Bengkulu is the capital of Bengkulu province, which is named after the city, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. With a population of 329,000 (latest estimate for 2014), Bengkulu is the largest city of Bengkulu province. It was founded by the British as their main source of pepper for almost two hundred years, before being exchanged for Malacca in 1824. The city offers slow-paced and quiet coastal life - locals hang out on the beach in the late afternoon buying freshly caught fish and waiting for the sun to set.
Several small chiefdoms ruled what is nowadays the Bengkulu area. These chiefdoms were under the loose suzerainty of the Inderapura Sultanate from southern West Sumatra. They didn’t flourish as much as the settlements in the eastern part of Sumatra that enjoyed the bustling traffic of Malacca Strait; they were far from major population centres, lacked natural harbours, and were swarmed with diseases. Inderapura became a vassal of the Banten Sultanate after its ruler married the daughter of Inderapura’s sultan circa 1560.
In 1682, the Dutch attacked Banten and expelled all other Europeans including the British from that town. The British thereupon signed a treaty with some chiefs, so as to maintain a presence in Sumatra. After a failed attempt by Banten-Dutch forces to knock the British out, the British established a trading post under the East Indian Company, named the area Bencoolen, and secured a safe anchorage spot for their ships. Their first fort (Fort York) didn’t last very long, leading them to built Fort Marlborough in 1714, which still robustly stands today.
This trading post brought the British only trouble, as it was never profitable, quarrels constantly broke out with the locals, and the local climate was deemed highly unpleasant; yet in spite of all of this, the British remained for another century. In 1807, a rebellion broke out to end the rule of Thomas Parr, the Resident of Bencoolen at that time. He was killed and decapitated in his home during the uprising.
Founder of modern Singapore, Thomas Stamford Raffles landed in Bencoolen on 19 March 1818 to assume the rule of the colony’s Governor General. He managed to abolish slavery, sent in convict labourers from India, and limited cockfighting and similar games among locals. During his time, the tug-of-war between the British and the Dutch concerning the archipelago once again took place. Somehow it was resolved in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824, in which British Bencoolen was ceded in exchange for Dutch Malacca. Bencoolen (which became Bengkoelen and Bengkulu later) remained part of the Dutch East Indies until the Japanese occupation in World War II.
During Sukarno's imprisonment by the Dutch in the early 1930s, the future first president of Indonesia lived briefly in Bengkulu where he met his wife, Fatmawati. After independence, the city became part of Sumatra Province, then South Sumatra Province, and finally was made capital of the newly-formed Bengkulu Province.
Bengkulu lies near the Sunda Fault and is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. In June 2000, an earthquake killed at least 100 people. A series of earthquakes struck Bengkulu later during September 2007, killing 13 people. A 2016 report stated that Bengkulu is at risk of inundation over the next few decades from undersea earthquakes predicted along the coast of Sumatra.
Indonesian is widely used in the city for official business, education, commerce, and service purposes. Locals also speak Bengkulunese Malay, lingua franca of the province, especially when conversing among themselves. Both are mutually intelligible, with little adaptation required
Foreign languages are rarely heard in the city. Basic Indonesian knowledge helps a lot during your stay here. Youths should be able to hold conversation in basic English, although most of them will be quite shy about engaging in conversation in a foreign tongue. Despite that, locals are very happy to help and try their best.
- 1 Fatmawati Soekarno Airport (BKS IATA). Serves Bengkulu, the city and the province. As of 2016, there are eight, daily direct flights from Jakarta (both Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in East Jakarta), as well as direct flights from Palembang, Batam, and Bandar Lampung. The airport also connects the city to several small towns inland. There is no direct international flight to Bengkulu, and domestic flights are few and tend to be rather expensive. The airport itself consists of two terminals, one is used for high-ranking government service. You can find airlines ticket counters and ATM gallery on the landside of two-storey main terminal, as well as restaurant, gift shop, and lounge on the airside.
