Sumatra: Bukittinggi

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The freezing cold air-conditioned bus from Parapat to Bukittinggi took about 14 hours. The narrow road, somewhat inappropriately called the Trans-Sumatran Highway, twisted and turned, weaving its way through the forested hills. Whatever is said about Indonesia’s forests being destroyed by logging, I have never seen so much forest as I have in Sumatra. The scenery was beautiful but the undulating road made my stomach turn. Eventually after taking some motion sickness medicine and resolving to refrain from vomiting while it did its work, I fell asleep. At about 7.30am I arrived in Bukittinggi, having had a fair few hours of interrupted sleep.

I walked into the centre of town and found myself at the Pasar Bawah (Lower Market) full of women selling vegetables. Walking up a long flight of steps I arrived at the Pasar Atas (Upper Market) where snacks, souvenirs, clothes and other products were being sold. The town of Bukittinggi is divided into these two levels, and is a very hilly town to walk around. Nestled between three mountains, there are fantastic views of the rooftops of the town against a mountain backdrop.

Having travelled hundreds of kilometres, crossing the equator during the night, the atmosphere in Minangkabau West Sumatra was different to that in the Batak region. Minangkabau people are traditionally Muslim and the majority of women I saw in public were wearing jilbabs. Religion is considered important and necessary across Indonesia, where every citizen must subscribe to one of five listed religions. In Bukittinggi Islam is the prominent religion, with the call to prayer and religious sermons boomed across the town from the mosques on a daily basis.

Just past the Pasar Atas I came to Jam Gadang (large clock), a 26m high tower with a clock face on all four sides, which was built by the Dutch in 1926. According to the information boards around the clock, its motor, which was imported, is one of only two in the world, the other being that of the rather more famous Big Ben in London, UK. During the Dutch period, the top of the tower was in a Dutch design. When the Japanese occupied Indonesia they changed it, and once again after independence the design was altered to feature a Minangkabau-style roof.

Jam Gadang

Jam Gadang

I walked on and found my hotel, D’Enam, the cheapest hotel or hostel I could find. A room with shared bathroom, cold water only, was Rp.60000 per night, a little more expensive than I had hoped, and the dearest place I had stayed so far on this trip, but there was no cheaper option. My tiny room, in contrast to most gloomy cheap rooms, was full of windows, and I rather liked the light airy feel. I checked in, had a shower and rested for half an hour before venturing out. Given the cost of staying in this town I decided to see as much as possible in one day and perhaps stay just one night.

First I walked the short distance to Benteng de Kock (De Kock Fort), built by the Dutch in 1825 and named after a Dutch military figure. The area has been made into a zoo, so when you enter the fort area (Rp.5000), perched on a hilltop, you are also entering the zoo. The fort itself was not particularly interesting, just a 20m tall building with some rusty cannons, but the park area was nice, affording glimpses across the town between the trees. I don’t really like zoos, but having ended up in one, I decided I may as well have a look around. Birds in large aviary-style cages were dotted around the fort area. A spectacular wide footbridge led straight over the main road of the town to a neighbouring hilltop, where the rest of the zoo and a Minangkabau museum were situated. The zoo was pretty horrific and depressing. Having seen the semi-wild orangutans that had been released from captivity at Bukit Lawang, here at Bukittinggi were orangutans in cages. They looked a malnourished underexercised lot. There were also bears, in a circular enclosure with no shade, various types of monkey, two elephants, a camel, a whole herd of deer, crocodiles, lizards and small mammals, all cooped up in cages and enclosures too small with little hope. It was like a prison for these poor animals. I declined to pay extra to enter the aquarium. The museum was more interesting (Rp.1000), built as a Minangkabau house. Inside were many examples of traditional Minangkabau items, from clothes to cooking utensils to musical instruments. Descriptions were in Indonesian and English. There were also miniature models of Minangkabau houses and buildings. Rather like the Batak tradition, Minangkabau people used to live as a group of several families in one large house with its characteristic pointed rooftop. However, the Minangkabau house and rooftop has a different shape to the Batak one. Neighbouring buildings served various purposes such as rice storage. The museum also featured, very oddly, some stuffed animals. However these were not normal animals, rather animals with deformities, such as siamese twins, creatures with extra legs and so on. I found these extremely disturbing to look at. There was also a collection of money from various countries, including old Indonesian money such as a one rupiah note.

