Monday, January 17, 2011

Cheng Ho Mosque of Palembang: A Tribute to the Chinese Seafarer

Silk Road stretches across two continents. One end set off in Asia at Luoyang, China, and the other one in Europe at Antioch. What most people do not realize is that there is maritime silk route that stretches across the South China Sea starting at Guangzhou, passing the Malacca strait, and to Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to various Middle East nations. The route has been popular since the 3rd century. Therefore, when a Chinese Admiral, Cheng Ho, performed his first great voyage in 1403, the route had been plied for around 12 centuries. However, it was Cheng Ho who first to become the greatest seafarer for the last 12 centuries that brought the biggest fleet traversing the route and further off.

Palembang sat at the heart of Srivijaya Kingdom, and by all means situated at the cross road of the trade route. Its auspicious position in the commercial and governmental affair in the 14th century had put it as a transiting point for Cheng Ho and his fleets. During the reign of Srivijaya in Sumatra and Majapahit in Java, commerce and education flourished. A pack of Chinese pirates led by Chen Tsu Ji, an ex-admiral from Kanton, China, swarmed in the delta and sea of Palembang.  This had troubled these Kingdoms and raised a heightening concern in Po Lin Fong, ‘The Old Port’, a place that was established by the notorious Chen Tsu Ji.

Cheng Ho was requested to abolish the upheaval and successfully restore the circumstances. Later, he was to be hailed a hero in Palembang, an honorary guest in Java, and a pride of Ming Dynasty led by Cheng Cu at that time. Seven times Cheng Ho came to ancient Indonesia to interlace religious relationships and peace. He visited various places and built mushalas, small houses of worship for Moslems. He had been revered as an admiral and a religious leader at the same time. Today, there are three Cheng Ho Mosques in Indonesia, two in Java, and one in Palembang, Sumatra.

The mosque was first built in September 2005, and officially used for the first time as a place for Friday prayer on August 22, 2008. It is there to commemorate Cheng Ho’s visit to Palembang 600 years ago. Its fading red paint is dominant, outlined by jade green paint in certain parts of the structure. It is a place of worship and a center for social activities as well. A library and a meeting hall are annexed within the 5.000 square meters complex. Not only is this place a Chinese Moslem mosque, its uniqueness has also been an attraction for tourists from Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Russia.

The building might be new, but the spirit and its background story started way back 600 years ago. Located in Amen Mulia residential complex at Jakabaring, only 3 kilometer away from downtown Palembang, the mosque is a must see, to discover the interlinking history between Indonesia and China. There, your trip is extended to a level of time-travel experience as you talk with the imam of the mosque about Cheng Ho and Srivijaya.

Culturally Absorbing Palembang

There is something absorbing about the name of Palembang. Historical records show that Palembang has various meanings although the underlying feature that brings all together is simply ‘watery land’. Half of Palembang today is factually covered by water. More than a hundred rivers run within the city that has long been a center of commerce, cultural cohesion, and powerful kingdom, the Srivijaya that existed long before the name of Palembang itself floated to the surface of history. Also known as ‘The Venice of the East’, this becomes an overstated justification and a confirmation at the same time to the meaning of Palembang.

Located close to the heart of the island of Sumatra, it takes more than a leisure time for a visitor to pay a visit. Curiosity is an insisting element to an enjoyment that all visitors must possess right at the beginning of a travel plan. People don’t come here just to read a thick novel at the laid-back quayside of the legendary Musi River. The bustling and vibrant boats on floating market near the Ampera Bridge make a rational motive. The clear sunset view with frantic stacked houses as the second layer to the backdrop makes a point why you are there with a digital pocket camera and a Wi-Fi-fed laptop out at the patio of your guesthouse. The three-century old heritage that wraps up the resilient Chinese shop-houses is an excuse why on the next vacation you have to get out of the every-day neighborhood.

