Parapat to Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

From Parapat on Lake Toba’s edge – Indonesia’s largest natural lake – we head south on a crude public bus to Bukittinggi, in Sumatra’s west.

Travel through Indonesia in 1998 was more demanding than a couple of decades’ later. Information wasn’t available at your fingertips in seconds.

Wanting to avoid any backlash from the deadly racial riots last month, we continue to explore through Sumatra before heading to the island of Java.

Getting there

Today’s first bus trip is supposed to take around 6 hours, but this is Indonesia and buses stop many times before reaching its destination.

Bus from Parapat to Sibolga, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

The rustic public bus proves to be a somewhat cheap and basic alternative, to the pricier tourist bus.

The first hour of the trip is lacking in available seats.

An arduous journey

Only a tiny stool in the middle of the cramped aisle is available for my 6’4″ husband. Balancing on a bag of rice near the doorway and squashed in among 5 other smiling locals, this is my resting place for the first hour’s ride.

Stifling, hot, nauseating – the bus carries four times the amount of people than it should. Stopping every ten minutes for the usual pick-up or drop-off, hawkers are relentless, especially as we’re the only foreigners on this trip.

Sliced fresh fruit. Pockets of crunchy peanuts. Bundles of tiny paper sachets filled with Nasi Goreng and many more delights are shoved in our faces, followed with: “you buy?” 

The mugginess is oppressive. Sweat flows from our faces like a flooded river – it’s suffocating.

Squawking live chickens tied up in hessian sacks are bandied around the isles, as locals nudge each other for a minuscule, spot. Riding the roof of the bus or hanging precariously outside the back, are the norm. This has to be the most arduous bus trip in a long time.

Bukit Barisan

The bus ascends and descends erratically around continuing tight hairpin bends as we climb the sides of the Bukit Barisan (Barisan Mountains) even higher. The driver swings the bus around the precarious, bends as though he’s driving a Ferrari racing car on a straight stretch of road.

This dramatic mountain range runs along the western Sumatran side from north to south, end-to-end of the island. Obscured by densely thick jungle and home to 35 active volcanoes, vistas are breathtaking. Shame we can’t stop long enough to take any photos. The driver is in a hurry.

Lush scenery is abruptly contrasted with fierce jungle burning and the destruction of forests along the dusty road. The landscape opens up to jagged charred and blackened tree stumps left to decompose on the barren hillside – a tragic sight. This razing of the natural jungle isn’t sustainable.

A mother and child sit quietly on the crowded public bus. Her child is covered in untreated Ringworm sores – she doesn’t have money for cream. Pulling out a tube of cream to treat skin ailments, including Scabies, I give this to the mother. Her face lights up like a beacon and smiles with appreciation.

Surveying the vistas through the cracked, dirty window, your mind can’t but help drift away in thought…

Poverty, an observation so far…

The poverty so far is heart-wrenching. It’s difficult wanting to help everyone, especially when you know that you can’t.

How do you teach the importance of hygiene to over 200-million people? Or the dangers of smoking?

The majority of men smoke in Indonesia. Cigarettes are dirt cheap. Even 6-year-old boys draw in smoke from cigarettes like old men – they’ve done this for years.

diamond minds, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Too young to be smoking, too young to be working

The piled rubbish sits outside of run-down houses, putrefying. One-metre deep drains run along the front of houses. Filled with grey smelly stagnant water containing fermenting, garbage everything festers and breeds in these drains. Pungent sickening odours exude constantly, in this steaming climate.

There’s nothing like travel to open your eyes and make you appreciate what we have at home, in Australia.

poverty, Indonesia, SE Asia
Too young to be child-minding

While riding on the scooter around Samosir Island in Lake Toba a couple of days ago, we pass a tiny village along the way. Children play in a doorway while a solemn mother nurses her 6-month-old child. The baby’s head is impossibly swollen with fluid. And, larger than a man’s head. Possibly not long to live, which hits home – we are so lucky.

A bump in the road jolts the present back to my mind, on this continuing uncomfortable bus trip.

Arriving in Sibolga

A magnificent slow descent to the fishing village backdropped by the expansive sparkling Indian Ocean, greets our ecstatic arrival in Sibolga, finally. Following the 6-hour rough bus ride with bones jolted out-of-place, hawkers from the bus station set upon us selling the usual guest house accommodation.