To go to the city centre (14 km to the northwest of the airport), you can hail taxi with meter from the arrival hall. The ride costs about Rp120.000 and takes around 20 minutes. There are also illegal taxicabs that offers slightly cheaper price.
- Siliwangi Antar Nusa (SAN), ☏ . SAN buses to Bengkulu would take Trans-Sumatran Highway East Route that passes through towns. In turn, the road is in better condition and safer to travel. Jakarta-Bengkulu Rp350.000 (25 hours), Padang-Bengkulu Rp200.000 (12 hours).
- Putra Rafflesia, ☏ . Putra Rafflesia buses to Bengkulu takes Trans-Sumatera West Route which cuts the travel time but the road is not as good as its eastern counterpart as it passes some jungles and hills (Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park). Jakarta-Bengkulu Rp.340.000 (22 hours), Pekanbaru-Bengkulu Rp220.000.
- CSH 88, ☏ . Jakarta-Bengkulu (Rp280.000).
There are also several van travel services that ply the route between Padang and Palembang toward Bengkulu. Journey from/to Padang may pass Muara Bungo and Sarolangun in Jambi province (Trans-Sumatran Highway East Route) or the coastal road that go through Mukomuko and Painan (Trans-Sumatran Highway West Route). The latter offers less winding roads, although at some spots, there are potholes and damaged section due to its proximity to the beach. You should ask the travel counter before booking any ticket.
Minivan (angkot) acts as the city's sole public transport system. Riding the minivan will also give you insight into the daily life in the city, since its service covers most of Bengkulu, including traditional markets, business districts, and residential areas. There are neither fixed timetables nor proper stops. You can hail and alight from anywhere along the streets. State your destination before you board and pay when you alight. As of 2016, it costs Rp4.000 per trip regardless of distance. Operating hour is 06AM-06PM.
The drivers usually wait for their van to be filled, which may prolong your waiting time. They are not likely to speak English, so you'll need basic knowledge of Indonesian to ask for information or anything else. Words you need to know are "kiri" (kee-ree) or "minggir" (meeng-gear) which indicates you want to alight.
The minivan is colour- and alphabet-coded, based on which line it's operated in. Each alphabet actually has suffix to indicate certain route it takes, but in practice only Green and Red minivan follow the convention.
- Yellow minivan/A line (angkot kuning).
- Green minivan/B line (angkot hijau).
- Red minivan/C line (angkot merah).
- Blue minivan/D line (angkot biru).
- White minivan/E line (angkot putih).
By walking and other means
- 1 Fort Marlborough (Benteng Malabero), Jalan Benteng (take yellow minivan, say "benteng" to the driver). 08:00-17:00. The largest British fortress in Southeast Asia. It was built in 1714 until 1741 to replace obliterated Fort York. The fortress acts as a museum. It is well preserved with neat garden and signages telling history of the fort. The complex overlooks a vast bay as well as Bengkulu's Chinatown. Entrance fee Rp5.000.
- 2 Thomas Parr Monument (Tugu Thomas Parr), Jalan Achmad Yani (on your way to Fort Marlborough you should see this building, as it stands out with its dome and Doric columns). Located 170 m south of Fort Marlborough. It is a mausoleum of Thomas Parr, a British governor that was killed during a rebellion. As of 2008, the surrounding garden turned into a tiled plaza. Free.
- 3 British Cemetery (Kompleks Makam Inggris), Jalan Rejamat (take yellow minivan, say "makam Inggris" to the driver). 09:00-17:00. A compound of 18th-century British cemetery. Only 50 European style headstones remained as of 2016. Bring umbrella or visit the place in the morning/late afternoon since there is no shaded area around. Free. You may give tips to the cemetery guard.
