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Bengkulu to Lubuklinggau


If I'd been more disciplined that morning I would have grabbed the chance of more precious time on the net, but the long hot walk was too much to contemplate so I just settled for getting on my way. An Opelet took me the 7Ks out to the local bus terminal where I soon hit upon one awaiting departure for the mouthful of a town Lubuklinggau. It had been a surprise to me that the nightmare express from Padang had taken the inland Trans-Sumatran Highway as opposed to the coast road, it meant that we'd had to climb out of Padang only to descend the Bukit Barisan range upon approach to Bengkulu, that had afforded me a brief glimpse of Lubuklinggau already. Its ommission from the guidebook told me that it obviously had little to offer errant wanderers, yet it became my next goal in offering just one useful service, an attraction in its own right, a train connection to Palembang. The cramped microbus churned its way up the inordinate climb, and in so doing passed an alluring sign I was able to only partially translate which seemed to promise another British fort. That would have made sense since I had learned that the Brits' influence had stretched far beyond the limits of Bengkulu, reaching as far as Mukomuko to the north for example. I was now also able to appreciate that I'd well and trully left Maning Kabau country behind now, Bengkulu had had none of the impressive 'bullhorn' architecture of Padang, and upon reflection had exuded the air of more a big rustic country town than a city. The outlying region mirrored this with many more "wet field" rice paddies, and the architecture though unprepossessing still had quaint touches in patterned ventilation inlets and balcony skirting. I was travelling by the seat of my pants now, devoid of information on how long the bus would take, what to expect upon arrival and most importantly, how to find the train station. I was fortunate then that despite an ominous meal stop 3 hours out, it was little more than the 4 I had estimated before arrival in town, and though there was seemingly nothing of note beyond 2 squat green Islamic domes, my main objective the station materialised reassuringly discernible just a few hundred metres away. The "Hello misters" crescendoed there, with touts trying to offload inflated price tickets and persistent little boys not appreciating that I was never going to be interested in their Bahasa newspapers. I gave them the usual 5 minute sit out to let them calm down, during which I established that there was a train departing that night at 9. I had intended overnighting in Lubuklinggau, but that would save me the hassle of tracking down a doubtless crummy hotel, I opted for the hardcore option then, resolving that it surely couldnt be as bad as the bus. It had been pretty good timing to arrive at half 5, with a queue already formed to point the way to the innocuous ticket booth, yet thankfully not too big. As time drew nearer to departure the queues intensified, and certainly I was glad I hadnt joined them any later. Approached by a lone policeman, I thought I was in for another round of needless meddling, but he only wanted to warn me of potential dangers ahead and I was glad for his presence to keep the morass at least vaguely civilised. That didnt stop one prize chancer from thinking that he could jump in front of the dumb tourist unopposed though, but I gave him the couple of necessary shoves to show I was no pushover, the crowd let out a "Whoah!' as he got a finger in his face and a mouthful of Scots for good measure. Later he would try to wind me up from afar, but I had long perfected the required nonchalant blanking mode. He still managed to skip the queue some way ahead right in front of the cop all the same but I'd made my point. In this situation you never knew what games were being played and who was who, certainly there were many surreptitious queue skippers who would offer a little over the odds to some incalcitrant near the top of the line, and it was probably a vocation of sorts for many to be professional queue waiters. With everyone squashed up to each others arse I soon got my turn, and the pretty ticket girls offering seemless service were the antithesis of the melee outside. For my first Indonesian rail trip I'd elected to go hardcore Ekonomi class for the 2 quid trip to Palembang, I knew from experience that the Bisnis option was probably only theoretical in its superiority and it was always an altogether different prospect to get into the mix with the down at heels locals. The one piece of information I'd managed to glean from the predictably piss poor railway website was that I was due to arrive in Palembang at the less than ideal time of 0421, I secretely hoped that they would run late and suspected my wish might be granted. Amidst much confusion of seemingly random shunting about, I sussed that the idle Bisnis class carriages werent for me despite the apparent free-for-all, and though there was supposedly assigned seating, the absence of carriage labelling made it impossible for me to deduce where my seat lay. In a manner which will forever remain a mystery to me, a fellow passenger thankfully shepherded me home when the guards had failed to care, and I was immediately hit upon by some young guys looking for a ticket swap so that they could be all mates together. It initially stank of me being short changed again, with the replacement seat being a concave hole, but it was suitably closer to the whiffy toilet and presented me with a more relaxed convivial mix of people of all ages. Yes, the leg room had been encroached upon by plastic jerry cans and the floor was a pothole peppered midden of trampled litter, but I'd seen it all before. Little boys had tried to make a buck by showing me to my seat even when it was clear they knew as much about the numbering as me, and more enterprising ones flogged cast off cardboard so that you might lie upon it on the floor. We finally rattled out of Lubuklinggau on a really jumpy track an hour late as prescribed, with a local boy ekeing out every last word of English he could muster in the habitual friendly interrogation, trying to play interpreter for a soldier in combats who thought nothing of leaning on my knee then hijacking half of my already undersized seat. It was character forming!

