As the setting for Indonesian author Andrea Hirata’s 2005 semi-autobiographical debut novel “Laskar Pelangi,” or “The Rainbow Troops,” Belitung saw its fortunes change from a sleepy island better known as an outpost of the tin trade into Indonesia’s next big tourist destination.
The novel, which is Indonesia’s most successful ever with over 5 million copies sold, spawned a highly-acclaimed movie of the same name in 2008 as well as a musical, and started a tourist boom that, according to author Andrea, saw the number of visitors rise 1,800 percent.
But while “Laskar Pelangi” and its movie adaptation might loom large on the average sightseer’s to do list in Belitung, it is by no means the only thing that the island has to offer.
Let’s go around a number of places where one can see what Belitung has in store for its visitors.
As any first timer or old hand to Belitung would notice that it’s strongly influenced by its maritime heritage, unsurprising given its endless views of the sea and ubiquitous beaches.
While white sands and clear green blue waters are found throughout Indonesia, Belitung’s beaches are more distinct due to their granite boulder formations, a feature that is best seen on Tanjung Tinggi.
Climbing the granite might be a bit of a challenge as one has to negotiate the contours carefully and on all fours at times. But the payoff for getting to the top of the rocks is worth it.
“Tanjung Tinggi has one of the best views on Belitung. Here, the views of the sea and the sky over the horizon is endless,” said University of Indonesia lecturer Esti Wandari, a frequent visitor to the island.
“It’s not only beautiful, it’s almost spiritual to see and feel.”
Treesnowati Atmosudirdjo, a first timer to Belitung, agreed.
“I like Tanjung Tinggi because of its peaceful atmosphere. I also like the granite rock formations because they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she said.
“The rocks seem perfectly aligned and symmetrical, even the narrow gaps that lead out to the water. Aside from their sizes, their shapes are also unique.”
It didn’t take long to see what she meant. Some of the granite juts out of the sea on seemingly fragile bases, while others, such as the aptly named Garuda Rock, takes on the shape of an eagle. The beach is also known as one of the locales used for the “Laskar Pelangi” film.
Further offshore more surprises await. At Lengkuas island, a 30-minute boat ride from Tanjung Tinggi, one can take in sights such as a sea turtle hatchery, where the animals are kept from the moment they’re hatched until they’re old enough to be transferred to another facility pending release into the wild.
The surf at the Tanjung Kelayang beach is also welcoming enough to be explored, as one can swim on its blue green waters to the corals offshore.
The island has more up its sleeve.
“I like Lengkuas island because of its lighthouse, which reflects its history as the gateway to Belitung and its rich natural resources, of which tin stands out the most,” National University lecturer Meizar Abdulllah said.
He added that like many great trips, the pleasure lies in the journey, namely a few minutes boat ride away to Pasir (sand) island.
The patch of white sand beaten constantly by the blue sea beckoned to travelers keen to swim the clear waters or bask on the sand.
“The snorkeling around Pasir island is great, because we can see a variety of marine life there, not least among them the starfish,” he added.
Adhyani Noer Indrati, a recent graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London agreed.
“I like Sand Island because of its tranquil atmosphere. It also gives you the sensation of having your own island,” she said.
Whether its starfish and other colorful marine life or just sea, sand and sun that one is after, be sure to keep all the aforesaid places high on one’s list of to do things in Belitung.
‘Laskar Pelangi’ sights
As the most famous recent phenomenon to come out of Belitung since tin, the sights related to Laskar Pelangi and its creator Andrea Hirata are a draw for fans of both the novel and the movie.
This includes the replica of the Muhammadiyah school where the main character Ikal [Andrea] and his friends Lintang, Sahara and Mahara learned, lived and played under the tutelage of their teacher Ibu Muslimah and principal Pak Harfan.
Stepping into the rundown structure and seeing it firsthand, the place seems an unlikely setting for a critically acclaimed novel that was translated into 30 languages in 20 countries and won accolades like the General Fiction Category at the 2013 New York Book Film Festival.
“Seeing its decaying benches, dirt floor and collapsing roof, it is hard to believe that anyone can graduate from such a place. But at the same time it reminds you of the magnitude of [Andrea’s] achievements, much of which came from the educational values the school instilled in him,” Treesnowati said.
“To see how he can break the vicious cycle of poverty by graduating from there, going on to study at the Sorbonne and making a bestselling novel such as ‘Laskar Pelangi’ is inspiring.”
Andrea is not one to keep his expertise to himself, as he founded the Museum Kata-Kata or Words Museum in 2012 to highlight the value of the written word.
Located in Andrea’s traditional Malay house in the village of Gantong, the museum’s collection includes manuscripts of Andrea’s unpublished short stories, stills of the movie Laskar Pelangi and the novel’s international editions, as well as the works and pictures of international writers like J.K. Rowling, Umberto Eco and Mark Twain. But Andrea’s message — “Did I Inspire You” — speaks volumes about the museum and its mission.
The sea’s influence on Belitung is as literal as it is figurative, as reflected by its signature food Mie Belitung.
The dish, which consists of noodles served in a shrimp broth, might initially be unimpressive due to its relatively small portions. But the noodles, garnished with shrimp, cucumbers and belinjo nut crackers, has more to offer than it looks.
The broth, whose sweet, succulent full flavor is reminiscent of seafood dishes like bouillabaise and bisque de homard, goes just as well with the well textured noodles as it does by itself.
“Perhaps the best place to savor Mie Belitung is Mie Atep or Mie Artis. They’ve been in the business for awhile, so they know how to make it better than most places I’ve been to,” said Esti, who has been a frequent visitor of Belitung over the past decade.
Whether it be exploring the sites of Laskar Pelangi, taking in the sand, sea and sun, or savoring Belitung’s no-nonsense culinary pleasures, the best one can do is take the high road and check out this unassuming island of various wonders.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on January 16, 2014