Pasemah: Cyst Graves and Carved Boulders

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.

cyst grave
Cyst graves on the Pasemah (Besemah) Plateau

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.

Gunung Dempo, misty and majestic

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.


Pasemah Plateau: A Train Without Tickets

When it was time to leave Palembang, we decided to go by train, presuming it could scarcely be as shambolic as the rest of the city’s transport. While its becak and taxi drivers were a motley collection of drunks and thieves, we couldn’t imagine an entire railway system falling into the hands of the mafia. We were wrong, of course, and really we had no one but ourselves to blame; one of our guidebooks had warned us off Kertapati train station, depicting it as a viper’s nest of gangsters and lowlifes. The book dated back to the mid 1990s, so we had presumed, erroneously, that things might have changed in the last fourteen years. Thinking we knew better, we decided to check it out ourselves.

The station was set behind the Ogan Mosque, at the confluence of the Musi and Ogan Rivers. We went by minibus, crossing the Ampera Bridge and heading out through Palembang’s Ulu side of town, a rather run-down and impoverished district. Just before the station was the Wilhemina Bridge, spanning the Ogan River, just back from its mouth. Having crossed the bridge, we tapped on the roof, indicating that we wanted to get down. The minibus pulled over to the left and we climbed out through the narrow doorway, all legs and arms. On the other side of the road was Kertapati train station.

We crossed the road, finding a chain-link fence of the sort used to enclose industrial sites- the whole place had an abandoned look. At the entrance gate, someone told us that it was ‘Tutup’: closed. He probably thought he was being helpful, but as the messenger of bad news, he hardly endeared himself to us; we walked off, muttering darkly about busybodies. When we reached the main building- a singularly unimpressive structure- we found that it was indeed closed. There were a few men lingering on the front steps who explained that the ticket office opened for only two hours a day, from 4 to 6 p.m. But they assured us that they were the answer to our problems, offering to sell us scalped tickets on today’s train service to Lubuk Linggau. Anyone who ever seen a single B-grade action flick would have known better than to trust these dodgy characters, with their moustaches, leather jackets and hood-like machismo. We left, debating whether or not to try again in the official opening hours. In the end, we decided to give it another go, coming back at half past three.

Kertapati Train Station
Kertapati Train Station

In the meantime, Kertapati had undergone a transformation. The small group of scalpers and idlers on the front steps had increased threefold, and with the platforms now opened, numerous other categories of person had arrived on the scene. Passengers sat about with their piles of taped-up boxes, contemplating the trip upcountry, and noisy troops of schoolboys ran about, laughing and joking, in all likelihood having no other playground in the neighborhood. One particularly pesky group followed us about, daring each other to scream out ‘Mister’ and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Vendors had also arrived during our absence, offering rice parcels, diced fruit or packets of tempe, a popular kind of bean-curd. The only thing missing was the obvious presence of officialdom, though after a long search we did find one uniformed man, who stood looking at a train, as if trying to make it move by force of willpower alone. We approached him and asked where the stationmaster’s office was. He waved in the general direction of the building behind but said nothing.

I wanted to blow a little steam by telling the station master what he thought of the scalpers being able to operate with such impunity. The black market dealings were so blatant that they must have had the station master’s consent; no doubt he was getting his cut of the proceeds. But over time we had learnt that it was better to voice our complaints rather than let them stew, so off we set, expecting either blank-faced incredulity or nervous laughter.

When we got there, the door was open, and there were three men sitting inside.

“Is this the stationmaster’s office?” we asked.

Though it said so over the door, we had been thrown by the appearance of men in plain clothes, seated at the desks.

None of them answered, so we asked again. This time one of them confirmed that it was the stationmaster’s office, asking what he could do for us.

I explained that he was upset and disappointed by the number of scalpers about badgering passengers. I said that surely scalping was illegal and wondered why the station officials were so willing to tolerate criminal activity. At this point one of the men asked where we wanted to travel to, saying he might be able to help us. We told him our destination was Lahat, wondering what this had to do with anything. He said he had some tickets there and asked if we interested in buying them. Cameron asked him if he was railway staff, and he confessed that he wasn’t. I asked where the stationmaster was, and he said that he hadn’t come in yet- maybe we could meet him around 4 p.m. We then knew with complete certainty that preman small time gangsters- not only had control of the entrance to the station but of the stationmaster’s office itself. I laughed aloud, telling them it was ‘parah sekali’, desperately bad, that the likes of them should be tolerated.

