“Just one more floor, just one more,” my guide Agus would tell me as we climbed another flight of stairs up the tallest lighthouse I have ever seen in my life.
I was at Lengkuas Island, off the coast of Belitung Island in Sumatra, Indonesia. Lengkuas had white coralline sand, a few boats docked on one side, and a towering lighthouse in the middle. Looking at the behemoth earlier, I had made a bargain with Agus, and made it quite clear, that I would be climbing nowhere higher than the lighthouse’s fifth floor. From below, it was difficult—nearly impossible really—to count just how many floors it had, but it did seem at least thrice as high as what I was willing to scale. I was not exactly thrilled.
And I wasn’t exactly a fan of climbing lighthouses either; the last time I did so, somewhere in my home, Philippines, I took one wrong turn on my way down the rickety spiral staircase and bumped my camera’s lens on the wall in the process. The lens did survive, but I left the place shaken and vowing never to take such risks again. Besides, there should be no view worth risking that much for.
Of course, I was wrong. We climbed the lighthouse steadily, pausing on each floor to see a different angle of view. It seemed that no two windows were positioned exactly below one another. And the higher I went, the more jaw-dropping the views became.
“Just one more floor, just one more.” Living in the Philippines has made me no stranger to tropical islands with white-sand beaches such as Lengkuas, but what I was seeing was by far exceeding all expectations on what qualifies as breathtaking. Below me were vibrant greens of coconut trees swaying on a bed of white sand surrounded by aquamarine waters. There were bright reds, yellows, and blues from boats bobbing merrily on one side, and there were tiny black moving dots from beachcombers below. Farther out into the horizon, tiny islands jut out of the blue along with gray granite boulders rising above them—boulders which make Belitung stand out among its other Indonesian island neighbors. I was looking at paradise from 18 floors up.
Belitung is beautiful as beautiful can be, but curiously enough, I have never heard of her before.
A quiet island a little less than an hour’s flight from Jakarta, Belitung is part of the Bangka Belitung province, Indonesia’s youngest. At over 4,800 square kilometers, Belitung Island has rich tin deposits. Together, Bangka and Belitung islands produce a third of the world’s tin supply, making the province an important component in the world’s supply chain for gadgets. But at least in that part of Belitung Island we had visited, none of this was obvious.
We would drive around Belitung Island’s coastal and inland roads and pass by traditional Malay bungalows, most of which are painted in rather colorful pastels. The island speaks Malay, Agus would inform me. We would drive from coast to coast, from Tanjung Pandan in the west where we had landed, to Belitung Timor on the east. We would pass by what looked like lakes and unpaved inland roads of red earth surrounded by grass plains. There was hardly anybody sharing the road with us. And while it’s clearly a smooth ride on four wheels, the island’s roads were just begging to be explored on bike.
We would also stop by several of Belitung’s beaches, which were as crowded with coconut trees as they were not with people and establishments. Burung Mandi on the island’s northern coast looked every bit as undisturbed as the rest of the long road we had to tread to get there. Fishing boats lined the shore, the sand as fine as talcum, the breeze light and comforting. We stopped by one of the wooden tables and dug into fresh coconut. There wasn’t much to do – no fancy beach lounge chairs and cocktails. There were no bikiniclad tourists either. An atmospheric afternoon like that was something I would associate with childhood at home, not a luxurious vacation. It was perfect.
Belitung’s Laskar Pelangi
Tanjung Tinggi Beach, on the other side of the island, is another story. It had granite rocks as big as houses, clumped close to one another by the shore, looking like a roughly constructed fortress. We climbed on these rocks and attempted to fit through its crevices. Local families would frequent this beach on Sundays — the same day we were there — and have picnics by the beach. There did seem to have been a handful of them around, but even then, as was the case in Burung Mandi, there was hardly anybody to disturb the peace.
Tanjung Tinggi Beach, incidentally, was featured in the movie, Laskar Pelangi (or Rainbow Troops), an adaptation of the semiautobiographical novel of the same title written by Belitung local Andrea Hirata. The story, set on Belitung Island, recounts the lives of impoverished village boys whose education relied on the island’s only public school, which was leaning on one side and perpetually at risk of being closed down. On more than one occasion, the village boys would pedal long distances from their school to Tanjung Tinggi and watch the rainbow from the top of one of its boulders. It was clear that the story didn’t long to impress, but to impart the simple moral of perseverance from poverty and continual threats from greed. Simple and inspiring, the novel and movie were very well received in Indonesia and the world.
In honor of the story, Hirata has opened a museum in his hometown of Gantong. Museum Kata (kata is the local term for “words”), Indonesia’s first literary museum, takes visitors to an extended journey with the children of the rainbow troops through anecdotes, photographs, and reviews. A combination of rustic and colorful, the museum features a Rainbow Troops Theater, where the author, who lives in the area, sometimes entertains visitors with jamming sessions and poetry reading. Literary names such as Paulo Coelho, Arthur Conan Doyle, Paul Harding, and TS Eliot are painted by local artists on chairs. A corner of the museum also features a traditional Malay kitchen and another is reserved for artifacts of the island’s history and geology.
While Hirata’s literary museum offers a largely contemporary—and fascinating—take on the island, the Museum Belitung goes deeper into the island’s history. Located in Tanjung Pandan, the museum houses a collection of traditional weapons, Chinese artifacts, and some preserved animal samples, such as that of a 54-kilogram ikan arapaima (arapaima fish), a known Amazon species that could grow up to two meters long, and was found in Belitung’s rivers; a crocodile (locally called buaya); and a penyu (sea turtle), a common resident of the island’s surrounding waters.
The museum also houses artifacts from undersea explorations of sunken ships, including ivory, ceramics, and bones. A homage to the so-called Belitung Shipwreck is also found in the museum. Estimated to have sunk in 830 AD but discovered only in 2008 by Belitung fishermen diving for sea cucumber, the Belitung Shipwreck contained the largest collection of Tang Dynasty artifacts in the world and is considered one of the 20th century’s most important archaeological discoveries. Recovered from the Arabian dhow were over 50,000 bowls, golden cups, silver flasks, and bronze mirrors, revealing some of the earliest trade links of China and the Middle East.
Into Belitung’s Blue
I looked out again into the over 100 islands of Belitung from the lighthouse’s top. Earlier we had passed by Batu Berlayar, uninhabited and picture perfect with its assemblage of granite boulders. We had lingered at Kepayang Island, where we walked among tall coconut trees into a tiny corner of it where hawksbill turtle hatchlings are kept until they are well enough to be released into the wild. Under the shade of nipa, we feasted on savory seafood and watched other beachcombers go from lunch table to beach and then back again.
Stunning though the view from the lighthouse’s top was, it would be a shame to not actually experience it. And so I made my way down—something easier said than done—and waited until it would be time to finally plunge into Belitung’s enticingly clear waters.
And finally underneath, just off Lengkuas Island, I saw table corals of different shades, about two meters in diameter. Schools of reef fish would merrily swim by the small area I decided to explore. I had to fight back pangs of guilt at not bringing underwater camera equipment for this, but as I waded around the waters again, I would have to admit it felt quite liberating.
We soon made our way back to the boat and sailed back to land as the sun made its way down. The boat’s engine gave off a steady growl. The water danced and sparkled as the sun’s rays hit the sea surface. The breeze blew cool and steady my surroundings aglow with the sun’s warmth. I was on a land different from my own, but I was soaked in saltwater from head to foot, had white sand sandwiched between my toes, and had gorged on the freshest seafood. Everything that I heard, saw, and felt around me was comfortingly familiar—so familiar it felt almost like home.