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The Archipelago Journal: Kendari

Kendari’s tourism industry is still in its infancy and, apart from divers passing through on their way south to Wakatobi National Park, few people come here for a pure holiday.

Words and Photography by Mark Eveleigh

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“Oooh yes, we get lots of foreign visitors here!” Wah Mohinu tells me as she settles into position at her weaving machine with the air of a racing driver slipping into the cockpit. “You’re the first this year…but there was one last year and in 2014 two came here, toh!”

Like many people in South Sulawesi, Wah Mohinu likes to end her sentences with a soft-sounding ‘toh’ exclamation.

Wah Mohinu is a weaver working at South East Sulawesi National Crafts Council, which showcases some of the best craftwork in Kendari province. There was a time when it was considered shameful for a woman not to know how to weave, but these days it is a dying art. She explains that she learned her skills from an old woman from the Muna tribal community and she still prefers to work at the simple Muna back-strap loom than at the big timber table loom in the corner.

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“The backboard is like getting a massage.” She wriggles into position and laughs as I point out the racing driver similarities. “It’s a bit slower though! I could cover four metres a day on that big loom, but less than 25cm on this, toh!”

Wah Mohinu’s beautiful sarongs are stored in the centre’s souvenir shop to be bought up by the occasional local looking for ceremonial outfits or for visiting dignitaries on conference trips in the city. There are a few attractions to entertain visitors here, like the once-sprawling city museum which – although partly closed down now –boasts an intriguing display of local tribal costumes and a car that once belonged to General Suharto.

The 38-year-old Mercedes is in dire need of restoration, as is 10-year-old Unity Tower, which dominates this part of the city. This truly impressive tower was built for the National Qur’an Reading Contest and named to symbolise the unification of the city. It should have become the high point (both literally and figuratively) of any tour to Kendari, but these days only a few foolhardy schoolkids risk the climb up pitch-black sheet-steel stairways – rusted to resemble a sort of petrified lacework – to the now-abandoned viewing rooms overlooking Kendari Bay.

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From the great green summit of Gunung Jatih, however, you can take in a view of Kendari Bay that reveals what is still a beautiful natural harbour. The old fish market has changed little and is a fine place to stop for an invigorating ginger tea and a chat with the fishermen amid the bustle of early morning activity. In the evening, the wide stretch of waterfront along the shoreline at so-called Jalan Bypass becomes the centre of social activity for the people of Kendari. More than 100 open-air rumah makansand warung kopis spread their colourful plastic chairs along the edge of the bay and music and neon seep out across the gently rippling waters.

Kendari Bay was once a favourite port of call for Bugis sailors and roving Bajo Laut (Sea Gypsy) communities. More recently the Bajo Laut have given up their nomadic lifestyles and settled in permanent villages on the waterfront beyond the city centre.

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At Bungkutoko village, on the road to Nambo Beach, the Bajo Laut still live much as they have always done, and these days, while their homes are likely to be concrete houses, many are still raised above the tides either on stilts or on stacked plateaus of coral. While a stroll through Bungkutoko village is unlikely to feature on the schedule of many visitors to Kendari, the spirit of hospitality and sense of fun that is a part of Bajo Laut communities all over Indonesia make this a highlight for any traveller who takes the opportunity to visit here.

Early this year a grand timber gateway with the words ‘Tracking Mangroves di Pulau Bungkutoko’ was built on Bungkutoko island, allowing access to a timber walkway through a little mangrove forest where locals now come to enjoy weekend picnics at a place that until recently was only accessible by boat.

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These days the boats head out to tiny Bokori Island, the city’s favourite beach playground. The island is large enough for about half a dozen beach chalets, but on Sunday it can feel more crowded than the city-centre rush hour and an entire fleet of banana boats bounce like oversized balloons over the otherwise tranquil waters of the bay.

“At weekends we often get more than a thousand visitors,” Pak Naim, the island’s manager, tells me. “We have these timber houses for rent now – very romantic if there’re only two of you, but each of the houses can sleep a maximum of ten people, toh!”

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I’m getting used to hearing ‘toh’ at the end of sentences – people use it all the time in much the same way as Londoners say ‘know wha’ I mean?’ It’s an addictive habit and, before I know it, the word has found a permanent place in my vocabulary too. It seems to add a warm, languid feeling to conversation in much the same way as a spoonful of sinonggi adds substance to the refreshing flavour of fish sauce. Sinonggi, a sort of thick sago gunk, sounds less than appealing, but it might well be the most pleasantly addictive culinary experience to be had in all Indonesia.

People seem to be surprised to see an outsider apparently enjoying sinonggi, but in this little city of only 314,000 you can quickly start to feel like a local. Within a couple of days I’m sure that once I leave Kendari I am going to miss sinonggi, toh!

Jakarta to Kendari via Makassar


Flight Time 2 hours, 25 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours July 2016

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5 Senses – Touch
NAMBO BEACH

Nambo Beach is the place to soak in the warm waters of Southern Sulawesi. The beach is shallow and wave-less, and at the weekend the narrow stretch of white sand throngs with selfie-shooting teenagers and splashing kids. If you head for Nambo, be sure to visit the Bajo Laut stilted village at Bungkutoko, where you can experience a sense of community that is guaranteed to leave you feeling even warmer than the balmy waters of Tambo and more contented than a heaped plate of sinonggi.