The island is one of the hundred islands of Thousand Islands propping up from the Java Sea. It is merely some 20 kilometers north of Jakarta, making it a popular getaway for city dwellers.
As days always start early for islanders, it must start early for its eager visitors as well. The only ferry that connects the island and the city departs at 7 a.m. once a day.
“Please arrive by 6:30 a.m. sharp so that we won’t miss the boat,” the travel agent, from whom I bought a package for two, said the day earlier.
On that day, my companion and I left home at dawn and arrived at the designated time under a grayish dawn sky at the meeting point – a petrol station inside the fish market in Muara Angke, North Jakarta. The travel agent was still on his way.
The fresh morning dew mixed with the strong odor of the fish market, which certainly needed some major scrubbing and washing, entered our lungs and filled our hearts with the question “Is this trip worth the pain of smelling this?”
When he finally arrived, we were ushered to a simple jetty, which was a concrete platform for the boat to dock. There is no building, roof, or any sign. The boat master quickly helped us get on board.
The boat was made of wood, painted in white. It had two decks, upper and lower. The upper part of the upper deck was left open to form windows.
Most tourists opted for the upper deck, so by the time we climbed up, one-third of the upper-deck was already filled. The ceiling was just slightly more than one meter high. So, we crunched to the back to find some room, but there were no seats. It was an empty carpeted-room. We were supposed to sit on the floor.
“This is Indonesian culture. Traditionally, we like to sit on the floor. In the past, we do everything on the floor, including eating,” I explained to my companion, a first time visitor to Indonesia.
Once the smell subsided, I thanked the human’s extraordinary adaptive body and I took in the morning skyline. The sun rose slowly, initially with an orange tint on the grayish sky. Only then we were told the boat might leave at 7:30 something.
“Why is there this additional ‘something’ there? Don’t they have a fixed time to depart,” my perplexed companion asked.
They don’t. I later found out that the departure time ranged from 6 a.m. during holiday seasons, when the ferry filled much quicker, to 7:30 something.
By the time the last passengers boarded, the sun had blasted at full force and put Jakarta’s skyscrapers and warehouses into clear view.
Around three hours later, when the color turned to clear turquoise, the sight of the island appeared. First was the smaller sibling, called Tidung Kecil, then the bigger one, Tidung Besar. Tidung Besar houses the jetty, lodgings and other amenities, while Tidung kecil is mostly mangrove forest.
Once arrived, the fun began. Snorkel, cycle, swim, lay on the beach – up to you. We chose the big game first: snorkeling. It can be done around the island, or visitors can rent a boat to go to neighboring islands said to be offering better coral. We took the smaller wooden boat out to Payung Island.
When we reach the proximity of an island that looked like a giant rock at sea, the tour guide gave us the life-jackets, swim fins and snorkel masks before taking the dip himself. We took the leap and entered a fantastic underwater world.
The sea is shallow and the assorted coral reefs were just inches under our noses. The reefs are in good condition and host many sea creatures. Colorful tropical fish swim around, seemingly too full to even show any enthusiasm for the bread thrown at them. There were no sea urchins that might poke holes in our skin. The water was clear under the strong sunlight, a very different view from Jakarta’s brownish water.
The next on the to-do-list was playing by the beach. On the Tidung Besar, happenings are taking place at the tip or the island around 10-minute cycling from the residential area.
We cycled on the island’s only main lane, a 2-meter wide lane made of paving blocks. Along the street, there are rented rooms, food stalls, souvenir shops, snorkeling equipment rentals and bike rentals. There are also pushcart roasted bread sellers.
“Pineapple, strawberry, raspberry or chocolate jam?” the man asked for my order. I was hoping for more traditional Sarikaya jam, but pineapple was fine too. So two little buns (Rp 5,000) were soon wrapped in paper and placed into the basket in front of my bike.
“There were hundreds of people here yesterday. There was a traffic jam on this lane. Today it is very quiet,” he said, making small talk.
Indeed, we only encountered five other tourist groups in various sizes that Monday. That made the beach almost private.
The water is shallow and the current is mild, very suitable for dipping and swimming. The long stretch of sand is white and clean to walk upon or lay down in comfort. The trees offer shade for those who are prone to sunburn.
An arch bridge, like many other arch bridges around the globe, romantically called Love Bridge, stands nearby. The peak of the bridge, which rises to more than 5 meters above sea level, has become the platform for youngsters to test their courage by jumping into the water below. A banana boat passes under the bridge before unloading its passengers into the salty water.
The Love Bridge is the start of picture-perfect long flat bridge to Tidung Kecil. The only problem is that it is quite a challenge to walk, especially for those with acrophobia (fear of heights) or who cannot swim, because it has no handrail. Some part of the bridge was only covered by loosely placed wood planks.
“Why is there no handle on the bridge? I can’t do it,” my companion said, already weak in the knees.
So we said “so long” to Tidung Kecil and did what people should do on a beach on a beautiful afternoon – we just rested on the sand. It was perfected by fresh coconut, drunk directly from its fruit, complimented by a bowl of fried instant noodles with egg purchased from one of the many stalls nearby.
The island is operated solely by the local community – hence its down-to-earth and laid-back atmosphere. People are generally friendly and trustworthy and leave the visitors alone. The two times we changed our bikes, the keeper was not even bothered to wake up from his nap.
There is no feeling of being conned to pay more, a familiar feeling often felt at other established tourist places. No one offered us products when we did not ask for them.
Visitors are housed in rooms rented out by locals. We had a big room with two king-sized beds, air-conditioning, television and a cold shower. It was simple and clean. The phone signal was perfect, a blessing for anyone who cannot part with the Internet.
The beach was so pleasant and peaceful that time passed quietly. The sun set and the sky quickly turned dark. The beach has no lighting, but the flicker from the street lamps provided a faint glimmer. The island was safe, even for female travelers. No one bothered us.
As we cycled our noisy bumpy bikes back to our lodging, we looked at the sky and saw beautiful stars shining brightly against the dark background. Ah, the smell of the fish market was a small sacrifice, and it was all worth it.
Tidung Island offers not only wonderful coral, beautiful beaches and starry nights, but also the comfort of a close-knit community removed from the capital city.
• The ferry costs Rp 33,000, one way, and departs at around 7 a.m. to Tidung (try to come early, especially on weekends, as it departs earlier if it is full). Tickets can be purchased on the boat or beforehand through travel agents. The ferry back to Jakarta departs at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays and 12:30 on weekends.
• Bike rental fees start from Rp 15,000.
• Banana boats cost Rp 35,000 per trip.
• Snorkeling gear can be rented for around Rp 35,000.
• Boat rental to go to neighboring islands starts from Rp 250,000 per boat.
• There are tour agencies that offer all-in packages at reasonable prices. Prices are cheaper for larger groups.