- 4 Sukarno House (Rumah Pengasingan Bung Karno), Jalan Soekarno-Hatta (take yellow minivan, say "rumah Bung Karno" to the driver). 09:00-15:00. The abode of first to-be Indonesian president, Sukarno, during his banishment in Bengkulu by the Dutch from 1934 to 1942. The house became museum afterward, with collections including Sukarno's books, drawings, furniture, and articles of clothing. Entrance fee Rp3.500.
- 5 Fatmawati House (Rumah Ibu Fatmawati), Jalan Fatmawati (follow along the pedestrian walk opposite of Sukarno house, head northwest. Upon reaching roundabout, take the first exit to Jalan Fatmawati, and head south). 09:00-15:00. A museum to commemorate Sukarno's wife. The house was built in Bengkulunese vernacular architecture style which is getting rare as people favours more modern style. Entrance fee Rp3,500.
Bengkulu boasts numbers of white sand beach with groves of casuarina (instead of coconut trees you'd usually imagine of tropical beaches would look like). Surfing and swimming are generally not allowed, considering the rip current and sharp corals of the shores.
- 6 Panjang Beach (Pantai Panjang), Jalan Samudera. Pantai Panjang means long beach, as it stretches for 7 kilometres. Not only noted for its length, the beach itself extends for 500 metres during the low tide. You'll find numerous huts that sell foods and drinks. Some also provides benches to lounge around. The city government continually tries to expropriate the lands since they are deemed to pollute the beach and encourage questionable activities. Jogging track/breakwater is also built along the shore where most locals workout on the weekend. Free entry, parking ticket Rp5,000.
- 7 Jakat Beach (Pantai Jakat), Bencoolen Street (head west from Fort Malborough). Beach featured on this page's banner. Nestled in Segara Bay, the water here is deemed calmer and safer. You can swim as well as rent jet-ski or banana boat. Near the road, you can find many stalls selling fish and deep fried seafood for a cheap price. Free entry, parking ticket Rp5,000.
- 8 Sungai Suci Beach (Pantai Sungai Suci), Jalan Pekik Nyaring. The beach is located just outside the city border. You'll need a private vehicle since it settles quite far from the major road. The beach features cliffs and a large offshore rock that makes it distinct from any other beaches in Bengkulu. The rock is connected to the mainland by rope bridges. Entry fee Rp5,000 per person, another Rp5,000 if you want to cross the bridges.
- 9 Teluk Sepang Beach (Pantai Teluk Sepang), Pelabuhan Pulau Baai. You may encounter seashore wildlife such as small fish and invertebrate on the beach's tide pools. Its proximity to the city's seaport thankfully does not affect its condition. Locals usually flock nearby the lighthouse
Once a year, ten days after Islamic New Year, Bengkulu city commemorates the fall of Husein, grandson of prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram 61 AH (10 October 681 AD). The ceremony is called Tabut which means coffin or wooden chest. The tradition is presumably brought by Shiite Madrasi and Bengali workers who were employed to built Fort Marlborough. As they intermarried with the local Malay, the tradition lived and kept for generations. Despite its religious root, the tradition had got more secular as the time passes. Their descendants (aptly named Tabut family) embraced Sunni denomination to assimilate further with the locals, other reasons being the government promotes its an elaborate tourism event, as well as the recent negative sentiment towards Shiite sect held by most Indonesians.
The ceremony lasts for 10 days. There are several smaller ceremonies you may see:
- Mengambik Tanah. At 1 Muharram, the Tabut family comes to sacred cemeteries (one in the west of Fort Marlborough and another one in Pantai Panjang) at night to collect soil from the burial site. This soil lumps will be made into a shape of human body. After that, the family breaks into two groups (Bangsal and Berkas) - each then stores the soil dolls at their respective place.
- Duduk Penja. At 5 Muharram, the families take out sacred jewelleries made of silver, copper, or brass called penja. The penjas takes form of human palm to symbolise the hand of Husein. The shaman/elder of the families washes the penjas with lime water and flower water at this ceremony and puts out some offerings. The soil doll and the penja is kept inside a coffin, which later will be decorated in a shape of lean pyramidal tower. The decorated coffin is the tabut that each group make some of it.
