I’m a big fan of short trips close to home to recharge myself, but I am also guilty of neglecting places close by that just seem too ‘boring’ to visit. Indonesia‘s Bintan island is one of those spots – popular among Singaporeans for a quick getaway because of its close proximity, but to me it never seemed like the most compelling place to check out.
Writer J (she was in Daylesford for me last year) went up on my behalf when the Bintan Lagoon Resort folk dropped an invite to check out Bintan – I had to pass it up because I was in the middle of one of my busiest work periods then, but I started regretting it a little when J kept updating me with awesome pix and texts while she was checking it out – suddenly Bintan was sounding really interesting…
And then I edited this piece when she came back, and now I’m officially jealous and I really need to go check it out for myself one day. It goes to show that it’s not about where you go but how you travel – you can find cool things even if it seems boring! I’ll let J give you the lowdown on the 7 cool things she discovered in Bintan, and how you can find it for yourself.
I have to admit I’d always thought of Bintan as one of those places you go to as a kid – because your working mom and dad have exactly 3 days and 2 nights to spare for a short holiday to some island and are obliged to bring the kids along to. I had vague memories of the place being pretty boring, full of the usual “family” features like a beach, huge odd-shaped pools… not particularly wonderful nor very awesome at all.
BUT I’ve had a major change of heart after my recent trip there thanks to Bintan Lagoon Resort – you just have to make the effort to step out of the resort and explore the island a little, and lots of interesting things are right at your doorstep. Here are 7 things you can check out on this little resort island.
1) DISCOVER THE MANGROVES ALONG SEBUNG RIVER
I’ve been on a number of obligatory mangrove swamp boat rides, but this one along Sebung River stood out for me. I have to confess I wasn’t initially particularly excited about a nature excursion – I’ve never really enjoyed nature in Southeast Asia, maybe because the hot humid weather bums the animals out as much as it bums me, the visitor, out.
So I really wasn’t expecting much on this one, apart from a nice cooling boat ride under the mangrove cover. But getting out onto that starting point on stilts facing the open water certainly got me in a good mood. It was certainly refreshing having nothing high-rise or belching smoke on the horizon.
Accompanied by the informative charts on display, our guide was quite the embodiment of advocacy for ecotourism. Quite unlike the average tour guide, he even had some good jokes and catchphrases (disclaimer: opinion is subjective) to go with his very detailed introductions at various points on the journey.
I’m not going to steal his thunder, so you should just go and hear them for yourself. But here’s a random fun one: our guide thinks the river’s name is “Sebung” because it sounds like “C’est Bon” – because the mangroves make the river good, and because the mangroves provided refuge for the Chinese from rough monsoon waters.
Along with getting quickly acquainted with the various types of mangrove roots, we were also regaled with fun facts about various other features and natural occurrences along the tour.
It turned out to be quite exciting actually spotting the animals especially because they were quite well hidden. We saw a few iguanas looking extremely lepak (jac: that loosely translates to ‘relaxed’ in Malay), some interesting birds, curious monkeys, and 2 or 3 of these really pretty black and yellow mangrove snakes just curled up and looking a little lonely. Trying to get these animals on a camera phone proved tricky – you need a proper camera/DSLR if you’re looking to take good pictures!
There’s a Night Tour as well which apparently features fireflies and the clear night sky. I can’t tell you about that since I didn’t get to see it for myself, but it sure sounds magical. But if you’re more about spotting wildlife then go for the Day Tour like I did. It’s a soul-soothing trip over gently rippling waters and through cool earthy air, definitely something I’d recommend for anyone checking out Bintan.
Find out more about the Mangrove tours here – you can generally book them from your hotel concierge quite easily.
Tours generally take 1.5 hours at fixed times (9am / 10.30am / 1pm / 3pm) and costs S$38(wkday) / $45(wkend) per adult
2) RELAX AT THE LOCAL BEACH – TRIKORA BEACH
There’s a strange divide of local versus tourist on Bintan – there’s a night guard on the road that stops locals from going to the ‘resort’ side of the island in the North unless they were working there, ostensibly for the “safety” of the tourists according to my guide. It never even crossed my mind that there were “tourist beaches” versus “local beaches”.
