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Being Better in Bintan

By • Oct 14th, 2008 • Category: The Environment

We had an Australian visitor who worked in a zoo in Melbourne,”Ranan Samanya, Senior Manager, Environmental and Health Division for Bintan Resorts told us. “He went on the Mangrove Discovery Tour that you are going to take tomorrow. We came upon a python in a tree. He leapt up and grabbed it and pulled it into the boat with us. We were all a bit shocked and trying to get away from it, but the python was even more shocked and just shot out of the boat.”

Pong Pong
The following day when Farah and I took the trip, our boat was filled with a ‘giggle’ of young Japanese ladies (a ‘giggle’ is a group of two or more young ladies), and our guide Rudi was doing his best to keep them in high spirits. In not too bad Japanese, the young Indonesian explained the things the visitors didn’t understand the English version of. Of the Pong Pong Sea Apple Tree, Rudi said it was called ‘pong pong’ because “when you drop it into the water it makes the sound ‘pong’ ‘pong’.”I’m not sure how well that translated into Japanese.
Before I get too far along, let me explain that Bintan Resorts is a large area on the north coast that includes Nirwana Gardens, Banyan Tree, Club Med and a great deal of natural, undeveloped area. Bintan is the largest island in Indonesia’s Riau Province, made up of a bundle of islands that are located directly south of Singapore.
My good friend Karen Chan, Manager, Marketing Communications, arranged for Farah and me to spend four days on the island exploring the wilds and discovering the charms of the resorts. Nirwana Gardens kindly offered to host us.

Hot Days, Scintillating Nights
The 3,000 Riau Islands are scattered through the South China Sea and into the Malacca Strait not more than a tad off the equator. If you think being near the equator is likely to make the islands hot, then you are pretty much right – but they often have tropical downpours that cool the earth slightly while increasing the humidity greatly. During our brief stay we only got the heat, but some impeccable tropical nights when we could enjoy the beauty of the glimmering full moon, crystal stars and the wine-dark sea – while enjoying some dark red wine.
One of the more enjoyable places to enjoy wine and the sea was at Nirwana Gardens Kelong Seafood Restaurant. Built on stilts over the water, it serves an excellent variety of seafood dishes, including the gong-gong sea snail that is only found near these islands, black pepper crab, steamed fish and the fresh local vegetables. We enjoyed a fantastic meal while watching lightening dance high in the storm clouds somewhere over Singapore.

Turtle Protection
Ranan, who is in charge of conservation and community development at Bintan Resorts, had given us an idea of some of the things we would see on the trip up the Sungei Sebung, but we wouldn’t get the opportunity to see their turtle programme. We did see one reason why protecting the turtles is so necessary when we were in Tanjong Pinang, the gritty little capital of the island. There were two ladies standing on the street with buckets of turtle eggs that they were selling. On my first visit eight years previously, there were two ladies standing in the same place selling the ping-pong sized eggs – I couldn’t say if they were the same two ladies or not, but in eight years they were sure to have sold a lot of eggs.
“It is very difficult for us,” explained Ranan, “to tell them to quit doing something they have been doing for generations. What we try to do is to provide them with an alternative income so they don’t need to carry on with a practice that is harming the environment.”
Six turtle species of the eight in the world live in Indonesian waters, and two of the species visit Bintan where they lay their eggs before travelling on. The peak nesting seasons in Bintan are March to April and July to August.

A Marine Protected Area
Bintan Resorts protects 12 nests on Pasir Panjang Beach and there are two nests along the Banyan Tree Resorts beach, resulting in about 2,000 hatchlings making it to the water this year. The chances of them surviving to adulthood are very slight.
“We are working with the government to create a marine protected area,”Ranan said. “It is going to take at least two or three years. We are doing a survey of the usage of the area now, and we are working on creating social awareness about the need to protect the sea. It is going to take some time, because it is very difficult to tell them they can’t fish in this area any more when it has been part of their lifestyle for so long.”
We did see first-hand some of the environmental degradation that has taken place on the island. While touring a site where the new Lagoi Bay Development is being planned, Lianna Wijaya of Bintan Resorts pointed out a small lake. “We call that Sentosa Lake,”she said with a laugh. “That is where they got the sand that they put on the beach in Singapore.”
Singapore was importing tonnes of sand from Indonesia, mostly for use in construction, but this practice was halted two years ago – much to the consternation of Singapore. Putting a dent in the beach wasn’t the only result of sand mining – mangrove forests were also severelly damaged as a result of this practice.
These practices have all been halted, and Bintan Resorts is doing environmental rehabilitation and supporting community involvement projects.

