Officially named Penyengat Indera Sakti, the island is situated just off the coast of Bintan’s capital Tanjung Pinang and was renowned as the cultural and royal seat of power for the Malay Riau-Lingga sultanate in the 19th century.
Penyengat is where one of the most famous Malay poems, Gurindam Dua Belas, was written by Raja Ali Hajji. He is also known as the person who first wrote about the basics of Malay grammar through his book Pedoman Bahasa (language guidelines), which later became the standardized reference for the modern Malay language.
The name Penyengat itself is said to derive from a wasp species nested in some parts of the island. Renowned as the port of call for seafarers centuries ago, many of the seamen stopped by to refill their fresh water stock at Penyengat. According to folklore there was a time when one of the seafarers got stung by a swarm of wasps. From then on, people started to call the island Penyengat (wasp) Island.
With an area covering 2 square kilometers, Penyengat is home to Malay descendants and Buginese who mostly work as fishermen and are native speakers of the Riau Malay language. Having Malay-Islamic historical significance, the street signs all across Penyengat show directions in two scripts, Latin and Arabic.
The island’s small area naturally makes it easy for any visitors to take a whirlwind tour around the island. The roads in Penyengat are too narrow for any four-wheeled vehicles to pass through, so visitors will only find bicycles, motorcycles and bentor—motorcycle rickshaws looking similar with those roaming Medan’s streets—plying the island.
Below are five famous tourist attractions that you need to see while you are in Penyengat. Rent a bentor to conveniently tour these places and find yourself engrossed in Malay-Riau’s historical stories from its golden days.
Riau Sultanate Grand Mosque
As my boat approached Penyengat Island from mainland Tanjung Pinang, I saw the bright green and yellow minarets of Riau Sultanate Grand Mosque soaked in morning sunshine. It was a brilliant sight to see from afar. Located near the harbor, the grand mosque serves as a landmark for Penyengat.
Coated in light green and yellow paint, the mosque is remarkably well preserved and still stands sturdily after almost two centuries since it was first built in 1844. There is a common belief among locals that the mosque was actually constructed using egg whites in the building material’s mixture to seal the bricks and keep the mosque standing for such a long time. In fact, the mosque is the only relic from the Riau-Lingga Sultanate’s dynastic golden period that is still completely intact to this day.
On the left of the mosque’s main building is a small library that stores Quran scriptures dated from the 17th century and a collection of ancient Malay books. The mosque has four minarets towering on each of its corners for a Bilal to do the Muslim call for prayer. Muslim residents of Penyengat still pray at the mosque.
Engku Putri Raja Hamidah tomb complex
Our next destination is a serene spot on the island, the Engku Putri Raja Hamidah tomb complex. This is where Raja Ali Hajji (1808-1873), hailed as Malay-Riau’s greatest scholar and poet, was laid to rest.
Yellow still dominates the tomb building as the color represents purity for the Malay-Riau people. The royal tomb complex is also where Engku Putri Raja Hamidah—the wife of Sultan Mahmudsyah III—spent her last and eternal days. In Tuhfat al Nafis, a Malay history book written by Raja Ali Hajji, it is said that the whole Penyengat Island was once given as a dowry from Sultan Mahmudsyah III to his wife Engku Putri Raja Hamidah.
Inside the main tomb building is where Engku Putri Raja Hamidah was laid to rest. On the building’s inner wall is engraved the verses of Gurindam Dua Belas, a literary masterpiece of Raja Ali Hajji. Some of the Malay-Riau royal families are also buried here, making this tomb complex regarded as a sacred place on the island.
A former palace, Istana Kantor, is another interesting site to stop by at Penyengat Island. The old palace is located not far from the grand mosque and was first built by Raja Ali Yang Dipertuan Muda Riau VII. The whole complex covers an area of one hectare and the palace was where Raja Ali and the royal family used to live.
Although more than half of the palace’s physical construction has been ruined, some parts of the palace have undergone restoration. Fortunately, the palace’s main gate, side gates and watch towers still remain in good condition.
Balai Adat Melayu Riau
Balai Adat Melayu Riau is a replica of a Malay-Riau traditional house that used to be found in Penyengat Island a century ago. It is a stilt house that is constructed from wood with yellow accents. Inside the Balai Adat is a typical Malay wedding altar and other Malay-Riau cultural objects.
Bukit Kursi Fort
Penyengat Island has a few hills with different names that were used as a defense bases back in the Riau-Lingga sultanate’s ruling heyday. One of them is Bukit Kursi that used to function as a defense fort directly overlooking to the open sea.
Although today you can mostly only see ruins of the fort, visitors still can see a collection of old cannons found at this site.
Where to stay
Spending a night at Penyengat Island is possible with a host of mushrooming guesthouse options operated by the friendly locals.
Alternatively, staying in Tanjung Pinang is also a good option since the city offers more comfortable accommodation choices considering a tour around Penyengat doesn’t take a whole day.
How to get there
A public motor boat—known as Pompong—from Tanjung Pinang in Riau Islands to Penyengat Island will cost you a mere Rp 10,000 (less than US$1) per person. If you’re traveling in group, renting a whole boat costs around Rp 80,000.
Crossing the strait of Malacca to Penyengat Island from Singapore is also quite easy with three ferries available to take you from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal (TMFT). It takes about two hours.
This article is originally published on The Jakarta Post Travel