South Sumatra doesn’t seem to get as much attention from travelers as North Sumatra does, but that’s an even better reason to visit the Indonesian province. Many of the top things to do here can be found near the capital, Palembang, which has a population of 1.8 million people. Outside the city, though, you'll find plenty of rainforests, waterfalls, and volcanoes to explore. In most places, you’ll probably be the only tourist in sight. Don’t be surprised if strangers on the street ask to take selfies and become Facebook friends!
Get to Know Palembang
South Sumatra’s capital has been inhabited since 683 AD, making it one of the oldest cities in Southeast Asia. The ancient history and fish-heavy cuisine are certainly enjoyable, but interacting with the local residents really makes Palembang memorable.
Some highlights in Palembang include wandering the 123-acre Punti Kayu Park (watch out for the fearless macaques), taking a boat to Kemaro Island, and photographing the impressive Ampera Bridge at night. To learn more about Palembang’s culture and history, the Museum Balaputradewa is home to an interesting collection of artifacts spanning many eras. The Rumah Limas traditional house on display there is famously featured on the 10,000-rupiah banknote.
Climb South Sumatra's Tallest Volcano
Mount Dempo, the tallest volcano in South Sumatra, can be climbed without technical experience or equipment—you’ll only need resolve. With an elevation of 10,410 feet, the prominent volcano is surrounded by green tea plantations and forest that give way to rugged terrain. Hikers grind upward for six to eight hours before reaching the seven craters at the summit, which feels quite cool compared to Sumatra's equatorial climate.
Tour groups usually choose to camp near the top, then watch the sunrise from the summit before descending. Bold hikers can climb Mount Dempo independently as a day trip, but only with a seriously early start. Mount Dempo is located near Pagar Alam, seven hours southwest of Palembang by car.
Marvel at Jungle Waterfalls
You’ll probably run out of time before you run out of waterfalls to enjoy in South Sumatra, whose terrain and frequent downpours make for rather impressive cascades.
While some of the province's waterfalls can be found in recreation areas, others remain mostly wild and require steep hikes. Powerful Temam Waterfall, located between Palembang and Bengkulu, has a long suspension bridge on top for aerial views. The harder-to-reach waterfalls at Curup Maung tumble downward along a photogenic, jungle backdrop. Embun Waterfall (near Mount Dempo) and Bedegung Waterfall are also worth diverting to see.
Enjoy the Tea and Coffee Plantations
Even if you don’t have the time or desire to climb Mount Dempo, lush tea and coffee plantations surround the big volcano in the Pagar Alam region. The volcanic soil and a “wet hulling” technique provide Sumatran coffee its signature earthiness that appeals to coffee lovers around the world.
Although formal tours (especially ones in English) take some effort to find, the friendly plantation workers will often let visitors wander around to enjoy the scenery and fresh air. You’ll gain a new respect for how much work goes into producing a cup of tea!
Relax at Lake Ranau
Located in the southern part of South Sumatra, Lake Ranau is a big volcanic crater lake reminiscent of Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra. Visitors get to enjoy a cooler climate, gorgeous sunsets, and a handful of things to do. You can take a small boat around Marisa Island, visit the hot springs, or simply lounge on your lakeside balcony with a beautiful view and a book. The grilled fish, caught and prepared daily, is some of the best in Sumatra.
Enjoy the Birds at Sembilang National Park
Sembilang National Park (Taman Nasional Sembilang), situated north of Palembang, is accessible only by speedboat. Although the ride in can be rough, silently exploring the swamps and mangroves is worth the discomfort. A few tigers and elephants remain in the park, but you’re most likely to see scores of storks and other fishing birds. Irrawaddy dolphins, sun bears, gibbons, and clouded leopards are among the many types of threatened and endangered wildlife taking refuge in the national park.
You’ll need to organize your visit with the park service; give them several days' notice.
See Ancient Megaliths in the Wild
Along with tea plantations, the Pagar Alam area is also home to ancient megaliths, carvings, and tombs—some thought to date back 2,000 years or more. Some megalith sites such as Tinggi Hari and the Elephant Stone are popular, while others wait quietly in farmers’ fields. Ask locals to recommend locations, then grab a scooter and enjoy a day of amateur archaeology. Seeing these ancient carvings next to a rice paddy field is a completely different experience from viewing them through glass in a museum!
Take a Motorbike Adventure
As in West Sumatra, one of the best things to do in South Sumatra is to go exploring with your own transportation. Small motorbike is the default way to explore the countryside, but know that roads can often be hilly or unfinished. Driving in Palembang is hectic, but once outside the city, you’ll have a memorable adventure roaming between landscapes and waterfalls.
Ask the staff at your guesthouse for a map and motorbike rental, dress yourself in waterproof everything (you’ll undoubtedly get drenched at some point), and point your wheels toward Bengkulu on the west coast.