The Merasa Hotel was a couple of kilometers out of town, a far enough distance to take us back out into the countryside. On the way we got our first glimpse of Mount Dempo, a three thousand meter high volcano, its peak wrapped in mist. The air up there in the mountains was so clear that we could see the mountain clearly, though set at a considerable distance. Coming from Jakarta, a foully polluted city, this seemed quite a wonder in itself. This was not the only pleasant surprise. The rice paddies, receiving a high annual rainfall, were emerald green, the whole landscape having a cool, lush appearance. We had been drawn to the plateau by its historical remains, but from the start it was its natural beauty that impressed us.
The Merasa Hotel was another matter. The ojek drivers pulled up in the front yard of what looked much like a regular house, and we paid them a fare that, by Javanese standards, felt like robbery. But it was clear that they were happy with the money, displaying the kind of big smiles that are a rare occurrence in hassle-ridden Jakarta. We walked into the front room of the Merasa Hotel, which was a mixture of a restaurant and souvenir shop. There were a couple of young women in Muslim headscarves, presumably the help, and the manager, a middle-aged woman who addressed us in English. She said she surprised to see us; they hardly ever had foreign visitors in Besemah these days. She said that there were plenty of rooms but they were quite simple, without hot water- the price did include breakfast and free tea and coffee, however. We had expected to have to rough it up there, so this didn’t come as a surprise. At least the hotel was cheap enough- the bare rooms cost eight dollars a night. While Cameron took our backpack to the room, I registered us as guests. Looking at my passport, the woman said happily that she had family in Australia, one of her relatives having married an Australian. She said it was a blessing to have family overseas these days because the hotel didn’t bring in enough to cover her family’s bills.
“You don’t get many backpackers these days?” I asked.
“Almost none,” she confirmed, “The last one was four months ago. We used to have them before 1997, but tourism’s never recovered here since crisis monetaire (the Asian monetary crisis.”
The plunge in tourist arrivals was a common tale throughout Sumatra, but it seemed to have reached it logical extreme on the Besemah Plateau- it was only a small exaggeration to say that no one had stopped by in a decade.
I then asked her about something that had been bothering us, ever since we arrived in the highlands. Guidebooks never devoted much attention to Besemah- it was much too far off the beaten trail- but in their scant coverage of the area, they invariably called it the Pasemah Plateau. Yet since arriving there, every sign we had seen had referred to it as the Besemah Plateau. We wandered what accounted for the discrepancy. She said that Pasemah was the old colonial name, which Westerners still seemed to prefer, but it was incorrect and no locals had used it for decades. It was not the last time we were to find that information about the area was hopelessly outdated. More than even most places in Sumatra, Besemah was a world forgotten and apart.
That afternoon, free map from the hotel in hand, we set off to explore the Besemah Plateau, wanting to catch our first glimpse of the region’s megalithic past. For Besemah’s main claim to fame is its large collection of stone monuments, dating back to the Late Neolithic era, some two or even three thousand years ago. We were keen to catch a glimpse of South Sumatra before the rise of Sriwijaya, and see what light this could throw on its historic development. Knowing that the nearest relics where in a village just a couple of kilometers away, we set off on foot, thankful for the chance to go walking in a temperate climate.
After about twenty minutes, we arrived in the village of Tanjung Aru, which held much of architectural interest quite apart from its megalithic remains. Many of the buildings were handsome old wooden houses, set on stilts. Some of them had shutters on the windows. These were thrown open to admit a breeze during the heat of the day. People, mostly women, sat in some of the windows, looking down into the street. Upon seeing us, they usually called or waved, sometimes inviting relatives to come and have a look too. But unlike in the kampongs of Palembang, the attention seemed mostly benign- there was no one heckling us or shouting out taunts. It was just a quiet, out-of-the-way country village, surprised by our unlikely arrival.
In the middle of the village was a sign pointing out a couple of ancient cyst graves. Turning down an alley between two, old wooden houses, we soon came upon these prehistoric tombs. The excavated structures, originally built below ground level, were now enclosed by a barrier fence. A local youth arrived, asking if we would like him to bring the key. We said that we would appreciate it and waited for him to return. Once he had done so, we stepped down into the excavation pit, looking at the cyst graves. They were created from stone slabs, with an especially large one functioning as the roof. This created quite a large-sized cavity, but there was nothing inside but a little pooled water. Yet the significance of the place was not lost on us: here on this plateau, a millennium or so before the rise of Sriwijaya, South Sumatra’s first monument-building culture had arisen.
