Matak Airport, the entrance to the Anambas Archipelago, is just a small airport. It is managed by a mining company and only accommodates a few flights per week.
Half an hour after my travel partner and I had arrived, the airport was already quiet. Most of the staff had gone home one by one, leaving the two of us sitting stunned in front of an empty runway. There is no airport taxi; there is no mobile phone signal. It felt like we had just entered an interdimensional portal and been thrown on to a planet that was truly foreign.
One of the few remaining airport staff, Khairul Anam, walked past and stopped to greet us. Originally from Padang, he has only lived on Matak Island for a few months. “Life here is more relaxed,” he told us, while chuckling. “It’s work, but it feels like a holiday.” What he said is true. I also felt the same; on this island, time becomes flexible and goes slowly.
The Anambas Archipelago is part of the Riau Archipelago, comprised of hundreds of small islands spread out like gemstone fragments filling the gaps between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo. For centuries it has been a cultural crossroads between the Malay and Peranakan cultures.
The Anambas Archipelago can be reached from Jakarta by flying Garuda Indonesia to Tanjung Pinang, Bintan. Then the journey to this archipelago is continued by small aeroplane or ship. According to Khairul, because the islands are located on the national border, for a long time the residents have lived well through trading produce with the neighbouring country.
Khairul chatted to us patiently until our ride arrived, Dedy and Ari, new friends we had met through Instagram. They are both young tourism activists who would take us to explore the Anambas Archipelago.
In the late afternoon as the sunlight began to fade, Dedy and Ari took us out around the island by motorcycle. Most of the Matak Island landscape is dominated by hills. Each village is connected to the next by smooth asphalt roads, the contours of which rise and fall. Clove, coconut and banana trees grow randomly, filling wild fields that border the forest. This scene, along with the sun’s rays that were beginning to turn golden, somehow reminded me of Gauguin’s tropical paintings.
On the journey that afternoon, we also stopped off at a workshop owned by Jupri, a well-known spinningtop maker who lives in Ladan village. Jupri’s stilt house juts out towards the sea. His workshop and his simple tools are out on the terrace of his house. It is there that Jupri usually makes spinning tops.
The spinning top is a traditional Old Malay game which has developed in all areas of Indonesia under different names. The Anambas people see the spinning top as a special game and they hold a competitive spinning-top tournament which involves hundreds of participants every year. The superior spinning tops are judged by strength and balance. “If it can spin for a long time and doesn’t break when hit by the opponent’s top, then it is the winner,” said Jupri. He showed me several spinning tops that he’d made. I held them one by one. Most of them were on average the size of my palm. They were as solid and heavy as a small weight. According to Jupri, the best spinning tops are made of tamarind wood. But because it’s difficult to get, he also often makes tops from mentigi wood and pelawan wood.
Before we left, Jupri demonstrated how to spin a top. He wrapped a string made from mango fibre around the neck of the top. A moment later he took a swing and shot the spinning top on to the floor. While it was still spinning quickly on its axis, he carefully tipped the top in a deft motion and moved it on to a piece of glass. “A good spinning top can spin all night,” said Jupri, who admitted that the tops he makes often win competitions.
The following day, before we went to explore the islands, Dedy and Ari took us to visit the traditional market in Matak. While enjoying the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, we sipped a mug of thick coffee and ate nasi dagang at a small food stall. It was like a zen moment. In front of me was a package of this traditional rice dish that was perfectly cooked. It was soft and fragrant, like it had only just been cooked in the coconut milk which gave it a rich flavour. On top of it lay a small piece of mackerel tuna fish with curry sauce which had a strong aroma of galangal and lemongrass.
As the sun grew higher in the sky, we approached the quay on the other side of the island. Dedy helped us to rent a speedboat to go around the islands. Our first destination was a sandbar that was not far from Matak Island. As we arrived, the sea birds flew away. A carpet of white sand the size of a badminton court greeted us. “The shape of the sand changes according to the wind direction and the waves,” said Dedy. When we got there, the island was shaped like a heart.
When we stopped at Penyali Island, I witnessed a resort being built, and on the journey our speedboat passed a catamaran. The tourist industry has become more active since Anambas was named as a superior destination by the Indonesian Tourism Minister. With assets in the form of hundreds of islands, I imagine that in the future there will be more boats offering live-aboard services. They will bring tourists to find dive spots and enjoy the experiences that are offered by the various islands.
My desire to get into the water was becoming hard to resist when we visited Penjalin Island. This island has a perfect landscape: a peaceful white-sand carpet, piles of giant granite rocks, and wide coral fields. And the seawater looked like an inviting layer of translucent jade. From the boat I could see coral fish swimming and milling about.
The final stage of our interisland exploration was spent at Tokong Berlayar Island, about half an hour from Penyali Island. Azwar, the captain, brought our speedboat up to high speed,parting the water and gliding between the small islands. Clouds seemed to hang in the distance.
Tokong Berlayar Island is one of the most remote of Indonesia, and directly faces Vietnamese territory. Physically, the island is only a formation of giant granite rocks that are arranged oddly. There is no carpet of sand or soil on the island. Apart from the roar of waves, there is only silence. From the back of the boat, which was rocking violently, I saw seagulls standing still on the surface of the island.
We found different conditions in Tarempa City, on Siantan Island. The air felt warm and the sea was calmer because it is protected by the small islands that surround it. Tarempa is the location of business and the centre of local government in the Anambas Archipelago. This city is not large, but it is densely populated. Some of the residents’ houses stick out above the sea and others spread across the hillside. It offers an interesting and contrasting view. Some of the houses are built ingeniously, as the structures are supported wholly by natural rocks. From the Bay Hill Café, which is situated on the hill, I could see rows of extravagant houses that stand on the shallow sea and, in another corner, the location of the Tarempa Great Mosque construction project.
Beginning a morning in Tarempa is incomplete without sipping kopi O (black coffee with a little sugar) at a kopitiam or Peranakan coffee shop. There are several coffee shops in the city centre, each offering a different ambience. I tried two of them: Kedai Kopi Mak Alang and Kedai Kopi Murai. At Kedai Kopi Mak Alang, because it is located across from the fish market, you can hear the boisterous voices of market traders and the smell of fish fills the area. Meanwhile from Kedai Kopi Murai you can watch the commuters leaving for work in their traditional Malay outfits, with a row of old Peranakan shopfronts in the background.
To accompany my cup of kopi O, I had several pieces of luti gendang, a snack special to Anambas, which consists of fried bread filled with fish floss and a sweet-spicy flavour. Beginning the day with this magical combination made me believe that the rest of the day would go just fine.