By Alison Fox
Updated March 04, 2020
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Courtesy of The Residence Bintan

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

It was dark. The kind of darkness that envelops you and makes you feel as if you’re floating. I had been there as the sun went down and night took over. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness around me, a tree sprang to life with hundreds of little twinkling lights sparkling at once.

Hundreds — maybe thousands — of tiny fireflies swarmed the mangrove tree, visible only by their telltale bioluminescent spark. I was on a boat, quietly floating down a river on the island of Bintan, part of Indonesia's Riau archipelago and only about an hour from the hustle and bustle of Singapore. Yet, watching these fireflies float from tree to tree, their flickering lights reminiscent of a festive Christmas tree, I felt a world away.

Bintan is one of a pair of popular islands off the coast of Singapore, but it can’t be more different from its city-state neighbor. While Singapore teems with life from the loud hum of hawker centers dishing out fluffy plates of chicken rice to the rush of shoppers on Orchard Road, Bintan offers a quiet refuge where mangrove tree roots sit intricately woven in a tangled, mesmerizing mass and the sea gently crashes against white sand. After a week spent traipsing around Southeast Asia over the holidays, a few days to wind down surrounded by nothing but palm trees and rolling waves sounded perfect. 

I had spent the morning in my villa's pool at The Residence Bintan, staring at the endless sea and unruly palm trees that grew out of the sand and jutted out at odd angles in front of me. The beach was wild, as if it was a deserted island some adventurous explorer had discovered and built around so as not to disturb what was already perfectly imperfect. 

The resort was on the southern part of the island, away from most hotels, which tend to be clustered in the Bintan Resorts area. It was a hike from where the ferry had dropped us off — an hour and a half ride through small towns and across dirt roads — but the journey made me feel lucky as I got a glimpse into everyday life on this small Indonesian island.

Courtesy of The Residence Bintan

I'd been in the same spot all day, only reluctantly tearing myself away from the deep blue infinity pool when it was time to go search for fireflies. As the sun went down, the trees stood out like shadows against a velvety sky. Quiet surrounded us, the water lapping against the boat as the only sound. Then, the fireflies started to flash in patterns: brightly and dimly, flitting around the boat’s canopy. It was one of those rare moments when you put away your phone and just watch. 

While fireflies are found on nearly every continent, they thrive in warm, humid areas and tropical regions, and are often found by standing water, according to the Firefly Conservation & Research group. Ben Pfeiffer, a firefly researcher, master naturalist with a degree in biology from Texas State University, and founder of the organization, told Travel + Leisure that it’s important to “make a conscious effort to hire a responsible outfitter or tour company that has a vested interest in seeing the fireflies thrive.”

The most diverse firefly species tend to be in tropical Asia as well as with Central and South America.

These were like the fireflies of my childhood, and memories of trying to catch them in jars so we could hold on to their beauty, however briefly, came flooding back. I watched one flitter around the inside of our little boat as someone reached up to it.

Then, the boat turned around, heading away from the sparkling trees and back toward the dock as we watched fish jump and hop from the water below. The next day we would head back to the concrete jungle of Singapore but, if just for just a little while, we had spent some time with the fireflies and they had put on a show.

How to Get to Bintan Island

Catch a Bintan Resort Ferries boat from the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal in Singapore to the Bandar Bentan Telani Ferry Terminal in Bintan. The ride takes about one hour and tickets can be purchased on brf.com.sg.