Pirates and Palembang go together like honey and cream.

Without Palembang, there wouldn’t be a Malaysia today.

I had seen a cheap flight to Palembang from Kuluar Lumpur. It was too good not to take it. Before then, I knew next to nothing about the Malays, except the big sprawling city of Kuluar Lumpur and a few local dishes. Was I in for a an eye opener.

I booked a room in a hotel. The owner was slowly transitioning from a family business to a hostel. Opposite it was a mosque that sounded like a rock concert at Mahgrib. I wonder if they recorded this, or it’s actually a person on the other end of the microphone, on his death throes.

The past merged with the present, ships carrying concrete, rice, teak wood and spices chugged out the river. At the mouth lay the  route to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China.  A salubrious water  way to control and  prosper from the monopoly of the spice trade. The pirates of Batam have done the same, controlling the Straits of Malacca. They are the  modern version of the Palembang navy, but far more independent, and with their outboard motors, can hide in the swampy islands.

The Sri Vijaya empire was the Buddhist empire based in Palembang until the Tamils had a clean out around 1020, by which time it had spawned a family that had taken over the plains of central java and built a place called Borobudur before they were booted out.

The empire grew out of the king watching the passing ships and sea pirates, and teaming up with the sea  gypsies  to make the ships pay him tax.  Which was also the birth of one of the first navies. The empire ran from Pattani down both sides of the Malay peninsula so as to catch the isthmus traffic. One of the bigger colonies was along a river opposite Penang.

Got it got it got it!!!!!!!!!!!!!  This is my Eureka moment. The reason it felt so tied together !!!

Its the people, the Austronesian speakers and Sumbawa Besar is their easterly boundary, and the Cham in Cambodia and Vietnam are  northern boundaries. I’m talking about Indonesia’s history and it’s empires that span to the Cham in Central Vietnam, and as far West as Madagascar. Cross referencing books, I realised the common link; why what we wrote on  Sumbawa felt like it fitted with the Cham we covered in Cambodia. Well the markets looked the same. The Cham, are the same people  as their neighbours the Javanese. They  interacted and  intermarried with the Khmer.

Speakers of an IndonesianMalaysian language in one of mediaeval Asia’s great seaports, the people of Champa in central Vietnam attacked and raided Angkor before themselves being over-run by gun powder fired by warriors from north Vietnam. They fled south, taking Islam with them, or converting as they went, before being attacked again, four hundred years later, on the south-central coast of Vietnam. Those who made it to the Mekong, in Cambodia, escaped the slaughter.

They became the pivot at the centre of a maritime trading world, where monsoons brought boats from India, and ships from China. They sent the boats and ships back loaded with gold, and spices, and all sorts of other rainforest things.   Different groups  of their descendants imported religions from the west, and fought and intermarried with he people of Funan at the foot of the Mekong Delta, the Khmer Crom, and later, the city of Angkor, in Cambodia. Losing their wars rendered many remnants of the Cham refugees, inside Cambodia, for five hundred years.

The Austronesians – speakers of the language, they carried rice with them. Today we call them the Indonesians, and the Malay. Their forebears left China thousands of years ago, speaking an Austronesian language, and carrying rice to grow.  Some only travelled as far as Taiwan, others settled in Madagascar. Some created a Cham Kingdom in central Vietnam. Most made the rain forests of Indonesia, and Malaysia their own.

Over the week in Palembang, I was forced to learn Indonesia. Though the family tried, they were always giving me the wrong order. I had not seen as much at Sumatra as I wanted too. Jember wasn’t very far. That’s where the Malays came from, they journeyed north, took with them batik and the language of bahasa. The Malay journey continues, and though kingdoms have risen and fallen to obscurity,  clues of the pirates of Palembang are scattered all over South East Asia.


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