Take Me There explores the undiscovered Bintan this week. Beyond the well known beaches and resorts, Luke Clark finds a destination waiting to be discovered.
As a travel writer, I enjoy surprise discoveries that go against the flow, challenging your expectations. Such was my experience on a recent drive through Bintan.
This was not the island I thought I knew. From the easy air-conditioned comforts of my beach abode, I'd missed the fact that Bintan holds adventures in the waiting for those who take time to explore. A booking with my hotel's Activities Officer unlocked an unknown destination.
Mention the Riau Archipelago in Europe, or search for a Lonely Planet guide, and you may well draw a blank. Yet this isolated chain of islands is a mine of untold stories. A recent South Bintan Heritage Tour opened my eyes to a few of them.
The history of Bintan and nearby Singapore are closely linked. In the 14th Century, Sang Nila Utama visited Bintan from the old Empire of Srivijaya, before later founding ‘Singapura'. Sir Stamford Raffles Raffles stopped here in Bintan in 1819, en route to making Singapore his centre of British trade. Long a trading crossroads between East and West, Bintan has seen the influences of Melaka, Johor, Holland, China, Japan and Indonesia. The island of Bintan is now the centre of culture and trade for an island province numbering just over 800,000.
The common links between Bintan and Singapore make a guided tour to South Bintan a rich exercise for the imagination. Cruising the cobbled streets of tree-lined Penyengat Island on a motorbike tour, I discovered a remarkable living museum, once centre of government, tradition and Malay Culture. We walked around the ancient houses, palaces and mausoleums of Rajas, Sultans and war heroes. Original canons and wall-lined moats have remained intact and point to the empty azure sea. Were we really just 45 km from a high-tech metropolis?
A short pong-pong, or water taxi, ride away was Senggarang. Here, a thriving Chinese community lives out a peaceful seaside village life, perched on stilts above the water. We stopped for freshly crushed sugar cane juice, then wandered to the nearby temple, swallowed in a dramatic embrace by an enormous banyan tree. As we devoured freshly cooked tofu across the road, this tranquil scene felt like the Singapore of long ago.
Appropriately, we were set to enjoy two mainstays of life here – food and shopping. In a Tanjung Pinang restaurant we savoured deliciously spicy chicken, vegetables and salted fish-infused fried rice. Home-cooked Malay food had found a home in Southern Bintan. Later, wandering the bustling streets of Tanjung Pinang, we shopped for tropical fruits, dried seafood, gems and other reminders of our day to bring home with us. Before we knew it, we were returned to the ease of our resort again, stocked with more than a day's worth of memories.
Not all tours in Bintan take a whole day. I've tried the ancient art of the local blacksmith, scraped trees for rubber and sampled roadside durians on the Kampung Eco Tour. I've learned to throw (poorly, I admit) a fishing net on a Traditional Fishing Tour. And I've communed with snakes, monkeys and twinkling fireflies on the day and night versions of the hugely popular Mangrove Discovery Tour – a serene voyage into the heart of the precious ecosystem that is the island mangrove.
Each tour is a nice chance to meet Bintan's people in their own settings, and contribute to their communities. For city kids especially, I felt the tours were a good way to discover how different and often challenging island life is for many of their close neighbours.
One moment sticks in my mind. As I looked out to the mottled turquoise sea from the coast of Tanjung Pinang, I saw a chain of white sand islands stretching off in the distance. I imagined on some of them would be islanders still living timeless and traditional lifestyles, unused to guests, especially tourists or foreigners. Just next door to my crowded life in ultra-modern Singapore, it was fantastic to discover an isolated slice of the tropics – still truly off the beaten track and ready to be explored.www.thetransitcafe.com