I am in a ketek – a sleek, wooden-hulled 6m motorised craft – as it slices its way through the turbid waters of Palembang’s magnificent Musi River. The 750km Musi is Sumatra’s longest river and originates in mountains to the west of Bengkulu. With the russet-red Ampera Bridge behind us, my 64-year-old boatman, Pak Teguh, steers us away from the rambunctious Enambelas Ilir market.
The history of the region is near ancient, and much of the traditions of the community remain, but some locals, such as Pak Teguh who has been living and working on the river most of his life, are being left behind as a new economy requiring more skills and education has suddenly arrived in the second-largest city on Sumatra.
But for now we’re off to Pak Teguh’s village, Kampung Tiga Ulu, on the far side of the river. It’s an exciting ride as we weave past large oceangoing vessels, tug boats as well as barges, ferries and other craft. The broad, alluvial plains of Sumatra’s east coast are marked by a series of impressive, silt-laden rivers: the Kampar, the Batanghari and the Siak. However, the Musi, on whose banks the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire was to emerge, remains the most economically dynamic river in the area, as well as being suffused by a mixture of history and legend.
Long a hub for trade, scholarship and industry, Palembang’s history is intertwined with all the great kingdoms of the Nusantara and beyond, from Ayudhya, Khmer to Malacca and Majapahit, not to mention the Chola’s of Southern India, as well as China’s Tang and Song dynasties.
Now a predominantly Muslim city, it has a past as colourful as any trading port. In the aftermath of Singapura king Parameswaran’s flight and the collapse of Srivijaya, the city was ruled by succession of ethnic Chinese pirates, only to be attacked by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho himself.
Once at Pak Teguh’s village, one of his sons, Anshori leaps onto a makeshift pontoon and secures the ketek, allowing us to disembark. Pak Teguh speaks in an unrushed manner. Having spent hour after hour waiting for fares, he possesses a certain calm.
“I’ve been living and working on the banks of the Musi since 1970. I was only 18 years old back then.”
When I ask how his life has altered over the years, he’s answers blandly: “Life is just the same for us, there’s no real difference.”
Of course for families such as Pak Teguh’s that don’t have the educational qualifications or networks to get jobs in local government, much of the 6 per cent GDP growth that the 1.6 million-strong city has experienced has passed them by.
For example, even the 24km LRT line from the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport to Jakabaring across the river costing some 12.59 trillion rupiah (HK$7.34 billion) built for the 2018 Asian Games hasn’t provided much work, as Anshori explains: “To work on the LRT you need special training. So most of the workers come from outside Palembang.”
As it is, only one of Pak Teguh’s six sons passed junior high school. With such a large family (he also has 10 grandchildren), Pak Teguh has to work hard. A good day can see him earn 100,000 rupiah, but in the quieter periods (outside the holiday season) his income can drop considerably to about 50,000 rupiah. When you consider that his family’s expenses are over 3,000,000 rupiah a month, life is precarious for Pak Teguh’s family. He doesn’t even have a cell phone – his eldest son’s wife does.
Pak Teguh bought his first boat with his savings from three years of trading. Replacing it now would cost him 20 million rupiah. He still hopes to pass his boat down to his descendants.
His situation does not reflect the improving fortunes of many of his fellow Palembang residents, most of whom are earning at least 2,484,000 rupiah (the city’s mandatory basic wage) slightly higher than say, the East Java cities of Malang (2,272,167 rupiah) or Jombang (2,082,730 rupiah).
His small house balancing precariously on stilts is crammed with clothes, mats and pillows, all neatly folded and stored away. “This was just swampland in the past. No one wanted to live here. But over the years, people who work in Palembang have moved here because housing is cheaper across the river, here.”
When I asked him what his hopes for the future were, he added quite simply: “All I want is just a better life for my children and that they will get regular work.”
There have probably been boatmen like Pak Teguh plying the Musi River for centuries. But if his daily struggle for survival and dignity is anything to go by, their lot today is very far from the gilt of modern Indonesia, to say nothing of the splendour of Srivijaya.