Archipelago Journal Bintan

For years, the largest of the Riau Islands felt like two different worlds: the exclusive resorts zone in the north and the forgotten, undeveloped land below. Now, a new chapter is unfolding for Bintan as visitors start to discover the diversity across the whole island.

Words by Jonathan Evans

A decade ago, Bintan, still recovering from the economic stagnation of the early 2000s, was known for little more than its golf courses and family resorts: a sort of beachside version of the major city closest to it, Singapore. But recent years have seen a wave of openings across the island, including remarkable resorts, sporting facilities, and eco-tourism initiatives; the checkpoint between the resorts zone and the rustic hinterland no longer feels like such a stark dividing line.

Now, by the ferry terminal, there’s even a “boat-el” – Doulos Phos, an eight-storey ship that plied the world’s oceans for 96 years before being berthed on a private island and retrofitted into a floating hotel complete with maritime museum. The Residence Bintan opened last February in Kijang, the island’s first luxury hotel outside the resorts area, with bicycles available for each guest to explore its scenic grounds. A long-promised international airport is in the works too, with a 3km-long runway luring national carriers and promising to push Bintan’s annual number of visitors well beyond the million-plus who visited in 2018.

In truth, this history-laden island’s riches were always hidden in plain sight for those inquisitive enough to investigate. A short drive to the west of Bintan Resorts reveals the otherworldly landscape of Gurun Pasir Busung – a pristine mining area near the town of Tanjung Uban that’s now almost deserted and sprinkled photogenically with opalescent rainwater pools (Telaga Biru). Panglong village, an eastern seafront community, houses orang laut (sea gypsies) who still fashion wooden boats and fishing nets beside giant kilns once used to burn mangrove trees for charcoal.

Such pockets of traditional life are dotted along the eastern coast, with its calm, colourful settlements inhabited by a handful of residents – Bintan has double the land area of Singapore, yet just a fraction of its population. At Kawal village, amid boathouses and disused fishing vessels, boatmen run sunset tours along the century-old mangrove that flanks the riverside, illuminated by the enchanting sight of fireflies. Trikora Beach extends for miles, punctuated by wooden huts, kelong platforms, modest resorts, and historical visions such as the 18th century Santa Maria Cave at Telok Dalam, where limestone statues depicting Christ’s crucifixion (the 14 Stations of the Cross) spiral up to a minuscule chapel.

The dense patchwork of religions, ethnicities, and nationalities that have passed through Bintan over many centuries has left a lasting imprint on its landscape. A clutch of spiritual oddities is clustered around the southwestern capital Tanjungpinang, each with its own peculiar backstory. Standing in the middle of nowhere, 500 Lohan is a surreal display behind a Buddhist temple that showcases hundreds of stone arhat figurines those who have attained enlightenment – each one intricately carved and distinct from its neighbour.

A short pompong (water taxi) ride from a pier in Tanjungpinang brings you to two quirky communities with a rich haul of historical architecture. First there’s Penyengat, once a cultural epicentre for the Malay Johor-Riau empire, whose narrow laneways – threading through neighbourhoods, courtyards, and cemeteries are best explored from the back of a becak (motor rickshaw). Bright yellow dominates the tombs – buried here is Raja Ali Haji, a local poet and historian who became a National Hero of Indonesia. It is also the location of the marvellous Masjid Raya Sultan Riau (Sultan of Riau’s Grand Mosque), built in 1844 using egg whites as cement, which resembles a magical castle from a Disney fairy tale when seen from the waterfront.

Five minutes across the water lies Senggarang, a Chinese settlement in the far west of Bintan, where residents have settled in stilt houses by the harbour across from Vihara Dharma Sasana, a temple complex accessible via a beautiful crimson gateway. But Senggarang’s most distinctive landmark is a tiny shrine built two centuries ago by a kapitan (community leader) that’s now completely enveloped by a gnarly banyan tree’s sprawling roots, and is believed to confer good fortune on those who visit.

These singular visions are matched by a fresh bounty of spectacular sights within Bintan Resorts. At Natra Bintan, within the Treasure Bay adventure playground, visitors can enjoy a safari-style ‘glamping’ sleepover in supreme comfort next to the Crystal Lagoon – the largest outdoor pool in Southeast Asia. The five-year-old Sanchaya is one of Indonesia’s most exquisite hotels, the epitome of colonial-style elegance, set along a perfect white-sand beach and filled with books and art. The nearby Plaza Lagoi has been revamped to incorporate a 3D gallery referencing local culture (Rumah Imaji), an al fresco display of endangered Indonesian wildlife (Lantern Park), and a hip cocktail bar (Yeah! Lounge).

Developers are starting to create an eco-tourism destination where resorts and condominiums are designed to complement the island’s naturalmbeauty. One key project is the under-construction,Haven Lagoi Bay, an integrated resort comprising a luxury hotel, residential suites, and convention centre, uniquely set amid the confluence of sea, river, and lake. A 7km-long bridge is also being built to connect Bintan with its industrialpowerhouse neighbour, Batam.

If the Riau archipelago’s largest island was once perceived as a one-dimensional hotel-and-beach stopover for weekenders, today it holds a range of experiences that extend far beyond those on offer in a touristy resort. Now a fully fledged destination with natural attractions, history, and glamour to spare, the future looks bright indeed for Bintan.

Jakarta to Tanjungpinang

Flight Time 1 Hours 10 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours November 2019


5 Senses – Taste
Tanjungpinang Street Markets

Traditional food markets in the capital are open at opposite ends of the day. The morning market on Jalan Pasar Ikan and Jalan Plantar II has everything from fresh fruit to spices. From 6pm, Rimba Jaya night market is a hotspot for street food, including satay and goreng pisang keju (fried banana with grated cheese).