The twin islands of Bangka and Belitung sit just off the south east coast of Sumatra. Together with several smaller islands and more than a hundred islets, the group is collectively known as the Bangka Belitung Islands Province. Exceptionally pretty with powder soft sandy beaches flanked by clear warm waters and striking granite rock formations, the islands are a perfect place to do a little island hopping and chill out for a while.
The largest of the group, Bangka Island derives its name from the Sriwijaya language meaning “tin” which has been mined there and on neighbouring Belitung Island for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, the ancient tin mines have given way to large scale tin production, much of it illegal and uncontrolled, which has mired the islands in a long running battle between the miners, environmental groups and “Bangkatin” buyers which include some of the world’s biggest corporations.
The worldwide publicity around the tin mining and the 2005 publication of the novel “Laskar Pelangi” (The Rainbow Troops) by native Belitung writer Andrea Hirata, and which was later made into a movie, thrust the islands into the spotlight. Almost overnight local and foreign travellers who had long overlooked the “tin” islands, took a second glance and discovered a sleepy island paradise with friendly locals and an abundance of attractions.
On Bangka Island, the palm fringed, wide sandy beaches along the central east coast are generally regarded as the best, including Anyer Beach at Rindupanjang village and Matras and Parai Tenggiri beaches to the south and north of Sungailiat town. No surprise that this is where you’ll find a cluster of luxury resorts and water sports facilities. Also nearby is the Permali Hot Springs recreation park where you can soak away your cares if you don’t mind the rather unattractive commercial development of this naturally occurring spring. If you’re looking for something a little quieter or even total seclusion you’re better off heading across the narrow Gaspar Strait to Belitung Island.
Bangka Island Massacre
On 12 February 1942, Bangka Island entered the annals of history for all the wrong reasons. Just days before, the merchant ship Vyner Brooke had left Singapore ahead of the advancing Japanese Imperial Forces carrying 65 Australian nurses, sick and injured soldiers evacuated from the 2/13th Australian General Hospital and civilian men, woman and children. Two days later, the ship was bombed by the Japanese and sank but not before most of the passengers made it into life boats that washed up across Bangka Island.
About 100 survivors reunited near Radjik Beach, only to learn that the island was being held by the Japanese. A ship’s officer proceeded to Muntok to surrender to the authorities, followed shortly afterwards by the civilian woman and children. Meanwhile, the nurses stayed behind to care for the wounded. Hours later the officer returned with a contingent of Japanese soldiers who ordered those men that could walk around the headland (Tanjung Kalian) where they were shot. Returning to the beach, the soldiers then ordered the nurses to walk into the surf then mowed them down with a machine gun, before dispensing of the wounded soldiers left on stretchers.
Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel was the sole survivor. Despite having been shot in the chest, after the Japanese soldiers left the beach she managed to drag herself from the water and crawl into the bush where she lay unconscious for several days. 12 days later she was forced to surrender to the Japanses and spent the next 3 years in a POW camp. After the war, she gave evidence of the massacre to a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.
Like Bangka, Belitung Island’s main attraction are its distinctive granite rock flanked beaches. The best of them are located around the islands north coast and include Tanjung Tinggi Beach, Tanjung Kelayang Beach, Burung Mandi (Bathing Birds) Beach and to the south Tanjung Binga Beach, Punai Beach and Membalong Beach. They all offer superb swimming and snorkelling and if you’re a photographer, the combination of granite formations against the white sand, turquoise water and blue skies will have you in composition heaven.
In the island’s main town Tanjung Pandan, you’ll find the Museum of Belitung which holds a vast and interesting collection of traditional mining, farming and household utensils, ancient pottery and traditional weapons. Over on the east side of the island at Burung Mandi village, be sure to drop into the Vihara Buddhist temple. The distinctive 300 year old Chinese architecture and hilltop outlook is fabulous. Attesting to the islands 20% Chinese population and ongoing affiliation with Buddhism, is the recently completed and very impressive Fu De Ci temple in nearby Kelapa Kampit city.
Among the smaller islands surrounding Belitung, the possibilities for island hopping are endless. Most are uninhabited and some are barely more than granite domes or sandy specs in the sea but there’s a very good chance you could find a whole island all to yourself. The better known among them are the granite Batu Berlayar Island, Pulau Burong (Bird Islet) which you can walk to from Tanjung Binga a low tide, the pretty sandy cay of Pasir Island.
With its clusters of granite boulders, long sandy spit and iconic lighthouse, tiny Lengkaus Island just off the northwest tip of Belitung is not to be missed. Built in 1882 by the Dutch, the lighthouse is still in use today and for a small admission fee, the lighthouse keepers will happily let visitors climb the winding 12 storey staircase to the top for fabulous 360 degree views across the islands.
Both Bangka and Belitung have small regional airports with flights daily flights between Jakarta and Palembangon the coast of Sumatra. Alternatively Bahara Express hydrofoils run several times daily between Palembang to Mentok on the west side of Bangka. The crossing takes around 3 hours compared to the 11 hour overnight crossing by the slow ferry. Pelni also call into the islands once a fortnight on the Jakarta – Batam and Jakarta – Pontianak (Kalimantan) routes.
Bahara Express hydrofoils also runs a daily service between Pangkal Pinang, Bangka and Tanjung Pandan, Belitung. No need to book ahead; just head down to the wharf at least two hours prior to departure. Lengkaus and other islands can be reached by local charter boat from either Tanjung Kelayang, Tanjung Binga or Tanjung Tinggi beaches on Belitung. Depending on which islands you want to visit, expect to pay between 350.000-500.00Rp for the day.
Public transport on both Bangka and Belitung is hit and miss and taxis are non-existent which limits your options for getting around to ojeks, hire scooters or hiring a private car with a driver. The other alternative is to book an organised tours. There are plenty to choose from, including the outer islands and diving. Tours and transportation can be arranged through your accommodation or any tour desk in the main centres can arrange the latter for you.
Accommodation wise, both Bangka and Belitung have a wide variety of options to suit every budget and you’ll find a lot of it online. Camping on Lengkaus and most of the other islands is permitted but you’ll need to be fully provisioned with camping gear, food and water as there are no facilities on any of the islands.