We walked out of the office and around to the front of the station, joining the queue in the ticket office.

“Look at that,” said Cameron with contempt, pointing out a huge banner which said the scalping of tickets was strictly prohibited and offenders would be reported to the authorities.

The pretense of integrity is familiar to anyone who knows Indonesia well. There are endless declarations that corruption will be stamped out and even oath-taking ceremonies in which civil servants disavow the nefarious ways of the past. Of course what ensues is ever more devious and byzantine corruption schemes. When the KPK, the leading anti-corruption agency, conduct raids on government offices, they often find envelopes stuffed with ‘lunch money’, relayed about by networks of office boys, janitors and toilet cleaners. These reports have given us the impression that the life of the Indonesian public servant is a cloak and dagger affair, resembling in many respects the world of international espionage. Yet accustomed as we were to the parlous station of public administration, Kertapati train station was still a surprise. Whereas corruption was usually a back room affair, on the Sumatran railways it took place in broad daylight, right beneath a banner asking you to report it to the police.

We were third in the queue, a position we had to fight hard to defend from a drunk who kept trying to barge through. We told him to queue like everyone else, refusing to let him past. But every other minute or so, he kept trying to push by on one side or the other. Unlike in Australia, public drunkenness is not a common sight in Indonesia. Whereas many Indonesian Muslims drink occasionally, it is usually done discreetly, certainly not paraded about for all and sundry. Yet this was our second run-in with a drunk local since we had arrived in Palembang. Combined with the evidence we had seen of pervasive low-scale lawlessness, this created a rather unfavorable impression. When Indonesian friends had warned us that Palembang was Kota Preman, the city of gangsters, we had dismissed this as uninformed prejudice. We were beginning to think that the city may indeed have a serious law and order problem.

The counter finally opened at 4 p.m., and the two customers before us were served in a matter of minutes. Arriving at the ticket counter, we said we wanted to buy two first-class tickets on the evening service to Lahat. The women at the counter shook her head, telling us that the train was sold out. This seemed preposterous, as there had been only two people in the line before us. We asked if it was possible to buy tickets for the following day and she confirmed that it was not; you could only buy tickets on the day of departure. We double-checked that there were absolutely no first-class seats for today’s service, despite the fact that the window had only opened a few minutes before. She said this was right. We asked her what tickets the customers before us had bought and she explained that there were travelling on the other line to Tanjungkarang. There were still tickets on that service, but there were no seats to Lahat at all. We asked if she was really telling us that every seat in the first-class carriage had been sold to scalpers, and she confirmed that this was the case, suggesting that we strike a deal with one of them: there were plenty to choose from. Realizing how hopeless the situation was, we walked off, shaking our heads in wonder. Though we cursed Kertapati train station at the time, in retrospect, it provides a valuable introduction to Indonesia’s sick bureaucracy. Where else is every last train seat auctioned off on the black market

Colonial Palembang

As we have already said, Palembang is not a city with a high profile. Few people in Western countries are likely to have heard of it, let alone consider it as a tourist destination. In all our trips to the city, we have encountered only a handful of Westerners, none of them backpackers. The majority, expats working in the oil industry, have come for the money, not the chance to explore a little-known corner of the world.  As the major tourist areas of the island are far off, in West Sumatra and North Sumatra, it does not even see travellers on the way to somewhere else. Therefore, the guide books have tended to cover the city in a rather perfunctory manner. This is a shame, because a quick look around downtown and the riverfront will not do the city justice. To get an appreciation of Palembang, you need to get out onto the Musi River and explore its traditional kampungs. However, the poverty, neglect and grime, which are such a feature of ‘old Palembang’, are likely to deter visitors from engaging in detailed exploration. This means that Palembang is still vastly under-rated as an historical destination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of colonial Palembang- a part of the city which none of the travel guides even acknowledge as existing. Therefore, our ‘discovery’ of colonial Palembang was quite inadvertent. It just so happened that the Hotel Swarna Dwipa was set right in the middle of the former Dutch cantonment.

