It’s early afternoon on an October Sunday and I’m dining at a beach café on Tanjung Kelayang, where just a year ago I’d embarked on an island hopping trip across the twinkling turquoise Java Sea.
Back then, just two restaurants lined this sublime stretch of white sand, with brightly coloured boats bobbing in the harbour and mysterious granite boulders looming in the distance.
Now, there are clothes stalls, a tour office and a hotel under construction; five minutes away, an 18-hole black-rock golf course looks almost ready for use. Tanjung Kelayang is the focal point of ‘10 New Balis’, a government initiative to boost tourism in locations across Indonesia, and projects worth US$2.5 billion have been offered to investors in a bid to create a tourism economic zone in this north-western corner of Belitung.
It’s not difficult to see why the area has been earmarked for development. Seafarers set off from this beach to snorkel and photograph a series of islets with peculiar rock formations – Pulau Batu Garuda, Pulau Batu Berlayar and Pulau Babi Kecil – before arriving at Pulau Lengkuas, Belitung’s signature island, to sip juice from coconuts under palm trees in the shadow of an immaculate 1882 Dutch lighthouse.
In truth, Belitung’s spectacular scenery has long been ripe for exploration. Ten years ago, the rustic beauty of this mining heartland was immortalised on celluloid in Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), Riri Riza’s 2008 film based on local author Andrea Hirata’s novel, which became Indonesia’s biggest-ever box-office hit and triggered a fresh influx of curious visitors. Its most evocative scenes made ample use of locations including the eastern village of Gantung and the extraordinary Tanjung Tinggi, where over millions of years nature has carved striated beige boulders resembling those in the Seychelles, and crystal-clear waters reveal the splendour of surrounding coral reefs.
Back in the otherwise tranquil capital of Tanjung Pandan after dusk, there’s barely a free seat at a music bar on the horse shoe shaped beachfront, Tanjung Pendam. Zach Clayton, a young American entrepreneur who’s lived here for five years, tells me about a hotel he is developing on Tanjung Kelayang, which is due to open in early 2019. “I’ve seen more Western tourists here in the last year than in the previous four combined,” he says. “This place could be like Bali in 15 years.”
Fauzhan Azhari has lived here all his life and works at the Fairfield by Marriott hotel 10 minutes away one of a clutch of new openings downtown, with an optimum viewing point for Belitung’s routinely sublime sunsets. “The first five-star hotel is coming, in the special economic zone,” he tells me. “Things are changing fast.” Kedai Kelapa, two minutes away, proves his point – a smart café in an open courtyard serving heady local coffee amid trendy murals. In the town centre, food trucks offer treats like Thai tea and kebabs.
New influences aside, Belitung remains an old-fashioned island at heart, in love with its own quirky traditions and history. Vintage typography bedecks the façades of old family businesses; one store still offers a photo-development service. Museum Tanjung Pandan curates time-weathered artefacts from the heyday of mining, when Belitung produced one-third of the world’s tin. Opposite the tiny police station, there’s a monument to the satam (derived from hitam, or black) rock, a rare stone used in jewellery.
After a plate of savoury noodles and a glass of es jeruk kunci (ice lemon) at Mie Belitung Atep, a 45-year-old shophouse eatery, I meet a local man who’s closely examining a chronology of the island. He points to a portrait of John Francis Loudon, a Scotsman who was the first administrator of Billiton Maatschappij, a colonial company that oversaw tin mining on the island in the 1850s and eventually became the global mining giant BHP Billiton. Turning round, he gestures towards the clock-tower building directly opposite, which served as its headquarters. Like many Belitung residents, he exudes palpable pride in his island and its rich heritage.
While other areas are embracing Belitung’s tourism potential, Tanjung Pandan is largely resisting modernisation. Its streets are unencumbered by high-rise blocks or shopping malls; instead the standout buildings are Dutch houses, painted bright blue and muted green, that are protected and used as government offices. A 10-minute ride north lies an attraction that seems transported from a faraway universe: Danau Kaolin (Kaolin Lake). With its vivid cyan-blue water filling a brilliant-white mining pit, it instils the kind of hushed awe that leaves you gaping incredulously after repeated visits.
Criss-crossing the island, where endless rows of rainbow-hued bungalows with individual gardens dot the roadsides, is a journey into a serene rustic world. Small villages congregate around warung stalls, with sporadic convenience stores the only concession to modernity. En route to Manggar city from Giri Jati – the Balinese village in the north, known by some as ‘Balitung’ – you’ll thread through impeccable palm, coconut and pepper plantations, as well as the white-chalk landscapes that pockmark Belitung’s interior.
An unmissable stop in the village of Gantung is Museum Kata Andrea Hirata, an educational gift to the island conceived by the author himself. While it’s known as the only literary museum in Indonesia, there’s much more on offer. Kupi Kuli, a traditional Malay coffee stall, lies at its centre; a library is set aside in the corner; and at the rear is Sekolah Laskar Pelangi, a classroom that local children may use for free. It’s just as likely to draw lovers of design and history as bookish types: the museum’s sequence of rooms delights the eye with an ever-shifting spectrum of colour, and under the pastel-hued arches outside, wall plaques tell the story of Belitung.
On the road from Gantung, a bridge crosses the Lenggang River, where crocodiles roam seemingly still waters, and bangka (outrigger) boats are moored on banks of white sand. Riding north, lazy dogs sprawl outside wooden houses as I veer towards the Chinese enclave of Kelapa Kampit. While justifiably famous for its Nam Salu open pit filled with emerald water – a site slated for transformation into a public park – the town’s elaborate kelenteng (Buddhist temple) is equally impressive, not least for the meticulous maintenance that makes it look as if it were built yesterday rather than in 1938.
For a place so amply blessed with arresting landmarks and fantastical visions, the overriding feeling on travelling through the island is oddly comforting. An unusual provincial capital with a small population, Tanjung Pandan faces few of the challenges confronting other Indonesian cities – roads are sturdy, and there’s little traffic, pollution or noise.
Now that plans are afoot to open the island to a whole new audience, it’s the best possible time to enjoy this harmonious landscape while it still exudes its rare, anachronistic bliss.