There was an unusually informative signboard at the site. It said that these tombs were a communal building effort and were sometimes used as a hiding spot during times of warfare. They had been excavated in 1931 by a Dutch archaeologist by the name of Van der Hoop. Subsequent research revealed that he had spent seven months living in Besemah, conducting detailed investigation of the area’s prehistoric remains. The presence of stone carvings on the plateau had been noted by the colonial administration as early as the 1850s, but they had resumed them to be of Hindu-Buddhist origin. The work of Van der Hoop had proven decisively that Besemah’s megaliths represented a separate, earlier cultural flowering. The signboard indicated that the tombs had not originally been empty. Important figures in the community, likely chieftains, were buried with necklaces, bracelets, cloths and even housewares. This reminded us of Nusa Tenggara, a comparatively ‘backward’ part of Eastern Indonesia, where as late as a century ago village chieftains went into their tombs wrapped in valuable textiles. Even today, some villages on the island of Sumba sprawl around the large, stone slab-tombs of revered chiefs. Perhaps the traditions of Sumba and ancient Besemah are distantly related scions of the same megalith-building culture, which was once widely dispersed through island South-East Asia.
There was one more sight in Tanjung Aru, our first example of a Besemah carved megalith. We asked directions from the youth who had unlocked the tomb, and he showed us the right path. It was set in the rice paddies behind the village. As we walked across to it, we could see mountain peaks in the distance and the whole area had a lush, fertile look. Though we had gone there in search of history, again and again it was the area’s natural beauty that impressed us.
I said, “Don’t you think it’s strange how beautiful this place is, and there’s not a tourist in sight. Even when I left questions on online travel forums, I only got a single response back.”
“It is very isolated,” said Cameron, “It took us seven hours coming from Palembang and who even goes to Palembang? It would take forever to get here from West Sumatra.”
“But you’d think it would get some word of mouth buzz. I mean, this would be perfect hiking country. The map at the hotel had lakes and waterfalls marked everywhere.”
“But there are no facilities,” countered Cameron, “Look at where we’re staying- in some woman’s spare bedroom, basically. That isn’t what most travelers want. And did you see a single restaurant in town?”
“It’s too far from Palembang to get weekend visitors looking for a hill resort. No one’s going to make a six hundred kilometre round trip for a couple of days away- not on Sumatran roads. If it was a bit closer, they’d get local holiday makers.”
“Just as well it isn’t,” said Cameron, “Look at Puncak.”
Puncak was Jakarta’s main hill resort, situated a couple of hours from the capital. But its proximity to Jakarta’s fifteen million inhabitants meant that the narrow mountain pass became a horrid traffic snarl every weekend. Moreover, the views were crowded out with hundreds of illegal buildings, giving the whole area a slummy look.
“Yes, you’re right,” I agreed, remembering the horrors of Puncak’s traffic.
“If this was close to Jakarta,” continued Cameron, “The roads would be decked with garbage, and every megalith would have a hundred pairs of initials carved into the side of it.”
This sobering thought brought us to the carving. There was no graffiti but the elements had eroded the face of the stone, making the image hard to discern. We had heard elsewhere that it depicted a man struggling with a great serpent. Certainly some kind of figure had been carved out, the artist following the natural contours of the rock to give a three-dimensional impression.
“It’s strange,” I observed, “How many years we’ve talked about coming to Pasemah and here we finally are!”
“Yes it is,” agreed Cameron, “And it isn’t even called Pasemah after all!”
That night, we walked into town, looking for somewhere to eat. As the largest town on a plateau that was home to some seventy thousand people, we thought that Pagar Alam had to have at least one restaurant. We spotted one shop serving trays of cold, canteen-style food, but there really was nowhere with a menu. Trying to make the best of the situation, we headed to the market, looking for outdoor food stalls. Predictably, about the only thing on offer was lamb or chicken satay, cooked over hot coals. We compared a couple of places, choosing the one whose satay wasn’t ‘extended’ with liver or chunks of fat. The food came a couple of minutes later, served with cold, lumpy, pre-cooked rice. This whole experience prompted a return to one of our favorite topics- the utter drivel spouted on the food-oriented travel shows of cable TV.
Every one of these shows featured some gregarious individual strolling about the markets of Asia, enraptured by the smells and flavors of the ‘exotic East’. Why, we like to wander, do they never turn up in a nowhere place like Pagaralam and say, ‘Great scenery, shame about all this cheap, nasty food?’ Of course, we already knew the answer. Not wanting to appear derogatory in their attitude to anywhere non-Western- it might have smacked of racism or ‘neo-colonialism’- they went about ignoring the obvious truth that food in many places in Asia is anything but wonderful. Provincial Indonesia is a particularly bad offender, offering hard, grey, days-old food in any number of questionable eateries. You can also find innumerable food stalls selling such fabulous cuisine as instant noodles or pink ‘fried rice’, flavored with almost nothing but chili sauce, right out of the bottle. However unfashionable it may be say it, the traveller to small town Indonesia will more often be disappointed than delighted by their meal and had better save their appetite for the bigger cities.
After dinner we strolled back to the main street, buying drinks at a little grocery store. We could easily and cheaply have caught ojeks back to our hotel, but decided to walk and enjoy the cool night air. In Jakarta it can be hot at three o’clock in the morning. On the way we spotted an Internet café- or warnet, as they are called in Indonesia. Having nothing else to do, we went inside but found that every booth was already taken. It may not have had any restaurants, or any real hotels, but Pagar Alam did have an online community. There is, indeed, a lively ‘Facebook Besemah’- not Pasemah- community. Such are the vagaries of the modern world.