Over the National Day weekend, we did the most un-patriotic thing. We left the country and scooted away to a place where no wi-fi was available and only human connections were allowed, and where sunshine, sand, sea and seafood were abundant.
And no, we didn’t go for a beach holiday at the finest of resort destinations. We went back to nature, back to the basics and back to simplicity – at a kelong in this place called Berakit, about 25 km away from Bintan Island in Indonesia.
I’ve always wanted to have the kids rough it out and experience what it’s like to remove ourselves from city-living, and this trip would be the first of the many to come. Before the kids came, the husband and I did a bit of backpacking and we were often amazed to see children backpacking with their parents, on foot, by train and at the youth hostels where we stayed. Those kids were older, of course, but they were tough and resilient. These are kids who will grow up knowing that it’s a big, big world out there and that the world so doesn’t revolve around them. Fatherkao and I have always wished as a couple to do this one thing with our kids this side of heaven, and that is “to suck out all the marrow of life” as Henry David Thoreau aptly puts, and get them to go out and explore the world.
I’ve always wanted Ben, Becks and Nat to have a live-in-the-middle-of-the-sea-on-a-kelong kind of experience, which Fatherkao and I have had the pleasure of experiencing on several occasions before the kids came. It was an experience, I felt, that any person living should have in his or her memory bank, like a ‘been there, done that’ kind of thing to boast about someday when you are old.
And so to Bukau Lodge at Berakit we went, where we experienced many FIRSTS together as a family. Our friend and his wife built an extension-lodge to an existing fish-rearing kelong in Berakit some time back which was meant to accommodate family, friends and dive groups, so we followed them out to sea on their speedboat for a 3-day-2-night trip.
We had such a blast, and I know for years to come, we will continue to talk about our first kelong trip with much, much fondness.
Here goes, our ten FIRSTS being at Bukau Lodge, Berakit, Indonesia:
1. First speedboat ride
To get to our destination, we hopped onto ‘Hannah and Hazel’, our friends’ boat christened after their daughters, two of the sweetest girls I’ve ever known. It was an incredibly long ride (about 4 hours there, and 4 hours back), and I was worried the kids would get seasick travelling so long on the boat. But at the speed we were going, motion sickness was nearly impossible. It just constantly felt like the operator operating a theme park’s ultimate roller coaster ride refusing to let you out and making the roller coaster go on repeat mode. For the unpredictable thrill factor, I say the sea’s better than a roller coaster anytime. And surprise, surprise, the kids actually fell asleep the moment the boat started moving off, in spite of the crashing waves.
What an experience being so close to the sea indeed. We even saw jumping fish, which was altogether breathtaking.
2. First balancing act
So it’s a kelong afterall. Which is actually a Malay word describing an offshore platform built predominantly on, yea, you guessed it, wood. The entire kelong is fashioned out of wooden planks and poles, and so at any point, walking around the place felt like you constantly have to remember to walk properly – and keep your balance – because you don’t want to have the giant tiger groupers chomp you up or be pinch material for the lobsters, depending on which pool of water you fall into. Plus, the sea is all around us, and as we’ve discovered (see #3), there’s no ground to touch if you’d ever fall in like you would in a pool.
My kids can’t swim by the way, so you can imagine this mad mother constantly screaming and nagging her kids not to run, push or monkey around.
But it’s a whole new experience altogether – walking deliberately and carefully, every minute we were there. How’s that for really slowing down?
3. First plunge into the deep blue sea
The kids have yet to learn to swim. They have been waddling, waddling, waddling, like little ducklings on floats in swimming pools. I have tried getting them used to being in water for close to a year now, so they are happy to be in chlorinated water or warm bath tubs if you throw them in.
But the sea. It was nothing they had expected. It was nothing I had expected.
The first day we were there we swam in front of the lodge with a group of adults and children (our couple friends’ extended family members, whom we had the pleasure of meeting – there were 14 of us adults in all, and 7 kids), and while it was an exciting thought to be jumping into the sea with so many people, we so didn’t prepare for the strong winds and currents that came, which meant that no matter how hard you swim, you would still be at the same place.
We had some drama that afternoon, with Ben’s float suddenly deflating (and thank God we found that out before he jumped in), Becks’ life jacket floating up which meant she was getting no buoyancy due to the strong currents, and Nat refusing to let go of my neck which meant he was strangling me while I treaded water furiously looking for something I could hold on to for dear life. All these happened while I was trying to swim to my daughter, forgetting completely about my drifting eldest son and being gripped in the neck by my youngest. And Fatherkao wasn’t even in the sea yet as he needed to keep his camera. Thank God we went with one bunch of fun-loving people who were seaworthy and extremely strong swimmers, and all the uncles and aunties came to help with our kids. We didn’t swim long in that strong current, and ended up making friends with everyone instead over hot milo and snacks after that ordeal.
