Fifteen years ago, Sawahlunto was on the brink of becoming a ghost town after its shallow coal reserves were mostly exhausted.
As a result, the city's economy collapsed and many of its residents decided to pack up and leave to find better luck elsewhere.
But the town got back on its feet after the local administration revived its decades-old coal-mining facilities, turning them into a fascinating collection of tourist attractions.
Located just 95 kilometers, or two-hours' drive from the provincial capital of Padang, Sawahlunto is filled with Dutch-style historical buildings dating back to the early 20th century.
What's more is that all those structures are within walking distance from one another and can be easily covered in a day.
The moment one enters downtown Sawahlunto, three towering silos are within sight. They were used to store coal before its shipment to Teluk Bayur harbor in Padang back in the city's coal-mining heyday.
The silos, which stand some 40-meters tall, serve both as the city's unmistakable landmarks and as silent witnesses to its illustrious history as the first coal-mining township in Indonesia.
Like many other mining cities in Indonesia, the story behind Sawahlunto's establishment began with the sojourns of Western geologists into the archipelago's uncharted lands in search of black gold many decades ago.
In Sawahlunto's case, the Western geologists in the story came from the Netherlands, which colonized Indonesia from the early 16th century to the Second World War.
As the story goes, Dutch geologist Willem Hendrik de Greve was ordered to investigate West Sumatra's deep hinterland to search for untapped mineral resources in the 1860s.
Upon his return, he reported the existence of a huge amount of untapped coal beneath a piece of land near Ombilin river, which led the Dutch East Indies administration to begin a massive project to establish a new township in the area.
Local history said there used to be a vast paddy field (or sawah in the local tongue) in the region, through which a river named Batang Lunto runs. Thus, the name “Sawahlunto” was born.
One of the most notable tourism attractions in Sawahlunto is the Mbah Soero coalhole, a labyrinth of underground coal tunnels opened in 1898.
In the past, the place was infamous for its orang rantai (chained workers) – prisoners from Java, Bali and Sulawesi who became forced labor inside the tunnels with their feet tightly chained.
The place got its name from a Javanese foreman named Soerono who supervised the chained workers in the early 20th century.
Renowned for his expertise in mysticism, Soerono's designation as mbah (grandfather) may signify the respect he earned from the coal miners and local Dutch rulers.
There were numerous stories of why the coalhole was shut down in 1932, ranging from severe groundwater leakage to an urban legend saying that the place continuously “demanded” human sacrifice.
Over the next 75 years, the hole was largely forgotten and the area surrounding its entrance on the surface became dense with houses.
It was finally reopened as a heritage tourism spot in 2007. Nowadays, visitors can traverse a 186-meter-long area of the underground tunnel, which has been equipped with cement steps, lighting, and pipes bringing in oxygen flow from blowers above.
Near the Mbah Soero coal hole is the Info Box mining gallery, which has a wealth of information about Sawahlunto's history and the coalhole itself.
Initially, the building's site was used as a coal storehouse, before it was turned into a labor hall in 1947. When the Mbah Soero hole was re-opened in 2007, the building was then refurbished into its current purpose.
Some 200 meters from the coalhole is Museum Goedang Ransoem, which was a huge kitchen built by the Dutch in 1918 to supply food for the coal mine workers. The phrase “goedang ransoem” literally means “food rations storehouse”.
The gigantic size of the pots, pans, and coal-fired stoves is jaw dropping, especially considering that the kitchen exploited underage children as part of its forced labor. According to local stories, fights over what little food rations there were often took place among kitchen workers and coal miners.
Walk for another 500 meters and you will find the Train Museum – the second such museum in Indonesia after the one in Ambarawa, Central Java.
The train museum is essentially a converted train station – it was originally built in 1918 to facilitate coal transport between Sawahlunto and Padang's Teluk Bayur harbor, which was called Emmahaven back then.
Prior to the station's establishment, rail-based coal transportation between the two cities had existed since 1894.
One of the route's most famous coal-powered trains is the legendary Mak Itam, which literally means “black uncle”.
Nowadays, Mak Itam offers tourists a journey back through time, with one passenger car carrying travelers between Sawahlunto and Muaro Kalaban for just Rp 15,000 (US$1.53) per person for a round trip. Mak Itam is available for group rent at Rp 3.5 million.
Apart from former coal-mining facilities, Sawahlunto also boasts a nature park at a former mining site in Kandi, some 11 kilometers away from downtown, which offers numerous activities, including watersports.
In Muaro Kalaban is West Sumatra's first water boom recreational park, which was originally a swimming pool complex for local Dutch officials and their families.
If you wish to stay in town for the night, there are plenty of options to choose from, including the Ombilin Heritage Hotel, an old hostel originally built in 1918 to accommodate visiting Dutch geologists.
The hotel is located right in front of the town's cultural center building. Initially named Societeit, the building was built in 1910 as a place to see and be seen among local Dutch officials. It used to have a bowling alley and a pool hall but it is just a meeting hall nowadays.
The benches by the streets adjacent to the old Societeit building offer a comfortable spot to enjoy the cool night air.
Order a beef satay dish from a street hawker and finish the meal with the tasty teh talua (tea with egg).
How to get there:
Minangkabau International Airport, located some 23 kilometers from Padang, is the easiest way to West Sumatra. It is served by several local airlines, including Garuda Indonesia, Citilink and Sriwijaya Air.
Mandala Airlines flies there from Singapore and AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur.
To reach Sawahlunto from the airport, one can take a public minibus, which leaves every hour from Simpang Haru Padang, at the cost of Rp 20,000 ($2.04).
To reach the minibus, take the airport bus from Minangkabau International Airport to Simpang Haru station and continue walking to the bus pool located about 200 meters away.
Cars are available for rent at Rp 550,000, which includes a driver and fuel for a day trip. These are available to order beforehand for airport pickups.
Where to go:
Mbah Soero coalhole and Info Box mining gallery
Mon-Thu 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Fri 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Sat-Sun 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Entrance fee Rp 8,000/person
Museum Goedang Ransoem
Tue – Fri 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Sat – Sun 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Entrance fee Rp 4,000/adult, Rp 2,000/child
For more info, please call +62-754-61985 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Tue – Fri 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Sat – Sun 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Entrance fee Rp 3,000/adult, Rp 2,000/child
More info, please call +62-754-61023
Where to stay
Hotel Ombilin Heritage
Offers 21 rooms, with rates ranging from Rp 225,000 for standard rooms to Rp 525,000 for the pavilion-style suite.
More info, please call +62-754-61184