Sumatra, the sixth-largest island in the world, has intrigued me for some time, but the occasion has never arisen to visit. The temptation of promotional airfares finally got the better of me, though, and after a 90-minute flight to Palembang, I stepped into the international airport that was just recently spruced up for the Asian Games.
Palembang is located near the southern tip of Sumatra in neighbouring Indonesia, and, with a population of some 1.7 million, it is a large, busy, and bustling city. It is also Indonesia’s oldest city and was once the capital of Srivijaya, a Malay Kingdom that dominated regional trade and maritime shipping routes along the Straits of Malacca.
As such, Malaysia has a shared history with the region, as it was from Palembang that the original settlers of Melaka originated. Palembang was established some 1,300 years ago and the then Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya was one of the most powerful in the region. Palembang’s name is derived from two words in the local language – pa for ‘location’ and limbang which means ‘to sieve,’ so it was a place to sieve for precious metals, most likely gold.
While the city has a handful of interesting attractions, they are not on a grand scale. (Don’t tell the locals I said that, though.) Beyond the congested traffic and the tropical heat, the city’s has several historic attractions, several lively markets, a few fresh seafood restaurants, and very friendly locals.
Palembang’s major tourist attractions include the Musi River and its all-important Ampera Bridge crossing (plus the new adjoining bridge that was built to accommodate the Palembang Light Rail Transit). The road bridge is always congested, and small boats called badar (or ketek) arriving and departing the riverbank provide a certain element of excitement.
Viewing the brightly lit bridge in the evening is the best way to appreciate a span the locals consider to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Visitors who arrive here in June and August will also be able to witness the thrilling badar races on the river.
The best place to enjoy this is over a meal of delectable local seafood served at the Riverside Restaurant located some 150m from the southern pylon of the bridge. It’s a favourite with the locals and visitors as it is one of the best-located restaurants in the city. It serves halal dim sum for breakfast and lunch, while seafood is bountiful and cheap in the evening.
The Pasar Besar is located at the base of the bridge on the southern banks of the Musi River.. Hawkers selling cheap local fruits such as salak, durian, duku, bananas, pineapples, avocados, and papaya take shelter under multicoloured umbrellas in the surrounding streets. Avocado shakes with a drizzle of chocolate sauce are a local specialty and a refreshingly cool drink in the heat of the day.
Close by are the Grand Mosque (the original buildings date back to 1738, but there have been several additions since then) and the Kuto Besak Fort. The Dutch expressed an interest in Palembang and Kuto Besak Fort was completed in 1797 to defend the city, which it did successfully. Visiting the fort and the two adjoining museums is the best way to appreciate the region’s history. As a side note, the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum has an architecturally interesting exterior for those who take note of such things. Many visitors hire a badar to access Kemaro Island 5km downstream of Ampera Bridge. A sacred Buddhist temple here becomes crowded during festivals, such as Chap Goh Mei.
Festivals and Shopping
Palembang becomes livelier than normal during the Sriwijaya Festival in mid to late June and the Musi Festival on August 17 (Independence Day). Not surprisingly, the Musi River is the focus for both with babar races along the river. In addition to the races, the boats are decorated and cultural events are also staged, including outdoor music festivals.
Palembang has several traditional markets with a fresh produce morning market located just near the front entrance to Kuto Besak Fort. It is obvious that they do not see too many camera-toting tourists here, so you can be assured of celebrity status and lots of interest, especially from the kids.
There are several malls for an experience that most Malaysians will feel more comfortable with, but the range of goods is limited with real luxury items and designer brands being almost non-existent.
The local fabric songket is just one of many handicrafts that visitors can buy here, with Fikri Koleksi (500 Jln Kiranggo Wiro Sentiko) a good source for both songket and batik at reasonable prices, but also with the occasional expensive piece, as well. Woodcarvings, shells, pewter, precious stones, and ceramics are also sold in the market with the best collection being available in the Pasar Besar on the southern riverbank of the Musi River near the Ampera Bridge.
Sumatra is an immense island, so do not be deceived if you feel you want to explore. Palembang is the capital of South Sumatra, and adventurous travellers are best-advised to head off to discover attractions in South Sumatra such as Mount Dempo (295km away, and home to cool mountains and tea plantations), Ranau Lake (volcanic lake surrounded by tea and coffee plantations), and Sembilang National Park (a bird paradise, with crocodiles and dolphins in the surrounding waters.
There are direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Palembang on AirAsia (airasia.com) with the flight taking just over 90 minutes. It is also possible to fly from Penang to Palembang on Air Sriwijaya (sriwijayaair.co.id), but these flights now take a circuitous route via Jakarta.
Flights arrive into the modern facility of Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin. A pre-paid taxi coupon system operates to the city.
The Palembang LRT was completed and opened in time for the Asian Games. It will eventually connect to 13 stations including the airport and Jakabaring Sport City.
Where to Stay
The finest accommodation in the city is the Novotel Palembang Hotel and Residence (accorhotels.com) which is located in the city centre on Jalan R. Sukamto. It is an expansive, low-rise, 194-room resort-styled property that resembles a fort more than a hotel, but has many facilities for relaxing such as a swimming pool, tennis courts, and jogging track. There are restaurants and a lively nightclub, which is most active on Ladies Night (so I hear).
Plan an early day of sightseeing as the sun rises and sets an hour earlier than in Malaysia (it is also an hour behind Malaysian time).
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