Right in front of the hotel was a pretty little park, set about a lake. In many places this might not seem remarkable, but it is most unusual to find green space near the centre of a major Indonesian city. Public space of any description is a rarity in Indonesian cities, the accent being on development at any cost. Yet the need for it is emphasized by this park’s popularity with the citizens of Palembang. The first night of our stay at the Swarna Dwipa was a Saturday, and when we went out for an evening stroll, we found the area around the lake quite a hive of activity. It seemed that on Saturday nights local youth turned up on motorbikes to hang out with their friends, or, just as often, girlfriends. The dark streets around the park provided a little bit of privacy for young couples. The larger groups socialized in the gregarious mode of young Indonesians, with laughter, noisy banter and even bursts of song. They sometimes bought cigarettes, boiled peanuts or fried rice from the little stalls that were set up on the roadside. For the better-heeled, there were cafes and restaurants, with terraces looking out at the lake and the coloured lights that had been added to the trees. These too were popular with young couples out on dates.

The lake- perhaps more of a pond, really- was set right at the heart of the former colonial cantonment. The streets around there still contained quite a number of Dutch houses. Like elsewhere in Indonesia, most of these were homely bungalows, with pretty, little gardens. The streets were lined with shade trees, a common practice in colonial times, but one which has not been followed since Independence. Many local governments now pay lip service to ‘greener’ government, but it is exhaust fumes, rather than greenery, which is the most common feature of larger urban areas. This is one reason why the former colonial neighbourhoods are still amongst the most desirable residential areas in larger cities, like Jakarta, Medan and Bandung. Like elsewhere in the developing world, the hard anti-imperialist attitudes of post-Independence rulers did not prevent them from moving straight into the villas of their former colonial masters. This pattern is also in evidence in Palembang. Just behind the pond is the grandest of these houses, a large, white colonial mansion, with stately columns in front. When we stopped to buy a cone of boiled peanuts, the vendor told us that it was now the residence of the governor of South Sumatra. We have no idea whether he was correct, but the armed guards at the front gate certainly suggested that some important personage lived inside; clearly, the new elite are no less keen than their Dutch forebears on keeping out ‘the mob’.

The following morning, we got up, intent on a walking tour of the area. We made an early start, expecting the heat to be intense by mid-morning. We soon found that it was the area as a whole, rather than specific ‘monuments’, which were the real attraction. But of course, some buildings were more noteworthy than others. Our first find was the textiles museum, on the corner opposite the park. Considering Palembang’s rich textiles tradition, this seemed promising. It was housed in an attractive building, in the tropical colonial style, with opened shutters on the windows. The ‘period’ feel was added to by the old cannons sitting out on the front lawn. Unfortunately, on that, and all subsequent visits to the city, the museum was closed. A worker claimed that this was due to renovations- and he was carrying a ladder- but, somehow, he did not leave us with the expectation that the museum would be opening anytime soon. The traveller wishing to learn about songket is best advised to visit a commercial showroom.

In the street behind the unsociable textiles museum was a small, out-of the-way Chinese temple, which looked very attractive, lit up by votive candles. Early morning devotees from the large Chinese Indonesian community were lighting incense sticks and candles in the altar hall. Having looked at this, we turned back and followed the street between the lake and the alun-alun. The buildings along this street formed the core of the city’s colonial-era administrative district, but many of the buildings have been insensitively modernized. Art-deco buildings from the 1930s have had black tinted windows and modern signage added, which substantially reduces their heritage feel. Fortunately the most important colonial building, Kantor Ledeng, is still in excellent condition. For us, this unusual building proved to be one of the city’s most interesting sights.

The town hall of Palembang
The town hall of Palembang

Today, the Kantor Ledeng is the office of the mayor of the city of Palembang. But it dates back to the end of the 1920s, when it was commissioned by the Dutch colonial administration. A multi-purpose design was created, whereby a thirty-five meter water tower was built on top of a boxish, flat-roofed office. The tower had a capacity of twelve hundred cubic metres- enough to distribute clean water to the whole colonial district. It was therefore an essential part of plans to make Palembang more amenable for its Dutch residents. But as a symbol of Dutch ambitions and authority, it was to assume symbolic significance in later decades. During the Second World War, drawn by the area’s rich oilfields, the Japanese gained control of the area. As a sign of the new political order, the Kantor Ledeng became the office of the Japanese Resident.

