Sun, 02 Feb 2003

In and around Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

Rachel Rinaldo, Contributor, Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

After nearly six months of living in the heat of Jakarta, I was ready to spend some time in the mountains. A 12-day trip to Sumatra with my husband and parents provided the perfect opportunity; we spent the last few days of our visit basking in the cool, clean air of the West Sumatran highlands.

Bukittinggi is a scenic town of about 100,000 people, nestling nearly 1,000 meters above sea level, between the majestic Mt. Merapi and Mt. Singgalang. It provides an excellent base for exploring the spectacularly lush countryside, and is also an enjoyable place to relax for a couple of quiet days.

During the rainy season, the sky is overcast much of the day, and the mountains shrouded in fog. The air is frequently cool enough in the late afternoon and evening to require a long- sleeved shirt.

The central part of Bukittinggi is an excellent place to wander on foot. Starting at the famed clock tower, we wandered through the extensive outdoor market, tempted by the array of sweets and snacks.

The awning-covered inner streets of the market are lined with atmospheric old buildings, while the stairs of the indoor market building provide nice views. It's easy to get lost, but the town is small enough that you can nearly always locate the clock tower or the nearby Novotel.

Leaving the market, we walked along Jl. Ahmad Yani to find somewhere to eat lunch. This street, and the adjoining Jl. Teuku Umar were "backpacker central" a number of years ago, when Bukittinggi was a major stop on the Sumatra overland route.

These days just a handful of Western tourists are to be found in Bukittinggi, but there are still a number of pleasant-looking coffeeshops, Internet cafes and homestays that cater mostly to budget travelers.

The cafes and coffeeshops often double as small travel outfits, advertising tours of West Sumatra and the Mentawai Islands. Unfortunately, we soon found that the food at these traveler cafes left a great deal to be desired (though it was very cheap). Some of them also seemed to function mostly as hangout spots for bored young men.

Jl. Ahmad Yani has a few worthwhile antique shops, selling an array of Chinese ceramics, old songket (silk or cotton cloth with gold or silver threads woven into it), Dutch lamps and other trinkets. The largest of these, Tanjung Raya Art Shop, next to Jogja Wisata Tours and Travel, features incredible, wooden tables with serpent heads from Nias, as well as chests and wooden carvings from other parts of Sumatra.

Going south on Jl. Sudirman to Jl. Panorama takes you by the beautiful Sianok Canyon. From the Taman Panorama park, you can enter the caves built into the cliffs by the Japanese during the Second World War. When my husband and I were last in Bukittinggi three years ago, the caves were so dark and creepy that we ventured only a few steps inside before turning back. We skipped them this time.

Dinner in Bukittinggi presented some challenges, as my husband and I are mostly vegetarian (although we eat fish and eggs). This meant that Padang food, which consists mostly of meat-based dishes, was not an option. Bukittinggi is more affluent than many parts of Sumatra, but the economic downturn has had its effects here too.

There are simply not many restaurants around. We were staying at the grand-looking Novotel, easily the most upscale place in town, but found that the hotel restaurant was poor and overpriced. Of the two Chinese restaurants listed in our guidebook, one had been replaced by a now-abandoned hotel project, and the other looked dingy and grimy.

In the end, the best option turned out to be the clean, brightly-lit warung, food stalls, that appear at night on Jl. Ahmad Yani. For vegetarians, they offer Indian-influenced roti canai (Indian cake with curry), and can also make meatless versions of mie goreng (fried noodles) or martabak (thick, folded crepe filled with spices, vegetables or pieces of meat).

We spent all of the next day touring the gorgeous countryside around Bukittinggi. Just a few minutes out of town, the brilliantly green rice fields, for which this province is famous, begin to appear. As you climb into the mountains, the fields are increasingly terraced, and wooden houses built in the striking Minangkabau style are visible here and there (though most now have tin roofs, rather than thatch).

A must on the itinerary of every visitor to Bukittinggi is a stop at Rumah Gadang Pagaruyung, in the village of Silinduang Bulan. It is a reconstruction of the former palace of the rulers of the Payaruyung Kingdom, and is splendidly decorated inside and out. Almost as much fun as the palace itself is the opportunity to watch Indonesian tourists get dressed up in traditional Minangkabau wedding outfits and have their picture taken.

West of Bukittingi is Lake Maninjau, a stunning lake reached by a steep road with 44 numbered hairpin turns. Toward the end, there are packs of small, gray monkeys waiting for handouts on the roadside.

Even more so than Lake Toba, Maninjau looks like the crater lake it is because of the rim of mist-covered mountains that surrounds it on all sides. Sadly, many of the small guesthouses and restaurants on the lakeshore are not very operational these days. Although the lake is quite clean, and a good place for swimming and canoeing, most visitors seem to come just for the day to gaze at the water and have a simple lunch.

Another popular stop is the village of Pandai Sikat, where several stores sell West Sumatra's justly famous songket. This place is really a tourist trap, as the prices are somewhat high and difficult to bargain over at all. Nevertheless, the quality of the weaving is excellent, and it somehow feels better to buy crafts where they have been produced.

West Sumatra's rugged, mountainous terrain provides excellent hiking and trekking prospects, including Merapi volcano, and many possible walks in the vicinity of Lake Maninjau and Lake Singkarak. We spent part of our afternoon at Harau Canyon, a valley walled in by sheer, towering rock cliffs. Several surging waterfalls pour over the cliffs, and wild flowers can be seen along the road.

Although a road winds through much of the valley, Harau also has hiking trails, and the cliffs are popular for rock climbers.

Leaving Bukittinggi for Padang the next morning, we descended from the mountains toward the coast. We stopped briefly at the Anai waterfall, right along the roadside, to have our last taste of cool air.

And then it was back to the steamy, sun-drenched city.

How to Get There:

Garuda, Merpati, Mandala, and Pelangi, and Silk airlines fly to Padang. From the Padang airport, it is possible to take a charter taxi to Bukittinggi. Alternatively, take a taxi or bus to Padang's central bus terminal on Jl. Pemuda and get a bus to Bukittinggi. Padang to Bukittinggi is an incredibly scenic two hour drive.

Where to Stay in Bukittinggi:

There are inexpensive hotels and homestays on Jl. Ahmad Yani, Jl. Teuku Umar, and Jl. Benteng (on the way to the fort). The only upscale option is the centrally-located Novotel, on Jl.Laras Datuk Bandaro.

Where to Go in Bukittinggi:

* Stroll through the Pasar Atas (Upper Market), in front of the clocktower in the center of town, and then continue on to the Pasar Bawah (Lower Market) below it. The best market days are Wednesday and Saturday.

* The traveler cafes on Jl. Ahmad Yani are the easiest place to book day or overnight tours of the region.

* The Medan Nan Balinduang, on Jl. Lenggogeni hosts performances of Minangkabau music and dance every night (as long as there are at least six people in the audience) at 8:30.

* Don't miss Panorama Park and Sianok Canyon, on the southern edge of the town. This is an easy walk from the clocktower.

* Antique shops can be found on Jl. Ahmad Yani; at night this street also has numerous inexpensive warungs.