Before asking where is Bidong Island, let’s read the story below.
In the 1970s, thousands of the Vietnamese fled Vietnam in order to escape from the communist Vietnam. Many of them bought a safe passage to leave their homeland with gold. They traveled in boat of any shape, type and size. The boats are always overcrowded with men, women, children and babies, hundreds and thousands of them.
With the help of the wind and waves especially during the northeast monsoon, they will normally arrive after weeks or months of sailing on the sea. But, not all of the boats reached their destination safely. Pirates are the main fear for most of the boat people. Rape, rob, beat and murder are the nightmare apart from thirst, seasickness and starvation. In addition to these, with the horrible condition on the boat, there are people died everyday in their traumatic journey. The body will then be thrown into the open sea.Sometimes there are only few out of hundreds of the poor boat people survive till the end of the survival journey. Some, they actually arrived on the boat they initially took instead just holding a piece of wood or sitting in a big cooking pot… their poor little boat sunk in the strong and rough waves while in the journey.
Out of estimated nearly 1 million Vietnamese who left their homeland in the 1970s, nearly 255,000 of them landed on the shores of Malaysia and most of them were placed on Bidong Island. Why Bidong? Nobody knows. The Bidong Archipelago comprises six islands. Largest island (about 260 ha in size), Bidong was one of the scenic and uninhibited islands in those days. With the huge number of boat people landed on the island, in August 1978 the federal government ‘borrowed’ this island from the state government of Terengganu and gazetted Bidong as a refugee camp. However, the assistance given by the government and several non governmental organization such as United Nations of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) has started before that. Bidong, after being gazetted as a refugee camp was under the supervision and management of UNHCR. No visitors were allowed on or around the islands.
Although this tiny island only had the capacity to accommodate for 4,500 refugees, however during some very ‘peak’ seasons, it once sheltered almost 40,000 people. To ensure the better living condition, long houses were built with schools, workshops, post office, church, temple, tailors, hair salons, bakery, noodle shops, sundry shops, even disco and bar etc. as to serve the basic needs. The home missing emotion can even seen not only on these imitation, the refugees even named on the beach here as Pantai Cina-China Beach, the famous counterpart in Vietnam. Therefore it is no doubt why Bidong was also called Little Saigon.
Bidong was the temporary home for the refugees before they are resettled to third country. Time taken for resettlement process varied from each individual. Some took a few months and some few years. While waiting for the news, UNHCR had organized vocational training, languages classes, kindergarten etc. for the refugees as a preparation for them to face the challenges of life when they are resettled in other countries. Those who are rejected in the resettlement process will then be transferred to Sungai Besi Refugee Camp.
When the last batch of the refugees left the island in 1991, Bidong Island was officially handed back to the Terengganu state government, but remains restricted to the public until 1999.
So, what happen to Bidong Island after the handover and after 1999? And what is left on the island? Though there was proposal to preserve the relics on the island, but when the first group of visitor stepped on the island after nearly 8 years being isolated from the world outside, those collapsed and rotting buildings and overgrown bushes imply that none of the preservation action has been carried out. Few buildings had been torched, equipment that remained in the vocational workshops has been smashed, wooden platform of the jetty was completely stripped…..by the nature, by the wildlife and also, by human.
Nevertheless, few structures are safe from the destructive action, such as an artificial boat besides the temple to commemorate those arrival on the island, statute of a father who pulls his beloved daughter out from the sea, cement memories with heart aching words inscribed, gravestones marking the burial plots etc. They stand like a mute reminder to the world.
Recently there are interests to turn this island into a tourist spot. But what kind of tourism can it be and should it be? This is a big question mark leaves for people whoever involves in the industry. Some say to construct new sky scrapping hotel buildings like other islands; some suggest to make the Little Saigon reborn and alive again by rebuilding the bar and disco and, some recommend to make Bidong Island a memorial island thus promoting heritage tour…
Before anything turn into reality, afford to bring tourists here has long started by some local tour operators. In year 2003, a group of former boat people who have resettled in other countries made their trip back to this island, which was once sheltered them from the waves of life. Many of them came back with their spouse. Their vision was bursting into tears, words turned into sobbing. A simple chanting ceremony was taken out by a group of Buddhism-Chinese as to calm the soul of those dead relatives and fellows. To them, this island is more than a bitter part of their history.
To date, fewer Malaysian tourists come here, not only because they are not familiar with the name but also, some of them claim that there is black spirit on the island.
Regardless how true it is, a 3D2N package tour with accommodation in resorts or hotel in the mainland or a day trip is available now from Kuala Terengganu to the island in order to give a chance to have a glimpse on this island before proceeding to snorkeling or diving trip in adjacent water. A guided tour is advisable even though you can simply hire a boat from Merang to the island yourself. There are many traps in form of abandoned wells dug by the refugees for fresh water.
Whether or not this island is going to be another island as famous as Redang or Tioman in the eyes of tourism, it remains a very special part in the heart for many Vietnamese and Malaysian. And, although Bidong Island is not familiar to the younger generation today, it will always has its place in the Malaysia’s modern history.