A Palembang Walkthrough

19-22 Feb 2015

I trooped off to another flash travelling destination over the Lunar New Year holidays. This time round to Palembang, Indonesia. Not your typical destination, but then again, I’ve never been a typical destination kind of person. So what exactly is there to see in Palembang?

Palembang is the second largest city in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Musi River cuts through the city, bisecting it into two. Linking northern and southern Palembang is the majestic Ampera Bridge. This is one of the largest bridges in Indonesia, and is a distinctive landmark. The Ampera Bridge is also what you see on every postcard, fridge magnet or keychain from Palembang.

Northern Bank – Seberang Ilir

City life is at its most bustling and exciting at the area around the northern bank of the Ampera Bridge. The large area under the bridge houses an open air street market, selling mainly clothing. There is also a TransMusi stop underneath the bridge. The TransMusi is perhaps the easiest way for a tourist to get around by public transport. These buses ply routes around the city, and for just 5500 Rupiah, you can travel around without difficulty. The alternative is taking the angkutan kota, the city vans but these require a bit more savvy, since there are no clear route maps you can find online, unlike the TransMusi network. I did take a few of these vans to get from place to place, and being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia helps of course. Look out for your bags though. “There are pickpockets”. This was advice from more than one local. I did not encounter any incidents though, other than a near accident when my bajaj (those three wheeler tuk-tuks) almost crashed into the rear of a stationary car that was double parked in the middle of the road.

To the west of the bridge, a slew of waterfront restaurants and eateries line up along the waterfront. These include a KFC and a J.Co Donuts outlet, with seats overlooking the river, allowing for some spectacular views of the Ampera Bridge. Further down, the pretty waterfront promenade is where everyone goes to in the late afternoon. It is a bit of a party atmosphere here, with balloon sellers, and food vendors setting up their own mobile stalls, complete with stoves and short stools for their customers. I had myself a “telor kerak” made out of crispy slightly burnt eggs scraped off the bottom of a wok, and would have eaten from one of the many Mie Tek Tek stalls had I not been so full.

Still along the northern bank, and on the east side of the bridge is an indoor market known as Pasar 16 Ilir. A maze of alleys to get lost in, with vendors calling out to you from left and right. Each stall sells colourful garments but the highlight would be the gold threaded fabric known as songket. The gold thread, sometimes also in silver, enhances the base cloth and creates very desirable clothing pieces. The good quality hand-woven pieces could cost hundreds of Singapore dollars. Machine sewn ones would be cheaper, but still more expensive than normal cloth. I shopped around and learnt a little about the fabric.

Just immediately north of the bridge are a cluster of tourist sites which, together with the bridge, make up the heart of Palembang. First is a massive fountain, in the middle of a roundabout. Just further down the road is the grand Masjid Agung, a place of worship constructed in 1738 and today the grandest mosque in the city.

Nearby is the Monpera, helpfully abbreviated from Monument Ampera. This giant grey building in the shape of a flower was erected to honour the dead who fought against their Dutch colonists. Inside the building is a rather dismal museum, with photos of war heroes and paraphernalia. The best part of Monpera was climbing up 8 flights of stairs to reach the open roof, where young couples sit and scribble declarations of love on the surface of the roof. Just behind the monument is the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, a more slightly more impressive collection of the history of Palembang.

Most people end up taking a boat cruise down the Musi river. The main attraction is Kemaro Island, around 5 kilometres downriver. The Chinese temple on the island in the middle of the river is where the local Chinese would go during festivals like Chap Goh Meh.

Food & Malls

One of the main hangouts for shopping is the Palembang Indah Mall. Like most large Indonesian cities, there is a surge of new shopping malls, where the affluent and trendy would hang out. For m, the most impressive thing about the mall is the state of the art Cineplex, which surpasses the mediocre cinemas back home. Over here, the cinema experience is a grand affair, with plushy seats and attendants who greet you with palms together. Even the area around the ticket counter looks like an airport VIP lounge. And might I add that the price is less than half of what we pay back in Singapore.