- Menjara & Meradai. At 6 and 7 Muharram, each family will visit each other at their respective place. The visitor will ask the host to compete in drum-beating contest. On their way to the other’s place, they also play the drum and shouting some kind of warcry. People can give a donation to them during this time.
- Mengarak. At 8 and 9 Muharram, the penjas and white turbans is put in small tabuts and paraded around the old town. At the night of 9 Muharram, the real tabuts is ready to hit the road where the two groups meet. They will be joined by non-sacred tabuts (made by the people outside of the family), floats, and art-performers from all over the city. They all then gather in the city’s square. The gathering is called tabut besanding and always accompanied by art performances.
- Tabut Tebuang. On the last day, at 10 Muharram, the tabuts is brought to the grave of Tabut family’s ancestor. There, the soil doll and some parts of the decoration will be put on the grave. The oldest shaman of the family lead the whole ceremony, with some members often get in a trance state during the events.
The city certainly becomes livelier during this event. Area surrounding the city’s square will be turned into pasar malam for at least two weeks, with vendors and carnival troupes come from as far as Medan and Surabaya to sell various items at reasonable prices.
Usually the ceremony is held in View Tower, Kampung Cina, but in 2018 will be held in Fort Marlborough inline with International Bencoolen Dol Festival. Dol percussion is made from big tree with diameter 70-125 centimeters and is made as a tube and then is covered with cow skin at one end.
- 1 Bakso Arema Rizki (Bakso Pasar Baru), Jalan Moh. Hasan, ☏ . 11:00-20:30. Serves meatballs soup with noodle and shaved ice desserts. You'll eat on long bench-table, so avoid late afternoon as it gets very crowded. Rp15,000 per bowl plus iced tea.
- 2 Warkop Palembang, Jalan Jenderal Sudirman, ☏ . 07:00-17:00. Popular place for breakfast. They serve various Chinese-influenced foods such as stir-fried noodle, noodle soup, chicken porridge, and vegetable stew; as well as pempek dishes Rp12,000-25,000 per dish.
- 3 Sembam Ikan Marola (Rumah Makan Marola), Jalan Pariwisata, ☏ . 12:00-21:00. Serves seafood dishes, both traditional and modern. They count the dish per portion instead of grams, unlike usual seafood place Rp25,000 and up.
Coconut water and sugarcane juice are the most common drinks sold by street vendors and carts. The vendors store coconut water in a refrigerated water jar (comes with coconut shaving), but they make sugarcane juice on order.
- 1 Samudera Dwinka Hotel, Jalan Jenderal Sudirman, ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 1-star hotel Rp200,000 per night and up.
- 2 Xtra Hotel, Jalan Mayjen Sutoyo, ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 2-star hotel Rp230,000 per night for double room and up.
- 3 Dena Hotel, Jalan Fatmawati, ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 1-star hotel Rp280,000 per night for double room and up.
- 4 Nala Sea Side, Jalan Pariwisata, ☏ . Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. 2-star hotel Rp350,000 per night for double room and up.
- 5 Sinar Sport Hotel, Jalan Suprapto, ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 3-star hotel. Rp380,000 per night for double room and up.
- 6 Splash Hotel, Jalan Jenderal Sudirman, ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 3'star hotel Rp450,000 per night for double room and up.
- 7 Madeline Hotel, Jalan Bhakti Husada, ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. 2-star hotel Rp500,000 per night for double room and up.
- 8 Santika Hotel Bengkulu, Jalan Raya Jati, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. 3-star hotel. Rp500,000 per night for double room and up.
- 9 Grage Horizon Hotel Bengkulu, Jalan Pantai Nala, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. 3-star hotel Rp650,000 per night for double room and up.
- Explore the rest of Bengkulu province.