Mangrove Restoration
Ranan led us to the nursery where they were growing seedlings to be planted in the degraded areas. “This is our Mangrove Restoration Project,”he explained. “We plan to plant 10,000 trees in two years. So far we have planted 4,000 trees, and you will be able to see some of them when you take the river trip.”
It wasn’t just sand mining that threatened the mangrove forests. People cut the trees and sold them for firewood. “This is another area where we have to get people to stop doing something that is part of their livelihood. What we did was to create a mud crab hatchery. The crabs are very saleable, and we provide them to the locals who sell them to the hotels.”
There is an interesting two-way trade going on between Singapore and Bintan. LiAnna took us to a plantation where vegetables, fruit and spices were being grown. Some were sold to the hotels, some to the locals and lots to Singapore.

On the Sungei Sebung
While Bintan sends consumables north, Singaporeans bring themselves south for vacations. There are 340,000 people living on Ranan Samanya at Bintan Resort Nursery Bintan, and about 5,000 of them earn their living from tourism. The hotels are one of the main employers, but interestingly enough, it is not so much the people of Bintan who work in them. Workers from many parts of Indonesia migrate to the island for the jobs in Hong Kong.
Even more interesting was the trip up the Sungei Sebung where we got to see up close where some of the 4,000 mangrove seedlings had been planted. The river got progressively narrower and progressively more interesting as we passed the Crocodile Spirit Rock. The locals have it that in the village of Sunei Kecil, there is an elder, Bapak Leman, who can communicate with the threelegged crocodile spirit of Sungei Sebung. The spirit roams along the river and has its resting place on this boulder.
Rudi told us that locals put food on the rock and they pray to the Crocodile Spirit. We were assured that there were no crocodiles in the river. “The fishermen who are on this river all the time say they have never seen any here.”

Nocturnal Snakes
We didn’t get to see all of the wildlife that exists along the river, whether in body or spirit, but there was a lot to see. There are monkeys, purple heron, otters, monitor lizards, mud skippers and more. The yellow-banded mangrove snake, the python and the tree snake are also local residents, and we did see several snakes curled up in the branches right above our heads. No one in our group considered trying to grab one of them, and Rudi told us that they were sleeping, as they are nocturnal animals.
We didn’t spend all our time in the wilderness, communing with nature, but journeyed to Tanjung Pinang that is quite a distance from the resorts on the north shore. Our travelling companions on the two-hour drive were Elicia Lee, Executive, Marketing Communications and Mr Iwata Keisuke from News Network Asia. Dennis Petrus was our local guide. Dennis was a pleasant fellow who enjoyed his job, joking with us and telling us about the significance of the places we visited.
Most people don’t go to Tanjung Pinang for the shopping – though there are things to buy such as fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing and a few souvenirs brought from other parts of Indonesia. You won’t find pong pongs but you will probably see the turtle eggs.

At the Crossroads of History
However, what is interesting about Bintan is its long history. It was even mentioned in the travels of Chinese explorer Admiral Cheng Ho who used Gunung Bintan, the island’s highest peak at 340m, as a navigation landmark.
With the waters of the South China Sea lapping its shores Bintan has been at the trading crossroads between Indonesia, China, India, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas since the 10th century.
A rather sad, vandalised and neglected Dutch graveyard is one of the few signs of their colonial presence on the island. Dennis took us to a shuttered house that was once the home of a Dutch family and a symbol of how times have changed.
What is more in evidence is the Chinese presence with temples sprinkled throughout the city of 250,000 people.
One of the more unusual is a temple that has been engulfed by a banyan tree and where leathery Chinese linger in its shade, smoking cigarettes and staring somewhat indifferently at tourists taking their picture. The Chinese began arriving in significant numbers in the mid-1700s and found jobs working in the gambier plantations.

