The island of Sumatra possesses extreme natural wonders, including some of the best tropical rainforests there are to find. There are also several volcanoes that can be hiked, the most famous of which are Krakatoa—which I managed to climb a few days before it erupted in December 2018—and the supervolcano Toba that fostered a captivating cultural landscape right at the center of its massive crater lake. Indeed, Sumatra is a powerhouse destination. Yet, it is also home to an invaluable source of power that once fueled the industrial needs of a global superpower.
Tucked deep within the Bukit Barisan mountains is Sawahlunto. It may not ring a bell to many, but it is a city that is well worth a visit. The two-hour drive from either Padang or Padang Panjjang is not short of wonderful sceneries including those offered by Kerinci Seblat National Park, the island’s largest nature reserve.
The detection of coal in Sawahlunto is attributed to the Dutch colonial authorities’ efforts to explore and exploit the natural resources of Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies) for economic gain. The attempts by geologists and prospectors in the mid-19th century led to the discovery of significant coal deposits in the region. The coal obtained was found to be of superior quality and the valley, suitable for large-scale mining. But what exactly is coal? Coal is a combustible black or brownish sedimentary rock that is mainly composed of carbon, along with other elements and organic compounds. It is a fossil fuel formed from the remains of plants that lived and died millions of years ago that went through a process known as coalification.
The seemingly endless supply of coal from the site contributed to the industrialization and modernization of the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands. It powered machineries, railway networks, and ships that played crucial roles in transportation and trade operations during the colonial era. They invested heavily in developing it as a mining town equipped with some of the most advanced technologies of the time, demonstrating a most complete knowledge and technology transfer from Europe to the East.
While deep-bore coal mining in Sawahlunto is no longer as commercially significant as it was during the peak of the industry, declining in the latter part of the 20th century due to the depletion of coal reserves and changing economic conditions, the city was able to preserve its mining attributes in excellent conditions. Because of this, the Ombilin Coaling Mining Heritage of Sawahlunto was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. Today, the city boasts several museums and restored old structures where one can gain a deeper understanding of the heritage of this once prolific mining town.
Having been received by the site managers of Sawahlunto as a visiting cultural worker, I was able to see all the components that make up the world heritage site and was even accompanied by the people who worked hard to get the city in the prestigious list. The city boasts colonial period buildings including the company town administrative building, a church, social hall, hotel, hospital, mining school, railway stations, coal storage facilities, and several residences including the extensive laborers’ quarter. Here are some other sites that are of interest to sightseers:
Mbah Soero Mine Pit Site Museum. The museum was built on the site of a ventilation shaft of an underground mine. Through guided-only tours, it allows visitors to go 35 meters deep to get a glimpse into dark and damp world of coal extraction. During my visit, the management had just successfully drained the water that filled up Level 2 and I was allowed access to that restricted section 75 meters below the ground. The site manager shared that I was the first outsider to see it and that it will still take years before the general public can safely explore that depth.
Goedang Ransoem Museum. Not far from the mine pit site is another museum housed in the former kitchen and mess hall compound that was built in 1918. The museum showcases the meals provided to the mines’ laborers and the implements used in preparing them. In each meal, the kitchen used to produce enough quantity to feed as much as 6,000 individuals. Outside, beside the coal-fired steam generator, piles of grave markers of the Orang Rangtai (meaning, chained men; slaves forced to work in the mines), distinguished by the engraved numbers corresponding to the identity of each slave, have been retrieved over the years. There is also an audio-visual room inside the museum where a short documentary on Sawahlunto’s history is shown, as well as a souvenir shop that sells coal-carved products.
Museum Kereta Api Sawahlunto. Twice a month, the city’s train station –the start of a more than 100-kilometer railway network— operates its last fully functioning steam locomotive. It travels all the way down to Muara Kalaban train station, passing through the 827-meter-long Kalam tunnel. The charming train museum acts a repository of instruments relating to trains and the transport of coal.
The impressive and largely unscathed colonial period railway network winds around Bukit Barisan and terminates at Emmahaven Port where another Dutch-built coal storage and sorting facility still stands. Entrance to the facility in the port of Padang, however, is regulated and is only possible if permission is gained from the Bukit Asam Company.
Salak Power Plant and Ranith Water Pumping Station. The former power plant is in a state of disrepair but there are plans by the management to make it into an electrical museum in the future. While both facilities are located far away from the city center, it nevertheless rewards anyone, especially those who are interested in the history of energy production, with remarkably intact and topnotch industrial plantations.
Coal is definitely Cool! At the end of a satisfying three-day stay in the mining town, a greater sense of appreciation to industrial heritage is born. Charming, cool-climate, and tourist-friendly Sawahlunto offers a journey into history where guests can see one of the greatest achievements during the Dutch colonial period in Southeast Asia. It rightly deserves a spot in any travel itinerary to Sumatra.
Image credits: Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero