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March 17, 2010

A Royal Home?

Tom McLaughlin

Sambas, Borneo Island, Indonesia – Sambas is a magical place where my wife’s family originated. The prospect of finding sultans, rajahs, palace intrigues and family connections sent us on a journey of a butt-numbing, 15-hour bus ride.


The trip was a far cry from the never ending, boring palm oil estates of Sumatra. The sea appeared on the west following us up the coast. Every kilometer or so a three-sided shack held tubes (called bladders here) tires, glue and patches to repair the millions and millions of mainly 250-cc motorcycles damaged on the much-in-need-of-resurfacing roads.


Arriving in Sambas, the only hotel had the standard Chinese block rooms with a queen size bed, four meter ceilings, color television broadcasting an English language film every night at 8 P.M. (our only entertainment). A free breakfast of fried rice or packaged noodles and coffee was available, but we elected to purchase two brown boiled eggs and toast.


Lining the drive to the palace were rows of houses, some built in the Dutch colonial era, freshly painted, on cement slabs with plaster walls, and rusted zinc-sheeted roofs. Between them, brown homes composed of unpainted wood seemingly thrown together by some cartoon character.


Entering the palace grounds through a time-worn arch with royal yellow paint in need of freshening, houses of the royal family lined each side. They were of early Dutch colonial manufacture. A driveway with a carport parked medium sized cars, while a stone fence surrounded each property again in the faded yellow royal color.


Straight ahead the river loomed, and to the left, the palace, and to the right, the royal mosque. The palace was guarded by three freshly painted black cannon of early colonial vintage. A white mast from the royal schooner sunk in the early 1920s rose skyward with the base surrounded by flowers.


“This is the palace,” I asked my wife incredulously. “Remember Tom, this was probably the largest house around when it was built,” she answered.


The home had a wide veranda that hugged the front with colonial-era wooden, lay back chairs with bamboo backings and a bamboo coffee table. We entered the front room. It was empty. On the walls four mirrors, the silver gilt fading around the edges were framed in heavy gold painted wood. Copy machine photos and news papers articles, framed in cheap black, lined in a row around the three walls. Huge windows with seating sills interrupted the flow.


We met Radin Dewi Kencana, the 49-year-old mother of the current Sultan, who was 15 and attending public school. When Indonesia earned its independence in 1946, a republic was declared and all the powers of the royal families were swept away. A school teacher now, she greeted us and began to explain the royal residence.


Speaking Indonesian, she guided us into what was obviously the dining room, again void of any furniture. To the left, the royal sleeping quarters held a bed draped in royal yellow with a canopy. Passed the dining room, a 1950s kitchen followed by a back porch and that was it.


I asked where all the royal furniture and brik-a-brac were. “Stolen over the years,” she replied. However, when I posed the question to lesser members of the royal family, they said there was a dead-end tunnel under the house where the crowns and jewels were stored. In this part of the world, either account is possible.


I walked around to the back and two small homes, about two rooms each connected by a garden, occupied most of the area. To my left a three-meter square pool was occupied by two ancient crones having their bath before prayers. I quietly backed up and returned to the front, joined my wife, satisfied of our successful quest to find the ancient homeland and royal palace of her ancestors.


…life is good


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