Not only would a becak incite you to stay longer in the city, but there are also more than a dozen of human interests linger, ranging from the classics to the hypes. On a special occasion like a New Year Eve, tens of disc jockeys congregated in the downtown to deliver brand new energy, while the living heritage like the songket makers and wood carving families are hiding from the trendy exposure. The helpful locals and shy sidewalk food sellers are stickier to deal with than a sad love story on your diaries. It all will reveal your most private statements like the unwrapping banana leaves around the steamed river fish, pindang, or the expressively aromatic sweet vinegar-dipped pempek. In modern and frenzied Palembang, there are a lot to visit, meet and eat.

Just imagine that Palembang is the new form of Srivijaya Kingdom flourished in the 13th century. It stayed there because of the land and the 460-kilometer river, the Musi River. So, why not trying out a river cruise? It’s simply a ‘must try’, and without sliding through the bronze muddy-look ripples along the widest river in the city, you are violating a travel essential, and the penalty is severe for you carry too light memories when you get out of there. Who wants to pass all the attractions, like the Bagus Kuning sacred area, Lawang Kidul Mosque, Ki Merogan Mosque, Kuto Besak Fort, floating food markets, and all the community activities at the disfiguring environment of floating houses?

Kemoro Island is floating in the middle of the running river. It is a center of Cap Go Meh celebration of the Buddhist believers. When it comes to Cap Go Meh, the celebration is massive. All the Chinese communities in the city squeeze into the piece of land together with those coming from Hongkong, Singapore, and surely, China. They cross on local transport called ketek, small boat with boisterous engine, and also ferries, speed boats, and more decorated and exaggerated ones, the dragon boats. Go there via Intirub factory or Kuto Besak Fort.

The landlord of the surrounding areas used to live there in the city, and it is epitomized with the existence of a state museum and especially the sultan’s palace in Kuta Besak Fort. Either you are there as a gullible visitor with a tour guide, or an educated traveler fully equipped with information high-tech gadgets, a visit to the museum and the fort is a smart tribute to pay to the prevailing power of ancient times kings. The Sultan’s palace is not exactly like the Limas House (Palembang traditional house) and built only in Kuto Besak. It started in Kuto Gawang, and then shifted to Beringin Janggut, Kuto Tengkuruk, and finally in Kuto Besak. Built in 1780 by Sultan Muhammad Bahauddin (the father to Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II), the fort is the only one in Indonesia with Indonesian name, and no Dutch or British names attached. This is because the initiation and the development were purely in the hands of the locals. However, there is even no remnant of a palace, since the Dutch colony attacked and burned it down in 1821 AD, and since then it was converted into military base and hospital.

The Chinese has strong involvement in the development and growth of the city. One of the Chinese cultural related attractions is the Cheng Ho century. Today we can visit a mosque in the memory of Admiral Cheng Ho. It is located in Jakabaring Palembang. Cheng Ho has been known as a Chinese admiral who traveled the world with his 62 fleets and 27,800 seafarers. In Palembang, he stopped to pay a visit to his Moslem acquaintance in Palembang area during the reign of Srivijaya kingdom in the 14

There are numerous places to stay while you are in Palembang. Here are some of the places you can choose from:
1.       Lebar Daun Guesthouse

Star Hotel

1.       The Aryaduta Hotel & Convention Center Palembang
Jl. POM IX, Palembang Square, Palembang 30137
Phone: +62 711 383 838
 Fax: +62 711 377 900

2.       Novotel Palembang Hotel & Residence 
                Jln. R. Soekamto 8A, Palembang
                +62-711-369777 / +62-711-379777

3.       Sandjaya
Jln A. Rivai No. 6193 Palembang
(0711) 350634-3113693

4.       Swarna Dwipa
Jl. Tasik No. 2 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 313322
Fax (0711) 362992

5.       The Jayakarta Daira Palembang
Jl. Jenderal Sudirman no. 153 Palembang
Telephone +62 711 365 222
Fax +62 711 364 222

