Pagar Alam Tea Plantation, South Sumatra

Three hundred kilometres away from the capital of South Sumatra, locked in by the Bukit Barisan Mountains, Pagar Alam never loses its enthusiasm for tourists. The area offers archaeological sites, a flower festival, hundreds of hectares of tea plantations and more than 30 waterfalls. An airport is also currently being built and should reduce Pagar Alam’s geographical isolation.

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The name Pagar Alam (which translates as “Nature’s Fence”) more or less encapsulates the area’s topography: a town surrounded by barriers of mountains. Aside from a few mountain climbers in transit before making an attempt on the mighty Mount Dempo, Pagar Alam is not a popular destination. This may all be set to change however.

In the distance, the first rays of daybreak illuminated the rolling, mist-covered hills and the landscape seemed as if it had long remained untouched by civilisation. This was a mistaken impression however as archaelogical findings dating back between 2,000 and 3,000 years have been discovered around the Pasemah Highlands (another name for the area) and point to Pagar Alam’s long history.

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The tea plantations spread out like a green carpet that has been neatly fitted into Mount Dempo’s ravines and around its slopes. Apart from the meandering asphalt road that snakes its way through the plantations, almost no other space is wasted, and it came as a relief to see that there are still places in South Sumatra that remain unsullied by palm and rubber plantations.

At close to eight in the morning, life on the 1,500-hectare plantation started to throb. Some workers arrived on their motorbikes, while others were crowded onto an open lorry. The quiet atmosphere soon turned clamorous as the roar of a leaf-cutting machine competed with the loud laughter of the workers.

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The presence of ethnic Javanese in Pagar Alam is not a new phenomenon as the Dutch first recruited them to work as plantation labourers almost a century ago. Over time, the migrants mixed with the local population, had children and grandchildren, and added a little variety and colour to the local culture. In this context, it’s not surprising to find that traditional Javanese performing arts such as kuda lumping, puppet shows and even reyog have been assimilated into the local Pagar Alam culture.

How to get there

Pagar Alam Airport is expected to be completed in 2012. In the meantime, the town has to be accessed via a land route. The most practical way of reaching Pagar Alam is to fly to Palembang and then set off on a seven-hour drive.

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