From the air, Sumatra Barat (West Sumatra) looks as though a giant has plunged their hands into the equator, thrown it high into the air, and let it rain back down to earth. Fertile uplands ring jungle-clad volcanoes, waterfalls cascade into deep ravines and nature takes a breath in deep, silent lakes. Rainforest still clings to the steepest slopes, while rice, tapioca, cinnamon and coffee bring in the wealth.
This is the heartland of the matriarchal Minangkabau, an intelligent, culturally rich and politically savvy people who have successfully exported their culture, language, cuisine and beliefs throughout Indonesia. Their unique buffalo-horned architecture dominates the cities and villages.
Hot, bustling Padang on the Indian Ocean is the gateway and provincial capital, though most tourists head straight for scenic Bukittinggi in the highlands. Surfers and trekkers flock to the perfect breaks and tribal culture of the Mentawai Islands, while nature lovers explore Sumatra’s largest national park in Kerinci, just across the border in Jambi province. Danau Maninjau remains the stunning, forgotten jewel in the crown, and the beautiful Harau Valley is definitely worth a Sumatran detour.
Early on a bright, clear morning, the market town of Bukittinggi sits high above the valley mists as three sentinels – fire-breathing Merapi, benign Singgalang and distant Sago – all look on impassively. Sun-ripened crops grow fat in the rich volcanic soil, as frogs call in the paddies, bendis (two-person horse-drawn carts) haul goods to the pasa (market), and the muezzin’s call sits lightly on the town. Modern life seems far removed.
Until 9am. Then the traffic starts up, and soon there’s a mile-long jam around the bus terminal and the air turns the colour of diesel. The mosques counter the traffic by cranking their amps to 11, while hotel staff try to pass off cold bread and jam as breakfast.
Such is the incongruity of modern Bukittinggi, blessed by nature, choked by mortals. Lush. Fertile. Busy. And at 930m above sea level, deliciously temperate all year round.
The town (alternatively named Tri Arga, which refers to the triumvirate of peaks) has had a chequered history, playing host at various times to Islamic reformists, Dutch colonials, Japanese invaders and Sumatran separatists.
Bukittinggi was once a mainstay of the banana-pancake trail, but regional instability, shorter visas and the rise of low-cost air carriers have seen the traveller tide reduced to a lower ebb. The town's still definitely worth a visit though, and is a good base for setting out to the Harau Valley and Danau Maninjau.
The first glimpse of this perfectly formed volcanic lake sucks your breath away as your dilapidated bus lurches over the caldera lip and hurtles towards the first of the 44 (yep, they’re numbered) hairpin bends down to the lakeshore. Monkeys watch your progress from the crash barriers as the lush rainforest of the heights retreats from the ever-expanding farms and paddies of the lowlands.
When the traveller tide receded from Bukittinggi, Danau Maninjau was left high and dry. The locals looked to more sustainable sources of income and aquaculture to fill the void. Fish farms now dot the lake foreshore.
Ground zero is the intersection where the Bukittinggi highway meets the lake road in the middle of Maninjau village. Turn left or right and drive 60km and you’ll end up back here. The lake is 17km long, 8km wide and 460m above sea level. Most places of interest spread out north along the road to Bayur (3.5km) and beyond. Tell the conductor where you’re staying and you’ll be dropped off at the right spot.
Take a trip into the wild with an adventure to the Mentawai islands. Be surrounded by tropical rainforests and immerse yourself in the traditions of the local people. While the physical distance between the mainland and Mentawai is not great, this remains one of the most isolated places in Indonesia, and was only subject to outside influences at the start of the 20th century. A long way from the world of shopping malls and theme parks, this is where travellers come to get a truly off the beaten track adventure. Read More...
Great Value On this jungle-covered island in West Sumatra, you’ll find monkeys, monitor lizards, pangolins, and—most surprisingly—a taste of Italian culture at Paradiso Village (doubles from $240, all-inclusive). The hotel, run by a couple from Turin, has 15 thatched-roof bungalows with loft bedrooms and a restaurant where multicourse meals include heaping plates of prawn and tomato pasta, jackfruit drizzled with palm oil, and coconut flan. The wine list features bottles from Emiglia Romana, and, as is the way in Tuscany, all meals end with a frothy espresso. Read More...
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