South East Asia is a friendly part of the world. The Malaysians are famous for their friendliness. Thailand is the ‘Land of Smiles’ and the Philippines is full of laughing, cheerful people. But I have seldom been to a place where the locals are quite as welcoming as the good folk of Palembang and Bengkulu in South Sumatra, Indonesia.
Everywhere I went it was ‘Hello Mister’, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Take Photo’.
It was difficult for me to take photos of places without somebody wanting to be in the photo and even more wanted to take selfies with me on their phones. Very strange. I can only assume they must have very boring Facebook pages.
Here are just some of the smiling faces I encountered.
Palembang does not rank highly on most lists of ‘things to do in Sumatra’. It’s a bit off the tourist trail being far from any beaches, waterfalls, scenic lakes or spectacular volcanos. But for those who make the effort to reach the city there are a few attractions worth seeing. Here are the highlights of my recent trip.
Although they are not promoted as tourist attractions there are a few buildings left over from Dutch East Indies days, mostly clustered around a small lakeside park called Kambang Iwak, one of the few green spaces in town.
This once-grand building is said to have been built in 1883, I would imagine as a home or office for senior Dutch officials. Its most recent use was as the Province of South Sumatra Textile Museum which explains the sign over the entrance and these statues but it now appears to be empty and in need of some restoration.
This strikingly unusual building is the Mayor’s Office or Kantor Walikota Palembang. You might think the tower section is a recent addition but the building was designed this way in the 1920s by the Dutch administration who wanted a 1200 cubic metre water tank above the office to provide sufficient clean water to the surrounding colonial district. It is now nicknamed the Office of Plumbing.
This photo from the 1930s shows it hasn’t changed much. By the way, the Indonesian word kantor originates from the Dutch word for office, kantoor. Although Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia stem from the same Malay language there is quite a variation in vocabulary between the two countries and Indonesia has borrowed a number of words of Dutch origin.
The Great Mosque of Palembang, with its Chinese-influenced roof and pagoda style minaret, is one of the city’s more historic landmarks. The older parts of the complex were completed in 1812 but it has been expanded and remodelled a number of times since then.
This vintage postcard shows how it looked before all the recent additions. Better then, but it was too small to accommodate the growing number of worshippers.
This monument and surrounding square commemorates the independence struggle against the Dutch and the suffering of the Indonesian people during the Japanese occupation.
Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum
This museum is named after the 8th Sultan of the Palembang Sultanate who ruled from 1803 to 1821 and is now regarded as a national hero. The contents of the museum are nothing special but the building itself is attractive, completed in 1842 by the Dutch on the site of a former palace.
Benteng Kuto Besak
Down by the riverside is a fort whose origins date from 1780. It was largely destroyed by the Dutch in 1821 who later rebuilt most of the walls we see today. It still serves as a military camp so entry is not permitted.
Palembang’s most famous landmark is probably the Ampera Bridge which was constructed in 1962 and paid for by the Japanese as part of their war reparations to Indonesia. The name Ampera is an acronym for Amanat Pendiritaan Rakyat meaning Mandate of People’s Suffering – not the most catchy name for a bridge.
As this old photo shows, the central span was designed to lift up using giant counterweights to allow tall vessels to pass underneath.However it is no longer raised for safety reasons.
The Musi River
Palembang is a major inland port and the busy waterfront is an interesting place to watch boats being loaded and unloaded.
The above video shows the little boat I hired (with driver) to take me to Kemaro Island. Somehow I managed to pick the boat with the slowest and noisiest engine on the river.At first the rickety wooden boat rocked precariously in the choppy river and I was slightly concerned that we might be tipped into the stinking brown water but the driver regained control and once I got used to the mild deafness from the engine noise I enjoyed the trip.
The boat trip passes a large industrial plant (urea) before arriving at Kemaro Island where there is a Chinese pagoda and temple and not much else.
There are a few more attractions in Palembang and I have plotted all their locations, as well as the above spots, on a map in case you ever want to visit Palembang in the future.
Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.
This is how he described his journey to Palembang:
“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”
The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.
On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.
“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”
That’s a long way in a rowing boat!
“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”
“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”
Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.
I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:
While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:
Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen
Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.
While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:
“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”
“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”
He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:
“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”
Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.
“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”
I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.
“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”
“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”
“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”
I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.
In Taipei I spotted this Whisbih Beer which, according to the only English words on the can, appears to contain ‘beer plus whisky’. That is not a great combination in my view but I tried one for research purposes. The whisky content, if any, is not evident from the flavour although it has a little kick (5.2% alcohol). I don’t think I would make a habit of drinking this.
White Bitter Gourds
White Bitter Gourd Juice
White Gourd Juice Stall in Taipei
Much more healthy is white bitter gourd juice which seems to be a popular craze in Taiwan. The white gourd is much less bitter than the green variety and is said to have amazing health benefits. It tastes quite refreshing too. A spoonful of honey is usually added.
Yesterday in Palembang, Indonesia I found this can of Guinness Zero ABV, a non-alcoholic version of Guinness. The Indonesian government banned the sale of beer in convenience stores in April 2015 which made a big dent in the sales of Guinness and other brewers.In response, Guinness concocted this brew especially for the Indonesian market. It is made in Dublin and shipped half way round the world and still retails for just Rp. 8,700, or around 50 pence sterling.
The ingredients include sucrose, caramel, roasted malt, barley and roasted coffee by-products. It has a sweet, coffee, malty taste. I found it too sweet but it is actually not a bad soft drink as long as you not expecting anything like real Guinness.
I doubt if it will catch on in Ireland though.
All this drinking had its natural consequences. In Shifen, Taiwan I was unable to borrow the toilet.
When I paid to use the gents in Palembang Square Shopping Mall I was given a ticket for their ‘Toilet Lucky Dip’. I declined their kind offer!