Sumatra is fairly well-known internationally as a resource and natural beauty-rich island, but did you know that it also has several smaller and exquisitely beautiful islands not far from its coast?
Some of the most beautiful of these islands is known as the Bangka-Belitung Islands, cutely abbreviated Babel. This group of islands is composed of Bangka Island, Belitung Island, and a handful of other smaller islands. They’re located in the Java Sea, off the east coast of Sumatra.
Economically, this island is known for its pepper and its tin. But for travelers, the Bangka-Belitung islands conjures images of white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters, colorful coral reefs and giant granite rock formations that complete the beauty of its landscape.
Belitung in particular has some of the most beautiful, most pristine beaches of Southeast Asia. And it’s managed to remain mostly a secret but it won’t be for long – beautiful white sand edging turquoise calm seas complete with a lovely long dry season full of sunny skies will eventually draw crowds. Go now before it’s too late.
About Bangka Island
Bangka is the main part of the Bangka-Belitung province of Sumatra, but it remains mostly overshadowed by its sister island Belitung. That said, the beaches in Bangka are beautiful but because the island is not being promoted as much as Belitung, there is a poorer infrastructure.
The island is home to around 1 million inhabitants, most of whom are Malays and Chinese. Most of the beautiful island consists of lower plains, swamps, small hills, pristine beaches, white pepper fields and tin tin mines. As such, the majority of the local population works on the palm and rubber plantations, tin mines, pepper farms, or are fishermen.
Bangka Island has a rich history – the island was originally ceded to Britain by the sultan of Palembang in 1812 but just two years later, the British exchanged Bangka Island for Cochin, India with the Dutch. WWII brough the Japanese, who occupied the island from 1942 to 1945, during which time Bangka became famous for the Bangka Island massacre in which the Japanese massacred Australian nurses as well as British and Australian servicemen and civilians. Bangka only became a part of independent Indonesia in 1949.
Fun facts about Bangka Island:
- This island is reputedly the setting for the book Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
- Bangka is home to a number Indonesian communists who have been under house arrest since the 1960s anti-Communist purge and are still not permitted to leave the island
- There is another small island that goes by the same name – Palau Bangka – but is located in northern Sulawesi
About Belitung Island
Belitung is a medium-sized island of around 7,800 km2. Its geography consists of moderately rugged terrain and several hills. Its best known for its calm and shallow turquoise blue seas and its smattering of abstract granite boulders.
The island is home to around 200,000 inhabitants. The majority are Malays, but Belitung is also home to large populations of Bugis, Sundanese, and ethnic Chinese as well as smaller populations of Balinese and Maduranese people.
Belitung recently garnered nationwide attention after the release of a hit movie, Laskar Pelangi, in 2008. As of now, its turquoise blue waters remain so crystal clear you can see fish swimming – head over while you can!
Fun facts about Belitung Island:
- Belitung’s English name is Billiton and it is this little-known island’s tin mines that gave their name to Australian mining giant BHP Billiton
- Every December, there is a 300km bike race around the island called Tour d’Belitung
- Belitung has a stone that can not be found anywhere else. It’s called the satam stone – black meteorite – and locals believe it has the power to block evil forces. Prices start at around $17 USD.
- Every autumn (around October/November), the island hosts an outrigger sail boat race and a sand statue competition.
Best Time to Visit the Bangka-Belitung Islands
The best time to visit the Bangka-Belitung Islands is during the dry season (April – October) when it is sunny and also windy. The rainy season translates to less wind but it tends to rain on most afternoons. In between rains, there are still beautiful skies.
It’s a good idea to avoid the school holiday months of June and July as there’s a hike in local tourism during those months.
How to Get to the Bangka-Belitung Islands
You can reach both Pangkal Pinang in Bangka and Tanjung Pandan in Belitung pretty easily from the rest of Indonesia. There are frequent flights to and from Jakarta on both Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air. You’ll also find a few flights to and from Palembang with Sriwijaya Air.
You can also travel by ferry from Palembang to Bangka as there are high-speed ferries making the route from Boom Baru (just 2 km from Palembang’s city center) to Mentok port in Bangka. Mentok port is conveniently located in the northeastern part of Bangka where the most beautiful beaches also happen to be. From the port, you can jump on a bus that will drop you off outside your hotel.
If you want to take another ferry from Bagka to Belitung, you’ll have to get down to Bangka’s capital, Pangalpinang, which takes around 3 to 4 hours from Mentok. Just go another 4km south of Pangalpinang to Pangkal Balam Port and you can board Hydro foils going to Belitung and even Jakarta.
How to Get Around the Bangka-Belitung Islands
Bangka has taxis as well as mini-buses that drive all over the island but the public transportation leaves much to be desired. It’s best to rent a car of a motorbike to get around.
The situation is the same for Belitung, although it’s small enough that pretty much any point on the island can be reached within two hours’ walking time from the main town of Tanjung Pandan. There are, however, no taxis or public transportation to speak of so if you want to move faster, you’ll have to rent a car or a motorcycle.
The rental car will have to come with a driver and both will cost you around 500,000 IDR ($50 USD) per day. A rental motorcycle is only around 50,000 IDR ($5 USD) per day and you can rent one from most resorts and hotels. The beaches are well-marked so you should have no problems exploring the island on your own.
If you can’t drive a motorcycle, some locals may be willing to give you a list for short distances for around 15,000 IDR ($1.50 USD).