Unfortunately another protracted experiment in posture didnt afford me any more comfort that night, and I spent another arse-numbing back breaking endurance test quietly grumbling at the frustration of slow progress and repeated inexplicable stops. It was only at around 5 that morning that fatigue finally rendered me at least partially unconscious, only to then be persistently pestered from my slumber by a newly boarded Islamic madman who would periodically proferr any inane English utterance he could compose. I might have struggled for patience at this point but chose instead to laugh at the ridicule of the situation, he even had me give up my seat for a while in order that he might have room to pray. The supposed 7 and a half hour trip had stretched to 10 by the time we perversely hammered the final stretch into Palembang, and after a double dose of hot sweet tea I managed to drag my weary bones into the station proper. I had thought of securing my onward ticket there and then since the counters were uncharacteristically open yet quiet, but I thought it best to leave my options open in the end. For a terminus operating only a handful of services the timetable still managed to be ambiguous, and I couldnt even tell for sure which services were running. An Opelet got me into the centre OK though, dropping me at the ground zero Kota (city centre) beside what proved to be the underwhelming Garuda Monument.

It was a real sweat soaked slog around the city on arrival, finding all the guidebook's acceptably priced hotels full, whereupon I just had to resort to looking for signs. It finally bagged me a bed, plumping for the more salubrious option of air-con and TV again, since it still cost less than what I had hitherto expected to shell out. After a much needed Mandi and another laundry, a ritual so incessant I had managed to sprain my left hand in that vain, I had promised myself a day off due to my recent hardships, yet still found myself heading south towards the river for the sake of a better idea. The majority of Palembang's scant attractions lay concentrated near here around the Garuda Monument, which proved to be just a disappointing water fountain neighbouring the large but similarly unremarkable Agung Mosque, even if its domes were unusual square based black pyramids. It was of more interest to mount the very long Ampera Bridge which links the 2 halves of the city, from which I was able to appreciate fine views of colourfully painted and red tiled stilt houses lining the banks of the mighty Sungai Musi, as well as richly painted longboats and barges. It was reminiscent of Bangkok without the high rises. Despite my resolve to take it easy, it made too much sense from here not to resist a small nearby museum dedicated to a past Sultan, housed in an elegant and appealing colonial palace with sweeping staircases and shuttered windows.


It turned out to be something of a local history presentation, starting with a series of inscribed stones dating from the 7th century, written in ancient Malay language in Pallawa script. It did not resemble any other alphabet of my acquaintance but mainland South East Asia or Sanskrit were possible links.

The Sriwijaya Empire

Initially thought to refer to a king, Sriwijaya was eventually deduced to be the name of a Kingdom, gleaned from the 9th century Kota Kapur inscribed stone discovered on nearby Bangka Island. The kingdom prevailed from the 7th to 13th centuries, with Palembang serving as its capital. It was a state primarily built on maritime strength, a power base initially realised from the proceeds of agriculture and tin, iron and gold mining. Indeed, Palembang means "place to pan for gold". Chinese sources reveal it to have evolved into a strategic power and centre of learning and religion, with many linguistic and Buddhist influences having pervaded from India. At the height of its influence it controlled the Malay peninsula and Southern Thailand as well as parts of Sumatra, and it reached across to Java most notably in the construction of the Borobudur temple complex. It has also been linked with the establishment of another temple in Nalanda, Southern India. This betrayed the fact that the Sriwijayans like so many other dynastys after them grew wealthy by controlling the India-China trade route, acting as a waypoint and mercantile centre whilst ships waited for favourable winds. In house fighting and external pressures saw its demise, and a storyboard told of how the Palembang Sultanate was subsequently formed in 1573 in a breakaway from Javanese tutelage. The Sultan for whom the museum is named, crowned 1803, is a particular local hero, having followed a policy of determined opposition to colonialism resulting in the county's greatest ever naval war, fought against the Dutch in 1821. The Dutch were victorious however, and in taking over Palembang exiled the Sultan to die in Ternate, the Moluccas.

The history was tantalisingly portrayed in old maps and charts which eluded the city's humble beginnings and periodic destruction, and a small faunal display showed that the custodian couldnt tell the difference between a tortoise and a turtle. Outside there were a few sculptural relics, with a Buddha figure sadly eroded, as was one of a brace of large depictions of Hindu deity Ganesh the elephant god. The other was excellent in its detail however.

Thrown out at closing time which regularly seemed to have been the case, I headed next for a nearby imposing structure of unusual design, a giant ugly megalith of the sort that only the Soviets had ever tried to pass for art, resembling a huge concrete tank trap. A large open winged eagle emblem made me surmise it had to be the habitual independence monument. From here it should have been just another short stroll out along to the remains of an old Dutch fort, though succumbing to another inaccuracy of the map it took me a while to track it down, somewhat predictably by the river. It wouldnt have been so bad but my detours just served to intensify the repeated need for pit stop fluid intakes and the number of now irritating "Hello misters" and random aggressive hailing shouts to endure. The partially intact exterior wall akin to the canted ramparts of Fort Marlborough at Bengkulu were all that remained, but I still chanced photos of its once obvious grandesse despite it still serving as an army base. A scummy food market of paddy hatted peasants plonked in the mud was still further redeemed by the rare effort of having painted the surrounding blocks in a rainbow of coloured stripes, though it and a more conventional dilapidated shopping centre couldnt bless me with a few bits and bobs I was short of. Similarly, a rare excellent bookstore just a stones throw from my room couldnt muster a Bahasa Indonesia tutor, and its maps of Palembang though massive failed to reveal where the other local museum lay. A single small tin of Bintang then succedeed in conking me out by 7 that evening, exhaustion didnt even allow me my dinner. That was only after the local moneygrabber at the hotel had put one of her pals onto me though, eventually sussing that she was trying to set me up with a whore. How I wished my Bahasa had been up to telling them to go get fucked instead.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Indonesia

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