Looking out of my window to the barely visible palm oil plantations below I was wondering what the hell I was doing voluntarily flying to Palembang in the midst of the great hazepocalypse of 2019. Apparently, I was arriving on a good day. It got so bad later on that flights were being delayed due to the haze. In the weeks following my visit the pollution levels reached record highs.
[Forests are burning to clear more land for palm oil plantations.]
I thought about what the process is for buying a ticket on the very aircraft that is returning to your destination of origin. Not that that would have helped, as Kuala Lumpur was being slammed with haze even worse than Palembang. In the end I figured I should rough it out for 2 days.
Once I arrived at the airport and saw that I was back in Sumatra I was in a better mood, even with the bad air.
I was in Palembang to see the light rail line (LRT) that was constructed for the 2018 Asian Games. Palembang was co-host of the games with Jakarta, and the light rail connects the airport to the games site, via the city centre.
[2018 Asia Games mascots.]
It’s unusual to see a provincial city have any kind of rail transit in Southeast Asia, let alone one that goes to the airport. These are the current cities in Southeast Asia with trains at the airport:
Walking outside of arrivals I was greeted by the usual troop of taxi touts who were trying to win my custom. As I made my way to the airport train it was such a good feeling to know that I didn’t have to deal with this hassle.
[LRT at Palembang Airport.]
I didn’t know what to expect with Palembang as it’s not exactly a tourism hub. There was one other foreigner on the plane, who was either working in the gas and oil biz or was even weirder than me for being here.
At the airport we went to the window that administers visa-on-arrivals, and there was no one there. After all of the passengers were processed by immigration, someone came over and just waved us through without having to pay the $30 fee. That’s my kind of visa waiving!
Without knowing anything about Palembang I booked a hotel on the metro line and as close to the river as possible. It took 40 minutes to get from airport to Cinde (the second last stop before the river). It’s not an express train, but it was still better than being in traffic.
I went for a walk after checking in, and I was immediately reminded how good it was to be in provincial Indonesia. I didn’t see another foreigner while I was there, and selfie requests were happening often.
Most of the interesting sites are around the river. When in a new European city I usually head straight to the principal church, and in Indonesia I make my way to the main mosque.
As usual I was drawn to the market area along the river.
There are a fe old buildings here, but they are mostly hidden behind signs and bad renovations.
These otherwise unremarkable concrete buildings have been colourfully painted to make it a more appealing.
The landmark of Palembang is the Ampera Bridge. It was modelled on the Tower Bridge in London, with a working draw bridge to allow big ships to pass.
The draw bridge part stopped working not long after it opened, so the city is left with this ornate clock tower bridge instead.
The light rail is next to the Ampera Bridge on another a concrete bridge that places function over form.
During the Dutch colonial period Palembang was known as The Venice of the East due to the many canals. If you’re familiar with Bangkok you may have heard that it too was referred to as The Venice of the East. In fact there are so many cities that had this title that there is a Wiki page listing places called Venice of the East.
Most of the canals have long since been filled in, so don’t expect to find any picturesque waterways here. And the ones that do remain have the same problem that is common across Southeast Asia of being filled with black ooze and solid with rubbish.
It was encouraging to see at least one of the canals was being rehabilitated with a pedestrian walkway being added along the side.
[Workers at this canal rehabilitation waving to me.]
By the river you can test out your selfie skills at the PALEMBANG sign.
There are a few remains of colonial era Palembang on the river near the fort.
The Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum is in the former office of the colonial resident of South Sumatra.
And the Kuto Besak theater restaurant is in a classic art deco building.
There are some colonial relics on the south side of the river as well.
Some of these old house give a little glimpse of what Palembang used to look like.
There is a river kampung here with boardwalks connecting the houses.
I found the most interesting aspect of Palembang was the little cargo and passenger boats along the river.
I wondered about all the towns and villages further inland on the river.
Even though Palembang is about 100km inland, it’s a major port of Sumatra. Palembang is on the Musi River, on the confluence of two major tributaries.
One of the most prominent exports from the port is coal, which is hauled in by train from mines in South Sumatra.
It was a depressing site seeing all this dirty fuel being hauled off to China in the midst of haze from forests being burned down for palm oil plantations.