Though they would not have known it, the Japanese were just one of many invading powers to have occupied this ancient city. In 990 AD, the famous Javanese king, Dharmavamsa, had attacked and occupied Sriwijaya. Three years later, the Sriwijayan king, Culamanivarmadeva, staged a counter-attack, driving the Javanese from the city. These early Javanese were followed by Cholas from South India, Javanese from later, even more powerful, kingdoms, Chinese pirates and, finally, Dutch colonialists. Like the occupation of their tenth century predecessor, Dharamavamsa, that of the Japanese lasted only three years. But the Kantor Ledeng maintained its symbolic significance even after their departure. When Indonesian leaders declared independence on August 17, 1945, (now celebrated as Independence Day), local nationalists climbed atop the office building and unfurled the merah putih– the red and white national flag.

But even without knowledge of this history, the building was worth a look. Dutch colonial architecture is not a big drawcard with most tourists, but they left an impressive artistic legacy. Preferring an all-white colour scheme, it may seem austere to some tastes. But pay attention to the small detail on a building like this and you will see how much care was taken. The doors feature intricate decoration and a trim of dark stone is used around the bottom. This creates a pleasing contrast with the brilliant white of the rest of the building. It reminded us of some our other favourite buildings from the same era: the Cirebon Town Hall, in West Java, and the Sultan’s Palace in Kutai, East Kalimantan. It is best seen at night, when the flood-lit water tower glows above the Old Town.

The Balai Prajurit, a colonial era building in Palembang
The Balai Prajurit, a colonial era building in Palembang

Between the water tower and the Musi River, we found two more of the city’s best-preserved colonial buildings. The first of these is known today as the Balai Prajurit (Soldier’s Hall), and this large, solid structure was indeed the Dutch military headquarters. It is located near the western end of the old sultan’s fort, no doubt intended to remind the people of Palembang that military power had shifted to the Europeans. On the other side of the road, right along the Musi riverfront, is a much friendlier-looking building. Set in a wide, open garden is a gracious art-deco building, with elegant curves and a shingled roof. In Dutch times, this was a popular society meeting place. It now has a rather unloved appearance, but it is still in a reasonable state of repair. Far from deserving its reputation as a dull place, with little to see, Palembang has a wealth of architecture from a variety of periods. We gained a great deal of pleasure from just wandering around and looking at its remarkable collection of buildings. Ignored by tourists, guide book writers and the citizens of Palembang alike, colonial Palembang nonetheless proved to be one of a fertile hunting ground. 

Introducing the Pasemah (Besemah) Plateau

Pasemah is an plateau that stretches for about 70 kilometres along a wide valley which lies amidst the Barisan mountains, the main mountain chain on the island of Sumatra. The plateau has an average height of between 500 and 1,000 metres above sea level. It is almost entirely largely covered with tea, coffee and other cash crops these days, though small pockets of montane forest remain around waterfalls, lakes and other waterways. The whole plateau is magnificently scenic and unspoilt and the views are remarkable. In Pasemah (known locally as Besemah) every vista is dominated by the magnificent volcanic cone of Gunung Dempo (3,150 metres tall), which stirred to life after a long rest a few years back.

The main access road to Pasemah is from the east, along the Lematang River, via a steep pass leading up from the town of Lahat. It is about a two to three hour trip up here from Lahat on public transport along a narrow road edged by bamboo thickets. White water can often be seen running down the ravine beside the road. Lahat itself has good road and rail connections with Palembang, which is the main city and service centre of the entire South Sumatra region. You an reach Lahat from Palembang in five or six hours by either road or rail. While in town you might as well head out and see the striking rock column known as Bukit Serelo.

Bukit Serelo raises its thumb

Two millenium ago, the area around Pasemah’s present-day administrative capital of Pagar Alam was home to a highly developed indigenous culture that carved and erected large stone monuments. According to leading Pasemah historian, Bellwood,these monuments include groups and avenues of upright stones (menhirs), stone blocks with mortars, troughs with human heads and figures carved on them, terraced platforms, three-legged ‘dolmen’, stone burial chambers, and many dynamic stone carvings of humans and animals.All this amounts to one of the most impressive and intriguing megalithic complexes in all of Indonesia.