Amazing Penyengat
The three times I have visited Tanjung Pinang, I’ve taken a bumboat across to the tiny island of Penyengat, which for only being about one kilometre wide and two kilometres long, has a fascinating history and a depth of culture unexpected for such a small place.
The human history on the island goes back to shortly after the Portuguese took Malacca in 1511 and the Sultan Mahmud Shah was forced to flee. He tried to retake the city several times but was unable to, and eventually went to Bintan where he established a new capital on Penyengat. This small island became the centre of Malay culture during the 1800s when Raffles was given Singapore and offered British protection to the Sultan’s descendants in return.
For the sightseer, this means a number of ruins of old Palaces and Royal Houses, the Mausoleum of Queen Engku Puteri and that of Raja Haji Ali Fisabilillah (a naval hero), as well as the remains of the old fort. The fortifications were built just before the 1782 – 1784 war between the Riau Kingdom and the Dutch Company. Of the 90 guns that once protected the island, there are still quite a few rusted old cannons keeping vigil.
It was extremely hot, but Elicia had arranged for motorcycle taxis to whisk us in shaded comfort to the places of interest. On my first visit I had walked around the island and had to put up in a farmer’s home while a downpour drenched the island.

Rin Has All the Elements
Keisuke, who now lives in Malaysia, was fairly quiet most of the time, but he was right in his element when we went to Nirwana Gardens’ Rin Japanese Restaurant. He chatted at length with Executive Chef Kinoshita Tomoharu, who has more than 20 years of experience as a Japanese chef.
Kinoshita-san had a hand in designing the restaurant that has a Japanese garden at the entrance and large granite stones inside creating an ambience as unique as the food. Rin, which is named after the kanji character for ‘cool and well-supported’, was designed to incorporate the five natural elements of earth, wind, fire, water and metal to create an environment to appeal to all the human senses.

A Touch of Cognac
Keeping with this philosophy, Rin only serves wagyu beef with a minimum +8 marbling and above. The mouth-watering Wagyu Beef was grilled with salt and pepper and a touch of cognac and served with a specially concocted fruit-based sauce, wasabi and soya sauce designed to bring out and enhance the full-bodied flavour of the beef. Which it certainly did.
Other house specialties include Salt Baked Fish on Teppanyaki with Herbs, and Simmered Gong Gong, a local Indonesian shellfish delicacy prized for its sweet flesh and texture, prepared in traditional Japanese style. A two-metre-wide fish tank houses live fish and seafood for diners to choose from – you can’t get seafood much fresher than that.
Adding to the taste sensations was Rin’s very own brand of sake, manufactured from one of the oldest sake breweries in Kyoto.

Living Variety
On one of Nirwana Garden’s brochures, they have the phrase ‘Where Variety Comes To Life’. Variety in the type of accommodation available, from luxurious villas with sea views to luxurious hotel rooms with sea and garden views, to the older but still accommodating and more affordable beach chalets. Variety in restaurants and cafes and bars. The Calypso bar floats out at the end of a long wooden pier from Kelong Restaurant, and there could not be a more velvety place to watch the moon sparkle off the waters while enjoying a drink. In the lobby of the Nirwana Resort Hotel there is the Dino Bistro, with tall stools at the bar, which I would think would be the perfect place to hang about on a hot afternoon when the family is enjoying the pool or the beach.
Variety in activities can include indulging yourself at the Kedaton Tropical Spa that uses ancient recipes from Jamu and Asian folk traditions, to ecotours that will put you in close touch with nature.
Karen Chan took over as guide for the last two days of the trip. After having been so well taken care of by Elicia, we didn’t think we could get a better hostess, but Karen was up to the challenge, ensuring that we not only saw all that we needed to, but enjoyed ourselves while doing it.

Lagoi Bay
With Lianna we tootled over to Lagoi Bay that is going to be developed into resort hotels, with a conference centre, commercial buildings, shops, marina, ferry terminal, golf course and a variety of residential developments. There are many investor opportunities at Lagoi Bay that will eventually be a small city – with a new reservoir being constructed in the middle of it that will not only provide potable water, but a great visual treat.
You can build your own home, much to your own specifications at the Aranya Lagoi Residences. Perched on the hills on the western side, the new development will provide panoramic views of the South China Sea, pristine lakes, dense forest and the golf course.
In addition to being a great location, there is room for creativity at Aranya (which means ‘forest’ in Sanskrit). You can design your own dream home to be built on the open plots that range in size from 600 sqm to 1500sqm.

A Perfect Holiday
The great variety of accommodation, restaurants and things to do attracts people from all over the world to Bintan. Families find it the perfect place for a break, while companies often use it for team-building exercise. For couples looking for a romantic get-away, there are many quiet spots to get away and be romantic.
Prior to the trip, I had never considered going to Bintan to spend a weekend at one of the resorts. It seemed too close. Getting back home to Singapore after our trip, it didn’t seem close enough.

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