This city of trade is home to a melting pot of ethnically diverse people – coastal Malay, Minangkabau, Acehnese, Javanese, and of course, Batak.

Sibolga’s bay was once home to a fort, frequented by French, American, British, and Dutch traders. The port moved to Singapore once Sibolga’s fort was surrendered to the Dutch.

As a boat isn’t available for another couple of days for the 84NM (156-kilometre) trip, we decide to bypass the island of Nias, west of Sibolga. Only spend the night in Sibolga so no time for photographs.


Befriended by an extremely helpful local on our arrival at the bus station, we give him the equivalent of AU$8 to buy our bus tickets to Bukittinggi. We don’t expect to see him again.

Surprisingly, he returns shortly with the tickets. Amazed as this is equivalent to almost a month’s wage for some workers. Learning that this local loads and unloads boats for a living, his wages are even less. Taking us to the Pasar Baru – new market – we share a delicious fish dinner for his troubles and give him a tip.

Sibolga to Bukittinggi

A stifling hot room and a blaring TV downstairs results in a sleepless night, which fades into morning.

It’s time to say Selamat tinggal (goodbye) to Sibolga. Our friend from yesterday is coming to the hotel and taking us to the bus station – shame he feels obligated.

Isn’t is always who you know? And, pleasantly surprised at our bus for the next leg of the journey south.

Getting there

Once more, we set out on another long bus journey through Sumatra.

Bus from Sibolga to Bukittinggi, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

The 9-seater bus is luxury compared to yesterday’s rustic crammed public bus. Happy with this as it’s supposed to be over 10 hours to Bukkittinggi.

We’re the only foreigners. The rest of the passengers are wealthy Indonesians.

Windows in the minibus are shut for the whole trip for fear of the 3-year-old passenger catching a cold. Continually pampered and fed throughout the journey, the boy finally throws up everywhere – great!

Promised tourist stops along the way, none are forthcoming. The driver is in a hurry.

Once more, we weave around the hills of this gorgeous island. West Sumatra is more lusher and greener than the north. Women seem to work the rice fields while men are indoors playing chess and drinking tea.

Around Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Hard labour

We pass an old lady walking along the side of the road – bent over like a table-top, from the decades of working the rice fields.

Fantastic, exotic panoramas glide past just like scenes from a cinematic movie.

The further south we travel, the more noticeable is that Chinese Indonesians run most businesses. Indonesians work for the Chinese, especially in restaurants, shops, and hospitality.

I remember reading that the Chinese Indonesians were targeted during the deadly racial riots of last month, which left 1,000 people dead and an unstable country. Hoping that these tensions don’t flare up again…

What next?

Exploring Bukittinggi for a couple of days, so check back next week for more intrepid travel through Indonesia.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

30 responses to “Parapat to Bukittinggi, West Sumatra”

  1. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    That bus ride sounds like something from the movies! The picture of the young boy smoking is heartbreaking, and I can just imagine how humbling it was to be surrounded by so much poverty.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      The bus trip was crazy!
      This wasn’t the first or last one like it as many third-world bus trips are the same – they don’t get any easier.
      Yes, it’s hard to accept such poverty, even in 1998.

  2. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    That is a place I haven’t been. A lot of poverty I have seen in parts of the world..It’s sad seeing children often homeless and some are starving .
    I was nominated to take part in this fun travel photo challenge.
    That’s 10 days, 10 travel pictures, and 10 nominations. It is fun to search through my photos, bringing back memories of my travels. Today I nominate you .
    Post wherever you wish but link to me so I know you have. If you are not interested, that’s OK.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Anita,
      Totally agree and I don’t believe that with so much wealth in our world that poverty should exist at all.
      Didn’t Bob Geldof try and end poverty decades ago with the Live Aid concert, back in 1985?
      Thank you for the nomination, which I’ll endeavour to complete, but it will be tough. As you know, typically, I write lots of words! 😂

      1. 100 Country Trek Avatar

        Hi Nilla
        You are a fabulous writer.. me ..not..but travel is my life. Yes I remember Bob Geldof founded the group to raise money for charity.I think it began in Ethiopia.
        Thanks for joining.
        Good Night

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Wow, thanks for the great compliment! You’ve made my day. 🙂
        Yes, think it did begin there after a trip he did there and appalled at the poverty. I remember listening to the concert on 1985 while I was working in the UK. I was livered I couldn’t get the time off to go…ah well…

  3. equinoxio21 Avatar

    Too young for everything, right? Heartbreaking scenes of the South… Yet, I want to go to Indonesia, and back to Asia as soon as I can. How have you been? Waiting for the first opportunity to travel again?

