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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 Panjang, Bukittinggi, Solok and then to Padang, investing no less than 20 million Dutch Guilders at 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.
When travelling from outside West Sumatra, it is recommended that you come to Padang first. Please refer to HOW TO GET THERE in the Padang article.
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.