Sawahlunto, West Sumatra, Indonesia is best known for being a historical tourist destination. Sawahlunto’s historical Ombilin coal mine site, considered the oldest coal mine in Southeast Asia, was awarded with the World’s Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO in 2019. Aside from its historical legacy, the city is a cultural hot spot that reflects the influence of various cultures from other Indonesian Islands. It offers not only a beautiful scenery of mountains and hills for hikers, nature lovers, and photographers, but it is also a venue for paragliding. On top of that, dubbed the “black pearl city”, Sawahlunto has hosted the international Tour de Singkarak bicycle race, and more recently, the Coal Trail Marathon.
Having said all that, however, our family’s trip to Sawahlunto was a mixture of feelings: sadness, admiration, relaxation, and fun. Such as the case of our last visit in 2019, just before the Coronavirus kicked in.
Why was it sad? Well if you go to Sawahlunto, you cannot miss its core tourist sites, and that would be the Ombilin coal mine site with the Mbah Soero coal tunnel, and the museums which constitute the Old Town. These sites tell the story of Indonesia under Dutch colonialism. In 1898, in what is now Sawahlunto, the Dutch built the Mbah Soero coal tunnel. They employed Coolies and used forced laborers, particularly political prisoners, from various provinces to work in the mine.
When you visit the tunnel, you are given a hardhat and boots and you can walk along the walls of the gloomy tunnel. This is when things get sad. You can touch the old walls of the mine while the tour guide tells you the tragic story of the “chain people”––the forced laborers who worked in the mine with their feet bound in chains. Many did not survive the horrid working condition and some were just left to die in the tunnel. This is no urban legend. Remains of dead bodies continue to be found in the tunnel even as we speak.
Political prisoners from various Indonesian Islands were sent to Sawahlunto to work in the mine; this had turned the small town into a multicultural urbanized city. Today, Sawahlunto is the most multiethnic city in West Sumatra. This is quite apparent when you are looking for something to eat. Many of the traditional dishes are influenced by those from other islands, particularly Java, as most political prisoners transported to Sawahlunto were from Java.
After visiting the Mbah Soero mining tunnel, our family had lunch in one of the most popular pical stalls in Sawahlunto, called Warung Mbah Soero––not surprisingly as it is located next to the Mbah Soero mining museum. “Pical”, known as “pecel” in Java, is a peanut sauce covered salad and is a typical example of a Javanese influenced dish. Pical contains yellow noodles and a variety of vegetables, including boiled cabbage, long beans, bean sprouts, and water spinach. But it is the unique flavour of the peanut sauce that makes it special; made with ginger, galangal, candlenut, and chili, as well as bay, lemongrass, and orange leaves. The result is a spicy tangy peanut flavour. As it was a hot day, we rinsed down this delicious meal with local ice tea!
The acculturation of traditional art performances, such as the wayang kulit (traditional puppet show), is another example of the influence of Javanese culture on Sawahlunto. During captivity, Javanese prisoners reminisce on their traditional wayang culture back home. They created wayang narratives later known as the “chained laborers wayang story.” What makes Sawahlunto’s wayang performance different today, aside from the stories, is the puppeteers’ use of the Javanese and Minang dialect together with the Indonesian language. Actually, the Sawahlunto government holds wayang festivals regularly, but we were never lucky enough to catch a show whenever we were there.
After lunch, although full, we were feeling a bit adventurous. We wanted to travel by motorbike to the hills of Sulit Air, famous for its tough terrain and beautiful view. After contacting friends and relatives to get motorbikes, we realized we had a few hours to kill. Not letting the time go to waste, we decided to visit the old Dutch cemetery, the Kerkhof Cemetery, which is the only existing Dutch cemetery in West Sumatra. As the coal mine business developed in the day, many Dutch people came to Sawahlunto and ended up spending the rest of their lives there. In fact, a number of Dutch people have traveled all the way to Sawahlunto to find their ancestor’s grave or obtain any information, but had no luck.
Finally, our motorbikes came and off we went to Sulit Air, and this is when all the fun began! It was no easy ride up to the top, you need to be a fairly skilled motorcyclist. Lucky for us, we were just passengers enjoying the ride, the cool breeze and wonderful view!
Ending the day, we took a rented car back to the SAGE II Vacation Home, where we were staying, to cook dinner and literally enjoy a peaceful night with no Wi-Fi. As the vacation home is located on the hills of Puncak Polan, there is no Wi-Fi connection and you have to rely on limited signal reception. But believe me, the great view will compensate for all that.
Paragliding is a popular sport in Puncak Polan, where paragliding competitions are often held with participants from other Asian countries. From Puncak Polan, paragliders can enjoy a full view of the town from the skies. Hikers also enjoy hiking at Puncak Polan and visiting the rubber plantation near SAGE II.
Sawahlunto is a small quiet city but busy with many events, at least before the pandemic. This is interesting as this city was once dubbed a ghost town as many residents left when the city could no longer rely on coal. The regional government had to find ways to revive the city and they have turned to tourism and international events. They have been fairly successful in developing their brand of historical tourism destination and in hosting international sports events, such as the Tour de Singkarak bicycle race. The event was cancelled last year due the pandemic, but is planned to take place this year. Like the Tour de Singkarak, the Sawahlunto Coal Trail Marathon which was held in 2019 is just as unique as it took runners along historical sites and through Sawahlunto’s challenging terrain. It was an experience of adventure, nature, culture, and history combined!
If no Coronavirus restrictions are in place, our family is hoping to be able to come back in the end of this year, just in time to see the cultural festivals held to celebrate Sawahlunto’s 133rd anniversary on December 1st.
We would just like to say thank you to Liza for writing up this piece and giving us an insight into the a region that is starting to be travelled more but is still relatively unknown. Liza aka 'Cappuccino Girl' is a blogger who covers a lot of different content, at the minute she is across two blogs Feminist Passion and SAGE II Vacation Home
CHECK THEM OUT!