There is a difference between the ‘tourist’ beaches at the resort and the ‘local’ beach – at the local Trikora Beach on the Eastern shore where we visited, the sands aren’t as luxurious as the resort’s but still plentiful. I personally found the local side of Bintan more fascinating – there’s a certain simple laissez-faire about the people which gets in the air and in the mood for some proper unwinding.
Our guide told us that her colleague joked that the beach is called Trikora because the water is tri-colour, and she had some pictures on her phone taken on a different day where the water did indeed look postcard-worthy and had three clear tones of blue to blue-green. Beware the monsoon season at year end though – the currents can get strong enough to drag even a strong swimmer out to sea.
Another interesting you might see on Trikora Beach is the locals building boats of different sizes from scratch. I’m not sure about sea-worthy, but the boats are definitely “water-worthy”, and are sometimes bought by companies who use them for decoration at events or in their buildings. The folks working on these boats were too shy to stay in the pictures, but if you pop by, you could catch them in action! I don’t know how they work with all the trees in the way…
I also recommend looking out for Pizza Casa Italia which can be found between Trikora Beach and the Bintan Cabana Beach. You’ll see a signboard along the main road pointing to it. It might be a weird choice to eat pizza in Bintan, but the pizza here is made fresh by in a proper pizza oven by actual Italians who fell in love with the island decades ago and stayed behind. You’re likely to catch either the mum or son doing their thing – the latter is apparently quite popular eye candy for the local girls.
We had a spicy minced chicken pizza handmade by the son amidst the world’s cheeriest pizzeria backdrop. The pizza had a very light crust which was very Italian yet somewhat Indonesian. Cheap too, and makes a great beach snack any time of the day!
3) EXPLORE THE CHINESE SETTLEMENT OF SENGGARANG
The entrance of Chinese immigrants taking refuge from the monsoons was quite a milestone in the history of Bintan and their settlements are still thriving today. Senggarang in the southwestern part of the island is believed to have been the first Chinese settlement on Bintan. Most of Senggarang is built over the water (Jac: it reminds me of Kukup, Malaysia). We took a rickety boat ride to check it out.
We all made it to the settlement safely (no capsize involved, phew… hurrah for sturdy stone jetties!) The rest of the infrastructure on stilts still felt less than sturdy to me – I know the structure is made of mangrove roots and apparently wicked strong, but I can’t imagine feeling very safe living here!
That aside, it was an interesting experience seeing the mix of houses and shops in sheds around. We’re so used to order in architecture and urban planning in Singapore, so being able to see so many styles, colours and sizes of architecture along just a single row of homes was fascinating.
This is an open community, so everyone pretty much keeps their doors open. If you take a peek into the homes, you’ll also notice that many of the homes have their living rooms designed for deities and prayer. This is reflective of the fact that Senggarang is also home to a few Chinese temples, including Sun Te Kong Temple, which is the oldest one in Senggarang, and apparently the region (unverified). More on Bintan’s temples here.
Senggarang was a charming place to be. Not a lot to do, but a nice calming walk with the company of the locals going about with their easy manner. Most of them speak Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew, so you just might be able to get a conversation going!
4) ISLAND HOP TO PENYENGAT ISLAND
Penyengat Island is about 1.5km off Bintan island, which means another boat ride, though from Tanjung Pinang Jetty this time.
The island is home to the tomb of the Bugis Princess who received the island as her dowry, as well as the tomb of the poet who somewhat created the basis for modern Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t take any pictures of the tombs, mainly because I was kinda creeped out by the other smaller grave stones around it representing deceased adults as well as children affiliated with the Princess.
The island is actually a more touristy area – you can tell from the nicely paved roads and the multitudes of cameras on the people around us. We got around on one of their many little trishaws which look like wooden huts on wheels – notice the pattern of the back which apparently hints to the royal roots of the island. These little rides have great turning radii and can execute really tight u-turns!
The urban area gave way to greenery and then to clearings with grand buildings. The former Sultan’s palace, a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan, is only a shadow of its past glory. When the Sultan’s family fled during the war, the Sultan refused to let the enemy capture the palace in full, and ordered part of it razed to the ground.
Here’s the “Community Centre” for the locals who currently live on the island. It’s new and they use it for weddings and other community events. Fun fact: Up to 3 couples may be married simultaneously in the same ceremony, usually from the same extended family!
