It was the mahjong game that drew me over to the temple. In the shade of a tree, or so I thought it was just a tree, a plastic table was set up. The players – all men, all smoking – threw small plastic rectangles onto the table and chatted. Those not playing stared as I walked past and began talking to one another; one shouted “Hello” and ushered me to climb the fence and see the game first hand.
I smiled but remained on the other side of the fence, afraid that I’d likely face plant into the ground as I climbed over, and not wanting to disturb the serious concentration that so clearly showed on the player’s faces.
“Baik!” I said. Good.
One of the men chuckled at my attempt to speak Indonesian.
Set just an hours boat ride away from the bustling city of Singapore, Bintan is a peaceful spot among Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago. The largest island, Believed to be the spot that Chinese immigrants first docked before settling throughout the islands; I’d travelled there to experience a slice of their lifestyle, indulge on arguably some of the best seafood, in particular, the famous steamed ‘gong-gong’ (shellfish) and explore the stilted Chinese villages that lined the coast.
One village stands out among others: Senggarang Chinese Village.
As I wandered through the village after the short flight from Jakarta, it was nice to get emerged into the bustle of daily life that was happening around me. Children squealed as they played and men were preparing their fishing boats. Women tended to food and some were just relaxing in the heat of the day.
Lines of fresh washing blew in the warm breeze, so did giant red lanterns hung from temples, and people far braver than me twisted along the narrow concrete path past people on the small road . I held my camera tight for fear of losing it to the murky water below.
As I walked around the tree, past the men playing mahjong, I didn’t realise that one of Bintan’s most famous sights was in front of me. It wasn’t until I saw two men curled up on concrete windows that I realised that I’d discovered the Banyan Tree Temple.
Instead of destroying the home built beside it, the massive tree has engulfed it and, over 200 years, grown to support it, giving a most beautiful atmosphere where locals prayed, relaxed, and even enjoyed the shade. Today, it’s one of the most famous temples in Bintan called Tien Shang Miao, and I could see why – it’s like something out of a fairytale.
At the entrance to the temple was a thick cloud of smoke as two Grandpa’s sucked on menthol cigarettes. These toothless men became celebrities among my friends as we asked them if we could photograph them as they perched comfortably in the windows of the temple and kept puffing.
Their toothless grins lit up my day.
We asked him how many visitors came each day to the village. “Two or three each day, but today so many!” my friend translated for me. “This is a very strange day for so many foreigners to visit.”
The blue-shirted Grandpa, Toyyib, approached me and gestured for me to look inside the temple. As I returned he asked me in broken English, where was I from.
“Australia,” I said.
“Ohhh… Australiee,” he repeated back excitedly gesturing and repeating the phrase to his friend.
Even with age and smoking, his mischievous eyes had not dimmed in colour. Bright blue gems shone as he smiled for us, before quickly dragging us into the frame – asking to see himself on the screen once the shutter sounded. The smell of the cigarette passed between us as we took the photo. I showed him the end result and he grinned, gesturing at him and me then at the screen. “It’s us!” he communicated without words, just grins and sounds of pleasure.
He took my hand and another Australian friends hands, gesturing at our Indonesian guide to take a photo of us.
As I left he grasped my hands and giggled one last time.”
“Australee,” he said.”Australia,” I repeated.
“Australia,” I repeated.
It wasn’t just a cheeky Grandpa’s who I met. Children and teens were playing on the streets and at the school’s basketball field. Riding bikes, enjoying cool treats or running through fields; all of them curiously watching the visitors pass through their home but greeting you with a smile if you caught their eye.
It’s a common occurrence across Indonesia: curiosity, smiles, and warmth. Indonesians are by far some of the friendliest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet on my travels.
How to get to Bintan:
You can fly to Bintan (Tanjung Pinang) airport from Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and a number of other destinations. From Jakarta, the flight takes around 1 hour 30mins and costs around AUD$40-120 per person one-way. I highly recommend flying Garuda Indonesia as you receive checked on baggage, a meal onboard, and in-flight entertainment and the price between Garuda and budget airline rival Lion Air is minimal.
One of the easiest ways to get to Bintan is from Singapore! You can take a ferry to Bintan for $25 per person one-way. The ferry is around 1 hour 15minutes. Click here for information on the ferry from Singapore to Bintan.
How to get to Senggarang Chinese Village:
To get to Senggarang Chinese Village, take a ‘Pongpong’ (local boat) from Tanjung Pinang to the village. It costs around IDR 5,000 – 10,000 (AUD$0.50 – $1) for a single ride across!
I travelled to Indonesia as a guest of Wonderful Indonesia.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.