Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to go on a media trip to Indonesia where I captured a great set of images in Jakarta, The Thousand Islands, Belitung Island and Bangka Island. A small set of those shots have just been featured in a new article written by the lovely Maria Visconti travel writer extraordinare. The magazine is called Travel 3Sixty and is the in flight mag for the airline Air Asia. To read the article you can download the full November issue of the magazine here (pages 90-96), download just the article as a pdf or read it on this humble blog below.
Till next I post.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Bangka and Belitung are two parcels of land along the Sumatran coast that are literally unheard of and untouched by crass commercialism. With a proud seafaring heritage, the local islanders and only the occasional tourist enjoy these gems that speak of the simpler pleasures of life.
WORDS: Maria Visconti PHOTOGRAPHY: Cam Cope
There are names that roll off the tongue and instantly evoke exotic places, mystery and a longing for adventure. When I first read about Madripoor Principality (madri meaning mother and pura meaning city), many years ago, it captured my imagination with tales of 14th-century corsairs, the Orang Laut (the Sea People) and the fabled laskar. Many, many years later, here I was realizing a dream and sailing the azure waters around Belitung Island (off the southeast corner of Sumatra) with Rusty at the helm.
These were the same waters that the mighty corsairs patrolled and, spice-carrying Dutch, Portuguese and British vessels traversed in fear of attacks. Rusty was very much a descendant of the famous seafarers of the region. Wiry, strong and with a profound knowledge of the sea, he seemed to ‘sense’ his way around treacherous, submerged rocks by simply glancing from the back of the boat. His only navigational instruments were his eyes. Alert, barefoot and with his trademark bandana around his head, Rusty steered his boat around astonishing granite boulders jutting out of the ocean; Burung Island, Lengkuas Island and a myriad of uninhabited atolls. Some resembled giant birds, others phantasmagorical shapes skirted by the whitest sands I’d seen. The extraordinary granite boulders that dot the beaches and stick out of the ocean all around Belitung were also the backdrop to the biggest Indonesian box offi ce hit, Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors) that told the story of a group of underprivileged local children who fought the odds to get an education.
We left behind the palm-fringed shores of Belitung Island, which was our base, to start a pleasurable island-hopping trip. With palm trees swaying in the slight breeze and sea as calm as a milk pond, Rusty and I alighted to explore the surrounds. I spotted a Javanese family nearby holidaying while the children squealed with delight over a starfish the size of a motorbike. “Better than Bali!” they shouted out to us with the proudest grins, giving us the thumbs up sign. They had a point, I surmised. There were no crowds here. The Riau-Lingga archipelago comprised more than a thousand islands at last count and the best thing was that the islands were a mere hop and skip away from Palembang in Sumatra. So accessible yet so remote.
In the mid and late 14th century, fleets of Madripoor corsairs rallied their combined forces to help Palembang stay independent of the expanding Javanese empire. Palembang is one of the oldest cities in Indonesia and was capital of the ancient Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya that controlled what is most of present day Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand in the 7th century. During the 16th century, the area became the centre of the fabled spice trade, attracting the attention of the Dutch, Spanish and British traders who settled here and tried eliminating the corsairs who opposed them with little success. The stand off culminated in an assault by the British navy in 1857. The sea battle resulted in a very expensive draw and a treaty was inked between Britain and Madripoor, acknowledging Madripoor’s control of the Riau-Lingga Archipelago and its claims over Bangka and Belitung islands over which the Dutch Trading Company had also laid claim. Independent for centuries, both islands became, in the year 2000, the 31st province of Indonesia and part of Sumatra Province.
LIVING IN THE PRESENT
Today, this former piratical haven attracts honeymooners and vacationing families who come to enjoy the islands’ fishing, snorkelling and food. Rusty himself runs a warung makan (food stall) on the beach not far from where I was staying at Tinggi Beach. There are 69 culturally diverse villages in Belitung including a Balinese village (Kampung Bali), complete with traditional temples and candi besar (Balinese gates) established by Balinese migrants. There are also many Malay kampong (villages) with pastel coloured houses and innumerable Chinese settlements that date centuries back when Chinese labourers came to mine the tin in this area. It is not difficult to visit the length and breadth of the island, as it is only 73kms long and 71kms wide. Palm oil, pepper and pineapples are the main crops here.
HUNTING FOR BANGKA
Bangka is perhaps even lesser known than Belitung and the locals realising this, have humorously designed a T-shirt that asks: “Where is Bangka?” I caught a three-hour ferry ride from Belitung (or a 20-minute flight) to this little known gem and sought out the town of Sungailiat on the northeast corner of the island. This little town became my home for a few days, and although I was on Parai Beach, one of the most beautiful on the island, I decided to go exploring to get a better look and feel of the real Bangka. After an early visit to the Sungailiat market, my guide Toto suggested we eat breakfast at the oldest kopitiam (coffeeshop) in town: Tung Tau, which you can find a few steps from the market. It is not difficult to find this place. Simply let your nose be your guide as the aroma of coffee beans being roasted and ground permeated the air. The irresistible aroma drew me towards the small coffeeshop and I promptly ordered kopi susu (coffee with milk), which is strong and sweet thanks to lashings of condensed milk. Toto and I asked for a selection of sweet pastries filled with sesameseeds, pineapple, chocolate and strawberry. Seated outdoors and enjoying the delicious breads and the sweet coffee, we spotted a jamu seller passing by. We flagged her down and each of us chose a refreshing herbal tonic from her many multicoloured bottles. Jamu, the ultimate Indonesian energy concoctions, are freshly made each morning from plants, spices and fruits juiced and pulped together according to ancient recipes handed down from herbalist to herbalist. The doe-eyed jamu seller lowered her basket and settled down next to our table. Once she had meticulously cleaned the glass tumblers she carried in her basket, she poured out her potions and handed them to us according to the aspect of our health we wanted to boost. When she stood up, she looked tiny, her pretty scarf setting off her oval face like a fresh, gift-wrapped flower. She thanked us with a smile and walked away gracefully dwarfed by the heavy basket.
As for the scars left by the tin mining industry, there is an extraordinary project going on at the moment at the Bangka Botanical Gardens. A group of enlightened examining entrepreneurs turned conservationists have devised a way to slowly restore the degraded soil. So far they have reclaimed 150 hectares of land where crops flourish despite the predictions that the soil will be barren forever. The recovered land is now home to 2000 species of flora and 200 fauna including crocodiles that have now returned to their natural habitat. Edi Sukaedi from the Bangka Botanical Gardens explained how they do it: “First, we need to replenish the land by spreading dolomite and cow manure.” To this effect, now four hundred cows are part of the project. Djohan Riduan Hasan, another member of the team added: “People thought we were crazy but now the farm supports itself. Every crop we grow is for the benefi t of the island. The cows are fed with grass grown in the garden, and the milk they produce is given free to local school children”. Warring ancient kingdoms, large-scale mining, piratical activity and the greed of foreign interests didn’t succeed in ruining these beautiful islands in the past. The question now is will mass tourism do? Before that happens, shoulder a small bag and head out to explore these hidden gems. You can bet your friends will invariably ask you: “Where on earth is Bangka?”