4. First swim-with-fish experience
So you would have thought we gave up the idea of swimming in the sea. I thought I would too, until my friend said she’d replicate an ‘Adventure Cove’ experience without the strong currents for us.
Here in this “pool”:
So we thought, Well, it’s netted, it’s going to protect us from strong currents, why not? and we jumped in. We didn’t manage to snorkel but we did put our head in with goggles and saw some fish swimming around and all.
Totally awesome, still.
It was only when we got up and looked down into this pool of seawater had we realised – holy smoke’ – we were swimming with friggin’ huge-ass mamas and a sea turtle. I so should have brought or borrowed a snorkel!
5. First poo-watch
There was no flush in the toilets. Why would you need one in a kelong?
Clearly, the showtimes for fish feeding was whenever anyone was done pooping. We didn’t manage to catch every show, but we did catch the one with Ben’s poop one morning because he had made a loud announcement that he needed to move his bowels.
I bet he now knows that the way to avoid a crowd waiting near the toilet is not to say anything. Hurhurhur.
6. First bat watch
I have never seen bats fly, and even more so seen so many bats fly from their roosting place and disperse. Apparently, the desolate, uninhabited island near the kelong was a roosting place for bat colonies, and we were told that at 7pm sharp, there would be bats in the sky. I was half expecting some cute little creatures flapping their wings but to my horror they were as huge-ass as the fish we swam with in the day and it was a full-moon night. Gives freaking out a whole new meaning (and bringing back memories of all the Gothic Literature I did in JC), but fortunately for us, we were assured that they never congregated at the kelong.
Would drive me batshitcrazy for sure, if they did.
7. First fish from the sea
I’m not a fan of fishing. Before this trip I had thought fishing was all sitting by the lake for hours feeding mosquitoes. Until our friend’s uncles showed us how much fish that can be caught just by throwing a line from the kelong. These men were reeling in pail after pail of fish whenever they cast their lines, and that thrilled the kids much.
It poured heavily on the second day we were there, and there was this peaceful, tranquil calm after the storm. Which meant only one thing for the fishermen in our midst: deep-sea fishing. We tagged along in the drizzle and watched as the fishing enthusiasts reeled in barracudas, sail fish, mackerels and groupers. Ben and Fatherkao tried their hand at fishing while I minded the other two, and they managed to reel in one I-dunno-what-fish which we ate for lunch the next day.
8. First rainbow of our lives
The kids have never seen a rainbow. They’ve heard me sing ‘The Rainbow Connection’ many times and are familiar with the story of God’s promise of a rainbow after the Great Flood, but that’s pretty much it.
And how He must have loved us all so, because while we were out deep sea fishing, this – this was what we witnessed right before our eyes.
We witnessed this for the first time as a family. How magnificently awesome is our God.
9. First FRESHEST seafood dining experience
How fresh can seafood get when all you have to do is goreng and steam what has just been caught! We’ve had the freshest of fish for those three days, and even had the tiger grouper the kelong was rearing for steamboat dinner. The kelong sells this special breed of groupers to restaurants and a wide Chinese clientele, but offered us a special rate – so we even carted two 5-kg fresh groupers home on our last day!
10. First time on a private beach
Just 5 minutes away on a sampan lies this pristine private beach, which was the highlight of our kelong trip. The sand was soft and moist, totally perfect for some thorough exfoliating (free spa!), and the waters were oh-so crystal clear. We spent hours lazing there, sitting by the beach, watching the waves and soaking in the sun, sand, sea. The kids built sandcastles, picked corals and seashells, skipped pebbles and chased little fish.
We were there on Day 2 and Day 3, and we always wished we didn’t have to leave. And when we finally did, we were totally sunkissed.
Those three days we lived deep. No phones. No TV. No iPads.
We were at sea. We looked out to sea.
Where the horizon was, there was the sky. We looked out to sky.
The view from the lodge was always changing – when it rained, when night fell, when the winds blew, when the clouds moved – and it was always, always gorgeously awe-inspiring.
Those three days we relaxed and rested. No fuss. No anxiety. No heaviness. We returned home refreshed, and with so much gratitude in our hearts for being with wonderful people and having a wonderful God who created wonderful things.
Bukau Lodge, we’ll be back.
P/S: If you’re curious how we bunked as a family, we stayed in a private room like this. But in the kelong, everything is pretty much communal and we left our door and windows wide open while we slept, with the wind in our face, literally. Shiok.