Rabu, 24 Maret 2010

Travel Diaries: Bangka Island

Beautiful Parai Beach, one hour from Pangkal Pinang.

The island of Bangka is best known as a colonial era ‘Devil’s Island’ where hot political prisoners — such as the young student radical Soekarno — were put out of the way.

In world mining circles Bangka is known for its tin — considered the best quality in the world.

Last month I went to Bangka Island expecting to find a frontier mining town but instead discovered a treasure trove of old world charm.

28th February 2010: To Pangkal Pinang, the capital of Bangka

From the air the island looks like any of the thousands of other islands in the Riau Peninsula area, except for its proliferation of shallow grey craters, like pock-marks on a friendly face. These are the small-scale tin quarries which scar the fertile island.

Close-up, the pockets of human settlement seem like those on any Sumatran or Borneo Island, except for one feature: distinctly Chinese villages and violently-hued Chinese temples are everywhere.

More than 200 years ago — when tin mining on the island was in its infancy — the great Dutch colonial company (V.O.C.) were exasperated by the malaise of the local Malays, and decided to import thousands of coolies from the Hakka area of South China.

It is odd being in a part of Indonesia that still feels like a part of China. The industrious Hakka have thrived and integrated totally with their Malay hosts — and little has changed in 200 years: there are still Chinese rice farmers, and banana vendors, for that matter, on the side of the road.

And they are the gentlest Chinese I have ever met (“What happens between here and Mangga Dua?” one veteran cynic quipped). As a community they were spared the rigours of the cultural revolution, I guess — rigours that strip-mined their homeland (South Coastal China) of much of its cultural loveliness — and are now 200 year plus years into a love affair with a particular Malay island.

For this is the cradle of Malay culture — not to be confused with Malaysian culture, where “lemah-lembut” (coyness) has been replaced with the new, more strident (some say Teflon-coated), bullish “Malaysia Boleh”.

But I digress: The point I want to make here is…..the spic and span villages of Bangka all are model villages for racial and religious tolerance — no-where in Indonesia have I experienced such an harmonious ‘melt’ of Buddhism and Islam, and of Chinese and the Malay islanders. The island prospers because it is well harnessed: social inequalities are sort of irrelevant, I guess, when everyone gets to have lunch out — I have never seen so many road-side stalls and cafes — and everyone has a house with a big garden and many people have their own private beach.

LEFT: A local Bangka Island girl at the reception desk of the Santika Hotel, Pangkal Pinang.
Note her distinctive IKAT BELITUNG sash.
RIGHT: Front veranda of a typical Bangka-Chinese rural dwelling near Parai Beach.

Krupuk shops are all the rage on Bangka Island

Matras Village near Parai Beach — an oasis of rural bliss and gentle architecture.

Like nearby Bintan, the beaches are sublime: palm fringed shores and white sand beaches which are dotted with giant boulders. Everywhere is ‘wealth’: the island is awash with motorcycle dealers, krupuk sellers (a Bangka speciality) and seafood restaurants — the most famous being “Aswin’s” in downtown Pangkal Pinang.

Aswin’s is so very chic that it has a V.I.P section out the back of the kitchen, which sits on a small man-made lake.

The fresh water prawns and chilly crab served at Aswin’s are to die for. Regulars scoff down plates of gourmet food as they watch Shaolin Princess tele-dramas from a television placed high on a wall in a locked cage (the Chinese are nothing if not secure).

My first day in Bangka is spent scouring the countryside outside Pangkal Pinang, looking for some design inspiration for a hotel garden I am doing for a merry band of Chinese-Indonesian developers: amazingly my clients have actively encouraged me to “go Chinese” on the decorative elements in the garden. For decades this has been a ‘no-no’ in Indonesia — unless of course one owned an Imperial Chinese restaurant, which many people did. Manicured, bonsai-riddled, Dutch Pensioner gardens comprise much of the green space in big Indonesian cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya, but heaven help romantics, like me, who like to do full-blooded, full-frontal Chinese gardens! It’s as of one were re-starting the Indonesian Communist Party or Gulag!

But I digress, what I really want to highlight is: the love of the Bangka, Malays and Chinese-Indonesians, for gardening, even well-articulated oriental-ornamental potscapes such as one finds in the fishing villages of East Madura.

They also love hanging out under broad shade trees like the Hawaiians.

In Parai one hour north of Pangkal Pinang, I discover a small resort hotel of such architectural perversity (Malaysian-Modern meets Nusa Dua Gothic) run by island’s main tin mining concern — a behemoth, like Freeport, but friendlier (but no machinegun toting tontons in the whispering palms here).

We don’t take a room — optioning for the more opulent Santika — but one could.

A Hakka Chinese temple in Matras Village.

Hottie waitresses at heavenly Asui’s Seafood Restaurant, Pangkal Pinang.

The VIP section of Asui’s Seafood Restaurant, Pangkal Pinang.

LEFT: Mobile gold-fish vendor at Eca Village.
RIGHT: An Indonesian schoolboy of Hakkah Chinese descent in Matras Village.

29th February 2010: Karaoke Hara-kiri

Today I need to watch the semi finals of an important tennis tournament so I take a room at a Star-Sports compatible three star hotel.

Here I discover that the real outdoor sport of the urban Bangka-wallah is Karaoke al Fresco.

The hotel’s garden restaurant — off the car park but before the opulently decorated air-conditioned dining hall — features a giant wide screen halfway up a mango tree, in a weather proof cage, and a stage where veteran sailors and tin baronets vie for the spotlight.

Three Chinese are shot singing “My Way” while one Batak bar girl does the Watusi under a Snake Fruit palm.

15th March 2010: In Sidakarya Village, Bali for all the Pengerupukan ceremony and ogoh-ogoh happenings

As a card-carrying, born-again Hindu I have missed Nyepi — the important Hindu-Balinese day of Silence — for the last decade, due, perhaps, to my fear of the dark. But this year my schedule and my need for a spiritual cleansing keeps me at home.

I go to my friends’ village for some local flavour.

I must say, the sunset preliminaries are wonderful — families with obor torches placing caru offerings outside their gates; and the ‘Backstage at the Calonarang Dance of the Demons’ atmosphere in the community hall — but the parades have become a tad pawai pembangunan (Rose Parade. Ed.), where once were warriors.

Of course the effigies are all masterful.

I guess now, what with rice farmers having turned into villa room-boys, the trance ritual and demon-worship fervor is bound to suffer.

One of the phantasmagorical demon effigies (ogoh-ogoh) paraded on Nyepi Eve in Bali, 15th March 2010.