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.
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.
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.
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.