6.       Grand Zuri Palembang
Jl Rajawali no.8,Palembang 30113
Phone: +62 711 313800
Fax: +62 711 313900

7.       Hotel Horison Palembang
Jl. Kapten A. Rivai, Palembang 30129
Phone:  +62711-355000
Fax : +62711-377966

8.       King's
Jl. Kol. Atmo Nomor 623 Plg
Telp. (0711) 363633-362323

9.       Lembang
Jl. Kol. Atmo No. 623 Plg
Telp. (0711) 363333

10.    Princess
Jl. Letkol Iskandar Komplek Ilir Barat Permai Palembang
Telp. (0711)313137-312801

11.    Lee Paradise
Jl. Kapt. A. Rivai No.257
Telp. (0711) 356707

12.    Arjuna
Jl. Kapt. A. Rivai No. 219
Telp. 356719-358505

13.    Wisata
Jl. Letkol Iskandar No. 105
Telp. 434889

14.    Puri Indah
Jl. Merdeka No. 38-40 Plg
Telp. (0711) 355785

Budget Hotel
1.       Lebar Daun Guesthouse / Motel
Jl. Demang Lebar Daun No 35 Simpang Polda
Phone: +62 711 352 124 (bahasa), +62812 712 9405 (English/ bahasa)

2.       Sehati
Jl. Dr. Wahidin 1 Palembang
Telp. 351537
3.       Sintera
Jl. May. Ruslan No. 667 Palembang
Telp. (0711)354618-354619
4.       Crossandra
Jl. Dwikora I No. 1711
Telp. (0711) 313667
5.       Kenanga Inn
Jl. Bukit Kecil No. 76 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 358166
6.       Wisma Olga
Jl. Sumatera 1-7
Telp. (0711) 311265
7.       Sriwijaya
Jl. Letkol Iskandar No.31 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 354193
8.       Surya I
Jl. Sukarjo Seb-Ulu 1 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 512657
9.       Timbul Jaya
Jl. Letkol Iskandar No. 15 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 350177
10.    Pondok Indah
Jl. Kol. H. Burlian Km.9 Palembang
Telp. (0711) 414369
11.    Darma Agung
Jl. Kol. H. Burlian Km.7
Telp. 410558-411964
12.    Cendana
Jl. Jend. Sudirman No. 22 Km.3
Telp. 410558-411964
13.    Ganesha
Jl. Karet No.6/10
Telp. 357333
14.    Permata
Jl. Jend. Sudirman No.292-793
Telp. 369250-369251

Songket is definitely a souvenir to buy. It’s a beautifully hand-crafted sarong that you can use anywhere, anytime, especially when it is required to wear one like entering a mosque or a temple. Indonesia is showered with Islamism, Buddhism, and Hinduism where proper attire is mostly a compulsion.

The best place to see what you can bring in the backpack or in the suitcase is the mall, like Palembang Square. It is a huge mall selling various things you can imagine. It’s a feast for your eyes and a good way to kill the time. All prices are mostly fixed. No bargain necessary.

Prefer a more traditional one? Go to Pasar 16 Ilir (Pasar Enambelas Ilir). If you like to practice your bargaining skill, here is the place like any other traditional market in the country. This multi-storied bazaar is near the Grand Mosque, Mesjid Agung. Songket is found here in various forms, ranging from textile, purse, shoes, fans, clothes, and many more. 

Pempek or empek-empek is almost an icon when it comes to culinary in Palembang. You have to have a strong stomach to sample it. Most pempek is made of tengiri or Spanish mackerel fried fish cake, and put into a sweet vinegar soup with noodle inside or diced cucumber. It’s actually a fresh delicacy but when chili paste is added, it can be a bizarre food for you.

