly inform me there are 17,507 other islands begging to be explored in what is a vast and diverse archipelago stretching across three time zones. It strikes me that if I were to spend a day on each island I’d be in Indonesia until 2060. I could think of worse ways to notch up my seventy-fifth birthday.
The blue streaks that have so far stuck to the horizon suddenly engulf the island in a torrent of well-fed raindrops, which send us packing for Rusty’s boat. After a turtle sighting and a few Bintangs that are even more refreshing than the downpour, we arrive at Tanjung Tinggi, the principal beach featured in Laskar Pelangi and the spot where the mild bulk of domestic tourism lands. A charming strip of low-key restaurant-shacks sits back from the beach under deep, broad-leafed shade; a newly erected plaque proudly proclaims this to be “the film site of Indonesia’s most popular movie”. Teenagers scramble among even more elaborately laid boulders, while young men on esky-saddled mopeds casually hawk es krim (ice cream).
Our van gets bogged in the sandy beach track and somehow I become famous among a group of families visiting from Jakarta. They’ve got the idea I’m a celebrity contestant from the Australian MasterChef series (Indonesia’s highest rating TV show) and are queuing up with their camera phones. I suspect Julietta, a mischievous young lady also on Rusty’s tour, has deliberately spread this playful rumour.
Leaving Tanjung Tinggi, we cruise past many kilometres of undeveloped beachfront before arriving at the only resort on the coast. Despite its comfortable villas, the resort somehow manages to pull off both unfinished and rundown at the same time. One of the island’s innumerable boulders has been concreted into a seemingly abandoned water feature that adorns the entrance. I can’t help thinking it looks unflatteringly like a giant gonad. With a touch more poetry, Julietta suggests that it’s more of a Buddha in waiting, a masterpiece yet to be carved. It’s a fitting metaphor for tourism on Belitung.
An hour’s ride away I discover the world’s most delicious chilli crab at Mutiara, a low-key wooden slat restaurant in Tanjung Pandan, Belitung’s capital. For dessert I return to the resort for Indonesian chocolate, banana and cheese fritters. The illogical mix somehow works for me, but I’m pretty sure it’s the Bintang talking. I manage to haul my bursting stomach into bed as the sound of a distant call to prayer mingles with a gentle shore break from the beach. A gurgling moped passes by with a young girl singing on the back and I’m lulled to sleep.
In the morning I breakfast on rice pudding, chilli sambal and peanuts, before my driver takes a shortcut to the airport through an immense palm oil plantation.
Staring down the flickering rows of converging monoculture, it’s clear that tourism is far from the mainstay of the local economy. My plane dodges a pack of dogs on the tarmac before taking off to reveal the unmistakable effect that tin mining (Belitung’s former primary industry) has also had on the island. Pools of deep emerald and turquoise choke a number of waterways amid eroded tailings, thick carpet mosaics of palm plantations and remnant rainforest.
When I arrive on neighbouring Bangka Island it’s clear that this place is in the midst of a mining boom of its own. Santana electrifies the stereo as we weave through traffic and my guide, Toto, explains: “We have no beggars on Bangka, not even street musicians; you can earn four to seven times as much in mining.”
But Toto doesn’t see a long-term future in it for Bangka and is worried about the effect illegal mining has had on parts of the island’s natural environment and fisheries. He is hoping that tourism can provide a more sustainable future for his home and has given up lucrative opportunities in mining to promote Bangka as a destination.
Our van pulls up beside an improvised sign proclaiming “hati hati” (be careful), before easing past a team of road workers near a mine site. Leaving this eyesore behind, we roll on to a market garden run by some of the island’s Chinese minority and lunching on baba guling (suckling pig) at Toto’s 84-year-old grandmother-in-law’s house.
It emerges that Toto’s marriage was both mixed faith (Islamic and Christian) and interracial (Chinese and Malay), and that he later decided to convert from Islam to Christianity, although not to the same church as his wife. His story is extraordinary, but somehow seems to sum up both Indonesia’s diversity and its religious tolerance. Later, I visit the local mosque, before the heat and hours of driving lure me back to the beach.
After exploring a selection of palm fringes and white sand that almost rival Belitung for their beauty, I check myself in for a Javanese massage. I meet Maya, a smiling 24-year-old masseuse from Jakarta with braces, yellow eye contacts and a frame somehow skinny and curvy at the same time. She teaches me how to say aku cinta kamu (I love you) in Bahasa Indonesian and leaves me with a bruise in my calf. Hati hati.
In Sungailiat, Bangka’s second-largest city, I visit a school and an impressive food market before checking out the appropriately titled Eat and Eat evening street food court. An incomprehensible talent show is televised on a giant projector screen while dangdut (the Indonesian take on booty-shaking Indian bhangra music) blasts from the bustling food stands with similar force to the smoke and steam.
Toto recommends the beef rib, and it’s on par with the chilli crab in Belitung – world class. I’m less enamoured with the “genuine bird’s nest–flavoured drink”. Toto explains that it’s made from the nests that swallows build with their own dried saliva. I’m drinking saliva. Luckily, a broad selection of fresh fruit juices and traditional chocolate and cheese martabaks (Indonesian pancakes) quickly come to the rescue of my palate. The Bintang is definitely still talking.
On my last night, Toto explains before departing that there is only one nightclub on Bangka. Unfortunately it’s on the other side of the island, so instead I find my way to Parai Tenggiri Resort’s open-air karaoke bar. Two Javanese cowgirls on the microphone are violating Consuelo Velázquez’s ‘Bésame Mucho’, while a keyboard player flinches along admirably with his synth mode set to Spanish guitar. I offer my finest attempt at ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles, before requesting salsa and coaxing the cowgirls away from the microphone to teach them some Cuban steps. It earns me an invitation to the table of a Chinese family who ply me with wine and encourage me to salsa with their daughter. I’m rewarded for acquiescing with an armful of fresh dragon fruit from the family farm.
Before going to bed, I catch the silhouette of a 30-metre sculpted eagle with a salmon in one claw. It stares down at a giant toad that will double as a fountain, one day spewing water from its mouth into a swimming pool, which is, as yet, just a pit of excavated earth. They’re without doubt the gaudiest and most bizarre constructions I’ve ever seen (think Disneyland meets a ‘big’ attraction from the side of a lonely Australian highway), and they’re the ornamental centrepiece of Bangka Island’s newest resort. I wonder for a moment what was so wrong with the view of the resort’s beach cove that warranted obstructing it with this un-attraction. Then I cast my mind back to the kilometres of undeveloped beachfront on Belitung. What will be their fate? Will an army of giant technicoloured animals migrate across the seafloor like Indonesian Godzillas? It sinks in how lucky I was to experience the Buddha uncarved. In many ways it’s already a masterpiece. I hope they’re subtle with the chisels, or whatever they fashion on top.
The best time to visit Belitung is during the dry season from May to October. AirAsia flies to Jakarta from Australia, where you can catch a connecting flight to Belitung Island with Sriwijaya Air.
The budget bungalows at Belitung’s Kelayang Beach Cottages are set among palms on an expansive, white-sand beach and are a low-key base for exploring Belitung and its offshore islands. Prices from about US$15 a night for a bungalow with a fan. No website; +62 821 761 90700.
Belitung’s grandest resort, Lorin Hotel & Resort, is walking distance from Tanjung Tinggi Beach, made famous in the film Laskar Pelangi. Prices from about US$60 a night.