I arrived at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport at 5:00 AM on 12th May 2016. I was still feeling groggy. My younger sister who drove me to the airport looked like she could use a few more hours of sleep. I waved goodbye to her, thanking her and wishing her a safe drive going home.
Just as I was about to enter the airport’s sliding door, my phone rang. Abang Naddin, a colleague from Utusan Borneo, was on the line. He asked me to check my inbox.
When I read his message, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to feel sad. Our flight, which was supposed to be at 7 am, had been moved to 8:50 am.
I sat for breakfast waiting for my colleagues to arrive. While sipping my brewed coffee, I thought about the trip. I remembered that after flying to Jakarta and visiting Palembang, we would be visiting Belitung Island. I didn’t know much about Belitung, except that it was the setting for Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), a famous movie I heard about in 2008.
Adapted from a novel of the same title, Laskar Pelangi was written in 2005 by Indonesian author Andrea Hirata. The movie adaptation was directed by acclaimed director Riri Riza. Its producer, Mira Lesmana, hired local children of Belitung to be part of the cast, which included Indonesia’s top actors and actresses at the time.
I read that Laskar Pelangi is Indonesia’s all-time highest-grossing movie to date. It received numerous awards, both locally and internationally. But the movie would not have been as successful and as famous if not for the island and the local children that shaped the story and made it seem more real and endearing to audiences.
After more than an hour, Pak Wido from the Consulate of Indonesia in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia arrived. Soon our other colleagues started arriving. I seemed to be the only one indeed who wasn’t aware of our flight change.
This time we were off to Belitung Island from Jakarta, and this time I had the correct schedule. I was in the aisle seat of our twin-aisle aircraft, anxiously stretching my neck to get a view of the scenery far below.
Nearing Belitung island, I saw a vast crystal blue sea and a white, seemingly endless beachline. A bright blue sky draped all over the island.
For an islander like myself, coming to Belitung Island was like a homecoming. I remembered being at the bay of Sandakan once again, watching its side of the majestic Sulu Sea.
The Garuda Indonesia was about to land. Bro Ruzaini pointed me to a soft rainbow curving its charming colors towards our window. My thoughts flashed back to the remarkable story about ten poor children who came to be called “Laskar Pelangi” by their inspiring teacher, Ibu Muslimah. It was Ibu Muslimah who continued teaching and giving them hope despite only receiving a sack of rice as her salary.
We landed at Belitung’s airport in Tanjung Pandan, in the province of Bangka-Belitung. Later, I learned that the airport was named after a former regent, Lieutenant Coronel H.A.S Hanandjoeddin. Belitung Island is located on the east coast of Sumatra in the Java Sea. Our tour guide, Mas Agus Pahlevi, told us that the island’s population is about 271, 868.
Speaking jolly with his pantun, Mas Agus guided us to the tourist bus that had been waiting for us even before our flight landed. Mas Agus said he was happy meeting us, as he had visited Kota Kinabalu before and was familiar with our ways and needs.
Mas Agus Pahlevi was fascinating. As a new acquaintance, he spoke a lot and was articulate and fluent. He seemed to be knowledgeable about the island’s history and culture, even its flora and fauna. He also knew a lot about the island’s tin and white pepper business.
The interior of Timpu Duluk was stunning. I almost forgot my hunger. The wall was carefully patched and lined up with a collection of old wooden utensils, a bicycle, local agricultural tools, and even woven farmers’ and fishermen’s hats.
I sat at the rear end of the table, beside Pak Wido and my other colleague Ruzaini from Metro News. Food was served in small glass and ceramic plates. My eyes were focused on the squid soup, one of my favorite viands along with fried tuna. These were perfect partners for the white rice. While eating, I couldn’t help but remember what Mas Agus Pahlevi told us about the colossal rock formations towering the Tanjung Tinggi beach. Thinking of this as I ate, I imagined myself on the beach already, paddling a plate as my boat, seawater splashing all over me like a fountain. A hungry mind makes funny thoughts.
From the start, I’ve been very curious about how Belitung got its name. In the old times, people used to refer to Belitung as Billiton, an island famous for its plentiful tektites. Tektites are small black glassy objects, many of which are found over the earth's surface. They are believed to have been formed as molten debris in meteorite impacts and scattered widely through the air. They are also called agni mani, which in Sanskrit means “fire pearls” or “teardrops from the moon”.
The origin of the name Billiton is unknown. We were told there was a Dutch mining company in 1860 of the same name that acquired rights to tin mining in the island. The island’s name may have only been mistaken to be Billiton from Belitung by the Dutch or otherwise. I am not so sure.
But I could not sleep until I’ve found the etymology of Belitung and Billiton. I thought perhaps deconstructing the name itself may help me find a clue to the island’s name.
I started with the word Beli or Bael, which refers to a fruit-bearing tree known as pokok Maja. This is also the tree where the Majapahit Kingdom got its name. And then I looked for the meaning of the words Tong and Tung. Tong means “a place” or a “container” while Tung refers to the “imitative sound of the gong”. Both could have formed the word Belitong or Belitung.
