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Medan’s Architectural Allure

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New Emissary

Medan’s Architectural Allure

Though not one of Indonesia’s top travel destinations, a unique urban landscape makes Medan worth visiting.

With many Japanese putting off their holidays in the wake of recent events, it’s been reported that one popular Asian destination is already seeing a noticeable decline in tourism. The resort island of Bali, Indonesia has long been popular with Japanese—who are the third largest incoming traveler group behind Australia and China. Hopefully visitor numbers from Japan to Indonesia will resume in the coming future.

On a related note, last month I had the pleasure of visiting North Sumatra and staying in its capital, Medan, for a few days. The first thing that captured my attention upon leaving Polonia International Airport was the unique architecture of the city. Although I was aware of the history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, I hadn’t imagined buildings with distinctly European characteristics to be so abundant throughout Medan and its surrounding areas.

Well, according to FNE Travel, it’s the presence of ‘lovely Dutch architecture' that attracts tourists to Medan—including notable structures like the town icon, a huge water tower, plus City Hall and Titi Gantung bridge, which were built by the Dutch in the early 1900s. All three were proudly pointed out to me by locals during my short stay.

Indonesia was a Dutch colony for 350 years, which explains why the cultural influence in its structures was so widespread and still remains intact in so many areas today. So even after I was given a tour of a new supermall in the heart of the city I couldn’t help but agree with Stephen Backshall, who wrote in the Rough Guide to Indonesia: ‘Indonesia’s fourth largest city has acquired a reputation as a filthy and chaotic metropolis with few charms. This is somewhat unjust: although it’s true that Medan is as addicted as any other big Indonesian city to shopping centres and fast-food culture, the capital of North Sumatra also has some glorious examples of turn-of-the-century colonial architecture and a couple of colourful temples from the same period.’

Architectural Allure of Medan

Besides its unique landscape, another of Medan’s notable highlights is, as described by FNE, ‘a harmonious, multi-cultural society made up of many Southeast Asian ethnicities, including a large Chinese contingent.’ I have to agree with this as well, as I was impressed by the vast mix of ethnicities and religions who seemed to come seamlessly together—my gracious hosts were respectively Muslim, Catholic and Atheist—and all three very good friends. They explained to me that in Medan, people are generally very accepting and tolerant.

I even asked one local whether or not having 'remnants' of their colonialists as part of their urban landscape raised any resentment amongst native Indonesians, and he told me that he’d never heard such a sentiment and that residents tend to be grateful that these structures were built, and appreciate the architectural value they’ve brought to their city.

In January, Indonesia’s Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik announced that a new campaign called ‘Wonderful Indonesia’ would replace the previous ‘Visit Indonesia Year’ brand used for national tourism campaigns. Wacik said the slogan better reflects ‘the country’s beautiful nature, unique culture, varied food, hospitable people and price competitiveness.’

I have to agree from what I’ve seen, and hope Bali and the rest of Indonesia see more of the international travelers it deserves over the coming years.

Images: Abe World! (top), Tropenmuseum (bottom).