The Siak River, still and quiet without a ripple, sits on the edge of a city once known as Senapelan. For centuries trade ships carrying commodities and natural resources from the island of Sumatra would dock along this river. It is a river tightly entwined with trade and the power of the kings of bygone eras.
Today, in March 2017, the city goes by the name of Pekanbaru, capital of Riau – one of Indonesia’s richest provinces, with income from a wealth of natural resources. Over the past decade, Pekanbaru has become one of Sumatra’s fastest growing cities.
We start our road trip driving in the dark to explore Sumatra, where the roads grow increasingly quiet and the temperature cools. Above us, a star-studded sky and a glowing moon hang low. Shortly after, rubber and palm oil plantations come into view, two commodities that have helped to change the face of Sumatra. At night, the forest seems unmoved.
We stop at the quiet Muara Takus village in Riau’s Kampar district. A traditional gate marks our arrival, and I walk past an unlocked portal where stacks of centuries-old stones stand tall, enveloped in early-morning silence. The yellow- and brown-brick Muara Takus Temple points to the sky above the canopy of the surrounding expansive plantation. The temple complex comprises the Candi Tua, Candi Bungsu, Candi Mahligai and Palangka. A few other structures stand by, waiting their turn for careful restoration.
The sun begins to rise as I leave the temple, and after a rocky three-hour car ride, I make it to scorching-hot Pekanbaru. The last time I set foot in this city was 12 years ago, and I barely recognise it today. Signs of change are everywhere. Its streets are wide and crowded, almost like a metropolis, lined with big government offices, luxury hotels, malls and other shopping centres, and restaurants offering endless culinary options.
Pekanbaru may be more popular for its oil, but the city itself is never short of fascinating points of interest to visit. The Alam Mayang Recreational Park is one of the most favoured spots for locals. Located not far from the city centre, the space – adorned with animal ornaments such as tiger and elephant sculptures – offers a sense of calm and quiet for city-dwellers. Those visiting with their families can also enjoy fun activities such as water bikes, banana boats, a magical carpet and a ball pit.
Further along the coast, you can find the Kampar River’s world-famous Bono Wave. To catch this tidal bore, you will need to get close to the mouth of the river, where the waves break a little higher – take a speedboat from Teluk Meranti village. The waves might be brown as it is a river wave, but the Bono Wave stands up against its ocean rivals, attracting both local and international surfers.
In downtown Pekanbaru, the quaint Raya An-Nur Mosque is not to be missed, with its five iconic domes and a tower reaching up to the sky. Located on an expansive 12.6 hectares, there is plenty to see at the mosque, from its spacious rooms, some of which function as offices, to its park, where kids can enjoy frolicking in the sun. The construction of this mosque began in 1993 and it was completed five years later. It includes architectural influences from Malay and Middle Eastern cultures. Across from this grand establishment stands a Batak-Protestant church (HKBP). In Pekanbaru, citizens with different religious backgrounds have been living together in harmony for years.
As the sun begins to set in Pekanbaru, the streetlights come to life. I walk along Hang Tuah Street, taking in the city’s crowded corners, its bridges, the rows of majestic office buildings bathed in light. I’m getting hungry, so I decide to stop by a restaurant on Sudirman Street. There are plenty of dining venues to choose from in this city, and I am determined not to miss its most famous local delicacy: a smoked-fish dish with a variety of servings, from fried to curried. From the restaurant, I follow the strong aroma of coffee and find a crowded row of cafés that seem determined to defy the evening’s call for sleep.
Half an hour from Pekanbaru, we arrive at the Minas Elephant Training Center, where I find myself making new acquaintances with Reno and some of his gigantic friends as they dine on their lunch.
After their mealtime, Reno and the other elephants are taken to the river for a bath, and a group of visiting tourists take turns hopping on their backs to have their photos taken and have a go at scrubbing their hides.
I leave the Elephant Training Center, heading east. After a three-hour drive, we arrive at the gate of Siak Sri Indrapura, the district capital of Siak. Several minutes past the gate of this quiet city, a magnificent bridge welcomes us to cross the Siak River. Shortly after, we arrive at the city centre.
Aside from the splendid Siak Palace and the historic museum in the city centre, there is a network of sprawling parks and green spaces in the heart of Siak Sri Indrapura. One park has been designed especially to help children understand traffic signs, while another is designed for rollerblading youngsters. There are no palm trees within the city; instead, there are gazebos to hide from the scorching-hot sun and schools with yards so extensive and spacious that they double as camping grounds. Its parks and green areas are a little haven of quiet and give the city a magical calmness.
Back in Pekanbaru – which is noted as one of Indonesia’s cleanest cities, having won the ‘Adipura’ (cleanest city) award seven times in a row – I think of its high-rises, streets and intersections as I take a dip in a pool perched up on a concrete building. The wind is blowing from the Siak River, and in my mind I imagine the temples, the elephants, and the many rivers that stretch along this magnificent region.
Published: Colours April 2017