Kedah (2.10) A Nation Built of Tin

From Ipoh we caught the train south to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It was a three hour trip which passed quickly enough in spite of the best efforts of a boisterous group of Indian-Malaysians to fill the carriage with noise and laughter. On the seats all around us an extended family of Indian-Malaysians chatted away, ate pre-packed food from plastic containers, shifted restlessly in their seats, and jested with or howled at their noisy kids, most of all a matron in a green sari who sat right opposite us. Apart from watching this bunch in action, I spent a long time gazing out the window. Most of the view was kelapa sawit trees, making me despair that the whole of the Malayan peninsula was becoming one vast continuous plantation, though there were small villages too. In these we saw modern Malay mosques or, less often, a Tamil-style Hindu temple: these invariably had Nandi figures set along the walls and a tall multi-coloured gopura over the front door.

     I thought again of Anang, who we had met on Langkawi, and in particular his false assumption that the current religious affiliations and cultural identities of Malaysia’s different tribes had always been as they were in the modern day. This projection of the cultural norms of modern Malaysia onto the distant past of the peninsula was far from confined to this one man either. Many Malays online had assumed that the kingdom of Kedah was a Hindu colony, founded by Tamil traders. This was far from an obvious conclusion as the evidence and logic suggested that these seafarers had come to trade in local markets. Yet for bhumiputras (native Malays, literally sons of the soil) the cognitive dissonance of the idea that the Malays were once Hindus was so great that they often drew false conclusions about their own past. Whereas the Javanese know they were long Hindus, the Malays appear shocked by the idea. Overly rigid notions of identity and ethnicity were clearly a problem in Malaysia.

    These distorted views had been endless propagated and reinforced by the state and especially UMNO, one of the longest-ruling political parties in the world. In order to stay in power- which they had done for half a century at the time of our visit- they had played ethnic groups off against each other and stoked the fears of ethnic minorities. To get the votes of the Chinese and Indians, UMNO claimed that they were all that stood between the Chinese and Indians and the short of communal slaughter which had descended on Malaysia in 1969. The anti-Chinese pogroms claimed 196 lives according to official sources but independent sources claim the true figure was much higher. To get the votes of Malays, they had instigated a program of ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of ethnic Malays, which had improved the lot of Malays but had generated a lot of resentment with other groups, especially the Indian-Malaysian working class, who were now much poorer than the Malays receiving ‘positive discrimination’. This policy, often referred to as the bhumiputra policy, had attracted some harsh criticism from local critics but the Western media had long been surprisingly muted in its response. Indian commentator Venkatsen Vembu offered a suitable introduction to what doubters thought of it. He wrote in 2008, “In practice, of course, Malaysian civil society is hopelessly fractured along racial lines, to the extent that it bears some resemblance to an apartheid regime,” and, “[The Bhumiputra Policy] has led to a polarised social polity and economy where Malay Muslims live off their entitlements but find that their entrepreneurial spirits have been progressively blunted, reducing them to a community that looks to government handouts in perpetuity.” These views were now widely held amongst minorities and had resulted in increasing setbacks for the ruling party in various elections, despite a repressive mainstream media which did little besides run press releases for UMNO.

   These ethnic tensions had been made even worse by the rise of PAS, an Islamist party which had claimed victories in a couple of staunchly Muslim East Coast states. By the 1990s UMNO was trying to win Malay votes not only by ‘Malay affirmative action’ programs but also by claiming to be the true defenders of Islam. While this mostly consisted of tough talk on Israel, a focus on sharia banking and preachy lectures to the West which no one in Washington, London or Sydney paid any attention to, on the ground in Malaysia it had inspired some firebrand Islamists to implement a series of Hindu temple demolitions. Human rights activists claimed that there had been more than 100 temples demolished in the decade before our visit, with the Indian community rarely being consulted about the plans in advance. One particularly resented incident had occurred in the fervently Islamic city of Shah Alam- the new capital of Selangor state- in the Klang Valley, just outside Kuala Lumpur. As the Asia Human Rights Commision reported:

The latest incident happened on 12 June 2006 where a 110-year-old temple’s three Hindu deities were smashed to pieces and destroyed with sledge hammers right before the devotee’s eyes. This was done by the Shah Alam mayor, his enforcement team, Shah Alam police and an unknown group of Malay Muslims.

