The heavenly paradise of Bangka and Belitung

The heavenly paradise of Bangka and Belitung
Batu Berlayar: The island features a naturally occurring Stongehenge-like arrangement of rocks.

Around 45 minutes from Jakarta is Bangka-Belitung, a province that offers endless waters, majestic beaches and exotic foods that simply cannot be found anywhere else.

The province consists of two main islands - more-developed Bangka and more-tourist-friendly Belitung - plus around 400 smaller islands, only 50 of which are inhabited.

Begin by visiting the Pelawan Forest, about a 30-minute drive from Pangkalpinang on Bangka Island, and dine on its mushrooms, which can only be found in the forest.

"The mushroom can only grow during the beginning of the rainy season here and only when lightning strikes the ground," Zainuddin, a local chef, said. "We can only harvest the mushroom twice a year. Therefore, the mushroom is quite pricy, as it can be sold for between Rp 1 million [S$101] and Rp 2.5 million per kilogram."

At those prices, a small plate of pelawan mushroom costs around Rp 50,000. However, the taste, especially when accompanied with local honey, is delicious. The mushroom is served as a side dish on a bedulang, or traditional large serving plate.

A typical bedulang, which can serve four, features a main dish of local fish served in lempah kuning - a yellow gravy made from tomatoes, pineapple and lemon.

The cuisine represents the diversity that has been present in the province throughout its history: There is a little spice, sweetness and sourness in every bite.

Bangka-Belitung's history is also a blend. The unique characteristics of the province began millions of years ago, when meteorites struck the region, leaving a lot of metals, especially tin, in the soil.

The metal deposits led Dutch colonists to take what they could in the 18th century, hiring workers from China to work in mines. The Chinese, mostly single men, married local residents, thus contributing to Bangka-Belitung's cultural blend.

Case in point is the 250-year-old Kwan Im Goddess Temple in Burung Mandi, East Belitung, with its natural springs, renowned for their health benefits, and its peramal (psychics), who can allegedly see your future.

The main attraction of Bangka-Belitung remains its beaches, such as Parai in Sungailiat, the capital of Bangka Regency, accessible by a quick ferry ride from Belitung.

On the tranquil shores of Parai sit hundreds of gigantic granite boulders for travelers to climb and sit on while enjoying cool sea breezes. Another well known beach in Bangka is Tanjung Pesona, whose stronger currents and deeper waters are home to the annual Sungailiat triathlon.

Swedish athlete Nick Johnson, who competes in at least 10 triathlons a year, says that the challenges of Tanjung Pesona make the Sungailiat triathlon one of the world's toughest.

"From a scale of one to 10 […] I grade this competition at seven," Johnson said.

More mesmerizing beaches in Belitung can be enjoyed by island hopping, a service provided by local fishermen, who can take you from Tanjung Kelayang Beach to Lengkuas Island, the province's outermost point, in about 20 minutes.

Lengkuas is home to an old 65-meter lighthouse, accessed by a 313-step staircase. Although the climb can be tiring - go slow - the breathtaking view of Bangka-Belitung makes it worthwhile.

Dive spots are available nearby; fishermen and tour guides can arrange for snorkel and fin rentals for travelers to enjoy the amazing ecosystem located under the crystal clear waters of Belitung.

Re-energize after your dive on Gede Kepayang Island, where a restaurant serves grilled freshly caught fish in local spices along with beer - and power stations, for those wanting to recharge their gadgets.

No island-hopping trip in Belitung is complete without a visit to Pasir and Batu Berlayar Islands.

Pasir consists of only of sands. During high tide, the island goes below the sea and resurfaces during low tide. It's also home to large pinkish starfish who greet sunbathers during the day.

Meanwhile, Batu Berlayar features Stonehenge-sized (and shaped) boulders. The island takes its name from the words for rock and sailing, since some say the boulders look like the sails of a ship.

Ferry, a local tour guide, said that he hoped tourism in Bangka-Belitung would only get bigger in the future.

"We cannot continuously rely on tin anymore, Ferry said. "It has been depleted and continuous mining might ruin the beauty of nature here."

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