Things to See and Do on the Bangka-Belitung Islands
The main attraction of these islands are the brilliantly blue, crystal clear waters lining the lovely, long white sand beaches. The waters are calm are surprisingly shallow, making them perfect for swimming, diving, snorkeling and just floating around.
But in case paradise gets a little dull, there’s plenty else to do on these islands…
Things to See and Do on Bangka Island
Visit the Tanjung Kelian Old Lighthouse
The old lighthouse was built in 1826 and is a short trip from Muntok. You’ll find vestiges of WWII in the form of Dutch and British shipwrecks in the surrounding areas. And if you take the time to clim up the 199 steps to reach the top of the lighthouse, you can take in spectacular views of all the beautiful beaches of Muntok.
Soak in the hot springs
Pemali Hot Springs is a naturally created pool fed by underground hot springs. A whole recreation park has sprung up around these springs and there are hotels to stay in and shops to wander through. You can find the springs in Sungailiat, a laidback town in the northeast region of Bangka. You can also explore the Pemali open pit tin mines nearby.
The shores of Bangka Island are popular with shorebirds during the migration period thanks to the island’s lengthy coastline. In the spring and early summer, you’ll have the chance to spot a variety of birds, such as the Javan Plover, Kentish Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pacific Golden-plover, Malaysian Plover, Whimbrel, and Common Sandpiper.
Explore the beautiful beaches
Bangka Island is lined with gorgeous beaches waiting to be explored, not to mention the surrounding islands with their own bevy of pristine, untouched beaches. Check out our guide to the beaches of the Bangka-Belitung Islands.
Things to See and Do on Belitung Island
Visit Kepayang Island’s Conservation Center
Kapayang is the largest island among the handful of exotic islands lining the northwestern coast of Belitung. This beautiful island is a must visit while island hopping Belitung for its Kepayang Island Conservation Center. You’ll find a diving center here, as well as a turtle sanctuary with tiny baby turtles and a coral garden.
Snorkeling is fantastic Belitung Islands. The waters are clear, calm, relatively shallow, and since the island doesn’t get a huge influx of travelers, the corals right offshore are untouched and in fantastic shape.
Dive, Dive, Dive
Especially off the northeastern coast off Belitung. You’ll actually be able to dive numerous Chinese wrecks from different dynasties here. In fact, one of the oldest wrecks in Indonesian waters was recently discovered offshore Belitung Island.
Explore Downtown Tanjung Pandan
You can also check out the traditional Bugis fishing vessels that line the wharf and the fish market and take a gander in the Tanjung Pandan Museum if you’ve got time.
Go Monkey Spotting
Belitung Island is home to the endangered Tarsius monkey – you can spot them at the Batu Mentas nature reserve. Sign up with a local tour that’ll guide you on a jungle trek to see the Tarsius monkey, followed by river tubing and even an option of a foot massage.
Get to Know the Culture
Belitung’s population may not be large – only around 200,000 inhabitants – but it is diverse. And the influence of the various cultures can be seen across the island. Check out the Malay-style wooden houses or the Bugis traditional houses on stilts near Bukit Berahu.
Meander through the Balinese community of around 200 families in the Balinese village of Giri Jati, which is guarded at the gates with Hindu architecture.
Also check out Kwan Im, a Chinese Buddhist temple dedicated to the sea goddess Vidhara and built in 1747 by the very first Chinese workers who emigrated to work in the tin mines of Belitung.
And of course, the Dutch imprint is still very visible here. Spend a few hours touring the many Dutch colonial buildings, shops, and government buildings in Tanjung Pandan and see where it ends by visiting the old Dutch Lighthouse on Selate Nasik Island, built in 1882, as well as a monument marking the independence movement against Dutch colonialism.
Beach Exploration & Island Hopping
Beaches, beaches, beaches – the beautiful beaches of Belitung are its main appeal and you’ll really want to explore every pristine beach on every sunny island while you’re here. Click here for a guide to beach and island hopping in Belitung!
What to Eat and Drink on the Bangka-Belitung Islands
You won’t find many stand-alone Western restaurants and your best options for Western food are the holiday resorts. If you like Southeast Asian food, however, your stomach will be quite happy here.
Take advantage of the islands’ fresh seafood and sample the array of yummy Indonesian seafood dishes like pempek (fish cakes in vinegar sauce), otak-otak (fish cakes), baso ikan (fish balls), and abon ikan (fish floss).
Oh, and you can’t leave Belitung without trying its traditional food – mie belitung (Belitung noodles). The delicious dish consists of Belitung-style noodles with shrimp, sliced potatoes and cucumbers in a thick, sweet sauce.
If you’re a coffee lover, stop by the city of Manggar – dubbed the ‘city of one thousand coffee shops’ and try as many as you can!
Bangka-Belitung Island Travel Tips
If you haven’t pre-booked your accommodations, prepare to pay in cash unless you’re staying at a more high-end resort. Most of the accommodations here are cash only so make sure you have enough on you.
Keep in mind that saltwater crocodiles are present in both the rivers of Bangka and Belitung Islands. They’re rarely sighted near popular tourist areas, but exercise caution nonetheless.
And of course – sunscreen and mosquito repellant are a must. The selection is not so vast on these islands so bring plenty of whatever you need.
Lastly – do not be without travel insurance. We highly recommend World Nomads. They cover cover travelers from over 150 countries around the world, offer great rates, and cover a range of travel-related costs from the more commonplace – lost baggage and cancellation costs – to the more severe – emergency medical and evacuation assistance as well as coverage for a wide range of adventure sports and activities. Click here for rates!