Belitung Island emerges gracefully out of the Java Sea inviting curiosity and exploration. It does not disappoint. It is unquestionably a place of extraordinary and untouched beauty. The beaches are chalky white, and are touted to be some of the most exquisite in South East Asia. Huge granite boulders rise out of the sea, forming incredible megalithic structures. Some of these are mounted with solar panels, and at night, shine luminously against dark waters, as the panels pick up the reflecting moonlight. The boulders date back to the Jurassic era and are estimated to be 115-245 million years old.
Most visitors to the island do a five-island hop. They spend their days exploring nearby idyllic islands, which are just a short ten-minute boat ride from the mainland. A string of colourful, traditional fishing boats line the shores of Tanjung Kelayang beach. There are no wharves or jetties; you simply stride out into the water and hop onboard. There are no five-star resorts on Belitung and it remains a relatively unspoilt, charming little island. It’s a true delight for those seeking an adventure in a raw and natural place, untainted by tourism. Most people keep coming back for the snorkeling in clear aqua blue waters, the discovery of hidden billabongs on the tiny islands and to explore the massive boulders that rise out of the sea. The locals are always smiling, and have a laid back and relaxed attitude. Belitung is free from hawkers, which makes for an even more relaxing holiday. The people of Belitung are mostly of Malay ethnicity. The Suku Sawang (Sawang) tribe still exists, though in small numbers. Pak Salim Yah, curator of the Museum of Belitung for the last 10 years explains that although some original Sawang people still live in a scattering of small villages, most of the Sawang tribe have integrated with the Malay people. After a few phone calls, Pak Salim Yah was able to track down a Sawang Adat leader to arrange a meeting with me. When I arrived at the small village, it seemed everyone had heard about the impending arrival of a foreigner who had a keen interest in meeting them. As soon as I got comfortable on the front porch, grandma Ibu Jauya appeared. “I would like to sing for you,” she announced, and proceeded to sing a beautiful traditional song in her Sawangese language. As I listened to her delightful song, I managed to capture a recording of it. When playing the recording back to her she giggled and kept looking into the phone, amazed at how it had captured her voice. She was very happy to tell me about her life. “I was born on a boat,” she explained, “but now I live on the land. I lived most of my early life on the sea, but I am 65 years old now, so this house suits me better. The song I sang for you is called Gajah Menunggang and is about bidding farewell to our husbands, who are going to sea. It is a prayer for their safe journey and return home.” After this heartwarming meeting with Ibu Jauya, I met Pak Seman, who told me about the Buang Jong ceremony held once a year. “You should come back in October,” he said. “This is when we have the Buang Jong ceremony, and the women and the men all dance together.” The ceremony is held near the beach though the location changes every year. Starting in the morning, the people dance. In the afternoon they take an elaborately decorated mini boat replica out to sea. It is carried by six men. The ceremony is conducted as a tribute to the ocean spirit. Inside the boat, they place offerings of items like drinks, fruits, cigarettes and toys. It is then released into the sea. The Malay, local Balinese and Javanese community also take part in the festivities. The Malay people perform a traditional dance as do the local Balinese community, who bring out the Barong. The Javanese perform the Kuda Lumping dance. Three years ago, a new act joined; 100 children aged 13-15 put on a big show and performed the Laskar Pelangi Dance. This has become a big highlight of the ceremony now. Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops) is the title of a famous novel written by local author Andrea Hirata and follows a group of ten schoolchildren from a poor village school, and their two teachers, who inspire them to learn, face adversity and develop hope for their future. Belitung also has a unique local tradition called ‘Makan Bedulang’. Pak Salim Yah told me about this unique way of eating, which is still followed to this day. The food is presented on a round tray called a dulang, which symbolizes togetherness, respect and tolerance for one another. Before eating, the host invites others to eat first. A spicy yellow fish is placed into the middle of the tray, which you must eat with your hands. Everyone shares one bowl of water to clean their hands. Pak Salim Yah joked with me; “everyone is trying to get into that bowl when the eating is over. Maybe it is because in the old days there were not enough bowls or no one wanted to do the washing up. We don’t know why there is just the one water bowl, but it must always be this way.” He went on to explain that there is only one napkin too – it must be shared. “Luckily, we don’t have to share the drinking water. There are four water glasses, and the dinner is always for four people. It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years”. “Oh, and the desert,” he added, “is one traditional cake”. From famous writers, to a single napkin and an age-old sacrifice to the sea, the island of Belitung will delight you in many ways. And the good news is, it is only a 45-minute flight from Jakarta. Sawang ‘Sawang’ means “great ocean”. The Sawang tribe originally comes from Johor, Malaysia. There are no records of exactly when they arrived in Belitung Island. The most popular ceremony from the Sawang tribe is Buang Jong (also called Muang Jong). Some places in Belitung have their own Buang Jong ceremony (such as Tanjung Kelayang Village and Tanjung Tinggi Village), which are conducted in October. In February, the villages of Selat Nasik, Juru Seberang and Mentigi hold the ceremony. The date of ceremony is not fixed and it depends on the decision of the tribal leader. However, there is only one man who leads the ceremony. His name is Mr. Sepur A.K.A Kik Awang. He is 80 years old and is the Shaman of the Sawang Tribe. He currently lives in Juru Sebrang village. Balinese Barong Dance Barong is a Balinese animal mask story-telling dance, narrating the balance between good and evil. It is a classical dance which acts out mythology, allowing myth and history to be blended into one reality. Javanese Kuda Lumping Dance Kuda Lumping is a traditional Javanese dance where a group of dancers “ride” horses made from colourfully painted woven bamboo, adorned with cloth. The dance portrays troops riding in a group and can also include trances and magic tricks. Food Delights Delicious local food is also abundantly available at the Buang Jong ceremony. ‘Teri’ is a favourite small crispy fried fish and ‘gangan’ is a spicy yellow fish soup while ‘terasi’ (or ‘belacan’) is made from pounded fermented fish. The villagers also bring their handicraft and wares made from shells. Baskets and bags made from pandan leaves, as well as a variety of traditional mats and hats are laid out on display, showcasing the culture in a colourful way. Laskar Pelangi by Andrea Hirata The book skyrocketed the Belitung local to fame with over 5 million copies sold. It has now been translated into 21 languages and is distributed in 87 countries. Andrea Hirata became Indonesia’s best-selling writer and has gone on to open the first literary museum in Indonesia, The Museum Kata Andrea Hirata. The museum features the words of over 200 world acclaimed writers. You can easily spend three hours in the museum, which is located in Gantong, where the book is set. Laskar Pelangi was made into a movie in 2008 and is the highest grossing film in Indonesia. It has taken the limelight by winning local and international awards. The actors were mostly locally sourced from small villages in Belitung, adding to the authenticity of the film. Accommodation Homestay Belitung Pak Maie – the cleanest and neatest little homestay, near the beach. Hosted by Nita and her lovely family, who cook for you and serve the most delicious afternoon tea every day to your own private lounge. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/10949593 Tanjung Kelayang Beach, Sijuk, Belitung Driver/Guide Pak Padli Contact +62 819 49120114 [email protected] http://www.belitunghomestay.com Festival Buang Jong Ceremony – Held at Tanjung Kelayang Village October 9-10, 2017. For more details phone: Pak Jumhari - Event Organizer – Tanjung Kalayang Village only:+62 819 2965 0600 Pak Padli +62 819 4912 0114
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond. Please see www.travelwriter.ws Follow on www.facebook.com/stephtravelwriter David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Indonesia, Myanmar, India and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali. He supports education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan. www.davidmetcalfphotography.com http://www.taksuphotogallery.com www.instagram.com/davidmetcalfphotography www.taksuphotogallery.com