Absorb yourself in West Sumatra’s alluring Bukittinggi, with a cultural minibus tour around its stunning countryside for the day…
A little background
Decide to spend a few days around Bukittinggi because this area offers loads of activities. But, also want to linger longer in Sumatra before heading to Java, to avoid any backlash from the deadly racial riots of last month.
Travel in 1998 wasn’t as comfortable as these days. Getting from North Sumatra to West Sumatra’s Bukittinggi – over 500-kilometres away – is no exception.
Check out the journey from Parapat, travelling on 2 buses and 16 hours’ later to finally arrive in Bukittinggi.
Sadly, the quality of my 35mm film scanned photos isn’t great – apologies in advance. Both the negatives and prints lived in unspeakable conditions and lucky that these images still exist.
Day tour around Bukittinggi
What better way to explore Bukittinggi than indulging in a full day’s minibus tour, which takes in the main tourist sights? And, it’s a great way to see much of Bukittinggi, when you don’t have the luxury of your own transport.
Early on, we discover that David – our local tour guide – is a fountain of knowledge and of historical information. Coupled with a ton of terrible jokes, this makes David a great guide.
Starting at 9am and with just over half an hour’s drive later, Pandai Sikat is the first stop of the tour. To introduce and appreciate a little of traditional impressive cedar wood carving done with ancient chisels.
While at Pandai Sikat, check out the art of ancestral, Songket hand weaving with silk. The hand-weaving is both tedious and fascinating. Weavers are typically women. Typically, it takes a whole day to finish only ten centimetres of a complex design-weave.
Stopping at Pasar Reba to watch the making of rice powder, a small reservoir of water flows onto a water wheel and turns the wheel for the rice milling.
Inside the old crude shed with rice-power-coated cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, three workers sit on child-like plastic stools sifting the powder, all day long.
Rice powder is an ingredient in the traditional scrumptious pancakes popular, in this area.
Moving on to Prianban, we take a stroll through impossibly green rice fields, backdropped by picturesque vistas – a feast for one’s eyes.
Everything is grown in these fields, including neat sectioned rows of onions, chillies, bananas, and cinnamon trees – not an inch of space is wasted.
The etched walkways through the fields are so narrow that you have to walk gingerly one foot in front of the other and in a straight line, for fear of crushing crops. Smiles from the farmers confirm that we’re a cumbersome sight in these fields.
Istano Basa Pagaruyung
The next stop on this action-packed day is to the impressive three-storey Pagaruyung Palace.
Bursting with locals and not many tourists today the media must be scaring everyone away because of last month’s racial riots – it’s a good time visit.
This palace belonged to the Pagaruyung Kindom – Minang Kabau – an ethnic group native to West Sumatra. Back in its day, the first floor of the palace hosted influential meetings. The second floor reserved exclusively for the king and the third floor dedicated to security.
Throughout the palace, ceilings and structural posts are intricately carved in dark heavy timber – a plush den in its heyday.
A quick spot of lunch in a ‘pay for what you eat from the plate’ restaurant, visiting its bathroom is an intriguing experience. An ageing bamboo makeshift wall partially masks the crude square concrete floor. A bowl of water to wash away excrement is provided, but where does this go? Next to the restaurant’s open-air dishwashing area, a plethora of cats hungrily lick clean the piled up dirty plates.
Moving onto Belimbing Village sometimes called Balimbung or Balimbiang, this is the oldest village in West Sumatra at around 350-years’ old.
Houses are made without nails and using traditional Minangkabau architecture methods, including wood chocks.
Three of the houses still boast the traditional and unique buffalo-horn roof. Typically, several families live under one roof.
Continuing on to the Ombilah River, there isn’t a lot of water around so instead, we continue to drive further to Lake Singarak. Smaller than Lake Toba, it’s picturesque nonetheless.
Desperately wanting a swim in the lake to cool off from the sultry ambience, I give this a miss. Not only are there too many stares from the locals but also, the bloated dead fish floating on the enticing lake’s surface makes me wary.
This fabulous tour ends the day at a tiny village to sample delicious local coconut rice pancakes made over open wood fires, before heading back to Bukittinggi. Although, feel very guilty about stopping here as the children making the pancakes are much too young to work. And, children work long hours in atrocious working conditions. David thinks nothing of these children working or their environment – it’s the norm here and a totally different culture to ours.
Where to next?
After a night back in Bukittinggi, the next stop is taking another bus, and this time it’s to the noisy city of Padang. Though, we’re just passing through Padang as trying to catch a boat for the 81NM (150kms) to Siberut Island, on West Sumatra’s edge.
The tropical, untouched island of Siberut is home to Indonesia’s remaining indigenous Animist people. With teeth filed to razor-sharp like shark’s teeth, face and body tattooed for their initiation, it’s a culture that the Indonesian government is trying hard to stifle.
In 1998, there isn’t much information around on how to get to Siberut or what to expect.
Sights to see and travel through Indonesia so far is mostly by word of mouth from locals, and other travellers we meet along the way. Hoping that it’s still possible to get to Siberut Island…