The oldest city in Indonesia and one of the oldest in Southeast Asia, Palembang has a remarkably rich and colourful history. The earliest indication of its existence was more than 1,300 years ago, when a Chinese monk wrote about his visit to what was then Srivijaya.

Srivijaya was destined to become a great maritime civilisation, a formidable city state  at the heart of the ancient Srivijava empire, which ruled much of the surrounding region and controlled key trade routes between China and India, before its demise in the 13th century.

Today, Palembang is the second largest  city in Sumatra, after Medan, a unique waterfront metropolis on the delta of the Musi River. Most of the original dwellings were built on the river banks, making the Musi an important channel in the life of the city, from both an economic and cultural perspective – it is not surprising, then,  that several Dutch scholars called it the ‘Venice of the East’.

The atmosphere of old Palembang can still be felt today. I choose to travel on foot to experience as much of this as I can, starting with an exploration of the narrow lanes between blocks of flats in the 24 Ilir area. I stroll past the large houses around Kambang Iwak Park, passing through neighbourhoods that still have traditional houses (rumah bari), and along the rows of old shop-houses around Sekanak Market.

Thirsty from the walk, I buy a mug of warm tea at a food stand and then I continue my journey to Ledeng Office (Kantor Ledeng), a landmark building with a water tower on top, now used as the mayor’s office. When construction was completed in 1931, this four-storey building by, architect S. Snuijf, was the most expensive and grandest of its day. A guard allows me to enter, and I admire the interior. Marble-clad pillars adorn the lobby, and there are ornamental details in the art deco style. The doors are made of high-quality teak with intricate shutters.

A stone’s throw from Ledeng Office is another example of the city’s cultural heritage, the Kuto Besak Fort, built during the 17th century on a politically and geographically strategic spot overlooking the Musi River. The low, wide fort – dotted with palm trees that tower over the relatively low ramparts – and the Great Mosque of Palembang are relics from the era of the Palembang Sultanate, which ruled from 1550 to 1823, when it was dissolved by the colonial government of the Dutch Indies. Built originally as a palace by Chinese and Palembang labour, the unity of both cultures is still evident in special events in the city including Cap Go Meh and Imlek (Chinese New Year). Closed to the public, the fort nevertheless always attracts a host of tourists who mingle with local young people chatting and passing the time along the wide, paved boulevard, watching the never-ending stream of boats going past. Gazing at the same scene, I see in my mind the bustle of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. The 2018 Sriwajaya Festival will be held here August 22-27, and showcases cultural performances and culinary delights from the 17 regencies and cities that make up the province. If you’re not here for the festival, then jump aboard a floating restaurant, which can be found in front of Kuto Besak Fort.

A little way along the Musi River stands  Ampera Bridge. For the people of Palembang, Ampera Bridge is a symbol of progress, an  icon of the modernisation which has been  for some time a key part of the identity  of postcolonial Indonesia.

When the bridge was officially opened in 1965, connecting together the Seberang Ulu and Seberang Ilir areas, its grandness inspired new ideas, including an altered mindset about urban development. Previously, the city had been built following the contours and flows of the river, and the plethora of floating houses slowly shifted from their watery edges to establish  new, firmer roots on dry land.

In the 13 Ulu area, in the Arab Al Munawar neighbourhood, I discover one of the last remaining floating houses. The small house, which is built on a pontoon, rocks gently back and forth on the waves of the river.

Palembang enjoys a thriving music scene, and in a café in the 30 Ilir area, I meet some of its movers and shakers, including music promoter, Rian Pelor, who returned to his native Palembang, pioneering a net-label called Rimauman Music to unearth local musicians with the best potential. Among those here is Taxlan, who is part of the local punk music scene. With several friends, he founded the band Sangkakalam, who have just finished a tour of Malaysia and plan to tour Java and Bali at the end of this year. A key player in Palembang’s music circles and an active blogger, he speaks quickly and is clever at connecting issues relating to music and street performance with the city’s development. For Taxlan, Palembang is moving faster and faster, and he sees it becoming more like the huge bustle of Jakarta in the future.

Palembang is undergoing rapid change,  made all the more obvious as it prepares  to co-host the 2018 Asian Games with Jakarta this August and September. The government  is pushing ahead with various infrastructure developments, such as a Light Rail Transit  (LRT) line connecting the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport with the games venue, Jakabaring Sport City (JSC).  The light rail is almost complete when  I visit; concrete supporting pillars stand  solidly in line, crossing the main roads of  the city centre. The LRT line also crosses  the Musi River and offers a different architectural layer to that of Ampera  Bridge. It marks a new milestone in  the development of Palembang.

Palembang’s JSC aims to become Indonesia’s Sport Tourism City, and ten events will be hosted here for the 2018 Asian Games: basketball, rowing, canoeing, shooting,  rock climbing, female soccer, sepak takraw  (kick volleyball), tennis, triathlon and beach volleyball. Eight apartment towers can house 3,700 athletes and their entourages, and are walking distance from the refreshed venues  that have already hosted numerous domestic  and international competitions, including  the 2011 Southeast Asian Games, and PON XIX 2016 – Indonesian National Games.

The new infrastructure has changed  the views that I remember from my previous visit. When I next return, I want to ride the  LRT on my way to the Games. Meanwhile,  the city continues to transform, as it has  for more than a millennium; Palembang  is at the heart of a thousand stories, of civilisations and cultures rising and falling,  a city of water where the past flows  into the present and the future.

From Travel Colours July 2018


There are numerous sites along the Musi River where you can get a better understanding of Palembang’s history and culture, such as Kampung Arab Al Munawar, Kampung Kapitan, the Baba Boentjit Market, the Ledeng Office and the Kuto Besak Fort.