In light of all that we had seen on that trip, I was left wondering if it was time for a new official narrative of Malaysia. The current ideology focused on the crucial role of the Sultanate of Melaka in converting to Islam and forming the cultural and linguistic norms of the Malay race. Yet this narrative focused exclusively on the past five hundred years of the history of the peninsula; moreover, it was rooted in nineteenth century colonial notions of the inherent or essential qualities of particular races. By the early twenty-first century, this narrative seemed tied up with an increasingly divisive and repressive political system and a growing frustration with the established way of doing things. It seemed to me that there was an alternative view of Malaysian history available, which recognized the long contribution of Indian and Chinese traders and merchants to the development of the peninsula. It would be a history which recognized the importance of the shiny allure of tin in drawing newcomers to Malaya, which had in turn drawn Malaysia more deeply into the world economy. The story would focus on Malaya’s long links with China, Sumatra, Tamil Nadu, Thailand, Arabia and other parts of Asia, and it would be focused not only on the Sultanate of Melaka and also on the Sultanates Kedah and Perak. This story of an outward-looking, mercantile Malaysia also had the advantage of stretching back two thousand years rather than five hundred, and in being less focused on bhumiputras only, it smacked less of the crass racialism of official rhetoric.

   We got off at KL Central, which was the modern replacement for the old Mughal-themed station, a true Orientalist fantasy that the British had built. Though the old building had charm, modern KL was all about modernization and globalization, so the new KL Central did represent the aspirations and orientation of the contemporary KL. Typically, before we had even left the station we had seen hundreds of young Malaysians in designer clothes, others in very traditional Muslim garb, Western travellers and expats scurrying in every direction, Indian youths, Chinese Malaysian business people on their lunch break and Middle Eastern visitors from the Gulf, and they all mixed with the shuttered, uncurious expression of people in any bustling world city. Before long Billie had commented to us that she loved the buzz of big cities and was excited to be there. We checked into our hotel and then discussed our plans for the last two days in Malaysia.

   We learned that Billie mostly wanted to do some shopping. In particular, she wanted some kind of Persian or Indian carpet for her apartment, which we thought would be easy to find in Little India. We could go there, have a Tamil banana-leaf curry for lunch, walk the streets filled with spice, fabric, jewellery, sari and Indian pop music shops and hopefully stumble across a carpet vendor on the way.  We remembered from frequent previous trips to the city that it was one of those places which was less notable for any specific sight that every tourist should see than a general lively atmosphere and contrasting neighbourhoods, both of which drawcards were best experienced on foot. In the end as well as visiting Little India, we spent a lazy couple of hours wandering around Chinatown, stopped in at our favourite restaurant in town- a traditional Iraqi-run place where veiled women and their family ate in hanging ‘tents’-  and also stopped by the impressive colonial edifices around the Padang.

     I commented that the city was now such a cosmopolitan place that the idea of a true Malaysia consisting only of bhumiputras seemed more than ever a racist fantasy. Cameron agreed with me. As a keen reader of newspapers he had often bought the New Straits Times, the official government mouthpiece, and he knew better than I how little true debate was permitted in the mainstream media and how authoritarian the country could be in indoctrinating its population. As he said to me, it had adopted a more sophisticated form of authoritarianism in recent years but it was far from a free society- you were allowed to criticize the provision of services, for example, but criticizing the whole system itself was still taboo.

    I also shared my sense of the role that Tamil merchants and Chinese merchants had played in the ancient history of the country and the crucial role of tin in linking Malaysia to the world economy. Cameron agreed that it was a valid alternative view of history but doubted that the Malaysian elite would be adopting any other worldviews anytime soon; there were too many Malay businessmen profiting from the national mythology and the economic privileges accruing from the Bhumiputra Policy, which was even written into the Constitution. He did remind me, however, that Kuala Lumpur itself had started life as riotous tin-mining town in the early days of the British colony, which only strengthened my notion of a nation built of tin. And then I recalled something related that I had read. The Klang Valley itself, which now held a massive conurbation of some six or seven million people, had probably been a tin-mining region since antiquity, and the name ‘klang’ was a corruption of kaleng, which was an alternative Malay word for tin- the other was timah. Cameron started at this news and reminded me that kaleng was the word for a tin can in Indonesia too. By the end of the trip Billie was satisfied to have bought a new Indian rug for her living room and I was satisfied to have found a whole new way of looking at the history of Malaysia, all of it starting beneath Mount Jerai in Kedah.

Dvaravati (6.5) The Capital of Dvaravati?

  From Nakhon Pathom Station we headed straight towards the famous chedi, which was in the Sri Lankan bell-shaped style, though with the addition, in Nakhon Pathom, that it was covered all over in yellow ceramic tiles. Though it was only a few hundred metres away, the air was so polluted that our first look at it was through a greasy layer of exhaust fumes: South-East Asia sometimes makes the romantic sensibility work pretty hard these days. To be honest, this chedi had not been towards the top of our Thailand to-do list. Sure, it was famous in Thailand as the nation’s tallest Buddhist monument, and it was a major Buddhist pilgrimage site as well, meaning its image was ubiquitous in that country, but the country abounded in stupas and chedis and I snobbishly didn’t feel that its supersized proportions were any real reason to become excited. After all, most of the ‘giant Buddhas’ which had started to pop up around the Thai countryside were eyesores, lacking the grace and refinement of classical Thai sculpture. If we had found those ugly, perhaps we wouldn’t enjoy Thailand’s biggest stupa either.

      What finally drew us there in 2003 was the realization that Nakhon Pathom’s current identity as a medium-sized Thai city was just an overlay of an ancient Mon settlement. It was the city’s and furthermore the chedi’s links to Dvaravati which finally made it a must-see site. As we walked down from the station towards the city’s landmark yellow bell, we discussed these links in particular and the mystery of the kingdom of Dvaravati in general. I told Cameron there were so few historical sources for the kingdom of Dvaravati that many historians argued that it didn’t even exist. These historians contended that Dvaravati was more of an art-style or culture-zone than a true kingdom and that there was very little proof that it ever had a ‘capital’ or an integrated political organization. It may have just been a series of moated Mon settlements which shared a language, the Buddhist faith, common artistic traditions and similar technologies.

Yes, some coins had turned up with the name Dvaravati on them and the Chinese seemed to have believed that there was a Mon kingdom at some point in the region too, but the traditional notion that Dvaravati had been Thailand’s first historic kingdom between the seventh and tenth centuries was much criticized. For one thing carbon dating had shown that some of these settlements stretched back well before this traditional range of dates, beginning by at least the year 400. Furthermore, the word Dvaravati had seemed to disappear from the scant, historical record after about the year 700. Still even the staunchest of Dvaravati sceptics acknowledged that Nakhon Pathom had been the major centre of this mysterious Mon culture and that if it ever was a kingdom, this had probably been its centre and capital.

   “What happened to the Mon people though?” worried Cameron.

   “Well there are still some around,” I suggested, “There are still a few Mon language communities in Thailand. I think the largest one is in Lamphun in the North with twenty-thousand people, but there are far more of them in Burma than Thailand today. I think in Thailand they were mostly assimilated and the Thais absorbed a lot of their art and culture. Probably there is a lot of Mon ancestry hidden away in the Thai race.”

     After crossing a moat into the ‘old city’, which was part of the layout of the ancient Mon city, we finally arrived at Wat Phra Pathom Chedi. Once inside we enjoyed it more than we had expected. This was partly due to the excellent people-watching opportunities. The national reputation of this wat meant that even on a workday it had attracted a large number of devotees. There were nuns and monks circumambulating around the main chedi and everyday Thais kneeling before sacred images in the many halls about the site. In the one of these prayer halls or ubosot was a four-metre stone Buddha from Dvaravati, which was thought to date back to the seventh century. It reminded us of the one we had seen at Ayutthaya thought art-historians detect important differences between the two colossi. We later read that this Buddha was thought to hail from a ruin on the edge of Nakhon Pathom called Wat Phra Men- just like the name of the wat we visited in Ayutthaya- and that it was thought to belong to a group of four massive stone Buddhas which had faced out at all cardinal points at this monument. It had later been moved here, where it was still an object of veneration to this very day. A number of Thais, mostly women, were kneeling before the image with their hands clasped together. This sense of a living religion was interesting to us as outside of Sunday mornings most churches in Australia are dreary, deserted places. And yet in spite of all these people, there was that sense of peace and tranquillity which can often be experienced at Buddhist pilgrimage sites: the chedi seemed to exist on a different plane to the hectic, congested city outside.

