Bordering the imposing Mount Singgalang and active Mount Merapi volcanoes in West Sumatra, Bukittinggi is a magnet for Indonesian and global travellers.
Decided on some long-term travel, island-hopping through Indonesia back in 1998. No travel plans. No time limits.
Wanting to avoid any backlash from the deadly racial riots of last month, we spend the first month travelling through the more isolated parts of the island of Sumatra.
From Parapat, travelling on two buses and 16 hours later, we finally arrive in Bukittinggi for some R&R.
Apologies in advance for the less than optimal quality of my 35mm film scanned photos – both negatives and prints lived in unspeakable conditions!
Nestled close to the ever-present and ominous active Merapi volcano, Bukittinggi is a striking, banquet for the eyes!
The city’s surrounding region provides dynamic panoramas coupled with an overabundance of fantastic activities to relish. From rigorous intrepid treks climbing active volcanos, immersing yourself in the local traditional culture and delicious food, and stunning caldera lakes offers an endless list.
Make sure to check out Bukittinggi’s fabulous, market, which explodes to twice its size on a Tuesday and Saturdays.
Taking a short stroll from the abode in central Bukittinggi, bump into Panorama Park – known locally as Taman Panorama.
Sianok Canyon’s jagged cliffs, the Ngarai Sianok valley rice paddies below, backdropped by the commanding Gunung Singgalang height of 2,877 metres, provide superb vistas.
Wait patiently for the sun to give way to the moon for some spectacular photos. Cloud cover fizzles out the view, so, stop off instead, at the Cosy Cave Cafe for a delicious bite to eat.
You’re spoilt for choice by the glut of cafes in Bukittinggi. The problem is that as soon as you sit down, a guide latches onto you beginning the hard-sell for treks.
After almost a month in Sumatra, we learn that it’s best to steer the conversation towards family, which sends the guide down a different path, although for hours.
Lobang Jepang (Japanese Tunnels WWII)
While visiting Panorama Park, enter the Japanese Tunnels of WWII, built by POWs (Javan slaves) from 1942 and completed in 1944. Many workers “died during the construction, and all surviving workers were killed and buried in one passage they had built before, to keep the tunnels secret“.
This underground military complex built right under the nose of Bukittinggi and used until 1945. No one knew about the tunnels. At 49-metres below the surface, around 2-metres wide, and 5-kilometres of tunnels, this is hard to believe. Only 1.5-kilometres of the tunnel is open to the public.
Sadly, I have no photos to share. Following the claustrophobic tour through the tunnels, we decide to head to Koto Gadang – tiny village renown for its fine intricate silver work. Almost every house showcases a converted room as a workshop and store that’s open to the road.
Visions of a bloodied bull defeated by a pierced wound with a protruding sword sticking out, painfully whaling a slow death. Not interested in going to a bullfight, regardless, locals persuade me to go. And, with the promise that fights are different from Spanish bullfights. So, a few foreigners pile into a minibus to the bullfight.
Arrived at the large, grassed field where two circles of locals surrounded the two contestants – bulls. Head to the concrete steps – not too close to the action. I have to agree that once here, the atmosphere is electric.
Many spectators are placing bets. A lot of money rides on each bull, which begs the question: how do Indonesians find money to gamble when many are very poor?
The fighting starts. Bulls lock horns with a deepened thud. The unsettling thumps and blows from the bodies crashing together, continue throughout the fight, lasting around 20-minutes. Bets are placed right to the end of the bullfight.
These powerful bullocks of around 400-kilos each keep going until the end. The danger is when one breaks away and charges as there is no protective barrier, just a human circle of locals.
Mainly men attend the bullfight. Indonesians seem to be fanatical gamblers – bullfights, dominos, football games, anything. And, when asked, the reason is as simple as “I like gambling”.
The rain sets in for the second fight, which lasts only 5 minutes – I’m happy.
Full Moon Party
A little 3-kilometre walk out of Bukittingi, they said.
The moon is not out yet. Deeply-dark, unfamiliar. No streets lights along this dirt road.
A bus full of party-goers passes us by, providing the only dim light briefly until fading away in the distance. Unsure if this is the right track, a couple of locals confirm it is and to keep walking. Paranoia sets in quickly when surrounded by night.
Silently moving, winding our way through tiny narrow paths that hug wet rice paddies, until arriving at a homestay with several guys inside. Everyone is oblivious of the full moon party – awkward. But, also strange as this is the correct homestay advertised on the poster in town. Meeting a German tourist, we head down to the beach instead.
A large bomb fire burns, casting a warm glow along the beach. The crackling noise of burning timbers drowned out by the ear-piercing speakers, blaring awful music. Eager locals enjoy this fun moment with a few tourists, while we arrive over an hour late. Heading to the next beach round and starting another bomb fire, we settle in for the night contemplating life until 01:00 am, before walking back in the blackness of night.
Bukittinggi to Danau Maninjau
As with many lakes on the island of Sumatra, Danau Maninjau (Lake Maninjau) is a caldera formed by a volcanic eruption – Maninjau, formed around 52,000 years ago.
Head to Lake Maninjau on a public bus for the 38-kilometre ride and what a ride it is!
The road twists around 44 hair-pin bends while climbing the 459-metres to the scenic lake.
While wandering around the volcanic lake, there isn’t any hassling in this tiny village, as in other parts of Sumatra – refreshing. The expansive lake area boasts only around 1,000 locals.
Where to stay?
Deciding to stay the night, we bumped into the delightful Hotel Mutiara, which offers a great balcony with unfolding fabulous views. And, the top floor to ourselves.
Be aware though that this hotel is a few doors down from a mosque. Your slumber is broken early in the morning by a noise similar to a cat whaling, before strangulation.
A light tap on the door announces the delivery left outside our door of a thermos full of hot water, tea, and sugar – a first so far, in Indonesian hotels. The staff here are lovely – makes me want to linger longer.
Tip: This hotel is still operating in 2020.
Leaving Danau Manijau
Standing room only on the rustic public bus for the tight winding 44-hairpin bends back to Bukittinggi. Guess I just like the hot water at the Lima Hotel, as checked into this rundown place once more.
Where is Bukittinggi?
Located just under 3 hours from the bustling and expanding city of Padang, Bukittinggi is one of Sumatra’s stunning destinations.
Although Bukittinggi – also known as Bukit, by locals – was popular in 1998, it wasn’t as hectic as today I read.
Where not to sleep
Booking into the Lima’s Hotel (amazed that it’s still operating in 2020), the room offers hot water, a TV, and dirty sheets that saw an amorous event the previous evening. Of course, I ask for clean sheets from the unsurprised manager.
A barely foamed slatted bed and loads of loud British tourists make for a sleepless night. To top it off, we’re in July and holiday month in Indonesia, so a plethora of people everywhere – makes it more difficult to find a place to sleep, especially on weekends. Each rustic hotel comes with a deluge of boisterous children that love to stay up all night and into the early morning hours.
Exploring more around Bukittinggi before heading to the noisy city of Padang, so check back next week to discover more of Bukittinggi.