‘This is the island of hope,’ said an official of the provincial government who received us. ‘It has only 10 million inhabitants, and already it produces nearly half the revenue of the Indonesian Republic.’
Arnold Toynbee, East to West, 1958
That was more than one-half century ago and the rupiah just keep rolling in. Geography dealt Belawan a good hand by placing it right between the productive Indonesian interior countryside and the Deli River where it connects to the Strait of Malacca. This famous waterway has long been in the crosshairs of traders and others who knew of its importance. Connecting the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) with the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean), this 500-mile-long waterway even found its way into the reports of travelers exactly 500 years ago.
“Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”
Tomé Pires, in Armando Cortesao (ed). The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, 1944 – written 1512-1515.
For the record, the Strait of Malacca is recognized as the shortest sea route between China and India, making it also one of the world’s most heavily traveled shipping channels. It also brings visitors from the world over interested in the Sumatran culture, economic importance, sights, and more. Also of note, Sumatra is the sixth* largest island in the world and, today, is home to some 50 million people.
The people of Sumatra are linked to the land through agriculture. Scattered across the land are distinct groups of people who practice their own faith, have their own dress, and celebrate a culture unique unto them. Though Belawan is a thriving city with contemporary architecture and all services a city of this size requires, the people in the countryside live a far simpler life. Volcanoes, jungles, and forests carpet the landscape that also boats Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Lake Toba. National parks are home to such animals as Sumatran rhinos, elephants, orangutans, tigers, monkeys and gibbons. Smaller villages feature traditional houses, some with distinctively high pointy roofs, with sometimes as many as eight families living together. Many villagers still weave traditional cloth by hand, which becomes sarongs and ceremonial mantles.
In addition to the indigenous people, the island is also home to large Indian and Chinese populations, many brought in as laborers, which have introduced their traditions, cuisine and culture.
History tells us that the port of Belawan grew in importance in the late 1800s when it became the transfer point of the tobacco grown inland. In addition to tobacco, other products became lucrative commodities including rubber, palm oil, minerals, coffee and tea. This trade made for very wealthy locals who built fabulous houses, many now government offices. The local people, instead, traded from their rickety, tiny shophouses. This all added up to Belawan becoming Indonesia’s busiest port except for Java. Today, approximately 20% of the country’s exports pass through Belawan. Foreign and domestic investment grows. Experts believe that South Sumatra may become one of the world’s most important coal regions. It’s said that some 60% of Indonesia’s production emanates from Sumatra.
A Look At The Sights
Most visitors want to explore the city of Medan, dating back to its early days as a trading hub in 1682, rather than stay in Belawan. (The distance and driving conditions from the port to Medan suggest that the best way to visit is on an organized shore excursion.) Medan was then a regional capital administered by the Dutch. They left behind a distinctive architecture, language and cuisine. In addition, Indonesia’s biggest Chinese population is found in Medan leaving their mark, as well.
Medan’s Great Mosque is a graceful yet powerful structure that is of interest to most visitors. The faithful go to pray there daily. It was constructed by Sultan Makmun Al Rasyid in 1906 and features a restful turquoise façade, black domes, and materials from as far away as Italy. It is considered North Sumatra’s largest mosque.
Maimoon Palace (also spelled Maimum Palace) is only 200 meters from the Mosque. Together, with the Great Mosque, these structures are considered “Sultan Deli’s legacies”. Completed in 1888 to the designs of an Italian architect, the palace’s 40 rooms were richly decorated, except for the prison in the basement which was not. It is a blend of both European influence, including terrazzo and marble flooring, with Islamic tradition. It is considered an istana, which means it’s the royal palace of the Sultanate of Deli.
Before you leave this region, you might be interested in some local treasures that make great souvenirs from Sumatra including distinctive woodcarvings, textiles and batiks so important to Indonesia, and colorful puppets that are fashioned from locally-harvested cassava leaves. This is the same plant that gives us tapioca.
All too soon, it’s time to climb up the gangway and sail off into open seas as so many have before you. This time, though, you’ll enjoy the luxury those who came before you were denied.