The 2nd oldest city in Southeast Asia is popular for its culinary scene and has a reputation as a host for national & international sporting events. But why Palembang is not well-known as a tourist destination for Indonesians, let alone foreign tourists ?. My first trip to Sumatra island in the last 10 years has revealed that Palembang is actually rich in history and culture, thus should get more recognition other than as the city of Pempek.
I was excited to travel to Palembang, Indonesia once I knew it’s the second oldest city in Southeast Asia after Hanoi. I mean, I’ve lived in Hanoi before and I love how ancient and different it was compared to the city I am currently living in. My travel to Palembang, Indonesia was actually a business trip, but I got a good amount of time to visit some of its landmarks and historic places. Palembang is well-known for its culinary such as Pempek (fish cake made with ground fish meat and tapioca), its main landmark Ampera bridge, and as one of the hosts for the successful 2018 Asian Games along with Jakarta.
But other than that, the capital of South Sumatra province is still not among the most favorite tourist destinations in Indonesia. It was outdone by some other cities and islands around the area such as Batam, Aceh, and Belitung island. Nevertheless, Palembang is actually a fascinating city to visit. It used to be the capital of the Srivijaya empire, a powerful empire that controlled the international trade route through the Strait of Malacca from the seventh to the thirteenth century. Palembang is one of the cities in Indonesia with a special Chinese character and used to be the center of Buddhism study in SEA as well.
TRAVEL TO PALEMBANG, INDONESIA : A CITY WITH CHINESE INFLUENCE IN INDONESIA
Once a bustling major port, in modern times Palembang is known as a regional business center in South Sumatra. Its economy depends highly on its trading, just like the old times. From the 7th to the late 12th century, Palembang served as the capital of the Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom under the rule of the Sailendra dynasty. Its territory covered modern-day Indonesia including both Java and Sumatra, and much of the Malay Archipelago. The kingdom flourished not only by controlling international trade through the Strait of Malacca but also served as an intermediary in the international trade between China and India. Besides grew as the biggest international trade center, Srivijaya also developed as a cultural center as well. In the seventh century, there were over a thousand Buddhist monks and learned scholars who studied Buddhism in Palembang.
When Srivijaya came under the domination of the Hindu Majapahit kingdom in the 13th century, Palembang was plagued by Chinese pirates, who were then defeated by the Chinese imperial treasury fleet under Admiral Zheng He. Shi Jinqing, a Chinese Muslim whose ancestors were Hui people from Hangzhou then appointed as the new ruler of Palembang. Islam came to Palembang when Majapahit disintegrated about the turn of the 16th century. Palembang then became the seat of a sultanate and Islam became dominant in Palembang since this period. Like most of the parts of current Indonesia, Palembang had also suffered from the occupation of the Dutch, the British, and the Japanese. During the Dutch occupation, it became part of the federal state of South Sumatra in September 1948. In 1950, after the transfer of sovereignty on 27 December 1949, the South Sumatra state was abolished and integrated back into the form of Republic Indonesia.
After the 1998 Reformation, Palembang is still known as a regional business center in South Sumatra, but it also earned a new reputation as a host for national & international sporting events. Palembang became the host of Pekan Olahraga Nasional in 2004, for the 2011 SEA Games along with Jakarta, for the 2013 Islamic Solidarity Games, and for the 2018 Asian Games along with Jakarta. Besides that, the city also well-known for its culinary, the Ampera bridge, and as the first city operating LRT in Indonesia. With its diverse history and culture, as well as all the interesting points that have been mentioned, don’t you think Palembang should be able to become more developed ?. I’ve been thinking it should be able to attract millions of visitors just like Malacca and Penang in Malaysia.
TRAVEL TO PALEMBANG, INDONESIA: HOW TO GET THERE, GET AROUND, & WHERE TO STAY
Travel to Palembang, Indonesia can be done by flight from Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and many other airports all around Indonesia. But if you wish to have a road trip, you can drive toward Merak port in 1 hour 17 minutes from Jakarta, then take the ferry to cross the Sunda strait toward Bakauheni port at the southern tip of Sumatra island, and continue the journey by driving for 4,5 hours.
When I travel to Palembang, Indonesia, I find it easy to get around the city as it has diverse options of public transportation. I took the LRT from the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II airport to the city center and to the Jakabaring Sport City. I also sometimes took taxi and motorbike taxi, depended on how much time I had to visit some places. When I visited Kemaro island, we took a boat to cross the Musi river. All of the transportations available is affordable. The downside was sometimes the street was jammed especially during rush hours, and it became worse during the rain as some parts of the city were inundated.
I stayed at Grand Inna Daira Palembang during my travel to Palembang, Indonesia. I found the 4 stars hotel from here. When I just arrived at the hotel, honestly I felt shocked finding the room was far below my expectations. I found the bed sheet was dirty, had some stains on it. It didn’t even look white, I wasn’t sure if they have washed it. Worse, I saw some handprints on the wall. I then tried to cancel my booking but unfortunately, it can’t be canceled. The hotel employee then upgraded my room to the bigger room with a bathtub. It’s not perfect, but it’s okay. At least, I didn’t have to stare at some dirty handprints on the wall for 4 nights haha…
TRAVEL TO PALEMBANG, INDONESIA: THINGS TO SEE & DO
Since Palembang was influenced by some major cultures & religions ranging from Chinese, Buddhism, Javanese, and Islam, you can see its traces all around the city. Unlike on Java, it’s not hard to spot temples & pagodas all around Palembang, including one on Kemaro Island. Both temple and mosque become tourist attractions when traveling to Palembang, Indonesia. Before you decide what to visit, let’s check travel guide to Palembang, Indonesia I’ve made :
- Ampera bridge
The city icon is a bridge above the Musi river which connects two parts of Palembang, Seberang Ilir, and Seberang Ulu. Formerly named Bung Karno Bridge, the 1.177 meters long bridge is one of Indonesia’s longest bridges. The Ampera bridge lies on the bank of the Musi river. I came here on my first day of travel to Palembang, Indonesia as it’s a very popular tourist attraction. Along the bank of the Musi river, there are some other attractions as well such as Kuto Besak Fort, Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, Kemaro island, 16 Ilir Market, Kampong Arab Al-Munawar, and Kampong Kapitan.
2. Kemaro Island
One particular reason why I was excited to travel to Palembang, Indonesia is because of the Kemaro island. It is a small delta island of Musi river, located 40 km away from Palembang. This island seems unique to me as its houses several Chinese heritages in Palembang which as Kemaro Island Pagoda and Hok Tjiang Rio temple. There is also a tomb in front of the temple which is believed to be a tomb of a legendary couple of the Chinese prince Tan Bun An and Srivijayan maiden Siti Fatimah who made this island during their death.
Kemaro Island becomes crowded with visitors during Chinese festivals specifically during Cap Go Meh. To reach the island, I and my friends rented a fast boat. We departed from the bank of Musi river, close to Ampera bridge. The journey took around 30 minutes and it cost us Rp.200.000,- round way. It was nice to travel using the boat as I found it a rare thing to do in Java. Meanwhile, the island itself is just okay in my opinion. It was almost empty when we got there, almost nobody there. Perhaps because we came during the pandemic. But I was a bit disappointed that I can’t get inside the temple and pagoda. I was hoping to climb the stairs of the pagoda to reach the top then enjoying the scenery from above like I did in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. I think they should open both the temple and pagoda and let tourists come in..
3. Great Mosque of Palembang
The main mosque of Palembang located in the city center also known as the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Mosque. Built as the royal mosque of Palembang Sultanate, the mosque is considered to have a unique architecture style, influenced by Chinese, Ottoman, and Indonesian mosque architecture.
It has two minarets, which is an unusual feature in Indonesian mosque architecture. The first minaret was from 18 century shows influence from Chinese architecture, while the newer one is Ottoman style.
4. Kampong Kapitan
One of the oldest’s Chinese kampong in the city. The cultural heritage of Palembang is located at the bank of Musi river, across Kuto Besak Fort, Seberang Ulu. I had to take the taxi crossing the Ampera bridge to reach Kampong Kapitan. The area that is also known as 7 Ulu is where the first Chinese lived in Palembang during the Dutch occupation era.
The Dutch were appointed Tjoa Kie Tjuan, a mayor, to govern the Chinese community in 7 Ulu and its surroundings. His son, Tjoa Han Him, then replaced his father as the captain of 7 Ulu. Tjoa Han Him’s house now becomes the primary attraction in Kampong Kapitan. The stilt house consists of the main house and an ash house. It also displays centuries-old furniture inside. You need to be quiet when entering the house as the descendants of Tjoa Han Him is still living in the house. Although interesting and has historical value, I find the house is less maintained and there are many things that could be improved if they want to make it and the entire Kampong one of the tourist destinations in Palembang.
Kampong Kapitan consists of 15 stilt houses. There is a small pagoda in front of the Tjoa Han Him’s house. If you’re into history, don’t miss Kampong Kapitan when you visit Palembang, Indonesia.
5. 26 Ilir Pempek Village
The Kampong (village) of Pempek. Along this tiny street, you can find abundant choices of Pempek restaurants. You can dine inside or ordering pempek to be brought home as gift. Palembang is the hometown of Pempek, one of Indonesia’s popular snacks, so don’t miss the chance to taste its delicacy while you are there. Pempek is a savoury Indonesian fishcake delicacy, made of fish and tapioca, that is served with rich sweet and sour sauce called kuah cuka or cuko. It’s believed influenced by Chinese food.
Another Palembang typical cuisine worth tasting is Pindang Patin, a sour and spicy fish soup with ikan patin (catfish) in it. I find it tastes way better than Pempek. If you wanna taste Pindang Patin and Pempek while travel to Palembang, Indonesia, Pempek Beringin is recommended.
6. Jakabaring Sport City
An integrated sports facility complex in Palembang. It was the main venue of the 2018 Asian Games. Jakabaring Sport City can be reached by LRT from the city center.
7. Al-Qur’an Al-Akbar
A giant complete replica of the Muslim holy book is chiseled in the wooden sheet. It’s located in Al Ihsaniyah Islamic boarding school in Gandus, Palembang. I was planning to see the biggest wooden Al-Qur’an on earth but canceled as it took 1,5 hours to reach the place from the city center.
Palembang is indeed an interesting city to visit. It has all the potential to grow as both a city and a tourist destination. If you’d like to travel to Palembang, Indonesia, I suggest you wear thin and comfortable clothes and don’t forget to apply sunscreen as well, as the city can be pretty hot and humid.
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