The newest mall is the Palembang Icon, fancy and with a layout mimicking the malls back home. However, I preferred the mall just next to it, Palembang Square which, although shabbier, has a better mix of tenants.

My affinity for Indonesian cuisine makes this next section very biased. Padang cuisine can be found in chains like Sederhana or Pagi Sore. Both restaurants will have waiters serving you as astounding number of dishes, leaving you flabbergasted if it’s your first time visiting. How it works is that you pick out only the dishes you want, and leave the rest. They will charge you accordingly. The specialty in Palembang is pempek, a chewy fish cake dough made out of fish and tapioca. It is kind of similar to the keropok lekor found in Malaysia. The Palembang version is eaten with cuko, a sweet vinegary black sauce that makes the pempek delicious. Pempek is sold everywhere and local tourists travelling to Palembang would pack large boxes to bring back home.

Southern Bank – Seberang Ulu

I spent a fair bit of time on the southern bank of the Musi River too. Crossing the Ampera bridge, and flagging an angkut, I reached the Palembang Cheng Ho Mosque. Cheng Ho, or Zheng He, is the Hui Chinese admiral born into a Muslim family, who in the 15th century made 7 expeditions from China to the rest of the world, visiting 37 countries in the process. He stopped by Palembang multiple times on his journeys and at one point helped the locals ward off seafaring bandits. The Cheng Ho mosque is named after him. The mosque itself is new, built in 2008, and has oriental architecture atypical of normal mosques there. Near the mosque is the Jakabaring stadium where the 2011 SEA games was held.

Getting on a bajaj, the helpful driver took me to the Kapitan’s House. This 500 year old house located at the southern bank of the Musi near the Ampera bridge, is still lived in by descendants of the Kapitan. The Kapitan was a local Chinese appointed by the authorities when Palembang was under Dutch rule, to be the representative of the Chinese community. He was the one the Dutch would have dealings with. And the Kapitan’s house is one of three still remaining in the area. Inside the house is a prayer shrine, as well as many portraits on the walls, each one showing an ancestor or a current member of the family. Immediately to the right of the house is another house, this one also 500 years old, but not lived in. Instead it is used as an ancestral shrine.

Outside Central Palembang

Additionally, I visited a couple of museums outside of the city centre. The Sriwijaya Museum lies outside the city. It is on the grounds of ancient Sriwijaya ruins which are long gone. In its place now is a pleasant park, with waterways and a lake that was dug up during the Sriwijaya period. The museum itself has a collection of artefacts from the Sriwijaya empire (7th to 13th CE). Sriwijaya was the center of Buddhism in the region, and the museum features Buddhist deities and inscriptions. Within the hinterlands of Sriwijaya, Hinduism flourished and the museum displays a selection of Hinduism-related artefacts from Bumiayu temple ruins. Getting to the remote Sriwijaya Museum on public transport is tough, so you might want to hire a taxi. Remember to get the driver to wait for you at the parking lot of the museum while you explore.

The other big museum is the Balaputradewa Museum. More accessible than the previous museum and thus considerably more touristed, the Balaputradewa has several galleries that chronologically trace the history of South Sumatra. The most interesting section for me though is the display on the megalithic culture of South Sumatra. 2000 year old carved rock specimens in the shape of humans and animals have been found in South Sumatra, near the Lahat and Pagar Alam districts. Some of the collected rock specimens are on display here at the Balaputradewa Museum. Getting there by public transport is possible. Just take the angkut that shuttles from Ampera to KM5. Ask to stop outside the museum.

Getting to Palembang.

Silkair flies direct to Palembang. If you have more time than money, you can take a fast ferry from Singapore to Batam, and then fly from Batam’s Hang Nadim Airport to Palembang on Citilink Air, an Indonesian low cost carrier.