I also looked for the meanings of the suggestive words Billi and Ton. I found different meanings for Billi, but the ones that seemed to make sense are “a very gorgeous girl” and “knows exactly what to say, always”. I also learned that Ton means “a large amount or number” or “a unit of weight which equals to 1000 kilograms”. Both could also have formed the word Billiton.
After about an hour at Tanjung Pandan town buying swimming shorts and slippers and eating ice cream, we set out to Manggar, a place where we were promised to taste a unique blend of black coffee. Along the way, I was observing sights from left to right of the road. My eyes couldn’t seem to count the number of mosques scattered all over the place. Almost every village that we passed by has one.
We spent some time taking photographs at Kelapa Kampit Chinese temple before reaching Manggar. After about ¸two hours coffee craving, we arrived at Manggar, the “city of a thousand coffee shops.” With so many coffee shops lined up on each side of the road, this place is heaven for every kahawarista. We went inside a small shop and sat down. It was about 7 pm.
After Manggar, there are still many other beautiful islands to visit in Belitung. I couldn’t wait to see all of them. One of the islands in Belitung that have popular landmarks is Lengkuas Island. Lengkuas island has perfectly clear blue waters, fine white sand, and a unique chain of granite stones. It also has a 16-floors- and 65-meters-high towering lighthouse built in 1882 by Dutch colonial government.
In about 20 minutes, we reached the island.
Not far from the restaurant, there is a “sailing rock island” known to locals as Pulau Batu Berlayar. The boat passed by near it, concluding our island hopping. If it were not for time constraint, I would have visited the island and all other islands in Belitung. There’s always a story to tell about each of them. As they say, it’s just a matter of how one appreciates the preciousness of each one.
It was not long before we reached Tanjung Pendam, a cape where our hotel, Grand Hatika is located. In front of it there are nice places to hang out. There is a karaoke den and a place for music gigs. But I was not fortunate enough to enjoy these places, where dusk time is said to be the best moment to enjoy.
I was told that if one would sit at the beach pavilion, he’d be presented a view of a beautiful sunset. I could imagine myself sitting there, contemplating the moment. Again I didn’t have the chance to witness the sunset showing its charm to my camera’s lens. I’ll just have to experience this the next time I visit.
On our way back to the hotel from Manggar during our first night there, I was reminded by Pak Ruben’s words, “our journey to Belitung will be more interesting with the cooperation of everyone who’d unveil its beauty to the eyes of the world”.
Our second night here, Abang Naddin’s friends, poet and musician, Pak Yudi and Pak Yuda drove us to their home. The motorcycle convoy was running slowly. When we arrived at their home, we were served a cup of coffee along with delicious fish cakes. I still laugh silently when I see a fish cake. Its story had been related to us by Pak Wido and Pak Andhika earlier, during our courtesy call with Consul General Pak Akhmad Daya Handasah Irfan at the office of the Indonesian Consulate General in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
That was a day before we flew to Jakarta for the Familiarization Trip 2016 to witness “Wonderful Indonesia”. Fish cakes are called Kapal Selam in Belitung. Kapal Selam literally means a “submarine”. Imagine the people of Belitung eating submarines. Indeed terrifying.
State of the Rainbow Troops
The morning of our flight back to Jakarta, we packed early and checked out from the hotel as we’ve been briefed the night before. But before that, we had to head back to Manggar to meet Ibu Muslimah. Those who’d be joining would be in white and black cars. Other colleagues that were set to go straight to the airport took the bus. I was with Pak Ruben, Mas Bondan and Jason in one car.
Not far from the hotel, Pak Ruben stopped for a while to meet a friend of his. The front wall of the small shop where we stopped had a wooden board that read: “Kong Djie Coffee, sejak 1943”. It means this coffee shop was started during the Second World War. This was the same branch of coffee shop at Manggar where we set our last stop before heading to the airport.
Ibu Muslimah’s house is not far from the island’s office of culture and tourism, where we had a short glance of the museum-like office to learn more about the cultural story of Belitung, including the Hantu Bubuh, which literally means a “fish cage ghost”.
Everyone laughed when Ibu Muslimah asked me about my status while we continued chatting before leaving.
Not long after our chat with Ibu Muslimah, we departed, flying Sri Wijaya Air back to Jakarta. As I sat for the takeoff, I felt really good. I had packed good memories about Belitung that would never fade away. I’d keep them alive in written pieces like poems and articles like this.
Ms Connie Chong, General Manager
Fun Holiday Tours and Travel SDN. BHD
Lot 8, 3rd Floor, Block H, Sadong Jaya Complex,
88200 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia
Fax: +6088250093 / 729301
Mr Agus Pahlevi
Ketua Asosiasi Pelaku Pariwisata Indonesia Bangka-Belitung.
Mobile: +62 8127194066
Email address : firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr Franciscus Aryanto
Kepala Sub-bagian Promosi Pariwisata, Dinas Kebudayaan dan Pariwisata Kabupaten Belitung Timur.
Mobile: +62 813-6833-8977
I love you, peace! Let's sail together. Layag Sug!