If you’re bored with Bali and tired of Thailand, the Bawah Reserve could well be the answer to an experientialist’s prayer. This private island resort in the South China Sea is out of the way, out of this world and most definitely OutThere too. We fell in love with it from the get-go.
The clouds scatter as our twin-engine seaplane descends over the Riau Islands and the pilot points towards our destination, slowly appearing like a lush oasis in a ‘desert’ of blue sea. Some call it the Maldives of Southeast Asia – and it’s easy to see why. The small archipelago of islands (six in total, boasting three lagoons and 13 beaches) appears as if out of nowhere, ringed by improbably turquoise water – so clear that from up here we have a view of a dense sub-aqua forest of colourful coral and a school of stingrays gliding slowly over it, moving like synchronised swimmers lit by a spotlight of sun. A long wooden jetty forks spectacularly into two and a smattering of small boats bob gently in the water. We slowly circle the southernmost island that we’ll call home for the next few days, our barefoot captain signalling to his crew that we’re soon to land. We can already tell that this has the makings of the ultimate getaway paradise. We have arrived. This is Bawah.
Twenty-four hours ago we were on a flight to Singapore, the starting point for this adventure. Bawah and Singapore are worlds apart – in different countries entirely, in fact – yet only 160 nautical miles separate them. But the super-modern island nation provides a solid, international jumping-off point for this remote Indonesian archipelago scattered deep in the South China Sea.
Geographically speaking, the Anambas islands are closer to Malaysia than they are to any significant part of Indonesia, and its inhabitants, the Orang Laut (‘people of the sea’), are once said to have spoken a dialect that’s closer to Northern Malay than to Bahasa Indonesia. But today, thanks to an all-too-common history of colonial partitioning, these mystical islands are under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Indonesia.
Tourism in the country developed much more slowly than in neighbouring nations, not least because the government focused most of its international efforts on Bali. What this meant was that until Bawah’s adventurous owners stepped off their yacht on to its shores back in the Noughties, it was pretty much undiscovered and uninhabited. For almost an eternity, it had been one of Indonesia’s best-kept secrets.
Despite its growing international acclaim as Southeast Asia’s top getaway, getting here today was no mean feat. After overnighting in Singapore, we were ferried to Batam island, then, having been briefed on safety from a laptop in the airport’s coffee shop, a dedicated seaplane flew us for over an hour to Bawah.
The island is well tucked out of the way, off the radar for general tourists. One has to be truly committed to make this journey, but we worked out very early on in our career as OutThere travellers that anywhere that’s drawn out to get to is more often than not worth the effort. And, thankfully, we weren’t wrong, though it helped that for a mandatory fee the resort did arrange all the transfers for us and hold our hands throughout the process.
Feels like home
Bawah is truly magical, offering barefoot luxury for a maximum of just 70 guests, with an expert, perfectly trained team that’s ready to satisfy your every whim. In fact, we’re going to call it out upfront – besides the magic of the surroundings and the castaway luxury of being here, the thing that brings Bawah to life is its super-friendly, enthusiastic ‘can’t do enough for you’ family of imported islanders.
Arriving in Bawah is like coming home to family – and not in a ‘hotel school’ kind of way, but absolutely authentically. Within a matter of minutes, we knew everybody by name and vice versa; we were having a laugh and talking about how we were going to spend the next few days together. Let’s put it this way – it’s rare that you leave a place sad because you’re saying goodbye to staff that have become friends (Rida and Sakti, we miss you). Thanks to social media and superb Wi-Fi on the island (we now use Bawah’s remoteness as an example to anywhere that still has a sketchy internet connection), we get to keep in touch.
Bawah is a place with soul. Everyone at the reserve is passionate about what they do and unified by a single-minded mission: to deliver unadulterated barefoot luxury, while nurturing this perfect piece of paradise. You don’t feel the wanton desire for profit-making here that you do at some Indian Ocean resorts, for example. In fact, everything is included, except for alcohol and scuba diving. There’s an imbued sense of caretaking – for the environment and the ecosystem, for the people that have come to work here and, most importantly, for those who have come to visit.