Sawah Lunto : The Town Of The “Black Pearl”

After an hour’s drive from the city of Padang to its northeastern outskirts, the road splits.

Lake Singkarak lies to the left and Sawahlunto to the right, some 95 kilometers from Padang.

Sawahlunto is known as the town of the black pearl’ harking back to the once-abundant coal which was the town’s prominent product.

Today, approaching the town one finds deserted rail roads, stepped rice fields, and the familiar Minangkabau rumah gadang upsweeping roofs dotting the wayside between the busy town of Solok and Koto Sungai Lasi and on to the town of Sawahlunto, a quiet cluster of heritage charm on the slopes of Muara Bungo’s valleys, set among rainforests. The town is quite small, but there is a lot to discover.

The town of Sawahlunto
The town of Sawahlunto (Source :

It was William Hendrik de Greeve, a Dutch Geologist, who discovered the site in the early 19th century, and found it rich in coal deposits, known as the Black Pearl.  And so Dutch  first investments in coal mining was made here beginning in the 19thcentury, building infrastructure, public facilities , offices, hotels, housing areas, and stores, to manage and transport this precious mineral resource.  Transportation networks were also developed, connecting Sawahlunto with Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang PanjangBukittinggi, Solok and then to Padang,  investing no less than 20 million Dutch Guilders at that time. History noted that coal mining in Sawahlunto was launched on 1 December 1888, and became famous as the Ombilin mines.

As a small town that built itself on the success of the coal mining industry, Sawahlunto today has become an attractive tourist destination that offers nostalgic traces of an old mining town. The heritage hotel built to cater Dutch scientists and geologists still stands gallantly among other century-old buildings.


There are quite a few Padang food restaurants in Sawahlunto. Some of them are:

  • Dendeng Batokok in Muaro Kalaban, Silungkang
  • Riko-riko in Muaro Kalaban, Silungkang
  • Chimpago in Pasar, Lembah Segar
  • Ferdi in Pasar, Lembah Segar
  • Gumarang Baru in Pasar, Lembah Segar
  • Dendeng Balado in Silungkang
  • Memok in Silungkang
  • Sederhana in Talawi
  • Kito Juo in Talawai
  • Kurnia in Talawi
  • Bunda in Sijantang, Talawi
  • Early cake in Pasar Kecil, Lembah Segar
  • Sate Marno in Muara Kalaban, Silungkang

Try Kerupuk Jangat and Kerupuk Ubi that you can bring home and fry them as you hit the kitchen. They are very delicious, with a little addition of chili paste to add to the mouth-watering flavor.

The road to Sawahlunto passes Silungkang village known for its creative artisans who turn colorful threads into folds of silky fabrics, named Silungkang Songket. Songket here is sold much cheaper than that in the city of Padang, especially at last-minute shopping at souvenir stores by the airport. There is a name you might want to say during a short conversation with the locals; kampong tenun (pronounced: ter-noon). You will likely observe directly the process of hand weaving a songket fabric, done not only by women, but also by men.

It is obvious that contacts with Chinese and Indian traders  have enriched the variety of their products, which was initially made of local resources such as tree bark tissues and fibers, which was believed to have been learnt from the locals in Pattani, Thailand. Golden threads and silks were later imported and to enhance the local  songket fabric to  a new height in quality.  Songket also gives out a pleasant scent from the assorted fibers used.

Tambang Batubara Museum, Ombilin
Tambang Batubara Museum, Ombilin (Source :

In 1974, a cultural exhibition held in Jakarta presented a 234 year-old songket that was made of fine threads of maroon Mokou Bulek Soriang, with Pucuk Rebung motif, owned by the Den Haag Museum of Holland. Another wellknown motif from Silungkang and exhibited overseas is the itiak pulang patang.

Songket is believed to originate from Southeast Asia around 1,000 years ago, specifically from Siam or Thailand. Its fame made it easy to spread and found its way to Malaysia’s Selangor, Trengganu, and Kelantan, all the way to Brunei Darussalam. The skill of weaving Songket in Silungkang was brought by Baginda Ali of Dalimo Singkek Village from Selangor, Malaysia. From Silungkang, songket made  its way to the Pandai Sikek Village that is also famous for its beautiful songket.

In Silungkang, the local people are also into rattan handicrafts. Again, here you can enjoy watching the process of making baskets and other forms of artistic crafts, such as rattan chairs, desks, tables, cabinets, to simple brooms, and small souvenirs.

Suiseki stones are among the souvenirs offered by Sawahlunto and Silungkang Village. The stones are naturally formed and become more beautiful after some honing process. If you are interested, the small ones can be nice souvenirs for your parents or loved ones. The mid size can be very expensive, reaching millions in Indonesian Rupiahs.

There are several hotels in town. Some of them are new and some other are classified as heritage buildings.