the museum in a traditional Minangkabau-style building

the museum in a traditional Minangkabau-style building

After leaving the slightly strange museum and the depressing zoo, I walked to Ngarai Sianok (Sianok Canyon), not very far since Bukittinggi is quite small. The viewing area for the canyon, which is called Taman Panorama (Panorama Park, Rp.3000), has been nicely done out, with paths and a viewing tower, and the view is breathtaking. The canyon is enormous with the inside of it clearly visible making a sharp contrast between the forested hills and bare brown earth of the canyon. Looming large in the background is Mt. Singgalang. Small monkeys inhabit the forest here, sometimes venturing up to the visitors’ area.

Accessible from Taman Panorama is Lobang Jepang (Japanese Caves, Rp.5000), a network of underground tunnels built and used by the Japanese during World War II. I joined up with a group of visitors from Jakarta and went on a tour (recommended donation Rp.20000). The complex network of tunnels featured many rooms and caverns, including escape routes, a prison room, and a hole where corpses were pushed out into the river. The original length of the network was over six kilometres, of which 1.5 kilometres has been opened up for visitors. The floor and walls have mostly been cemented to make it safer, though in some places the original walls are still visible. After descending a long flight of stairs to deep underground, we walked through the network of tunnels. Although the main tunnels have been fitted with electric lighting, I was glad to be in a group rather than alone down there. The excellent guide told us about the original use of each room, as well as its current status. There are plans to make Lobang Jepang into a proper visitor destination with film showings and other facilities, but for the time being it was interesting enough to enter this wartime relic and hear about what happened there.

Sianok Canyon

Sianok Canyon

After leaving Taman Panorama and Lobang Jepang I made my way to Museum Perjuangan (entry by donation, I gave Rp.2000), a military museum just opposite the main entrance of Taman Panorama. There I viewed displays of weapons, radio transmitters and other articles used by the Indonesians in their fight for independence during the early 1940s. There were also many old photographs from that struggle and the following independence period, including some rather gruesome shots of war heroes’ bodies.

Exhausted from sightseeing all day, on very little sleep, but fascinated by all that I’d seen, I walked back to my hotel for a well-earned rest. Bukittinggi is a picturesque town with an interesting layout, good markets, excellent sightseeing and beautiful scenery. On my whirlwind budget tour of Sumatra I had seen the major sights and sampled the Bukittinggi atmosphere, and so the next day I left for Lake Maninjau.

pedestrian bridge across the main road

pedestrian bridge across the main road

Sumatra: Lake Toba

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From Dokan it is impossible to get a direct bus to Parapat, on the shore of Lake Toba, so I first travelled to Pematangsiantar (commonly called Siantar, Rp.15000, two hours plus on bumpy roads), then changed to a Parapat bus (Rp.10000, one hour max). As the bus began its final descent to Lake Toba there was suddenly a stunning vista across the lake. I had never seen a lake anything like as big as this – it looked as big as the sea! Lake Toba is indeed the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and the largest volcanic lake in the world, created around 70-80,000 years ago by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It is so big you cannot see clearly from one end to the other.

The bus dropped me off in Parapat and I headed for the ferry to Samosir Island. Although not technically an island because of being connected to the mainland by a strip of land, Samosir is commonly called an island. It was created by magma pushing upwards fron the bottom of the caldera. I had heard many stories about Samosir from friends so I was keen to check it out.

Following a recommendation from a fellow traveller I decided to stay at Lekjon. The ferry from Parapat (Rp.7000) drops off passengers at hotel jetties around Tuktuk, a jutting-out piece of land on the edge of Samosir, so it is good to have some idea of where you want to stay. Lekjon had large clean rooms overlooking the lake with hot water and balcony for Rp.50000 and that was just right for me. (Rooms with only cold water cost Rp.40000.)

