Bintan: An island for every season & reason
Bintan, in shades of blue and green, is an exquisite region with untarnished beauty, hosting delicate flora, delectable cuisine and resorts that cocoon comfort and well-being.
The weather forecast for Bintan is not very encouraging as we depart from Singapore's Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal for the short 50-minute ride, sailing through the South China Sea. We are on board the Indera Bupala, heading to Bintan, an island in Indonesia's Riau Archipelago.
With 15 minutes to go for arrival time at Bintan, the sea gets a trifle rough, with dark clouds hovering on the horizon. My paranoia of drowning in open waters is fed and fuelled by the turbulence we face as the vessel heaves and dips violently on the water.
We finally arrive safe and sound, all in one piece, at the Bandar Bentan Talani Ferry Terminal, half an hour behind schedule. We complete immigration formalities and exit the terminal building to be greeted by a huge Garuda statue, the Indonesian symbol, at its entrance. A shuttle service is waiting to transport us to our hotel, The Grand Lagoi Village, about 15 minutes away. Our route is flanked by dense trees of diverse species, snuggled in the midst of which are resorts of all hues and shapes.
Bintan, it is palpable even at first glimpse, is an exquisite region of unspoiled beauty that is blue and green all over. It is dotted with white sandy beaches, spectacular beach-front resorts and hotels, vibrant waterfront markets, stunning palm-fringed villages, and awesome mountain peaks. Added to this, the island has accommodation to suit all pockets of holiday-makers, from backpackers to budget travellers, to those who wish to hibernate in style in luxury resorts.
We are gobsmacked by the Grand Lagoi Village and its splendorous environs. The resort hotel blends world standards with Indonesian hospitality. Its rooms and suites meet the needs of the savvy travellers of today. What really bowls us over is that every room has a view – whether of the sweeping bay, the lush tropical greenery, a stunning fresh-water fishing lake, or the white sandy beaches.
Food aficionados with an appetite for sea food and non-vegetarian fare, can enjoy a gastronomic odyssey in the resort's twin dining restaurants. But strict vegetarians too can delight in their international buffet breakfast, which is a huge spread, with live cooking stations. While I, a teetotaller, enjoy scintillating views of the South China Sea and Lake Lagoi from Bar 7, the hotel's rooftop bar, and Bintan's only one, the rest of my family, my husband, daughter and son-in-law, indulged themselves in whatever exotic cocktails it has to offer!
Bintan enjoys a rich history and culture because of its strategic location on the Indo-China trade route. When Chinese migrants entered the island, they first settled in the small village of Senggarang, built over the sea. Needless to say, the dwellers get a good catch of tiny crabs, and some marine creatures including snakes during low tide! Unless you ask specifically to be dropped at the temples, your boat will drop you at the jetties that are used to access Chinatown. Far removed from the Chinatown you will have seen in Singapore, this one is interesting because all the homes – and there are hundreds – are built on wooden stilts and are suspended above the sea water, rather than on dry land.
"You see, here in Senggarang, it is an open community. So no one keeps their door closed. They are left open and you can simply take a peek in to see how they live here," informs Ahmed, relishing the bewildered look on our faces.
In the village, we visit two of Bintan's oldest temples, one of which presents an astonishing sight – the 1000-year old Banyan Tree Temple. While one would simply pass by without giving a second look to the small temple itself, it is the sprawling Banyan tree that immediately draws attention. The nondescript temple is simply wrapped up in the roots and branches of the mammoth tree, and continues to be an enigma, eluding all explanations on its mysterious architecture. A stone's throw from here is the Vihara Dharma Sasana, a temple built as thanks-giving for the safe sea passage of the early Chinese settlers. A plump and cherubic laughing Buddha greets us at the entrance to the temple precincts, even as a school of colourful fish perform their own jig in the pond, above which he is perched on a rock. Towering above several deities and the dragon associated with Chinese mythology, are a pair of statues of Buddha, nestled in the midst of tall trees, the branches of which spread out in a huge canopy, providing shade to the Lord.
