Thursday, 17 November 2011

Travel Diaries: KENDARI

Published in Now! Jakarta, December 2011


The sign that helps sailors who may be lost.

I have always been intrigued by the lost kingdoms of Indonesia — of ancient kingdoms such as Kutai, Pajajaran, Daha and Sriwijaya.

Last month I visited Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi, and discovered that the region’s Tolaki people — from the Konawe valley, 60 km south-west of the capital — were descended from the Padangguni kingdom that had flourished as early as the 2nd century A.D. It could even have preceded Kutai, Taruma Negara in West Java and Sanjaya in the Dieng Plateau, and be Indonesia’s oldest. In the first millennium, influence of this ancient kingdom spread to the islands of Muna and Buton Islands. In the 14th – 15th century the kingdom adopted the Siwa-Budha faith. Eventually, in the 16th century Padangguni, became Islamic, under Raja Lakidende, whose magnificent grave I visited in Unaaha, the Tolaki people’s capital.

LEFT: The ‘Unity’ monument that towers over downtown Kendari.
RIGHT: Swan paddle-boats frame the Ferry Disaster Monument in Kendari Bay.

A depiction of humane whale-culling found at the Kendari Museum.

The Tolaki remain today as a fair-skinned, gentle and gracious people — quite unlike their dark, less-refined cousins on the islands.

As a people, they seem to have lost touch with their history: no-one I asked in my two days there knew anything about their glorious past; most thought that they were “descended from the Japanese.

Tragically, the present government is building Kendari in a mindless modern style — replete with the requisite Social-Realist and Atomic Age monuments — with no cultural reference to the region’s Padangguni era. Only in the ‘Kota Lama’ (old town) have rows of early 19th century Chinese-timber shops survived the relentless march of tasteless municipal modernism.

LEFT: Tolaki beauties in village home.
RIGHT: Animal prints are all the rage amongst the local Chinese supermodels.

Kendari does have a fine airport and a few good hotels. I stayed at the pleasant Swiss Bel-Hotel, which is a good base for trips to the islands in the Banda sea — Buton, Muna, Wanahelu — and for excursions into the hinterand, where the villages and the scenery, including some dramatic water falls, are a delight.

• • •

A colourful Bugis fishing vessel at the Pasar Kota fish market.

The highlight of my trip was my expedition, early the first morning, to the harbor-side fish market, the Pasar Kota (Pelelangan). Daily, a fleet of picturesque Bugis fishing vessels disgorge their catches onto the jetty, where they are weighed by a gaggle of loonies and then conveyed to the shore market, which is a melee of consumers (see my video on youtube:

The scene at the weighing-in station on the fish market’s wharf.

After the market the truly chic go to Ibu Monica’s Pangsit Mie café, ‘ Aroma Sedap’ on Jalan Soekarno, in China town, where perfect roast-chicken noodles can be enjoyed in a gay party atmosphere.

Ibu Monica’s Pangsit Mie café

Another highlight of my trip was the valley of the ‘verge virgins’ — a 5 km strip on the Kendari–Makassar Highway, about 15 km outside Unaaha, where pretty Tolaki maidens sell corn on the cob from well-designed lesehan food stalls.

It is Gods’ gift to truck-drivers.

• • •

Rows of corn vendor stalls line the highway outside Unaaha.

8 November 2011: A trip into the interior

I take a local taxi 80 kilometres out of town to Unaaha (Rp. 500,000 for four hours, includes tip) via the valley of the verge virgins, in search of any evidence of the past, great Padangguni Kingdom. The road is well paved and the villages that line it — neat rows of Eastern Indonesian style box-huts with pretty gardens — are well maintained.

The first sign of ‘civilization’ are the roadside stalls selling smoked fish. The remarkable produce — eels, snails, swamp mollusks, river and sea fish — is exquisitely displayed and the vendors as polite as any in Central Java. The stalls themselves are elegant thatched huts, with roofs fashioned out of sago leaf. In fact sago is a staple for the Tolaki ; Papuans many farmer’s hut and houses are built solely out of sago palm timber.

LEFT: Smoked fish hanging in Tolaki stalls along the Kendari–Makassar highway.
RIGHT: Star-sex-kitten corn vendor, Inul.

The corn on the cob vendors’ stalls have sago palm roofs too, which look wonderful all in a row in the broad shade of the Temesu and Mahagony trees that line the road.

At each stop, however, my quest for information on the history of this remarkable fertile plateau loaded with exquisite people is met with blank stares.

• • •

In Unaaha, I find Raja Lakidende’s grave quite near the town’s centre : it is a magnificent, 5-tiered ziggurat funeral mound affair within a largish walled park. Just across the road, next to an obscenely ugly concrete balai adat community hall, is the grave of his Queen, which sits under a giant Ficus elastica tree.

Raja Lakidede's grave in Unaaha

Each year the governor of Southeast Sulawesi sacrifices a white water buffalo at the grave. The royal tomb keeper tells me that the descendants of the last Raja hold regular rituals here too.

What a shame the ancient local culture can’t be included more into the fabric — physical and otherwise — of this fast-expanding town.

• • •

9 November 2011

I make two cultural probes inside Kendari town on my second afternoon.

I visit the Museum, an ugly two storey office building designed to rival the Soviet Era’s worst and the marketing and tourism complex, which is a big theme park entered through a gate/portal resembling the Portuguese/Dutch fort on Buton Island. The park has a number of poorly design and badly maintained rumah adat (traditional houses) of various suku (tribes) of the region. The Buton traditional house was the only one worth visiting: the two storied (Balinese wantilan style) structure was well built and had some beautiful carved detailing, including a Chinese naga on the ridge of the kitchen’s roof.

Typical country village house near Unaaha

LEFT: Model of a Buton house at the Kendari Museum.
RIGHT: A Tolaki ‘traditional’ house in downtown Kendari.

It is only back in my hotel room at night that I discover, via Google, the rich history of the Tolaki people on a website of the same name, hosted by local historian Sabry Matasala.

• • •

In two days I could not find one good example of a traditional rumah adat though I have sent a scout to take a photograph of one which I believe is at P2 I.D. in Kendari.

• • •

Pulau Buton Island, which I will visit on my next trip to this region (stay tuned) still has a kraton (palace) and strong links to its rich past apparently.

I long to go there now and help unravel the mystery of this ancient culture. (It’s easy on Express Air, via Makassar. Ed).