Aside from looking for remnants of historical buildings by the riverfront, I was also wanted to see what the rest of Palembang looked like. This also gave me an excuse to catch the light rail away from the river.
Even though it looks like a metro, it’s classified as a light rail. The track is elevated for the entire length, and it reminded me of the BTS Skytrain in Bangkok where the seats a on the side of the train.
Every transit system has a similar set of rules, though there are regional differences. The “No Snakes” rule is a rule I can get behind.
I got the train to the Icon Mall, because what better way to see how Palembangians are living than by visiting a mall.
I thought about my first trip to Sumatra in 2009 to Medan, and how few choices there were for international food. It was great to see a place like Marugame Udon here, as one cannot live on mie goreng alone.
Speaking of mie goreng, or nasi goreng, or basically anything that is gorenged (fried) in Indonesia. Frying takes a lot of oil, and there is a lot of oil in this palm oil producing nation. I visited a supermarket and there was a whole row dedicated to palm oil for your gorenging needs. The month before I visited Palembang, Indonesia banned food labeled ‘palm oil-free,’. In the west, any food with palm oil is put in small print or labelled as something else. In Indonesia they proudly put an image of the oil palm on the packaging.
The only Starbucks in Palembang was at the mall, and I had to go as there was something I needed to see. I got a coffee, and what I wanted was sitting on the front counter. It was coffee beans from Sumatra, in Sumatra.
I had a look on the bag and the beans from Sumatra were roasted and packed in Seattle. So these beans went from Sumatra to Seattle and back to Sumatra. It sounds crazy, but it’s more efficient for Starbucks to do this than to have a roasting facility in Sumatra, only to send them to their distribution centre in Seattle, to then be distributed around the world.
[Sumatran coffee in Sumatra, via Seattle.]
I’ve seen this in Sulawesi as well, where I visited the Starbucks at the Makassar Airport to see their Sulawesi blend. And in Vietnam you can get the Da Lat blend, which you can find in Saigon via Seattle.
The Starbucks is opposite the entrance to the Bumi Sriwijaya LRT Station. A Starbucks opposite a metro station is not something I thought I would have seen in Sumatra ten years ago. I felt bad for Hanoi and Saigon, who still have not launched their first metro lines.
[Starbucks at Bumi Sriwijaya LRT Station.]
It doesn’t look like there will be another LRT line built in Palembang, so this will be a one-line city. This will affect how the city looks in the future, as a canyon of apartment towers may end up being built along this line.
At Bumi Sriwijaya station (and others) there is a Grab station, showing how ground transport is adapting to serving the metro line.
Apart from Starbucks I checked out some other cafes as well, and my favourite was Coffee Style.
Sometimes I just walk into random shops to look for hipster t-shirts, and here I found my t-shirt.
When travelling around Southeast Asia I’m always interested to see how different cities deal with the problem of bikes and cars on footpaths. This is one way of blocking bikes.
Despite the haze I enjoyed my visit Palembang. I didn’t walk around as much as usual, and I left feeling like I left many riverside alleys unexplored.
The other reason I was here was to take the train from Palembang to Bandar Lampung at the southern tip of Sumatra. This is one small section of an overall plan for a Trans-Sumatran Railway which I cover in my proposed railways of Southeast Asia. So who knows, maybe I will be back when it’s possible to get a train from Palembang to Medan.
Where to stay in Palembang
As a visitor to Palembang I would pick somewhere along the metro line, close to the river. I initially thought that Ampera Station next to the river would be better, but there aren’t many hotels there and it’s still more of a working port area.
I stayed at a basic RedDoorz budget hotel near Cinde Station, and there are now a number of RedDoorz and OYO branded budget hotels in the city.
also near the station is the Horison Ultima Palembang Hotel.
[Horison Ultima Palembang Hotel also branded as Sudirman City Center Hotel.]
The area near the Bumi Sriwijaya station is also a good area for visitors, being next to the aforementioned mall and other shops. Aryaduta Palembang is a big 4-star hotel located next to the Palembang Square shopping mall.
Search for more hotels in Palembang.
Map of Palembang
Here is a map showing the station of the Palembang LRT and some of the sites mentioned in this article.