5) HAVE SEAFOOD DINNER AT KAWAL FISHING VILLAGE
We visited this kelong / jetty village off the eastern coast of Bintan just to have a look. You can have seafood dinner here though we were there a little too early for that. We were having great weather that day and I just wanted to show you how picturesque this place is – do consider coming here in the late afternoon closer to sunset so you can grab dinner right after!
6) MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO GROTTO SANTA MARIA
The migrants came in waves, and in the second wave were the gypsies (Bugis) and some refugees from Flores (near Timor Leste) who brought Catholicism with them. Grotto Santa Maria, known as “Goa Santa Maria Pelindung” to the locals is a serene spot, with its 14 Stations depicting the “Via de la Rosa” (Way of the Cross) in white plaster statues. It certainly wasn’t something I’d expect to see on Bintan.
The site is certainly a sight to behold whether you share in their faith or not. But do bring insect repellent! The mosquitoes here are pretty aggressive. Our guide got us the lotion they sell in sachets at the provision shops which worked quite well – Unfortunately, I forgot to keep a sample, so here’s the only picture I found of the stuff.
7) EAT STREET FOOD AT AKAU POTONG LEMBU
Akau is the famous night food bazaar in Tanjung Pinang. It’s just a car parking space by day, but at night it’s the Gurney Drive of Bintan (jac: Gurney Drive as in Penang’s famous food stretch). You go around the various stalls to order your food. Some of the stalls are self-service, others will somehow hunt down your table in that sea of humanity.
The satay here is quite different to what we’re used to in Singapore, which is basically a peanut sauce topping. The sauce here has kecap manis in it – that’s the sweet black sauce Indonesian food often features, and also fragrant fried spring onion.
The Char Keow Teow style here is close to what you get in Penang. Cuboid blocks of lard, a lot of kecap manis, and oh so yummy after a long day of traipsing around the island!
According to both our local guide and driver, you have to eat gong-gong when in Bintan. This shellfish delicacy is so popular in Bintan that there apparently is a giant statue of it somewhere on Bintan – that’s how much the locals adore the stuff.
The highlight of the trip to Akau (at least for my guide) were the Fried Banana Fritters topped with cheese. Golden brown, sweet and caramelly, and richly cheesy. Very sinful, very good. We bought seconds to take away with us, ‘nuff said.
Please complete your meal with this Cendol. This crushed ice concoction was rich and creamy, and they are very generous with the traditional solid ingredients. It’s light enough to clear your palate nicely at the end of a glorious wok-fried dinner.
Other foods to look out for if you don’t make it to Akau – Depot Ayam Penyet is a restaurant chain that you can find throughout the island serving up some pretty good Ayam Penyet aka smashed chicken. The chicken is very tasty and it comes with a traditional Indonesian chicken soup.
Make sure you have yours with the Sambal Terasi which is VERY spicy but absolutely tasty and definitely a part of the Ayam Penyet experience. At Depot, there is also a green version of sambal terasi available – that’s EVEN spicier. You can see it in the sauce dish in the soup picture. I couldn’t taste my chicken for a while after just a dollop of that. You have been warned.
I recommend Teh Botol to help you cope with the spice. Literally, “Bottled Tea” – that’s Indonesia’s own brand of clear tea, meant to be consumed chilled or with ice, of course.
Another must-eat is Otak Otak (a fish paste of sorts) which you can find this easily in the town areas around Tanjung Pinang. They’re really cheap at just 1,000Rp each (SGD 0.10), and a little narrower and flatter than the ones we find in Singapore. We bought 40 pcs for just two of us. Heh.
Tips to get to Bintan and getting around
Bintan is just under an hour’s ferry ride away from Singapore – take the ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. You can get your tickets online here.- it’s S$45 for a 1-way fare or S$58 – $70 for a round trip fare depending on whether it’s peak or non-peak.
On the island, you’ll want to get a local driver to take you around, since they don’t have much of a public transport system. Your hotel should be able to secure one for you on demand and you have a sense of pricing here.
Also, a great map courtesy of the agency Bintan Resorts.
For accommodation, do consider Bintan Lagoon Resort – it’s super convenient because you can take a ferry directly to the resort from Tanah Merah so you can save yourself the 20-min land transit from the public terminal (check the timings though – the direct ferry service is closed during monsoon season at year end and during maintenance).
Thanks to Bintan Lagoon Resort for hosting the visit. All opinions and recommendations in this review are purely that of the writer and her experience.