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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Travel Diaries: Pekanbaru, Riau




Attractive onion-shaped mosque domes are a Riau speciality.

Pekanbaru, Riau

Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province in Central Sumatra, is one of the ugliest capitals in Indonesia but is surrounded by some of the archipelago’s most beautiful countryside.
If the city smells of corruption —row after row of ‘Brontasaurus blockbuster’ office blocks, Melayu-Modern Malls and Godzilla-awful government buildings — the hills and vales are scented with pines and the roads dotted with exotically-painted roadside cafes.

Brontosaurus - modern government building, Pekanbaru.
Riau is the home to the Melayu people, the Malay language (ancestor of modern Indonesian and Malaysian) and Malay culture, which was once centered on the Riau Island of Pulau Penyenget, off Bintan Island, near Singapore.
It is also ground zero fancy dress — the Putri Minangkabau and Melayu matrons traditionally prone to all sorts of fashion excess — and fancy curtains which scream at passing travelers. Boys of school age all wear phosphorescent-coloured pyjamas and big similes. The countryside is dotted with picturesque tiered mosques — the oldest ones constructed of timber and painted sky blue and Sunni green, with shiny Kasbah-style domed roofs.
On my first day in Riau I drove west — through the lakeside district of Kampar towards Bukittinggi — to Candi Muara Takus, a 12th century Buddhist temple complex. Muara Takus was possibly the northern capital of the once might Sriwijaya Empire (7th – 13th century).
It was pineapple season and the road was lined with vendors peeling the succulent sweet fruit.
Oil palm plantations fill in the gaps between scenic splendour.
Most road-side warung are perched on hill tops or riverbanks: in fact bellevedere-making is something of a Riau obsession.
Everywhere the peoples of both the Melayu and the MInang cultures freely inter-mixed with pockets of Hokkien traders and shop-owners in the larger towns.

Batak (North Sumatra) motor mechanic on the Duri high way.
Pretty in pink pyjamas at the pineapple stand, Pekanbaru.
After a leisurely three hour drive we turned off the main road and drove 10 kilometers through elephant-infested virgin rain forest. We arrived late afternoon at the Muara Takus monument and found it delightfully deserted; one small group of teenagers were perched atop a grassy mound in a macho and moist Melayu way.
The four shrines contained within a thick low (reconstructed) perimeter wall; the complex is the centerpiece of a well-maintained park.
The main shrine is a miniature version of Borobudur but without its central dagoba (bell) and mostly devoid of carving. Another, the Candi Maligai recalls the terracotta brick shrines of Ayodya, outside Bangkok.

The Candi Ibu at Muara Takus, Kampar is similar to Borobudur.
More views of the charming 12th Century Candi Muara Takus complex.
In Bali a Maligia ceremony is a princely purification rite for a deceased’s soul, a ‘second funeral’.
One wonders if this shrine is, perhaps, a funerary monument to a former ruler of some kind.
There is no field-museum and no free-range guides so we tracked down the local Datuk (nobleman) in his suburban bungalow in the neigbouring village; he was said to have some informative pamphlets for sale.

Model of the old istana palace at Pulau Penyengat, Bintan at the Museum Daerah, Pekanbaru.

Datuk Raja du Balao XVIII was about four feet tall and very enthusiastic. His pamphlet book described how the candi was a favourite dancing ground for local elephants, and how all the statues of lions and Ganeshas had been destroyed in a warehouse fire (code for “sold to a passing antiquarian”). It is sad that much of Indonesia’s precious patrimony has been dispersed to the winds: it makes one almost grateful for the ‘plunder’ during the colonial era: at least we can now see Hindu and Buddhist-era Sumatran statues in Dutch museums.
On the drive home we stopped at a Padang restaurant and ate delicate curries on a back veranda. On the riverbanks below some locals fished beneath sprawling bamboo clumps; others played football on the banks as the sun dipped behind the verdant hills.
One felt transported back in time, until the bill arrived.

Kampar River, the border between Riau and West Sumatra.
The next day we drove three hours north to the Chevron Oil camp at Duri, Indonesia’s largest. The history of oil extraction in Indonesia is fascinating, especially the methods used to extract oil and the strict steps taken to ensure optimum accident-free records (for an otherwise road-accident-prone populace).
Duri is open to the public: visiting the camp is like going back in time, to the 1970s, when social realism statuary and Soviet era architecture were still popular. The camp also has many charming parks and patches of virgin rain forest.

Entrance to the Chevron Duri Sport hall, built in the 1970s.
I found revelation outside the camp, however, at a five star Batak truck-stop hard on a palm oil plantation where Lake Toba babi kecap was being served, discreetly.
10 February 2013: Four Seasons Jakarta, Chinese New Year
As the rest of Indonesia’s city hotels get more and more glitzy and opulent (read “vulgar”) there’s something refreshing about the S.O.M.-designed Four Seasons, a masterpiece of understated ‘elegance and handsome proportions.

Ibu Yani Arifin (left) and Ibu Astari celebrate Chinese New Year in style at Lai Ching Restaurant, Four Seasons, Jakarta.
Today I invite some glamour-pusses to the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, Lai Ching, to toss Fu Sheng (prosperity salad) and watch the spirited Barongsai lion dance, performance by a Tangerang troupe, in the lobby. I am amazed that the leggings on the lion dancers costumes are identical in design to those of Bali’s Barong Ket dancers. The actual Barongs of the two cultures are nothing alike but the legging design has survived the centuries!

Barongsay dancers, actually brothers,
at the Four Seasons Jakarta.

The Tangerang Barongsay troupe performs in the
Four Seasons Jakarta lobby.