Sumatra / People & Culture / Retreat
When Davide (pseudonym) first made an appearance in my office with an hour notice and announced he owned one-tenth of Belitung Island and that he’s wanting advice for developing that area as socially and environmentally responsible project, I only had two questions – first, where in the heck is Belitung (I’ve been in hospitality for 20 years in Asia and never heard of it) and second, ”ya that environmentally, socially… you and everybody else”. Then I forgot about it for months until he called me again when I was sitting in the back of bus in Singapore. Second time, I was intrigued by this persistent proprietor. Now, I regard Belitung one of few remaining paradises in South East Asia and I pray that influx of low-cost carriers and overtourism won’t ruin it. And I am completely on board with Davide’s vision and have been trying to contribute ever since.
Be.li.tung (phonetically spelled) is an island on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia in the Java Sea and has a population of 270,000, meager density in this part of the world. The island is primarily known for tin mining and the name ‘Billiton’ (of the mining conglomerate BHP Billiton) comes from Belitung. In fact, the original dutch mining company Billiton, which later merged with BHP, was founded on this island in 1860 (I bet you didn’t know that, as I). Belitung’s glorious history goes back further as it had been an important stopover along the maritime silk road and hosted traders from both east and west. Zheng He, the great Ming dynasty mariner, explorer and diplomat passed through Belitung on this way to the Arabian Peninsula. From the Sultanate of Oman came a ship laden with treasures, much of which are still on exhibition in the Singapore Asian Civilisation Museum. Upon studying Xi Jin Ping’s lesser known ‘maritime’ Belt and Road map, Belitung is prominently featured (probably without any Indonesian endorsement).
On my first encounter with EcoBeach, I thought of White Beach on Boracay or the less crowded versions in Cebu and its surrounding islands for sand so fine it squeaks under your feet.
On the northwest corner of this island is Tanjung Kelayang, informally called EcoBeach (I think Davide made that up…). On my first encounter with EcoBeach, I thought of White Beach on Boracay or the less crowded versions in Cebu and its surrounding islands for sand so fine it squeaks under your feet as you walk. Then there’s granite rock formations look like something from The Flintstones, perhaps reminding of Seychelles. Surrounded by mangroves and tall swaying palm trees, the powdery sand and turquoise seas was simply not something I expected and not heard of in all my time in Asia.
On the opposite side of Belitung, across the south west shore of the island is an islet called Seliu. Only about 300 households habit it mainly subsisting on fishing but it real lure is the prettiest of white sandy beach. We had a somewhat different agenda. We travelled to Seliu to survey the local architecture as I was told traditional housebuilding technique still survives there. Upon first inspection, they are raw and, frankly, overly dilapidated to even understand what was originally there. But over time, I saw patterns emerge. Elongated dutch style buildings with multiple bays, a porch up front with decorated picket fence, ornate pedestals and even occasional column capitals. My travel companion Lyndon (principal of Neri & Hu) blurted out… ”it reminds of houses in Philippines!”. I think they made him home sick.
Travelling to Seliu isn’t easy. First you have to get to Membalong in the southern end of Belitung, at least an hour by car from Tanjung Pandan – where most visitors are based, and then travel further to reach Teluk Gembira Port to catch an irregularly scheduled ferry. A speedboat may carry you to Seliu Island or you could negotiate a ride on local fisherman’s boat, options viable only if your group is small. Boat journey itself is a glorious, island affair basking in generous sunlight bouncing off shimmering seas. Plenty of azure and dash of pretty colors and motifs on local boats and signages. Most pleasant of all, smiles from the locals all around.
At the time of writing, Garuda had four weekly direct flights to/fro Singapore to Tanjung Pandan Airport in Belitung. After a swift 50min. flight from Singapore on stylish Bombardier CRJ 1000 (seating capacity only 90), local team zipped us through immigration cum customs in Belitung. It was magic. That Garuda schedule was meant to be seasonal but unfortunately it’s been discontinued since. Hopefully the schedule would resume soon. There’s also been talks between Jetstar and Belitung to connect from Singapore.
Belitung EcoBeach Tents