Children at Riau Islands village school
I’m just back in Singapore after five days in one of my favourite places, doing one of my favourite jobs – running a writing workshop at Telunas Beach, in Indonesia’s Riau Islands.
Everybody should go there. I have to declare an interest – I’ve been a guest of Telunas eight times, running writing classes for school students from international schools in Singapore. But the Telunas people don’t pay me to say nice things about them in my free time. I do that anyway, because I’m so impressed by their achievement.
About ten years ago, three young Americans, Brad, Mike and Eric, were bumming around Indonesia, ‘rocking up to villages and saying ‘mind if we hang out here for a while?’ When they found an idyllic beach with dense jungle behind it, they bought it, with money borrowed from family and friends. They engaged local builders, negotiated the minefield of red tape and potential rip-offs, then recruited and trained staff from the surrounding fishing villages.
In 2004 they opened for business. Telunas Beach Resort now has accommodation for up to 100, though typically they cater for groups of around 20-40, with separate cabins for families and couples. It’s perfect for the sort of school camp we’re doing, though increasingly popular with independent travellers who want a secluded getaway.
It’s easily accessible from Singapore. Ferries shuttle regularly across the one hour trip to Batam, a booming, popular, colourful city but made slightly seedy by the ‘golf and girls’ tourism it attracts from Singapore. From there it gets nice though, as we board Telunas’ open pacung boats to zip across the South China Sea for 90 minutes, past dozens of little islands, most uninhabited, some with villages and fishing boats clinging to their shores.
Telunas Beach Resort is intentionally ‘rustic’. The huts have thatched roofs, ceiling fans but no air conditioning, all have modern bathrooms and comfortable beds, but most rooms have no hot showers. But the weather is mild, the sea inviting and I love to hear it gently sloshing under my bed at night.
Meals are all included and are at (loosely) set times, marked by the ringing of a bamboo gong and eaten off plastic plates. But the food is good, healthy and varied, with a mix of Asian and western styles. Beer and softdrinks are available, but there is no bar, and no canned music.
All that suits me fine. We’re here to do a writing camp, and there’s no shortage of inspiration. On Day One we explore a deserted island opposite the camp. That afternoon, the kids write stories, tall tales about shipwrecks and survival.
Taking the boat through mangroves
Next day we take the boat up a river, then hike into the jungle for several hours to a waterfall where we can swim. Jungle survival guide Selena shows us how to find berries and edible termites. ‘You can squish them first, otherwise they crawl round on your tongue too much.’
The highlight is the day we take the boat to a local village. Arrangements with people on nearby islands allow Telunas guests to spend a few days living in a village, eating, sleeping and working alongside a host Indonesian family, sharing their culture. See my other post about that: Among the Village People.
With the school students we just go to a village for half a day. Selena spends some time giving the kids the drill. ‘People here may have customs you are unfamiliar with. This is their place and we need to respect muslim codes of modest dress and behaviour. Try not to speak or laugh too loudly…’
Armed with a few Indonesian greetings, the apprehensive students go ashore in small groups, respectfully hanging back behind their interpreters. But in the village they are mobbed by children wanting to give them high fives. Everyone else smiles and waves. People are delighted with their visitors, but there are no souvenirs for sale, and no pestering hawkers saying ‘Hey where you come from? I give you special price on batik/blowpipe/taxi tour…’ The villagers seem pleased to meet westerners who have a genuine interest in their lives, who are willing to listen and learn and share.
I’m going back to Telunas next week too, with a group from the Swiss School of Singapore. They’re native German speakers, so we may have a few communication problems. But there’ll be plenty to inspire them at Telunas.
For information and bookings: www.telunas.com