Sumatra has long been a mysterious place. Due to its remoteness and relative darkness, much of this jungle island’s rich history remains undiscovered. Additionally, thousands of unknown animal and plant species live hidden lives in the verdant thickets and fast muddy rivers of Sumatra. Only recently have serious discoveries been made. Most impressive is the discovery of a Buddhist thalassocratic empire called Srivijaya which existed over a thousand years ago. This article will cover what has been discovered about this “lost city” and provide readers with tips on how they can see it for themselves.
Where is the lost city of Sumatra?
The lost city was discovered at the bottom of the Musi River in the southern state of Sumatra. Visitors planning to go there should plan a trip to Indonesia accordingly, as the island of Sumatra belongs to Indonesia.
The majority of the relics were found off Palembang. Palembang is a small village in Sumatra on the Musi River. It is theorized that at one time it was the capital of the Srivijaya Empire.
What we know about the Srivijayas
The fabled kingdom was known as the “Isle of Gold” during the heyday of exploration. This “island” is said to have mysteriously disappeared in the 14th century, and over the centuries explorers have spent considerable resources trying to find it.
- Civilization: Srivijaya
- Location: Musi River Bottom, Palembang, South Sumatra Province, Indonesia
- Type: Thalassocratic
- Religion: Buddhist
- civilizational peak: 7th – 12th century AD
The earliest recorded reference to Srivijaya comes from the Chinese explorer, Yijing, who was a monk during the Tang Dynasty. Yijin said he visited Srivijaya in AD 671 and stayed there for six months. By bringing together a mixture of old and new sources, archaeologists have determined that Srivijaya was a huge thalassocratic empire. It was the first consolidated empire in maritime Southeast Asia and was an important regional center of Buddhism.
The relics found at the bottom of the Musi include a life-size golden statue of the Buddha adorned with precious jewels from around the world. This one artifact, if it didn’t go straight to a museum, would be worth millions of dollars on the market – and it’s just one of thousands of relics still waiting to be found.
From the coins and works of art found at the bottom of the Musi, Srivijaya appears to have reached an advanced level of globalization. They traded extensively with China during a period that saw the rise and fall of the Tang and Song dynasties. They also had trade routes with the Buddhist pala of Bengal and the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.
Srivijaya would have resembled a floating society, with thousands of houseboats, floating markets and wooden boats populating the river and its banks. While the empire was, at its core, an economic system, much of the accumulated wealth was devoted to consolidating a spiritual order based on the principles of Buddhism.
Since the empire was largely thalassocratic, it spread widely to the surrounding regions of Southeast Asia via rivers and the sea. In fact, it is considered one of the main forces driving the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia and directly influenced the pre-Islamic culture of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The established economic system and trade routes likely also played a role in the eventual spread of Islam in the region.
Not much is known about the demise of the Srivijaya Empire. It is possible that invasions by the Chola Empire and/or climate change contributed to the sinking of the city. Srivijaya has probably disappeared due to its maritime nature, with wooden houses and other architecture that simply sink to the bottom of the river and disappear.
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Here’s what to know about visiting Srivijaya
Getting to Palembang can be tricky, but luckily there are a number of private and public transport options that will get visitors there from the nearest airport. The nearest international airport is in Jakarta, from which visitors can fly to Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Airport, which is about 15 minutes from Palembang Port at the Musi River.
Alternatively, visitors can fly direct to Jambi, which is a six-hour drive from Palembang. Numerous buses connect the two cities and visitors can book a ride from the information center at the airport.
- fun fact: Jambi was an important part of the Srivijaya Empire, but there has been limited archaeological exploration in the area, making it an ideal location for budding treasure hunters.
In general, tourism is concentrated in North Sumatra, so tourism infrastructure tends to be lacking in South Sumatra. Nonetheless, it makes the adventure more thrilling as visitors will cross roads less traveled on their journey to the lost city.
While in Palembang, don’t forget to visit Kuto Besak Fortress. The fortress is a remnant of the Srivijaya era, and there are ancient inscriptions on the walls that provide insight into the mysteries of the lost maritime empire.
An interesting way to experience what life was like on the Musi River in Srivijaya times is to join a tour. With kayaks and professional guides, visitors can paddle down the Musi and perhaps get a glimpse of Srivijaya’s glory days. While floating on the “Lazy River”, tourists will see firsthand how an entire city could be established on the surface of this most auspicious and invigorating body of water. With the thick, dark and dangerous jungle of Sumatra on both banks of the river, it makes sense that the Srivijayas decided to settle on the water rather than the land.
- Round: Tubing and kayaking on the great Musi river
- Length: All day
- Price: $83
- Difficulty: Suitable for beginners
- Advantages: hotel and airport pickup, tour guides with insider knowledge, personalized itinerary, no crowds
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The tour offers hotel pickup and drop-off, which is probably one of the only ways to truly access the river as a tourist, as the roads are difficult for outsiders to navigate. Additionally, visitors will have the opportunity to ask local tour guides questions and gain insider information about the region and its history. Having friendly tour guides while exploring this remote part of the world is very helpful as they can help mediate communication with the locals.
Next: 10 epic adventures for solo travelers in Indonesia