  • Mutiara Hotel Sawahlunto, Wisma Mutiara Jln. Prof. M. Yamin, SH Talawi, Sawahlunto
  • Hotel Laura, Jl. Ahmad Yani No.210, Sawahlunto
  • Ombilin Heritage Hotel Sawahlunto, Jl. M. Yamin, Pasar Remaja, Lembah Segar

Or stay at the brand new hotel

  • Parai City Garden Hotel, Jalan Bagindo Azizkhan in Sawahlunto.

If you wish a bit of luxury, you can also try:

  • Hotel Bukik Gadang, Jl. M.Yamin SH Muaro Sijunjung

Rumah Walikota, the Mayor’s residence, is one of the heritage buildings in town. It was built in 1920 and used to be the residence of the town’s mayor.

Pek Sin Kek House is also a gem among Sawahlunto’s heritage buildings. Pek Sin Kek is the name of a Chinese merchant who had successfully built his business and reputation in Sawahlunto in the early 20th century. His house was once converted into a theatre, then a Minangkabau Community Center, and also an Ice Factory. Now, the building is owned by a Chinese family from Cirebon, West Java who has converted it into a souvenir shop and a heritage house.

The town’s Cultural Center Building was once called the rumah bola, or bowling house as it used to be a place to play bowling and pool during the Dutch era. Built in 1910, the other name for the building was the “Gluck Auf” or the Societeit. It was a center for Dutch workers for their leisure activities after a long day working the coal mine. Once rented to the Mandiri Bank in the early  2000s, the building is now restored and conserved as a heritage asset of Sawahlunto.

The Railway Museum is there to explain the history of the trains in West Sumatra. The development of the railway from Sawahlunto to Padang began on July 6th, 1889. The purpose of the development was to effectively transport coal from Sawahlunto to Emmahaven seaport, now called the Teluk Bayur seaport. The railway started its development in 1889 up to 1894, connecting Sawahlunto, Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, Solok and Padang.

Due to the declining activities in the coal mining industry since the early year 2000, the train to Sawahlunto ceased operation. In 2005, the local government and the train company agreed to establish a railway museum. It is the second railway museum built in Indonesia after the one at Ambarawa, in  Central Java. The  Sawahlunto Railway Museum is now part of the mining tour offered by tour operators in Padang.

The Grand Mosque of Sawahlunto, also called Nurul Iman, was once a steam-generated power plant of Kubang Sirakuak, built in 1894. When the water dried out in the nearby river, the power plant was moved to Salak Village close to the Batang Ombilin river. The abandoned power plant at Kubang Sirakuak was then converted into a weapon storehouse and after the Indonesia’s revolutionary era  in 1950s, the building was converted into a mosque, with the 75-meter chimney serving as the grand tower of the mosque today.

While in the town, visit some of the town’s bests to complete the heritage experience. Wisma Ombilin is the oldest hotel in town, and it’s worth the long travel all the way to this point. Goedang Ransoemmeaning the food storage, was once a place to provide food for orang rantai or the chained men or slaves working for the mine. Now, you can see the old cooking utensils used during the Dutch colonial era. Lubang Mbah Suro is a tunnel built by the Dutch to mine the abundant coal slacks. The Cooperation Building for PT BA UPO which was the ‘market’ known as ‘Ons Belang’ is another site to take in.

Ride the train from Sawahlunto to Muaro Kalaban. Today It is operated only for tourists.


When travelling from outside West Sumatra, it is recommended that you come to Padang first.

You can go by bus or a rented car to Sawahlunto from Padang or Bukittinggi. The distance to the quiet town is 95 kilometers, or around 2 hours by car from bustling downtown Padang. Follow the road to the town of Solok, and continue the trip on the trans-Sumatra road heading south to Java.

After approximately 20 kilometers from Solok, there is a crossroad at Muaro Kalaban. Pay attention to the road sign and direction. Follow the direction to Sawahlunto, and you will pass a winding road with lines of trees that sometimes discourage most travelers to Sawahlunto. Do not worry about the unsettling road as it will eventually take you to the destination.

If you are in Bukittinggi area 138 kilometers from Sawahlunto, take the road to Batusangkar and then follow the same direction as you find the crossroad in Muaro Kalaban. From Batusangkar, the town of Sawahlunto is about 40 kilometers.

Taxi from Padang to Sawahlunto is around IDR 200,000 to 250,000 (price is subject to change). A public bus from Padang is IDR 8,000 and a group tour to Sawahlunto in one of the tour operators in Padang is around IDR 20,000 per person.

In Sawahlunto, there is daily trip to Muaro Kalaban by an old train as a tourist attraction. It will cost you IDR 75,000. The maximum passenger load is 12 persons chugging along for around 5 kilometers to take one on a nostalgic trip on the old railway lines.


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