Parameswara’s homeland Palembang a hive of activity despite being eclipsed

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Aerial view of Palembang - Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Palembang, often overlooked by travellers, offers vistors an opportunity to learn more about the history of the region, writes Benedict Lopez.

Lesser-known cities in the world have always aroused my curiosity. Perhaps it is because I continually like to explore places others seldom visit: every city in the world has its own charm and uniqueness.

It was precisely for this reason that, during my stint in Stockholm, I visited cities like Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, St Petersburg, Dubrovnik and Budapest. I am glad I did as these cities have so much to offers visitors with their grandeur blended with a chequered history.

Nestled in the southern part of Sumatra and standing on the Musi River is Palembang. This city, though only around 90 minutes by plane from Kuala Lumpur, seems to have vanished from the radar of tourists. During my five-day stay in the city I did not even see a single Western tourist here, in sharp contrast with cities like Chiangmai, Laung Prabang and Ho Chih Minh City which attract scores of Western tourists.

My friends and I arrived in Palembang on the first day of Chinese New Year. After checking into our hotel, the first place we visited was the Palembang Trade Centre, as it is only about two kilometres away. The Year of the Dog was ushered in with merriment at this shopping mall, with decorations and symbols of the dog greeting visitors and shoppers at the entrance.

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Palembang may be surpassed in fame by other well-known Indonesian cities like Jakarta, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Medan and the island of Bali, but this city still has a small claim to fame. For tourists like me, it affords the opportunity to learn more about the history of the region.

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History had always been my favourite subject in school, and I vividly remember learning about the Malacca sultanate and the founder of Malacca, Parameswara.

The house in Palembang where Parameswara is said to have lived. It appears to have been renovated – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

So my priority was to explore more about Parameswara at the Museum of South Sumatera. The museum also contains a brief account of Parameswara and his family and the city’s ties with Malacca.

Museum of South Sumatra – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

The museum also covers information on the Kingdom of Srivijaya. Palembang is the oldest city in Indonesia, with a history dating back to the Seventh Century as the capital city of the kingdom. Fine-looking artefacts from the different periods are also displayed in this museum.

Artefacts at the Palembang museum – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Perhaps the city’s most famous icon is the Ampera Bridge, which was built in 1962. Save for its historical significance, it looks like a very ordinary bridge.

The Forest Park Punti Kayu is an ideal place of recreation for families and for joggers and strollers.

Punti Kayu forest park – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Despite the beauty of the flora in the vicinity, this tourist site, like other attractions, lacks signage to provide the information required for tourists.

The flower garden too is adorned by a fountain and a lake noted for fishing. In spite of the appealing scenery, the place lacks signboards to explain to tourists its significance. Like Punti Kayu, it is an ideal leisure spot for families and those who relish a workout.

Palembang is noted for some beautiful Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches with architecture steeped in history. Tourists must make it a point to visit the houses of worship of the different faiths.

People in this city are warm, friendly and respectful. When I went to the Palembang Trade Centre on the second day for tea, the staff at the fast-food joint enthusiastically greeted me, calling me Bapak Benedict. They had remembered my name as I had paid by credit card the previous day. They also recalled what food and drinks I had ordered the day earlier.

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Palembang’s populace have lived in peace and harmony for many years, respecting one another’s religions and cultures. I was impressed to read a sign at a Buddhist temple with a meaningful verse in Sanskrit and Bahasa Indonesia: “Semoga Semua Mahluk Hidup Berbahagia” (May All Living Beings Be Happy).

For those who think language is not a barrier when visiting Palembang, they may be in for a shock. Many words in Bahasa Indonesia are different from their Bahasa Malaysia equivalent. For example, the word free used there is gratis and not percuma. A washroom is known as kamar kechil, and the men’s washroom is pria and the ladies’ is putri. On many occasions, I found it difficult to communicate in Bahasa Malaysia with the locals.

Palembang may have a population of only 1.5m, but there is always a hive of activity in this city, and traffic jams are a daily occurrence, even on weekends. Hopefully, the city’s traffic woes would be resolved once the LRT commences operations, which is expected to be prior to the Asian Games, starting on 18 August 2018. (Palembang and Jakarta are the joint hosts.) Infrastructure development is conspicuous in many places and Palembang is being spruced up in time for the games.

One of the drawbacks of Palembang is the scarcity of money-changers. Our taxi driver looked all over the city for one, but could not find any. Finally, I went to the Palembang Trade Centre on a Saturday afternoon at around 2pm, but the money-changer was closed. Even the good five-star hotels are unable to change foreign currency.

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In this respect, Palembang can emulate Laung Prabang, where one can not only use the local currency, but also foreign currencies, like the US dollar and Thai bhat, which are accepted at most retail outlets.

Tourists intending to visit Palembang should take note of these shortcomings, especially those intending to go there for the upcoming Asian Games. The city council should erect notice boards at these attractions to enlighten tourists about the significance of these places.

If Palembang fails to address these basic deficiencies, it will continue to be overlooked by tourists globally. Any city intending to draw tourists must ensure it is visitor-friendly in all respects.

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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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Reza Pahlevi
Reza Pahlevi

It’s rare to see an article about our city from a foreigner perspective. Our city is quite bland and boring compared to many touristy cities in Indonesia. The only thing I can be proud of from my city is the culinary.

Jayna Valen

Remind’s me of Robert Frost and what he said about the road less traveled. Nice write-up, will put this on my must-visit list.