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Bangka and Belitung
Tin islands in a blue sea

Bangka and Belitung (Billiton) are located in Laut Cina Selatan (South China Sea) east of Sumatra. In geological view they are more closely related with Malaysia and Borneo than Sumatra, because they are part of a non-vulcanic core of the Sunda Shell. However they are hardly visited, they offer very nice beaches, said to be the most beautifull of Southeastern Asia, and a refreshing sea wind. It's an ideal place to escape from the busy and hot city of Palembang, just half an hour away by plane.

Bangka and Belitung are known as the tin islands, part of a rick archery of tin-ore which runs from here over the Malay peninsula to Thailand and which forms a big part of the worldwide reserve of this multifunctional metal. Just as in Malaysia and Thailand, mines were built in the 18th and 19th century with laborers (coolies) from China.

Many dozens of years of development they have changed the landscape drastically. Dense forests have become very small forests with small lakes, which are called kolong: water filled holes from which tin was excavated. Unless a long time of harsh labour, there are still only a handfull of people on the island, Bangka houses about half a milion people, and Belitong only houses about 200,000 people.

Chinese coolies

Before in 1710 tin was found on Bangka, sea-, forest- and iron products formed the most important export products of the islands. A late 17th century Srivijayan stone inscription which was found near Kota Kapur on Bangka, shows the old relations of the island with Palembang. From the 14th to the 17th century the entire area, including Palembang, was ruled by Java.

As soon as the VOC noticed the tin layers, it closed deals with the sultan of Palembang for the delivery of tin to Batavia. From there it was traded with China, for tea, silk and porcelain.

In Southeastern Asia, the tinlayers are close to the surface most of the times, and mining and melting can be done with simple equipment and unskilled labourers. The sultans however, brought coolies from China. Very smart Chinese mining techniques pushed up production and the Chinese soon organised their corporations (kongsi) which developed new mines and took care of their workforce, melted ore, sold it, and split profits. However the colonial rule took over the island and the mines became state companies in 1819, the technology and organisation was Chinese for centuries.

The settlement of the colonial rule was a big problem for the Dutch. Colonial bureaucrats were incompetent or corrupt, and between 1819 and 1851 local revolts often threathened the Dutch rule. When the Dutch expanded their rule over the kongsi's after 1850, death rate among the workers rose significantly and they revolted.

Bangka had two reputations in the 19th century. For the Dutch it was a good source of income, but for the Chinese the working environment was very bad and it got even harded to get workers from China. The first coolies we mainly hardworking, strong Hakka people, from a poor, mountainous area in thr Southern China province of Guangdong.

Many stayed on the island and married after their contract was served. In the mining district, Hakka replaced the Malay language as the main language. Their descendants, the peranakan-Chinese, mostly lived as the local population did, and preferred to be farmer, fishermen of clergyman for the Dutch than to work in the mines.

Halfway in the 19th century the Dutch opened a mining company, Biliton Maatschappij, on the neighboring island of Belitung, and imported Chinese workers for these mines as well. Around 1920 Bangka and Belitung counted 130,000 Hakka-Chinese residents, against 50 per cent of the population in 1930.

The Dutch government appointed Chinese civil servants who lead the mines, in trade for the very profitable right to sell opium and to serve other good services. Some were excessively rich and built big mansions. The relations between the Chinese and the locals has always been good, something which makes the people of Bangka very proud.

The way of labour improved when the mines were mechanized in the 20th century. During the crisis years many coolies were fired, some returned to China. Nowadays only a quarter of the population of Belitung is Chinese; On Bangka only one eighth is. Now migrants from all over Indonesia work in the mines, or the local population as well.

The national mining company, Tambang Timbah, controls the biggest part of the production, however some mines are in foreign hands or are leased by local companies. The tin deposits on Belitung are finished, but on Bangka, mining still rules the economy. Coconuts, clove, cacao, rubber, forestry and fishery supply to the economy as well. Recently the tourist industry has discovered the islands, in the future there will be big tourists complexes here as well.

Visit Bangka

Bangka's administrative capital and most important entrance point is Pangkal Pinang, a lively city along the eastern side of the island, with about 100,000 inhabitants. Start the city walk near the post office and walk towards the south along Jl. Jend. Sudirman. The residence of the mayor, the city square (now playing field) and a big number of houses still date back to the colonial time, when the Dutch mining company ruled the economy of the island.

The state mining company Tambung Timah has a small museum, near the main office along the crossing Jl. Jend. A. Yani and Jl. Depati Amir. It's opened sporadicly. The chinese graveyard along Jl. Mayor Haji Muhidir is in the centre of the business districs and was founded around 1830, when the first mines were opened in this part of the island.
Picture: White beach
Bangka's best beaches are along the northeastern side of the island. The main road to this area runs from Pangkal Pinang to Sungailiat and Belinyu, about two hours by car. Many roads left and right end near small bays with beautifull white beaches.

About ten kilometres north of Pangkal Pinang is Baturusa (Deer Rock). At the right side of the road is an early 19th century Chinese temple (kelenteng), too bad it's extended later on. In this area, only a few houses are built in the traditional way, with roofs of palm fibre and walls of tree bark, most are from stone and concrete. The lakes along the road are filled up mining shafts.

Sungailait, twenty kilometres to the north, also has a temple, with a bell from 1864, which was made in Foshan, in ther Northern Chinese province of Fujian. In Permali, just past Sungailiat, there is a hot water source and an open mine which is being exploited with heavy equipment.

The distance between Sungailiat and Belinyu is fifty kilometres. Here, a small path to the left leads to the village of Panji, with a 200 year old Chinese temple, however the current building is more recent. The grave (from 1795) of the founder used to be close near the temple itself. He was the rich tin merchand Bong Kiung Fu, or captain Fu; it is now moved to a close ruin of a benteng, which offered protection against the many attacks of pirates. There is a story that tells that a white crocodile from a close river, which is now filled up, ruled over the area. After a few tried, the guard of the fort can tell you some old stories. Whether he will is another point.

Westcoast of Bangka

The original capital of Bangka was located along the western coast and was named Mentok, located strategically along Selat Malakka, across the River Musi which runs to Palembang. The city is seemingly was founded aroun the start of the 18th century by Chinese relatives of the sultan of Palembang, just when tin was discovered there. The tin exploitation developed fast, but two centuries later the mines near Mentok were exhausted. Mining activities were replaced to other parts of the island. The Dutch used Mentok as capital until 1913, when they decided to move to Pangkal Pinang.

Mentok is about 120 kilometres (three hours) from Pangkal Pinang. In the harbour of the city, across the tin factory, is an old lighthouse which guides the ships through the dangerous Selat Bangka. This tower and the old fortress are said to be built by the British during Raffles reign on Java, between 1812 and 1817. In the Second World War, the Japanese put allied POW's in the fortress, many died.

The mosque of Mentok, dating from the centre of the 19th century, is built in traditional Palembang style; the neighboring Chinese temple is even older, probably from around 1830. Both their locations symbolise the tolerance which houses on Bangka. The big Rumah Mayor once was the luxury residence of two Chinese, father and son Tjoeng, former civil servants.

The big portal with mightly pillars reflects the wealth of the family, which was created by the trade in opium and coolies. They tried to recreated their rich way of Mandarin living on Bangka, and especially the family-althar shows that money was no issue.

On a hill north of the city are the graves of the founders of Mentok, Chinese muslems, originating from Siantan in southern China. Island people which have the titles abang (for men) and yang (for women), are direct descendants from them. The graves are in islamic style and are decorated with hand-painted tiles.

On the neighboring Menumbing (445 metres) is the losmen where President Soekarno, vice-President Hatta and other enprisoned nationalist leaders spend their time at the end of the revolution on demand of the Dutch. The area was fenced with barbed wire, until journalists and UN personel arrived and made this hostage situation known to the world. The losmen is opened for public.

Visit Belitung

Due to the rocky coast with it's hundreds of small bays Belitung (Biliton) was a perfect place for pirates for centuries. It was on the edge of the powerfull Javanese and Sumatran principalties, but it was so poor that is was not important for them. In 1822 five pirate ships conquered the Dutch ship Anna Maria; they sold the captain and second man to the leader of Sijuk, at the northern side of the island.

The two men lived there as slave for a few years, until they were resqued by a Malay, which paid a ransom of two opium balls. Other Dutch stayed in Burung Mandi as slave. Not anyone knows what they have become, but when the Dutch finally reigned the island, a building in Dutch style was found.

Nowadays most of the visitors come to the island for relaxing along the beautifull beaches. The capital and the most important place of entrance is Tanjung Pandan (Cape Pandanus) at the western coast. Besides the tower of the tin factory (PT Timah) in the centre of the city, the house of the former kapitan or head of the Chinese community, Ho A Joen.

The building is renovated, but the althar of the family Ho is still there. Walk towards the south to the Chinese quarter. There used to be three Chinese villa's along the main street, of which one is still left. It houses a small museum with family pictures and antique objects.
The road continues through a busy fish market to the harbour, where Buginese load pepper and porcelain for Java. Turn to the right to the beach; here once were the most beautifull houses of Tanjung Pandan. The beach offers a very nice view on the island of Kalmoa in the west. From the benteng on a hill south of the city the Depati (local ruler) fought against the Dutch. The fortress views over the mouth of the river Berutak, which is full of crocodiles.

The best beaches of Belitong are along the northern side, with a view over Laut Cina Selatan, and can be reached over a picturesque road which runs along the coast towards the north. Tanjung Kelayang, 35 kilometres of Tanjung Pandan, has blinking white beaches, surrouned by very nice rock formations and deep blue waters. From here, a trip towards the east will bring you in Tanjung Tinggi, two kilometres more east.

Protected bays with idyllic beaches offer total privacy. Boats can be rented to visit the neighboring islands, which offer more of the same beaches. Langkuas, which is the most remote from the coast, has a lighttower and is a breeding place for turtles. Go search for small black stones which are known as bilitonites (from Biliton), they seem to be pieces of a meteorite.

Teluk Gembira, south og Membalong, about sixty kilometres from Tanjung Pandan has nice beaches as wel. From here (and also from Tanjung Pandan) a boat to the island of Mendanau can be rented. The pirate stories are that threasuries were put away in the caves along the coast. At the eastern side of the island is Burung Mandi (Birth Bath), also a former pirates place. On a cliff with sight on sea is an attractive Chinese temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin. Here advice is asked many times, expecially with problems of fertility.

Burung Mandi is 90 kilometres east of Tanjung Pandan, north of the city of Manggar. Tanjung Pandan and manggar are connected by two roads, which both run over Gunung Tajam, the highest peak of the island, with a refreshing source, fall and lake. Here is the holy grave (kramat of Datuk Gunung Tajam, which should have brought islam to this island from Aceh in the 16th century.

Location map of Bangka and Belitung

Last revised on April 05, 2012
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