Bintan is the largest island in the Riau province, area 1.140 sq. km, with a coastline of about 105 km. It has a population of about 200.000, and like the rest of Riau this is a true mix of cultures like Malay, Bugis, Chinese and the Orang Laut (sea people).
Bintan is very close to the equator and have a tropical climate throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from 21° to 32°. The average temperature is 26° Celsius, humidity ranges from 61 to 96 percent. The period between October to March is characterized as the north monsoon season with more rainfall and stronger winds, but the weather is generally sunny all year around. Time is GMT +7 hours, one hour behind Singapore time. The major income on Bintan and the other islands in this area are fishing, agriculture, export of rubber and bauxite.
Bintan and Batam saw before the economic crisis huge investments and development, including industrial parks and large tourist resorts. Bintan has since become a popular tourist destination due to it’s close vicinity to Singapore. Here you can get accommodation of all standards, and it is still possible to find a peaceful spot on Bintan far from other tourists. Most of the tourism is concentrated on the north coast around Lagoi, while the east coast is still unspoiled and worth a visit. In a not so distant past Bintan was completely covered with tropical rain forest. This is now all gone, except a small forest that covers the highest mountain on the island, Bintan Besar. The mountain is the remains of an old volcano, and has an elevation of 376 m, the highest point on the Riau islands.
History of Bintan
See separate article.
Pulau Penyengat is a small island six km. outside Tanjung Pinang, measuring just 2.500 by 750 meters. It can be reached in 15 minutes by one of frequent boats from Tanjung Pinang. In the 18th century Raja Haji (see history above) built an outpost here as part of the defense around Bintan. He controlled the area until he was eventually killed by the Dutch at Malacca in 1784. His remains are now buried here. The ruler of Johor, Sultan Mahmud, gave the island to his Bugis wife Raja Hamidah in 1804. Raja Hamidah’s son then ruled the Riau islands from Penyengat, while his half-brother ruled in the Lingga island to the south. Raffles turned this division to his advantage in 1819, when the prince of Penyengat gave him the island of Singapore in return for a large sum of money and the protection of the British crown.
Under the protection and support of the British the area saw an “golden age”, and the remains of this prosperous time can still be seen on the island. Some of the ruins have recently been restored, like the old ruler’s palace and royal tombs. The old mosque, Mesjid Raya, is still in use. A cultural center is also newly built for performances of Malay music and dance. At the west end of the island there is an impressive stone fort, built by Raja Haji to fend off Dutch attacks.
The restored palace of Raja Ali is located in the center of the island. Raja Ali was a strict follower of Islam, things like gambling and cockfighting, the wearing of gold and silk for men and mixing of unmarried men and women were strictly forbidden. His yellow and green Royal Mosque can be seen from far away, completed in 1844 it became an important center for Muslim Malay learning in the 19th century. Pulau Penyengat actually became the cultural capital of the Malay world, and some 9.000 people inhabited the island, among them religious scholars from as far away as Mecca.
The importance of Penyengat ended when the last Sultan of the Riau-Lingga, Abdul Rahman Muazzan Shah, refused to sign a contract with the Dutch that terminated the rights and authority of the traditional king and officers of Riau. He was then informed by the Dutch that his palaces, buildings, land, etc. would be confiscated. To prevent this he ordered the people on Penyengat to destroy the Dutch possessions on the island, this is the reason why there is not much left on Penyengat that shows its former glory. Today there are about 2.500 people living on the island, about one third of them are descendants of the former royalty, most of the residents make their living of fishing, while some work on the main island.
The main town on Bintan is Tanjung Pinang, which can be easily reached from Singapore. It is located on the western part of the Bay of Bintan, and is also the largest town on the Riau islands. It has the usual Indonesian chaos, but also it’s share of charm, especially the stilted buildings that sits above the water in the northern part of town is worth a look. Tanjung Pinang has a busy harbor that is strategically located close to the Malacca strait, one of the worlds busiest sea lanes. Most of the ships arriving Tanjung Pinang are however smaller vessels coming from all over Indonesia and from Singapore.
The 28m tall Raja Haji Fisabillah Monument of Struggle sits in the western part of Tanjung Pinang and is raised in memory of the hero Raja Haji who died during the battle for Malacca against the Dutch in 1784. The Sungai Ular (Snake River) Buddhist Temple is another attraction opposite the harbor in Tanjung Pinang. While you’re here you can also visit some of the many small islands with fishing villages just a few minutes by boats from the town, and of course Pulau Penyengat. Tanjung Pinang is well known for good and inexpensive seafood and has a large selection of mussels, prawns, fish, squid and gong gong, a local specialty (shellfish). Also other traditional Riau food is served here, one specialty is “otak otak”, fish meat cooked in coconut milk mixed with Indonesian spices and wrapped in coconut leaf, you can also find traditional Nasi Padang rice dishes. There is a large number of shops here, with a variety of relatively cheap goods, including electronics, tools, jewels, toys, batik and gold.
The largest town besides TP is Tanjung Uban on the north west coast. From here it is a short distance by boat to nearby Batam, the ticket is cheap. Tanjung Uban has an oil storage and is a district center. Along the sea there is a charming boardwalk called “pelantar” with houses, accommodation and restaurants built over the sea, behind this is the main street with shops.
The most popular beach on the east coast is Trikora, where also the locals use to go for relaxation on the holidays. It can be difficult to get there, go by taxi or the occasional bus from Tanjung Pinang. Even if the beach is isolated you can find simple accommodation here, even a more luxurious alternative. The sand is white and the water clean, a great place for relaxation after the hot and busy streets of Tanjung Pinang. You can also visit a fishing village nearby and a small ship building facility to have a look at traditional boat building.
Tanjung Pinang has a good selection of budget accommodation and some more expensive alternatives. Other places you can find a room is Tanjung Uban and Trikora Beach and of course the Bintan Resort area on the northern part of the island, which is more expensive and luxurious.
Most of the visitors from Singapore come to Bintan by boat, which only takes 45 minutes. There are also good connections by boat to the other islands in the region, especially to Batam, which has a modern, international airport with good connections to Jakarta, Singapore and other large cities. The airport on Bintan is now closed. Most boats arrive and depart from the main pier in Tanjung Pinang. Boat services include Pekanbaru on mainland Sumatra, Batam, Pulau Karimun, Pulau Penuba, Pulau Singkep, Pulau Bangka and Pulau Belitung. There are also a few departures to the remote Natuna islands, and daily to Johor Baru in Malaysia. The Pelni boats can take you to Jakarta, a trip that will last about 28 hours.
To get around on Bintan you can either use taxi, bus, ojek (motorbike) or opelet (small vans). Many places can also be reached by boat, which is often more comfortable.