A trip to Maksassar provides an introduction to Sulawesi – and can be done in a weekend, writes Jim Read.
If you’re Jakarta- or Bali-based but bored with Bandung, fed up with Seminyak, and already “been there, done that” in Jogjakarta, why not try a weekend cultural trip to Makassar?
Makassar, the capital city of South Sulawesi province and previously known as Ujung Pandang until 1999, may seem too far from Jakarta for such a short trip, but flights are frequent and take only marginally longer than the trip to Bali. You can also fly from Bali to Makassar in less than 90 minutes.
Somewhat confusingly, Makassar is still referred to by the airlines by its old name, maybe because the three-letter code for its airport has always been UPG. It has a bright, spacious airport terminal that is still quite new and can easily give any of the others in the region a good run for their money.
The city provides an ideal introduction to Sulawesi if you have not been to the bizarrely-shaped island yet, and is the main hub for onward travel to eastern Indonesia. If you have a few extra days spare, fly north to Tana Toraja, famous for its unique culture, and set in stunning scenery.
Makassar was originally settled by the Portuguese in the 13th century, followed by Dutch colonists in the early 17th. The city played a key role in the lucrative spice trade during the pre-colonial and colonial period, when spices from the region were in high demand in the West.
Makassar remains Sulawesi’s main port, with many passenger and cargo connections. A trip to see the phinisi sailing ships at the old port of Paotere reveals the city’s long-established trading heritage and is reminiscent of Jakarta’s equivalent, Sunda Kelapa. The ships sail between these two ports, one of the last sailing routes still in use for regular long-distance trade.
While the city’s Fort Rotterdam, built during the 1670s, is a potent symbol of Dutch colonial power in Sulawesi, it was used by the Japanese as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Nowadays, some of the rooms there house exhibitions, but its prime attraction is as a hangout with history in the late afternoon as sunset approaches.Click to view slideshow.
The city is very aware that it cannot rely on history alone to boost tourism, a significant component of the local economy. It is therefore continually reinventing itself, and two examples of this approach to innovation are the Trans Studio theme park and the modern, no-frills budget hotels that are starting to appear in the city.
Trans Studio claims to be one of the largest indoor theme parks in the world: think of Universal Studios at Sentosa, Singapore, but all under one roof in a futuristic-looking building. Trans Studio has more than 20 features and amusement rides, some based on Trans TV and Trans 7 programmes, some adopted from Disneyland and Universal Studios in the US.
Hotel Asyra, near Losari Beach, is an example of where the budget hotels are starting to appear in the city. The interior is almost completely devoid of ornamentation but the rain-shower-equipped bathrooms and ubiquitous Wi-Fi appeal to budget-conscious, internet-savvy, young-at-heart travellers, who increasingly make up the tourist demographic nowadays. Where else can you stay for IDR 500,000 per night, including breakfast for two?
West-facing Losari Beach is Makassar’s most famous hangout, offering stunning views of the sunset on an almost daily basis. A new seating area has been built just to the south of the beach, while popular food court Kampoeng Popsa is located across the road from Fort Rotterdam and has live bands playing on weekends. While in the city, don’t forget to try two Makassar culinary specialties, pisang epe (pressed, grilled banana with melted brown sugar, chocolate or cheese) and coto Makassar (stew made with beef innards).
Also don’t forget, you need to be really quick if photographing that setting sun, for this close to the equator it drops below the horizon like a stone.