Sawahlunto: Historic Coal Mining Town, and Silungkang Gold Songket Sarongs

After an hour’s drive from the city of Padang to its northeastern outskirts, the road splits.

Lake Singkarak lies to the left and Sawahlunto to the right, some 95 kilometers from Padang.

Sawahlunto is known as the town of the ‘black pearl’ harking back to the once-abundant coal which was the town’s prominent product.

Today, approaching the town one finds deserted rail roads, stepped rice fields, and the familiar Minangkabau rumah gadang upsweeping roofs dotting the wayside between the busy town of Solok and Koto Sungai Lasi and on to the town of Sawahlunto, a quiet cluster of heritage charm on the slopes of Muara Bungo’s valleys, set among rainforests. The town is quite small, but there is a lot to discover.

It was William Hendrik de Greeve, a Dutch Geologist, who discovered the site in the early 19th century, and found it rich in coal deposits, known as the Black Pearl.  And so Dutch  first investments in coal mining was made here beginning in the  19th century, building infrastructure, public facilities , offices, hotels, housing areas, and stores, to manage and transport this precious mineral resource.  Transportation networks were also developed, connecting Sawahlunto with Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang PanjangBukittinggi, Solok and then to Padang,  investing no less than  20 million Dutch Guildersat that time. History noted that coal mining in Sawahlunto was launched on 1 December 1888, and became famous as the Ombilin mines.

As a small town that built itself on the success of the coal mining industry, Sawahlunto today has become an attractive tourist destination that offers nostalgic traces of an old mining town. The heritage hotel built to cater Dutch scientists and geologists still stands gallantly among other century-old buildings.

Rumah Walikota, the Mayor’s residence, is one of the heritage buildings in town. It was built in 1920 and used to be the residence of the town’s mayor.

Pek Sin Kek House is also a gem among Sawahlunto’s heritage buildings. Pek Sin Kek is the name of a Chinese merchant who had successfully built his business and reputation in Sawahlunto in the early 20th century. His house was once converted into a theatre, then a Minangkabau Community Center, and also an Ice Factory. Now, the building is owned by a Chinese family from Cirebon, West Java who has converted it into a souvenir shop and a heritage house.

The town’s Cultural Center Building was once called the rumah bolaor bowling house as it used to be a place to play bowling and pool during the Dutch era. Built in 1910, the other name for the building was the “Gluck Auf” or the Societeit. It was a center for Dutch workers for their leisure activities after a long day working the coal mine. Once rented to the Mandiri Bank in the early  2000s, the building is now restored and conserved as a heritage asset of Sawahlunto.

The Railway Museum is there to explain the history of the trains in West Sumatra. The development of the railway from Sawahlunto to Padang began on July 6th, 1889. The purpose of the development was to effectively transport coal from Sawahlunto to Emmahaven seaport, now called the Teluk Bayur seaport. The railway started its development in 1889 up to 1894, connecting Sawahlunto, Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, Solok and Padang.

Due to the declining activities in the coal mining industry since the early year 2000, the train to Sawahlunto ceased operation. In 2005, the local government and the train company agreed to establish a railway museum. It is the second railway museum built in Indonesia after the one at Ambarawa, in  Central Java. The  Sawahlunto Railway Museum is now part of the mining tour offered by tour operators in Padang.

The Grand Mosque of Sawahlunto, also called Nurul Iman, was once a steam-generated power plant of Kubang Sirakuak, built in 1894. When the water dried out in the nearby river, the power plant was moved to Salak Village close to the Batang Ombilin river. The abandoned power plant at Kubang Sirakuak was then converted into a weapon storehouse and after the Indonesia’s revolutionary era  in 1950s, the building was converted into a mosque, with the 75-meter chimney serving as the grand tower of the mosque today.

While in the town, visit some of the town’s bests to complete the heritage experience. Wisma Ombilin is the oldest hotel in town, and it’s worth the long travel all the way to this point. Goedang Ransoem, meaning the food storage, was once a place to provide food for orang rantai or the chained men or slaves working for the mine. Now, you can see the old cooking utensils used during the Dutch colonial era. Lubang Mbah Suro is a tunnel built by the Dutch to mine the abundant coal slacks. The Cooperation Building for PT BA UPO which was the ‘market’ known as ‘Ons Belang’ is another site to take in.

Ride the train from Sawahlunto to Muaro Kalaban. Today It is operated only for tourists


You can go by bus or a rented car to Sawahlunto from Padang or Bukittinggi. The distance to the quiet town is 95 kilometers, or around 2 hours by car from bustling downtown Padang. Follow the road to the town of Solok, and continue the trip on the trans-Sumatra road heading south to Java.

After approximately 20 kilometers from Solok, there is a crossroad at Muaro Kalaban. Pay attention to the road sign and direction. Follow the direction to Sawahlunto, and you will pass a winding road with lines of trees that sometimes discourage most travelers to Sawahlunto. Do not worry about the unsettling road as it will eventually take you to the destination.

If you are in  Bukittinggi area 138 kilometers from Sawahlunto, take the road to Batusangkar and then follow the same direction as you find the crossroad in Muaro Kalaban. From Batusangkar, the town of Sawahlunto is about 40 kilometers.

Taxi from  Padang to Sawahlunto is around IDR 200,000 to 250,000 (price is subject to change). A public bus from Padang is IDR 8,000 and a group tour to Sawahlunto in one of the tour operators in Padang is around IDR 20,000 per person.

In Sawahlunto, there is daily trip to Muaro Kalaban by an old train as a tourist attraction. It will cost you IDR 75,000. The maximum passenger load is 12 persons chugging along for around 5 kilometers to take one on a nostalgic trip on the old railway lines.

Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic Indonesia

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