Welcome to Belitung, humdrum sunset over the blue sky mines

This September, I embarked on a mini three-day adventure with a great group of women to Belitung Island in Indonesia. Belitung is not a popular tourist destination and I was curious to discover an island not yet spoilt by the hoards of water bottle people. Whilst I admit there was not a smashed avocado on toast in sight on the island, by the end of the trip I realised that Belitong is probably too undeveloped for my liking.

Our gang organised a three-day itinerary through a local tour operator who drove us around Belitung in a minivan. Hiring a car and driver is essential as there is almost no public transport on the island and limited taxis available.

Our Itinerary

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

  • Island hopping and snorkelling
  • Watching the release of the turtles
  • Seafood dinner and finale

Travel and Accommodation

There used to be direct flights from Singapore to Belitung Island and rumour has it, one day there will be direct flights again. However, for the moment, to get to Belitong from Singapore you need to transit in Jakarta. Total travel time is around six hours as you usually end up waiting around Jarkata Domestic Airport for the connecting flight.

We stayed at the Santika Hotel in Belitung. The accommodation is less than two years old and still possesses a newly-renovated smell and feel. Everything is clean and white! Although the hotel is rated four stars, the service levels leave a lot to be desired. Whilst the staff are friendly-enough and do try their best, they are not used to dealing with international tourists or handling complex requests.

Santika Hotel is well-situated near the main beach and so is a good location for visitors interested in island hopping and snorkelling. The drive to the hotel from the airport is approximately one hour. The rooms are modern and comfortably furnished, and the bed is especially soft and cosy. Breakfast is included in the price and consists of a decent buffet featuring Indonesian delicacies, continental options and an omelette station.

Welcome to Belitung

We landed in Belitung on a miniature Garuda aircraft that seated less than 50 passengers. The trip from Jakarta was around 45 minutes. We were greeted by a huge Welcome to Belitong poster on entering the airport.

Belitung

Although garish, the poster got us feeling excited about our journey ahead. The name Belitung has a rather nice ring to it and conjures up images of white sandy beaches, blue-painted boats, bobbing jellyfish, rainbow-coloured fishes and tropical cocktails. However, I soon discovered that the catchy name (also spelt as Belitong) is part of a marketing ploy! This island was originally named Billiton, after the Dutch mining company called NV Billiton Maatschappij that later merged with BHP. The island is rich in tin, clay, iron ore and silica sands, and traditionally its main source of income has been from mining activities as well as the farming of pepper.

In the last five years, Belitung has tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. The majority of visitors are domestic, and it has become a popular place for Indonesian company retreats due to the cheap prices.

We were pleasantly surprised by the clean toilets at this tiny airport. After a quick freshen up, our driver bundled us into the air-conditioned mini van and we began our Belitung adventure!

Kaolin Lake

Fifteen minutes from Belitung airport, we made our first scenic stop at Kaolin Lake. The eerily-still waters glared brightly under the harsh afternoon sun; unnaturally vivid and aquamarine. The technicolour lake and surrounding grey-white cakey sands are due to the abundance of kaolinite in the area, which is a clay mineral. Kaolin Lake reminded me very much of the famous blue lake in Bintan called Danau Biru although not nearly as Instagram-worthy.

Kaolin Lake is supposedly a retired mining site although some sort of activity was still taking place when we visited here. We observed piles of white rubble amid busy trucks, and after stopping for just a few photographs, the rising dust and beating sun forced us back into the air-conditioned car.

Belitung

Baru Market

Baru Market is the biggest produce market in Belitung, located in the capital of Tanjung Pandan. The market operates between 2pm and 6.30pm each day and is busy with people finishing work for the day, picking up food for dinner on their way home. The majority of stalls sell fish caught by local fisherman from the morning. We saw some spectacular, steely-skinned fish lying on pandan leaves that looked almost tempting as well as some beautiful (and pungent) blue swimmer crabs. Because of the hot temperatures and lack of fridges or fans, most of the raw fish laid out is surrounded by a halo flies. Surprisingly, it didn’t smell as bad as you would think!

Belitung

Tanjung Pandan

Baru Market

Market sellers also sell fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, fried and baked goods, and other cooked snacks.

We also saw many soft drink bottles containing a bright yellow liquid being sold, which we later learned was gasoline for the scooters. As is the case with most Indonesian cities, the main mode of transport in Tanjung Pandan is scooter. People even drove their scooters through the middle of the market as they haggled over prices and goods.

We walked the length of the market until we came to the rustic boatyard by the waters edge. The wooden boats constructed here run on diesel fuel and sell for approximately S$10,000 each. These brightly-painted wooden vessels are iconic of the Indonesian fishing trade and sea gypsies.

Sunset at Gusong Bugis beach

As the clock ticked towards sundown, we drove on next to Gusong Bugis beach, home of the Belitung Mangrove Park. We strolled along a newly constructed boardwalk that culminated in a wooden ring-shaped deck raised over the lapping waves of the beach. The “ring” was guarded by a round, flared portal. The place seriously looked like the perfect location for a ritualistic killing, although I’m sure the designers behind this spectacle were aiming for an Instagrammable sunset deck!

Belitung

Sitting on the wooden boards, we watched the red golfball of a sun quickly drop into the horizon. Splash, and it was gone. As Belitung is so close to the equator, the sun sets very quickly!

sunset Belitung

After sunset, the skies took on shades of orange, pink and purple, thus transforming the otherwise ordinary Mangroves into a dreamy island scene. What a spectacular way to end our day as we walked to the car, ready for dinner.

Dinner at Rumah Makan Belitong Timpo Duluk

I’m not going to lie, the food on Belitung island is very basic. Do not expect much more than primitively-cooked seafood, meats and vegetables available at the Baru Market. I love traditional Indonesian food for its abundance of roots, herbs and spicey flavours, but the food we tasted at Belitung did not live up to my expectations.

Dinner at Timpo Duluk was probably the best meal we had our entire trip, and it wasn’t that good. The restaurant is located in a charming wooden house over two stories and home to a collection relics of life in Belitung from the late 1800s through to the 1980s. Faded story-books, handheld telephones, olden letters, rusty guns and other memorabilia accompanied by handwritten descriptions told a story of English and then Dutch colonial times, during the height of Belitung’s mining boom. After a fascinating snoop through all the nooks and crevices of this ancient house, we took a seat at the long table reserved for us on the top floor.

The presentation of the food was majestic. Large trays covered by red domes decorated with white doilies arrived to the table. We opened the lid to discover a selection of small dishes for sharing: curried chicken and fish, stewed vegetables, steamed rice and beef-rib soup. The food was oily and not very spicy, but we were hungry and the ornate service helped it to taste nicer than it actually was.

Our first afternoon in Belitung was enjoyable although unexpected. A humdrum sunset and the discovery of Belitung’s hidden, mining past. What would day two of our adventure be like?

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