We breeze through Tanjung Pinang, Bintan's chief port and principal trading centre which is also home to many traditional villages and temples. Because of its proximity to the Strait of Malacca, its harbour bustles with activity almost throughout the day. We find the town rather congested as we make our way between people and vehicles and watch with amazement at the way in which meals get prepared in restaurants, while customers patiently await their turn. "People come here to shop," explains Ahmed, pointing to an assortment of shops selling souvenirs, spices, local foods, electronic goods, handcrafted toys, antiques and clothes. This is one aspect of Bintan that does not impress us – the crowded shopping. For history buffs who have a couple more days to spend in Bintan, Penyengat Island, a short hop by sampan boat from Tanjung Pinang, is well worth a visit. Once the capital of the Riau rajahs, the ruins of the old palace of Rajah Ali and the tombs and graveyards of Rajah Jaafar and Rajah Ali are clearly signposted inland. The most impressive site is the sulphur-coloured mosque, built by the powerful 18th century Bugis-descended viceroys of Riau, and there are many vestiges of its glorious past in the ruins scattered on the island.
On our way to Trikora Beach, our attention is drawn by an attractive gateway arch. We come upon an expansive area lined with life-size statues, culminating in a flight of steps. An open porch held aloft by intricately sculpted pillars and a wall with sculptures carved into circular spaces on it, leads to a huge wall with several idols of Buddha in various postures. We are at the Vihara Avalokitesvara Graha, also known as Guan Yin Temple or Vihara Tanjung Pinang, supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. The major attraction of the temple is the gold-polished, brass statue of Goddess Guan Yin, symbol name of Avalokitesvara, towering to a height of 16.8 metres.
We get a more than a hint of Bintan's rapidly changing weather in the few days that we stay there. It is as uncertain as uncertain can be – bright and blazing sunny one moment, a brooding sky lashing out in blinding fury the next.
We cover more than half the way to Trikora Beach before we face the wrath of the rain gods. Thanks to a torrential downpour, we enjoy vistas of the beach and the nearby fishing village from inside our vehicle. Usually, men would be working at building small rafts and boats and you can see three distinct hues of blue of the sea on a sunny day, so Ahmed tells us.
By conscious choice, our stay in Bintan remained sedate for the most part. However, the island has a host of diverse activities for adventure seekers. Apart from the routine trekking and mountain biking, you could simply hop on to a speed boat and explore the placid waterways of the Sebung River and encounter the island's rich mangrove forests and some exotic wildlife.
Or, you could take wings and soar 10,000 feet high to enjoy spectacular views of Bintan by opting for a thrilling seaplane ride. Board an ultralight aircraft with an open cockpit and amphibious landing gear, to enjoy the experience of a lifetime even as your heart tumbles in and out of your rib cage, accompanied by a rush of adrenaline. Or try a host of sports like kayaking, cycling, wind surfing, long boarding, boogie boarding, wakeboarding, jet skiing, water skiing, diving and snorkeling, and the newfangled device called the jetovator, which propels riders into mid-air through the water. Or hire a dune buggy and amble lazily around.
For children, Lagoi's Elephant Park is a big draw. Sumatran elephants entertain visitors by spinning themselves 360 degrees on their hind legs, waltz to peppy music and allow you to perch on them for rides around the park.
But, if you wish to totally relax – to just eat, sleep and drink and enjoy a lazy weekend, then chill out with a massage or spa treatment that come at modest rates in most of the hotels and resorts on the island. And should you fancy seafood, the sleepy Sebung Village offers the best, says Ahmed. "You can't leave Bintan without eating gong-gong," he adds. "This shellfish delicacy is so popular here that we even have a giant statue of it somewhere on the island."
In this high-end playground for well-heeled visitors, top-end resorts huddle around the Lagoi area, but the east coast around Pantai Trikora is more affordable and laid-back and definitely worth a visit.