When one thinks about travelling to Indonesia, the image of beach paradise Bali and Lombok or the bustling cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta come to mind. Many travellers tend to overlook Sumatra, an island that is in fact wealthy with culture, history and nature.
My off-the-beaten-path soul decided to give Sumatra a chance by spending three days in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra and one of the host cities of the 2018 Asian Games. Here are all the Palembang attractions, food and experiences we enjoyed in our 3 day itinerary.
Exploring Palembang Attractions
Go Songket Shopping Across Town
We started off the day by shopping for Palembang’s very own style of songket, silk hand-woven with gold and silver threads.
We first went to the songket village of Tangga Buntung and spent a few solid hours at Fikri Koleksi and Zainal Songket. These two boutiques have a vast collection of songket and we snared a few gleaming designs well-suited for formal events.
Next stop was Pasar 16 Ilir, a multi-storey bazaar with two floors dedicated to batik and songket. After a long arduous bargaining battle with the shopkeeper, I emerged from the labyrinth of narrow stalls with five nice batik shirts for casual wear.
Savor Palembang’s Freshwater Fish
The bountiful morning shopping called for a big lunch! We made our way to Rumah Makan Pindang Musi Rawas to feast on one of Palembang’s freshwater delicacies: “ikan patin” or shark catfish.
The fish is cooked in two equally yummy ways: pindang patin is a stew of chili, tamarind and pineapple while pais patin is fish slathered in tempoyak, a fermented durian paste, and grilled till fully cooked.
I loved “pindang” for its rich sweet and sour taste, enhancing the flavour of the fish. I wiped the bowl clean – not a single drop of soup left! My wife was more a pais fan: the marriage between the aromatic tempoyak and fatty ikan patin was like a match made in heaven — she claimed.
Stroll along the Musi River and Ampera Bridge
We checked in at The Arista Hotel, a stylish family-friendly hotel in the heart of the city. Palembang Icon Mall is only a stone’s throw away, making it easy for us to get some food for our little one.
After a short nap, we made our way to the Musi River waterfront to check out the most iconic of Palembang attractions — Ampera Bridge. This imposing 224-meter vertical-lift bridge connects the two sides of the city, signifying the development of the city.
In the evening, the riverfront was buzzing with families out on a stroll and groups of friends happily taking selfies. Our kid seemed to enjoy himself running around and watching the ships and boats passing by the busy waterway.
Admire the Masjid Agung Palembang
We began the second day with a visit to Masjid Agung Palembang. This Palembang attraction is the largest mosque in the region, which can hold up to 9,000 worshippers at one time. Considering that it was built in the 18th century, the mosque is indeed spectacular. The different cultures from the different eras produce an eclectic architecture for the mosque.
The three-tiered roof is typical of a Javanese mosque while the curves along the roof’s ridges are uniquely Palembang. Masjid Agung also has two different minarets – one resembling a Chinese pagoda while the other is similar to a Turkish-style tower.
We spent quite a while at Masjid Agung, admiring beautifully detailed finishings at every corner. I couldn’t stop marvelling at the colourful glass-stained windows and the gorgeous green and white tiles adorning the ceiling of the main prayer hall.
In Awe of the Massive Al-Quran Al-Akbar
We made our way to the village of Gandus to witness the largest Al-Quran wood carving in the world. Al-Quran Al-Akbar was the brainchild of an Islamic calligraphist who toiled for six years creating over 600 panels of the holy book. The main hall left us speechless. The five floors were all filled with the pages of the glorious Al-Quran while the verses were etched in gleaming gold. We could even get up close to the panels to see the unblemished workmanship of these expert craftsmen.
Salivate over Palembang’s Favorite Snack, Pempek
When it comes to food in Palembang, one thing that you shouldn’t miss is pempek — savoury fishcakes made from sago flour and the fish meat (Spanish Mackerel or Snakehead fishes are the most common). Pempek is literally ubiquitous in Palembang: every other street stall and restaurant are selling them!
Upon a friend’s recommendation, we decided to have lunch at Pempek Vico, a restaurant specializing in all kinds of pempek. From the typical fishballs to the tofu-wrapped fishcakes, all must be dipped in cuko, a sour, sweet and spicy thick soy sauce. The savoury slightly fishy dough meets tangy vinegar is just so addictively good!
Learn About Palembang’s Past at Museum Balaputra Dewa
Later in the evening, we stopped by Museum Balaputra Dewa holding a wealth of historical treasures from South Sumatra.
The first set of artefacts we saw was the megaliths at Pagar Alam. Some of them were mysteriously intriguing: huge sculpted rocks of a mother carrying a child or heads of animal-like warriors. The next set we saw was the Sriwijaya Kingdom and its famous stone inscriptions of Bukit Siguntang. The stones tell about the history of this glorious maritime empire.
Behind the galleries was Rumah Limas, a traditional Palembang house that is the last of its kind. If you find the house so familiar, take out the IDR 10,000 note and give it a good stare. The house on the bill note is exactly this Rumah Limas. Couldn’t help my self but to snap photos of the note with the house side by side.
Regale Palembang’s Most Tragic Love Story at Pulau Kemaro
The final day of our Palembang adventure is a ride down the Musi River. We hopped on a speedboat docked at the Ampera Bridge’s pier and was whisked away to Pulau Kemaro. Legend says the island came about after a Palembang princess and her “Chinese merchant” lover jumped into the river out of their love for each other.
We managed to beat the crowd by visiting the island earlier. The morning heat was still bearable especially with the green foliage filtering the sun rays. The first structure that we bumped into was a bright-red Chinese temple with an imposing nine-level pagoda behind, called the Hok Tjing Rio Pagoda. Before the pagoda, you can find the graveyards of the Chinese merchant and Palembang princess.
Visitors were not allowed to climb the building so all we got were lots of photos of this vibrant pagoda against the clear blue sky. The little one also enjoyed another round of boat watching as tooting barges made their way towards the sea.
Get Acquainted with the Arabs of Kampung Al-Munawar
On our way back, we stopped by Kampung Al-Munawar, a 300-year old village inhabited by over 400 ethnic Arabs who decided to call Palembang their home. These well-preserved homes are splashed with beautiful pastel hues. From the river, we walked along an alley towards the village square to see more beautiful buildings in the village. Every house shares common features: wooden shutter windows, iron-wrought railing and the classic limas roof curves.
We had to stop taking pictures and selfies once a bunch of children stormed the square, signifying the end of the school day. And with that, also the end of our trip.
If you’re looking for a retreat a bit away from the city centre, we recommend Novotel Palembang & Residence. The rooms are very spacious and the hotel has a huge outdoor swimming pool and terrace which is perfect for kids to have a splash.
Palembang exceeded our expectations for an Indonesian city in Sumatera. We had such a culturally enriching experience learning about every aspect of Palembang life over the span of three days. Although three days feel so short, our stint was nothing short of enjoyable. Indonesia is hard to run out of cities for a weekend getaway from Malaysia. All you have to do is just to look beyond the touristy metropolitan cities like Bali, Yogyakarta, and Jakarta. As for me, Palembang has inspired me to take more paths less travelled.
Tips For Muslim Travellers in Palembang
- Like most parts of Indonesia, Palembang is predominantly Muslim so mosques and musolla are easily found everywhere.
- The same goes for halal food – almost all the food stalls and restaurants are halal unless stated otherwise. Be careful about eating street food due to hygiene issues.
- Laws pertaining to Muslim dressing are not strict unless visiting religious buildings and attractions.