Colorful Kampung Al-Munawar In Palembang
The speedboat slowly came to a halt.
The boatman pointed towards a wooden jetty, prompting me to alight the boat as soon as the hull bumped against the wooden landing.
I could see the words “Al Munawar” stylized in Arabic script fronting a bunch of pastel blue houses on stilts as I walked up the pier and before I could call out the customary Muslim greeting of “Assalamualaikum” at the doors of the first house, a voice from behind startled me asking to pay the entrance fee.
I completely missed the guard post and the surreptitious guard who was smoking behind it so I backtracked a few steps and paid my due.
I was at Kampung Al-Munawar, a village by the shores of Palembang’s Musi River which has been inhabited by ethnic Arabs over 100 years.
Kampung Al-Munawar is located on the less-developed side of Palembang with other minority groups like the Chinese and Indian. Their predicament came about when Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II decreed that any foreign traders wishing to set up their own community in Palembang may do so on the Seberang Ulu side of the Musi River.
Today, there are more than 30 ethnic Arab families still living in this quaint little village and my first encounter with one of them was at the pastel blue house overlooking the busy waterway. I was looking for Kopi Sendok Mas, a local brew specially made here with a recipe passed down through generations.
An old lady greeted back in a warm “Waalaikumussalam” and called herself Bibi, an endearing Arabic term for “grandmother.”
We had a good chat about me visiting Palembang and when she found out I was Malaysian, Bibi started telling me about her relatives living in Malaysia whom she kept in close contact throughout the years. I wanted to take a photo of her but she politely declined but I still left her house with a bag full of aromatic ground coffee.
I passed by the village mosque with a catchy white and sky blue color combination and an eye-pleasing floral steel lattice frames. I took a left and walked along a quiet alley – the deserted feeling was probably due to it being a weekday afternoon meaning most inhabitants would either be at work or at school.
All the houses were splashed with yellow pastel paint on the walls and contrasted with a deeper tone of color for the doors and windows – dark brown on one side and turquoise on the other. There were also cute wooden benches and planter boxes placed along the street that blends in well with the whole look of the place.
The color palette of this village just gave me the faintest of feelings of being in a Wes Anderson movie set.
The alley opened up to a square surrounded by a set of charming buildings which are culturally and historically important to this community.
On my very right is the residence of Habib Abdurrahman Al Munawar, one of the founders of Kampung Al-Munawar. The family home has an eclectic architecture – the limas roof is a traditional Palembang finishing while the European-style porticoes and staircase with iron-wrought handrails gave a sense of grandeur to the entrance.
Adjacent to it is the two-storey Madrasah Ibtidaiyah At-Kausar, a religious school which is a typical feature of any Muslim communities. I glanced to see if there were any students but the madrasah seemed empty – it was already afternoon and the school children might have gone back home for lunch.
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While I was admiring another building across the square (a “panggung” house on stilts with the most splendid trio of wood-carved window panels), a bunch of children ran past me. School’s done for the day and the chatter and shouts injected a bit of life into an otherwise silent quarter.
Soon after, my friend Om of Omnduut.com arrived for a quick meet up before I leave for Malaysia.
He told me the government is taking tourism seriously and has spruced up this village to turn it into an attraction. I hope Kampung Al-Munawar is not only known as an Instagrammable spot but a place for visitors to actually learn and interact with the Arabs of Palembang.
Before I made my way back to the jetty (the worried boatman actually came on board to look for me), I went on a shooting spree snapping photos of all the pretty doors and window frames in sight. They might not be the most beautiful panels in the world but the choice of colors make them stand out.
There’s even an element of intrigue thrown into it.
I felt like I was being watched every time I walk past a window with blinds, knowing that’s how the homeowner keeps an eye on the neighborhood. I also had a weird desire to open the doors just to take a peek into the life of these people in their somewhat empty homes.
I take much joy in discovering diaspora of ethnic groups in far-flung places, in this case Arabs who sailed thousands of miles away from their homeland and seamlessly assimilated with the locals in a foreign kingdom all the while having the freedom to practice their own belief. Today, the Arabs of Kampung Al-Munawar together with other migrants have flourished and their cultures are rightly celebrated as a part of Palembang’ social fabric.
- Kampung Al-Munawar is accessible via land on the Seberang Ulu side of Ampera Bridge (Google Maps) and via boat through the pier by at Dermaga Wisata (near KFC). A return boat ride costs Rp. 20,000 per person.
- A small entrance fee of Rp. 3,000 is required to be paid at the village’s guard post. Kampung Al-Munawar is open to visitors daily except Fridays from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.
- Be respectful when visiting Kampung Al-Munawar since people still live in these homes – keep your voices down and do ask permission if you want to take photos of the residents.