Try to mingle with the locals, where pempek is best served.  Pempek Wak Ayah Lemak at Kebon Sirih is a local recommendation. Pempek Sekojo is also locally recommended at the cross road of Palembang Trade Center. Pempek is also found at the Pasar Kuto close to the traffic light. If you are close to Kol. Atmo Street, go to Tamrin to find grilled pempek, which is also available at Merdeka street, called SAGA grilled pempek . Pempek Pak Raden is at Radial. Pempek Candy is at Arivai. Pempek Dempo and Pempek EK are around Dempo.  These are the places worth hunting as you cruise the town on a multi-route becak.

Martabak India or Martabak HAR is one of the local munchies you might want to try. It is available at the Pasar Kuto. Almost Indian food involves curry and it is no different. However, the taste of it is making you drawn back to the time when Indian started to inhabit the city. Close to Kebon Sirih, there is also seller of Martabak India.

Model Gandum and Burgo are probably the other munchies to sample while you are fulfilling the craving. Model can be found at Simpang Empat, close to Jembatan Karang, or Model Dowa at Simpang Lima or Bukit Baru.  Kwe Tiau is available on Kebon Sirih Street. Pangsit is at the Kavaleri. Bakso Gepeng is close to Pasar Kuto right before Telkomsel.

Pindang can be bought at Pindang Meranjat or Pindang Pegagan at Demang Lebar. Pindang can also be found in Sudirman Street close to IGM. It is also found at Kol. Burlian Street close to Soekarno-Hatta.  Some of the known places to eat are:

1.       Riverside Restaurant at Benteng Kuto Besak Complex is known for its grilled shrimp with boombaru chili sauce.
2.       Rumah Omma Family Restaurant selling lamb chops and other national and international food.
Merpati Street, no. 8, Palembang
+62 711 702 9898
3.       Emilee Iga Bakar on MP Mangkunegara Street no. 71-73  selling anything beef and also a bit variety of sea food.
4.       Sri Melayu on Demang Lebar Daun Street, selling pindang patin.
5.       Warung Mang Cik Din on Veteran Street, selling delicious pempek.

The airport in Palembang is The Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport. There are several airlines serving direct flights to the Capital City of South Sumatra, Palembang. They are:
1.       Garuda Indonesia
2.       Batavia Air
3.       Sriwijaya Air
4.       Lion Air
These airlines connect Palembang with Pangkal Pinang, Bandung, Jakarta, and Batam. International flights connect Palembang with Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Malacca, China, and Thailand.
If you are in one of the cities or capital cities of the provinces in Sumatra, overland trip to Palembang is also possible. You can go to the main bus terminal in the city of Padang, Bukittinggi, Jambi, Pekanbaru, Dumai, and Bengkulu to Palembang and ask for Terminal Karya Jaya or Terminal Alang-alang Lebar. Terminal Karya Jaya  serves buses going to the northern cities from Palembang, and Terminal Alang-alang Lebar to the southern.

City bus in Palembang is one of the convenient ones in the country. The name of the bus is TRANS MUSI. There are two type of buses – the green and the blue one - with different routes.
The green TRANS MUSI’s route:
Terminal Sako Perumnas – Jl. Celentang – Jl. Residen Abdul Rozak – Simpang Empat Patal – Jl. Basuki Rahmat – Jl. Demang Lebar Daun – Simpang Taman Bukit – UNSRI Bukit Besar – Jl. Jaksa Suprapto – Simpang Kedaung – Jl. Letkol Iskandar – Simpang Hero – PIM, and backtrack all the bus stops.

The blue TRANS MUSI’s route:
Terminal Alang-alang lebar – Jl. Kol. H. Burlian – Jl. Jenderal Sudirman – Pasar 16 Ilir (Jl. Tengkuruk Permai) – Underpass Ampera  Bridge – Jl. Masjid Agung – Jl. Jenderal Sudirman – backtrack to Alang-alang lebar.

If you prefer to take a more airy local transport, take becak or ojek instead. The fare is quite reasonable and worth the excitement.