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Brian,
      Great to hear from you! Hope that you and your family are all well?

      Yes, seeing young children working so hard is heartbreaking. Some countries are too hard for children – we are lucky. I still have a lot of Indonesia to see and the 4 months spent there really wasn’t enough time. But, sometimes I don’t fancy returning to a country, especially after such a long time.

      Here in The Land of Oz, things are settling with our internal borders now opening (but not to Adelaide yet) slowly this month. They’ve been shut since March. Our government is still saying no OS travel (as we knew it) until last quarter in 2021, but this also depends on a ‘miracle’ vaccine. Right now it’s still OS travel on compassionate grounds only with a plethora of government paperwork to complete. Met someone that just got back from the US. He paid AU$9,000 for the return flight on cattle class. Then had to self-isolate in a government-approved hotel on returning to Australia at his expense of AU$3,000 (a per person cost).
      These costs are not enticing me to travel any time soon. The other annoying thing is that Qantas wasn’t flying this leg, it’s all international carriers, so doesn’t sit well after our taxes bailed out Qantas.

      Maybe, it’s time to see some of Oz – a road trip sounds good… 😉

      Stay safe,

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Last Q21 sems a bit excessive. It seems Mexico and the US will start vaccinating hospital workers this December.
        The costs you’re mentioning are crazy but the world has – finally – shown its crazy face…
        Traveling Oz doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Plenty of beautiful places I hear…
        Buona notte.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        It is excessive. I think our government is wanting citizens to stay in the country to pump money into the economy. After all, who’s going to pay for this years’ flow of cash its been dishing out? 😉

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Ha! Let’s not even get into the massive increase of world debt in the past months. Who will pay for that? The Chinese? LOL.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        The Chinese? Ha, ha, you jest!
        We the plebs, will pay of course. The Lords will become richer and us Serfs poorer. Such a cynical pair today. 😉

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Of course “We the People” will… Pay. (For our sins, as we put THEM in power) 😡✊🏻

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Very true, but people also change or is that show their true colours, when in power.

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Absolutely. Which is why Churchill once said “Democracy is not about electing the best people, it is about kicking the worst out when the time comes…”

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Exactly…and this is where we fall down – we stick with the devil we know.

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Más vale malo por conocido que bueno por conocer. They say in Mexico, better bad but known than good and not known…

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Absolutely and it’s so much like Italian!

      11. equinoxio21 Avatar

        You would probably understand some Spanish easily. (Did you when you traveled in Lat Am?)

      12. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I picked up a little Spanish and could understand some, but I’d speak in broken Italian and locals could kind of understand me… 😉

      13. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Anche io en Italiano. 😉

      14. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Bravo! 😉

      15. equinoxio21 Avatar

        (When I don’t know the Italian word, I plug in a French of Spanish word con salsa di pommodoro.

      16. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Funny as, but I do the same and more often than not, we get the message across. 😂

  4. Christie Avatar

    So sad to see that children and women are the ones working so hard, and when you think this still happens these days, in certain countries.. but the power dictates in most countries, at a level or another, right?
    Great insights from your trip🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Christie
      Very true and I’ve seen this in so many countries. It’s as though women and children are treated as slaves in some countries and you’re right, this hasn’t changed.
      We could get into a very long discussion about power and religion, but may be dangerous grounds? 😉
      It’s quite cool reading all my old journals and then digitising words with images, albeit, poor-quality images.
      Thanks for your great comment!

  5. neelstoria Avatar

    Travel really opens your eyes. It’s hard to imagine the lives some people have out there from the comforts of our privileged lives. Though we know of all the hardships, seeing them upfront is a different matter altogether.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Absolutely and I find poverty in many countries very confronting.
      It’s astounding the disparity between extreme poverty and our comfortable lifestyles – we really are privileged. Poverty shouldn’t exist in 2020 and going forward.
      Thank you for your insightful comment.

  6. the eternal traveller Avatar

    Your bus trip does not sound pleasant at all. Lucky the scenery was so beautiful.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, you know what bus trips are like in SE Asia and yes, you’re right, the spectacular scenery really made up for it!
      Appreciate your comment Carol. 🙂

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