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 the Ampera 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, a favorite dish called pempek, dipped in aromatic sweet vinegar sauce.