SAWAHLUNTO: The Nostalgic Old Coal Mining Town of West Sumatra


An hour's drive from Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra Province, to its northeastern outskirts, you will find the road splitting in two directions. To the left, the road will lead you to Lake Singkarak, and to the right – some 95Km from Padang, a lovely little town decorated with legacies of the past as well as the distinct hospitality of the Minangkabau ethnic group: Sawahlunto.


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Today, approaching the town one finds deserted rail roads, stepped rice fields, and the familiar Minangkabau Rumah Gadang traditional houses with their up-sweeping 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 valley, set amongst rainforests. The town is quite small, but there is a lot here to discover.


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

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.


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To manage and transport this precious mineral resource. transportation networks were developed, connecting Sawahlunto with Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, Solok and then on to Padang, investing no less than 20 million Dutch Guilders at that time. History notes that coal mining in Sawahlunto was launched on 1 December 1888, which became famous as the Ombilin mines.


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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.

The town's Cultural Center Building was once called the Rumah Bola, or Bowling House as it used to be a place for bowling and play 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 mines. Once rented to the Mandiri Bank in the early 2000s, the building is now restored and conserved as a heritage asset of Sawahlunto.


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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. But, due to the declining activities in the coal mining industry since the early 2,000s, 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.


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Although it ceased to operate as a public transport, tourists can take a ride in one of these old trains and experience the nostalgic trip on the old railway lines from Sawahlunto to Muaro Kalaban that are managed by an operator.

The Grand Mosque of Sawahlunto, also called Nurul Iman Mosque, 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 Indonesia's revolutionary era in the 1950s, the building was transformed into a mosque, with the 75-meter chimney serving as the grand tower of the mosque today.


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While in the town itself, visit some of the town's best attractions to complete your 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 gang or slaves working for the mines. Now, you can see the original 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.


To Get Here:

You can go by bus or 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. 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.


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