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

Tuktuk is full of hotels, hostels and homestays as well as restaurants and other facilities for international guests. Clearly it was once a thriving tourist destination, but now many hotels are barely ticking over and some have fallen into disrepair or closed down. According to one hotel worker, this fall in trade was caused by the Bali bomb. Another factor that may account for a lack of resurgence in trade is access to the area. From any direction you are looking at several hours of narrow potholed roads, fine for your average backpacker, but less acceptable for more upmarket hotel clientele.

The following day, after lying in bed looking at the amazing view from my window, I ventured out on foot. Motorbike hire was prohibitively expensive for me, at around Rp.80000 a day. I walked for an hour or more, following the road around the edge of Tuktuk to Ambarita, on Samosir. The views across the lake with its surrounding hills were spectacular, as were the elaborate and colourful Batak graves dotted around. Arriving at Ambarita I went to look at the 300 year old stone chairs and tables that are there. Apparently these were used for meetings of the village chiefs or elders.

300 year old stone tables and chairs

300 year old stone tables and chairs

I then hopped in an angkot (minibus) and headed to Pangururan, Samosir’s main town. Angkots do not go as far as Tuktuk so it is necessary to walk or hitch a ride to Samosir proper first. The angkot journey, which followed the road around the edge of the island (the centre is made up of steep hills), took about an hour and cost Rp.10000. Apparently Samosir is almost as big as Singapore, but with a far smaller population.

Pangururan is a hot dusty little town. I was very hungry by this point, not having eaten yet, so I found a small cafe and tried the local speciality, babi panggang (grilled pork). Being a Muslim country, in most of Indonesia it is hard to find pork, but here in Christian Batak region it is one of their main dishes.

A friend had recommended that I go to Bp. Doro’s shop where he makes handicraft products from the water hyacinth that grows in Lake Toba. This plant is considered a nuisance because of its rampant growth in the lake. Following directions I found my way to the shop, which directly overlooks the lake, and was welcomed in. Bp. Doro was busy at his work, taking the dried hyacinth stems and twisting and weaving them into complex shapes. On shelves above and around him were his finished products: bags, sandals, mats and even a lampshade. His friendly wife runs a small cafe at the shop and there was a small group of men relaxing there, on a break from work. In addition to making and selling products Bp. Doro runs workshops for individuals and groups, teaching handicraft skills with the plant. He already has experience teaching groups of foreigners, and has received orders for his products from abroad. The finished product is rather like that made of thin bamboo or rattan. I had a drink and chatted to Bp. Doro, his wife and friends. One of them, Inceng, who was keen to practise his English, told me about his job monitoring the water quality of the lake. The water hyacinth is considered a pest, and also a symptom of low water quality. Campaigns to keep the lake clean are in evidence, with banners and posters on display, for example, on the ships that ferry passengers across the lake.

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Having spent the afternoon with Bp. Doro and friends I made my way back to my hotel, first by angkot to the Tuktuk junction (simpang Tuktuk) then on foot, probably several miles, following the road around the edge of the island. It had been a tiring but worthwhile day. If you would like to visit Bp. Doro’s shop, go to: Bp. Handoro Gurning, Jl Danau Toba, depan Rumah Dinas Bupati, Pangururan. You will be welcomed in, I’m sure.

The next day I spent on full relaxation and watching the fish in the lake. Toba can be a very peaceful area and it would have been easy to spend longer there, doing not much at all. In the evening I went to a performance of traditional Batak music at Samosir Cottages. Although put on for tourists, it was very interesting to see the Batak musical instruments and hear the songs. The all-male group played Batak drums, guitars, a lute, a bamboo flute, a xylophone and a beer bottle. And three of them sung together. It was a really good show, with helpful English explanations of the meaning of each song. The upbeat lively music made a good finale to my time in the Batak region.

Leaving Samosir and the Lake Toba area, I boarded the ferry to Parapat. As I gazed across the enormous expanse of water I mentally said good bye to this fantastic view. Feeling the waves caused by the wind rocking the ferry it did feel like I was at sea, but without the saltiness and that sea smell.

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

I had lunch in Parapat while waiting for my bus. It is a small but bustling town with many people coming through on their way to and from Samosir, or coming to shop at the daily market. I took a minibus to the bus terminal (Rp.2000), and was glad I did, because it turned out to be some distance from the main town. Then I boarded the nightbus for the long journey to Bukittinggi.