Palembang, the second largest town on Sumatra after Medan, was once the celebrated seat of the rich and powerful Srivijaya kingdom, that for more than three centuries – from the 9th to the 11th century – reigned supreme over the Sumatra seas up to and including the strategic Straits of Malacca.
Srivijaya was then known as the wealthy trade hub as well as the center for Buddhist learnings. Monks from China, India and Java used to congregate here to learn and teach the lessons of Buddha. In AD 671 Chinese chronicles wrote that the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, I Ching sojourned in Palembang for six months on his way to India. I Ching wrote that there were more than 1.000 Buddhist monks in the city and advised Chinese monks to study Sanskrit in Palembang before proceeding to India.
While the Srivijaya kings lived inland on shore, his subjects lived along the wide Musi river, manning the powerful fleet and busily trading in gold, spices, silks, ivories and ceramics with foreign merchants who sailed in from China, India and Java. In 1025, however, the king of Chola in South India sent a fleet to Sumatra, destroying the kingdom, marking the end of its golden era.
Later, Chinese admiral Cheng Ho, emissary of the Chinese emperor visited Palembang in the 15th century.
Palembang is also known in history as the origin of the Malays whose kings are believed to have descended to earth at Gunung Siguntang, north of Palembang.
Today, not much can be seen from Srivijaya’s golden age, except for evidence of the area’s fine gold and silver songket weaving that persists until today, the fine lacquerware it produces for which Palembang is renowned, and its regal dances and opulent costumes.
Capital of the Province of South Sumatra, Palembang today thrives from coal, mined in its surroundings and from palm oil plantations. Much of the inhabitants still dwell for kilometers along the wide Musi river.
The Musi river has its source deep in the Bukit Barisan mountains, tumbling down to reach the plains where, fed by the converging Ogam and Komering rivers, it then widens into a large river as it reaches Palembang. Its many tributaries and streams that cut through Palembang, has caused this town at times to be called ‘The Venice of the East’.
The Icon of modern Palembang is theAmpera Bridge, which was opened to the public in 1965, spanning this wide river connecting both sides of the city. The view from the Musi river from this vantage point is stunning. Watch the bustling boats at the floating market by the Ampera Bridge, while at sunset the view with the many houses on stilts along both sides of the Musi and the centuries-old quaint Chinese shop-houses, are memories to be captured on film and not easily forgotten.
North of the Ampera bridge, is the Mesjid Agung or Royal Mosque, built in 1740 by Sultan Badaruddin I, and recently restored to its former glory. This area was once the capital of a Malay Islamic kingdom which came to an end in 1825, when the last Sultan, Ahmad Najamuddin surrendered to the Dutch and was exiled to Banda Neira.
But Palembang is not only about history. On New Year’s Eve, tens of disc jockeys gather downtown to deliver brand new energy, while the traditional songket weavers and wood carvers shy away from the loud trendy exposure.
When in Palembang do not forget to try the spicy steamed river fish wrapped in banana leaves, called pindang, or Palembang’s specialty, the favourite dish called pempek dipped in aromatic sweet vinegar sauce.
Pempek or empek-empek is almost an icon when it comes to culinary specialities in Palembang. You have to have a strong stomach to sample it. Most pempek is made of tengiri or Spanish mackerel fried fish cake, and put into a sweet vinegar soup with noodle inside or diced cucumber. It’s actually a fresh delicacy but becomes very hot when chili paste is added. Try to mingle with the locals, where pempek is best served. Pempek Wak Ayah Lemak at Kebon Sirih is a local recommendation. Pempek Sekojo is also locally recommended, found at the cross road of Palembang Trade Center. Pempek is also found at the Pasar Kuto close to the traffic lights. If you are close to Kol. Atmo Street, go to Tamrin to find grilled pempek, which is also available at Merdeka street, called SAGA grilled pempek. Pempek Pak Raden is at Radial. Pempek Dempo and Pempek EK are around Dempo. These are the places worth hunting as you cruise the town on a multi-route becak.
Pempek Candy Palembang at Jl. R.Sukamto no. 53 is a favorite restaurant to eat Pempek. But it is mostly known for take-away, which can be bought fried or still uncooked. These are packed in neat parcels, which, if wanted, you do not need to carry along with you, but can be sent by delivery to any city in Indonesia.
Martabak India or Martabak HAR is one of the local munchies you may want to try. It is available at the Pasar Kuto. Almost all Indian food involves curry and this is no different. However, its taste will take you back to the time when Indian merchants began to inhabit the city. Close to Kebon Sirih, there is also seller of Martabak India. Model Gandum and Burgo are probably the other munchies to sample. Model can be found at Simpang Empat, near Jembatan Karang, or Model Dowa at Simpang Lima or Bukit Baru. Kwe Tiau is available on Kebon Sirih Street. Pangsit is at the Kavaleri. Bakso Gepeng is close to Pasar Kuto right before Telkomsel.
Pindang can be bought at Pindang Meranjat or Pindang Pegagan at Demang Lebar. Pindang can also be found in Sudirman Street close to IGM. It is also found at Kol. Burlian Street close to Soekarno-Hatta. Some of the known places to eat are:
Riverside Restaurant at Benteng Kuto Besak Complex is known for its grilled shrimp with boombaru chili sauce.
Rumah Omma Family Restaurant selling lamb chops and other national and international food. Merpati Street, no. 8, Palembang. Emilee Iga Bakar on MP Mangkunegara Street no. 71-73 selling anything beef and also a bit variety of sea food. Sri Melayu on Demang Lebar Daun Street, selling pindang patin. Warung Mang Cik Din on Veteran Street, selling delicious pempek.
