Frenchman Thomas Despin had a simple goal; to live and work legally in Indonesia after falling victim to skimming in Bali.
He’s achieved that, and now runs Reconnect Island Resort in Buka Buka island, Central Sulawesi. Indonesia Expat had the pleasure to learn more about the sustainable paradise getaway and Thomas’ brief journey from Bali to a remote island.
Hi, Thomas! Where are you from and what’s the reason behind your move to Indonesia?
Hi, Indonesia Expat! I was born in France in 1991 and lived in Bordeaux for most of my life. When I turned 23, I decided to go on a crazy trip around the world, by bicycle.
It was called Startup Cycling, and the plan was to meet with start-up CEOs to learn from them and share their story. After meeting 100 entrepreneurs in 14 months, and cycling for 12,000km around Europe, the USA, and Canada, I felt like I needed something new, and took a flight from Toronto to Bali.
We’d love to know more about your story, Thomas.
I arrived in Bali five years ago, after the adventure I just described, and I planned to stay there for one month. After a few days, I had my card skimmed at a dodgy ATM and lost pretty much all the money I had, which was not much, but still, it left me with nothing.
The first reason why I stayed in Bali was that I couldn’t afford to leave, and decided to fix my finances before moving forward. When I only had Rp100,000 left, I had the incredible luck to meet with a local family in Sanur, who offered to give me a room and food while I tried to work online as a freelance copywriter and web designer to make some money.
Those were both very challenging times for me; being alone in a new country I knew nothing about, in debt, and without enough money to even eat. At the same time, I was immensely grateful for the help I received and the opportunity to grow.
This is when I committed to doing everything possible so I could stay, live, and work in Bali, legally. I would pay my debt and pay it forward 10 times.
From then, things evolved quickly. First, I got a job at Kesato, where I had my first KITAS and the opportunity to work in Bali legally. It didn’t work out, but Greg and Pierre gave me my first chance and confidence to keep going on in Bali. Then, I built an e-commerce business, with a friend, Nicolas. It was based on the drop-shipping model and after a few months of miserably failing, we got lucky and it worked out fairly nicely for us. I also created a clothing brand called “do you.” and built the Hustlers Villa; a co-working and co-living space for online entrepreneurs in Ubud.
Today, I’ve stopped the multiplying ventures to focus on developing a small private island called Buka Buka in Central Sulawesi.
Describe to us your first encounter with Buka Buka island. What made you fall in love with it?
The first time I heard of Buka Buka island was through a local friend who was helping her friend to sell land on it. We first went there on holiday, just because I thought it was fun to randomly visit a remote island in a part of Indonesia that I ignored everything about: Central Sulawesi.
Everything clicked the second I stepped on the island and felt its vibe. As an introvert, being on a remote paradise island far from cities and crowds is the best feeling ever. Of course, the white sand, coconut trees, beautiful water and rich marine life helped.
How did Reconnect Island Resort initially come around?
During our boat trip back from Buka Buka Island, everything started to race in my mind and began taking shape from scratch. I had zero experience or knowledge about all this, and I started to draw big lines from the first principles about the project.
Energy, water, building, material, funding, activities; it all started with question marks on my notebook, and after I decided I wanted to move forward with this, I dedicated my time to answer those questions. The first step was purchasing the land, and we managed to do this first thanks to a few friends crazy enough to invest with me.
“It’s a place where you live your life to a different rhythm” is one-way Reconnect describes the island. Why is this important?
Island life, especially in remote areas like this, inspires you with a different approach to time. Here, locals have inherited a cyclic vision of time, based on their observations of nature, the ocean tide, the moon, etc.
Although in developed countries we see time as a line with strict deadlines we have to respect, life here is different because time is seen differently. It’s important because this is what helps us to let go, accept things as they are and reconnect to more essential values.
List out the facilities provided and specialities found at Reconnect.
At the moment, we have nine rooms available, going from glamping to beach villa, all mostly using natural materials. We provide 24-hour electricity from solar power, water through desalination and 4G phone signal is also available from the rooms.
Our guests usually love snorkelling around our house reef and having a BBQ on top of the water using our floating gazebo. Locals are mostly Bajau, who traditionally fish using an underwater speargun and are happy to share their skills with visitors, which makes for a quite unique activity here. We also do our best to grow our own food and have developed a speciality vegetarian dish that’s 100 percent grown here on the island, based on pumpkin, moringa leaves, and coconut milk.
Share a to-do list filled with recommended activities.
- Overwater BBQ
- Snorkelling around the house reef
- Diving or freediving around the island
- Bonfire under a million stars
- Learning traditional fishing with the Bajau
- Going island hopping around the Togean Islands National Park
- Kayaking along the beach
- Visiting the century mangroves
- Picnicking on the white sand beach
Guests are encouraged to live sustainably to nurture, maintain and improve this paradise together with Reconnect’s team and locals while at Reconnect. How does this work?
This is a dream of ours to manage to maintain and improve our environment, together with locals. It involves things such as responsible fishing, cleaning up the island, protecting the reef, transplanting corals and much more.
All those are part of our vision. Reality taught us that it takes time, dedication, and patience to achieve such a vision. Fortunately, we are well integrated here and work together with the local government to make a positive change in our area. As we keep making progress, we will manage to also involve our guests in this process to make their trip a meaningful experience.
How can we get there?
The island is 30 minutes away by boat from the Ampana airport, which is directly accessible from Palu and Makassar. Susi Air operates the route from Palu to Ampana every Tuesday and Saturday. Citilink operates the route from Makassar to Ampana every Wednesday.
You also help other online entrepreneurs to invest and relocate to paradise. Briefly explain how they can get started.
Investing in Indonesia, especially when it comes to real estate and land ownership, has a reputation of being risky for foreigners. However, for the past few years, we’ve seen a strong desire from the government to facilitate and secure foreign investments.
Because of my experience here and the growing demand, I thought it would be a good idea to help those who also want to invest in the area and facilitate their project. On one hand, I have people asking me “how can I also buy an island there?” (Note: you can’t literally buy a whole island!), and on the other hand, I have locals contacting me wanting to sell their land.
Why not connect the offer and the demand, and facilitate responsible investments in Central Sulawesi? This is still very small scale and those who want to invest usually reach out to me personally, so we can talk about their project, vision, and goals. I only work with non-corporate investors who understand the importance of sustainable development and focus on helping local communities grow from whatever we develop on their land.
Describe Buka Buka island in three words. Would you consider leaving?
Paradise, private, peaceful.
I’ve been living on the island full-time for almost three years now and I don’t have any plan for living anywhere else in the near future.
Mention a fun fact about yourself.
I have now achieved my goal to live and work legally in Indonesia. My two biggest personal goals are to have a coffee with President Jokowi and become an Indonesian citizen.
Not sure if this counts as a fun fact, but it always makes my friends laugh when we share our respective life goals.
How can readers get in touch with you and Reconnect?
Since we started to focus on the local market last year to survive after the COVID-19 hit, we stopped updating our website and communicate 100 percent through our Instagram profile @reconnect.island or email [email protected]. You can reach me via [email protected] or Thomas Despin on Facebook.
Thank you, Thomas! Stay safe and healthy.