    As we circumambulated about with the monks, more to see the chedi from all angles than from a desire to imitate the Buddhist rituals, we discussed the unusual history of this monument. Though the present 127-metre tall structure dated from 1857, this stupa was a kind of Russian doll, with a series of smaller stupas hidden inside, one after another. Remove the outermost layer and you will find its historical predecessor. If you peeled off the 1856 version, you would have found a much smaller ruin, with the roots of shrubs prying the bricks apart. Take off another layer again and you would have found an Ayutthaya-era restoration, reaching to about half its present height. This Ayutthayan temple would have enclosed a thousand-year old ‘Brahmin prang’ of Khmer origin, which had reached a mere thirty-seven metres in height. Yet ancient as this prang would have been, predating Angkor Wat by more than a century, right in the middle was the original, dating from the period traditionally known as Dvaravati. This would have been a seventh or eighth century Mon-built brick structure of brick faced with stucco that had probably housed a hair or two of the Buddha, at least according to legend. This would have been the holiest of holies in the Mon-Dvaravati world and the centrepiece of its largest urban centre, Nakhon Pathom.

There is a small but fascinating site museum to visit there too, but which has one of the best collections of Mon sculpture you will find in the country. Wondering about we saw large quantities of stucco figurines and fragments. This was one of the media in which Mon-Dvaravati artists excelled and the cabinets of the museum contained many of these sandy-coloured heads and figurines. There was also one wonderful shallow stone-relief of a Maitreya Buddha seated with his legs hanging down ‘European style’ and his right hand raised in the teaching position, a relief version of the Buddha we had viewed in the ubosot. In seeing this we felt that we were making our first recognitions in the particular art-style of this mysterious kingdom.

After we went outside, we were confronted by the giant yellow bell that dominates every vista in Nakhon Pathom. Like the Mon people themselves, we saw, this ancient chedi had gradually been assimilated into Thailand. It might have started life as a symbol of Mon Buddhism and identity, but by the time Rama V ordered its restoration in 1856, it was ready for rebirth as a Theravada Buddhist monument and a unifying symbol of Thai identity. As we were later to find in Southern Thailand when looking at the Sriwijayan sites there, Thailand is unique in South-East Asia in that it encases the remains of early non-Thai civilizations. There are no similar sub-strata in the sites of Cambodia, Malaysia or Indonesia. The earliest monument-building cultures there were also the last. But as the Thais came down from the North they encountered historic kingdoms in full bloom and gradually, over the centuries, absorbed and assimilated them until they actually became symbols of all things Thai. This is the fascinating secret which you find by patiently peeling back the layers of time in Thailand.

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Shopping in Srivijaya

Srivijaya, the historic name for the city of Palembang, was one of the leading trade entrepôts of the East, with traders coming from Java, India, Arabia and China to buy its exotic store of jungle products. This post aims to introduce to some of the animal products, plants, woods, and spices which drew traders to the city on the Musi. The first of these is cubeb, a kind of pepper which is still extensively used in Indonesian cooking, but which was then widely believed to have medicinal properties throughout Asia.

Cubeb is a kind of pepper widely used in Indonesian cooking

Another popular purchase from Srivijayan warehouses was benzoin. This was a kind of resin taken from the styrax plant, and it was highly valued in Asia as a kind of incense and today it is still sometimes used in fragrances.


Benzoin was a kind of resin used to make incense


Another kind of aromatic resin which was sold in Srivijaya was known, dramatically, as ‘dragon’s blood’ resin. It was in fact obtained from the fruit of a jungle palm, but the name was a good piece of medieval marketing in my opinion.

Dragon’s blood resin had aromatic properties, too

Another olfactory delight was sandalwood, whose fragrant bark was also burnt in the temples of ancient South-East Asia and beyond. Similarly, cinnamon, known in Indonesia as kayu manis- literally, sweet wood- was a common sight in the markets of the great riverside city.

The bark of the sandalwood tree has a sweet smell

In addition to all these exotic plant products, the region’s plentiful fauna was also commercially harvested. The shopper in Srivijaya would have been able to buy ivory, rhino horn (from the woolly Sumatran rhino) and tiger pelts.

Tiger pelts have been sold in Sumatra since antiquity