Songket is definitely a souvenir to buy. It’s a beautifully hand-woven sarong that you can use anywhere, anytime, especially when it is required to wear one like entering a mosque or a temple. Indonesia embraces Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism where proper attire is usually compulsory when entering places of worship. The gold and silver songkets are more expensive and are usually worn for weddings or other ceremonial occasions. The best place to see what you can bring in the backpack or in the suitcase is the mall, like the Palembang Square. It is a huge mall selling a variety of items you can imagine. It’s a feast for the eyes and a good way to kill the time. All prices are mostly fixed. No bargain necessary.
Prefer a more traditional market? Go to Pasar 16 Ilir (Pasar Enambelas Ilir) if you like to practice your bargaining skills. This multi-storied bazaar is near the Grand Mosque, Mesjid Agung. Songket is found here in various forms, ranging from sarongs, purses, shoes, fans, clothes, and more.
There are numerous places to stay while you are in Palembang.
When visiting Palembang, do not miss the Musi river cruise. It’s simply a ‘must try’. After passing a number of houseboats and passing under the Ampera bridge you will reach the floating market known as Pasar 16 Ilir, where activities peak around 11 am. Further down on the left are Palembang’s main harbour, the Boom Baru, and the massive Pusri Fertilizer Plant.
Then visit the Kamaro Island that sits in the middle of the Musi river, where stands a large Buddhist temple and the grave of a Chinese princess, who was destined to wed a Srivijaya king. The island is today the center of the Cap Go Meh celebrations. During Cap Go Meh, Chinese communities from around the city squeeze into this small piece of land, together with those coming from Hongkong, Singapore and China. They arrive here on local transport called ketek, – which are small boats with noisy engines – , on ferries, speed boats, and decorated dragon boats alighting from the Intirub factory or from Kuto Besak Fort.
Begin your city tour of Palembang at the Museum Sultan Machmud Badaruddin IIwhich faces the Musi river. This buiding was built by the Dutch in 1823 on what was formerly the Sultan’s palace. The Museum has an open-air theater offering traditional dances. No remains are left of the original palace since Dutch colonialists attacked and burned it down in 1821 AD.
Behind the Museum is the Art Market, where you can see artisans work on the delicate gold and silver songket sarongs, and the red-and-balck lacquer ware for which Palembang is famous. Here are also sea-shells souvenirs, woven mats and more.
A distance from the Museum is the Kuta Besak Fort. Built in 1780 by Sultan Muhammad Badaruddin (father of Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II), the fort is the only one in Indonesia with an Indonesian name, with no Dutch or British name attached. This is because its entire construction was done by locals. Today this is used by the army, and is closed to the public.
The New Museum of South Sumatra is located 5 km. north of Palembang and has a collection of megalithic statues found at Pasemah, on the western plains of South Sumatra. Here is also a beautifully carved 150 years old limas house – traditional Palembang-style house of the aristocracy, displaying rich ceremonial costumes, farming and fishing implements and traditional coffee preparations. The Chinese population has a significant share in the development and growth of Palembang.
One of the Chinese cultural heritage is the Cheng Ho Mosque. Cheng Ho was a Chinese Muslim admiral sent by the Emperor, who in the 15th century traveled to South East Asia with his fleet of 62 ships and 27,800 seafarers. In Palembang, he sojourned and visited his Moslem acquaintances. Today we can visit the mosque built in memory of Admiral Cheng Ho, which is located at Jakabaring Palembang.
The City bus in Palembang is one of the most convenient in the country. The name of the bus is TRANS MUSI. There are two types of buses – the green and the blue one – with different routes.
The green TRANS MUSI’s route goes:
Terminal Sako Perumnas – Jl. Celentang – Jl. Residen Abdul Rozak – Simpang Empat Patal – Jl. Basuki Rahmat – Jl. Demang Lebar Daun – Simpang Taman Bukit – UNSRI Bukit Besar – Jl. Jaksa Suprapto – Simpang Kedaung – Jl. Letkol Iskandar – Simpang Hero – PIM, and backtrack all the bus stops.
The blue TRANS MUSI’s route goes:
Terminal Alang-alang lebar – Jl. Kol. H. Burlian – Jl. Jenderal Sudirman – Pasar 16 Ilir (Jl. Tengkuruk Permai) – Underpass Ampera Bridge – Jl. Masjid Agung – Jl. Jenderal Sudirman – backtrack to Alang-alang lebar.
If you prefer to take a more airy local transport, take becak or ojek instead. The fare is quite reasonable and worth the excitement.
The airport of Palembang is called the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport. There are several airlines serving the Capital City of South Sumatra, Palembang. They are:
These airlines connect Palembang with Pangkal Pinang, Bandung, Jakarta, and Batam. International flights connect Palembang with Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Malacca, China, and Thailand.
If you are already in one of the cities or capital cities of Sumatra, an overland trip to Palembang is also possible. You can go to the main bus terminal in the city of Padang, Bukittinggi, Jambi, Pekanbaru, Dumai, or Bengkulu to and from Palembang and ask for Terminal Karya Jaya or Terminal Alang-alang Lebar. Terminal Karya Jaya serves buses going to the northern cities from Palembang, and Terminal Alang-alang Lebar serves the southern routes.
The Annual Bidar Race is well worth including in your plans if you visit Palembang around Independence Day, August 17th. The Annual Bidar Race takes place at River Musi. The 24 meters long boat and 75 cm wide, powered by 50 oarsmen. Sriwijaya Festival every July perform cultural attractions and ornamental boat race