When I first visited Southeast Asia in 2004 en route to Australia with my mate Danny, we’d had no real plan to visit Sumatra (or anywhere else in Indonesia). We flew in from India to Singapore, and were flying out from Bangkok to Australia via Brunei. What we did in between (and how long we spent doing it) was to be played by ear and limited only by our (far from unlimited) funds, though the Singapore – Malaysia – Thailand route is fairly self-explanatory and we knew our path more or less.
But we were also open to whatever spur of the moment decisions might come our way, and ended up heading to Indonesia on the basis of a conversation with a random English bloke sat at the table next to ours at a roadside eatery in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.
This guy had just come from Sumatra and waxed lyrical about the amazing scenery, friendly people, fascinating cultures, and general awesomeness of the place. On the strength of his recommendation we decided to take a 10-day detour through Sumatra to check it out, and it proved to be every bit as awesome as we’d been told.
Our route in Sumatra was basically Bukittinggi – Lake Maninjau – Lake Toba – Berastagi, with a ferry at either end from and then back to Malaysia.
We started with a ferry from Malacca to Dumai and minivan from there to Bukittinggi, where we spent a very chilled few days of hiking across Sianok canyon to Kota Gadang (a village famous for silver jewellery), going down the Japanese WWII tunnels, munching on satay skewers and sampling a range of fiery local dishes, exploring the local countryside, and evening beers at the roadside restaurants. It’s a fairly ramshackle town, but it really charmed us with its surrounding natural beauty, its ready smile, and the fascinating culture of the local Minangkabau people.
The Minangkabau are the people of the West Sumatra Highlands, usually called the Minangkabau Highlands after them; though they are officially Muslim, they follow a blend of Islam with local traditional beliefs (and are certainly partial to a beer or two). This came about as they were forced under the rule of Sukarno (Indonesia’s former dictator) to choose a monotheistic religion to follow in place of their traditional beliefs – a choice forced upon all Indonesians who were not already doing so at the time (with Balinese Hinduism managing to satisfy the requirement by portraying its polytheistic pantheon of gods as different facets of one supreme god) – and so they ended up officially adopting Islam, but while quietly also maintaining their traditional animist beliefs and matrilineal customs, resulting in a hybrid religion and lifestyle.
They traditionally live in longhouses, shared living spaces for large numbers of people, and these are passed down matrilineally i.e. down the female line, as is all their property & wealth as well as their family names. The women live in and run the villages, while the men go off to hunt, work, or find their fortunes, and the main male parenting role for Minangkabau children is actually played by their uncles rather than their fathers.
The name Minangkabau means ‘winning buffalo’ in their language, and their beliefs revolve around the water buffalo, the animal they have always depended on for their livelihood. We visited a buffalo market where the traders wear ponchos, standing side-by-side to haggle by means of hidden hand signals physically relayed from hand to hand under the secrecy of the ponchos; our guide for the day (our guesthouse owner) explained that for many Minangkabau a good buffalo is still preferred to a bank account. Minangkabau houses are designed with curved roofs to emulate the horns of the buffalo, and interestingly their mosques often incorporate the bull-horn design (surely blasphemous in the eyes of stricter interpretations).
They also hold regular buffalo fights – these are bull vs bull rather than the matador bull fights in Spain, and the bulls are not killed. Rather, the bulls are led to each other and lock horns, wrestling until one of them admits defeat; the locals crowd around to watch the action, or perch on fences at the back, betting on the outcome by buying tickets from the bookmakers working the crowd. The most exciting part of the action is when a bull quits – he turns tail and runs, and the victor gives chase. These are big animals, and when two of them come stampeding towards you you get the hell out of the way! It’s a chaotic scene as the bulls charge through the crowd, people diving for cover or falling backwards off the fences into the mud, the bulls then disappearing into the jungle; we hear the sounds of these heavy units of muscle smashing and crashing through the undergrowth, and the shouts of their handlers as they try to catch up with them and calm them. Eventually the uproar dies down and the handlers return to the arena with their bulls, sedate once more, the bookies pay out the winning bets (we’d bet on the larger bull, but he lost), and the stage is reset for the next bout. It was all brilliant fun, and while I remained a bit uneasy with the actual idea of pushing animals to fight like that, it’s not a blood sport and it was also clear that the bulls’ owners treated their animals with the same kind of care and respect with which a racehorse is treated.
Water buffaloes weren’t the only impressive animals we saw there though – being located just 20 miles south of the Equator, Bukittinggi has an abundance of wildlife. Walking through the jungle when we visited the longhouse village, we spotted the biggest spider I’ve ever seen (or likely ever will, I expect), a beautiful creature with vivid blue and yellow markings on its black body, with a legspan that must’ve covered 12 inches, just chilling in its web; we were told their bites are seriously dangerous, but very rarely happen and only by accident. Hiking through Sianok Canyon to the silver village we bumped into a bloke picking plants to make medicine for his ailing mother; he showed us the way to the village, and also showed us a range of enormous insects and beetles he picked out from under various leaves (he evidently had great knowledge of the jungle). Even in town there were super-sized insects flying around – one that flapped past my face was so large that I initially took it for a bird, then a bat (due to the erratic flapping motion), before finally realising it was an enormous purple butterfly (again, the largest I’ve ever seen or ever expect to). The mosquitoes are also monsters unfortunately, and it’s a malarious region – make sure you’ve got your prophylactics and repellents.
(One word of caution to nature lovers though – do not visit Bukittinggi zoo. The conditions are dreadful, and the emaciated elephant we saw chained up in there was a particularly heartbreaking sight; we went there accidentally, not realising that when we paid for entrance to Fort de Kock (the main tourist site within the town itself) we were also entering the zoo. In other words, if you don’t want to pay money to a dreadful zoo, don’t go to the fort – missing the fort isn’t missing much anyway)
To be honest I’d never even heard of the Minangkabau people before visiting their home region, so finding a people so open and eager to share and show their unique culture, combined with the beautiful surrounding nature and wildlife, made it a really memorable few days in Bukittinggi.
Everyone in Bukittinggi told us that before leaving the area we also had to visit Lake Maninjau, an hour away in a little world of its own, and so we did exactly that. It’s a remarkable place, a pristine lake in the caldera of a collapsed volcano, its fresh water crystal clear and perfect to bathe and swim in, the one road into the crater taking dozens of dramatic switchbacks from the rim of the crater down to the lake, and one road going around the 20-something km circumference of the lake linking up the handful of towns (which we tackled on rental mountain bikes), and the locals seeming to live almost oblivious to the world beyond their crater. We only spent a few days there, but you could easily forget about the world outside and spend weeks chilling by that lake, sipping beers and dipping in the waters and doing a lot of very little.
It’s not the most famous lake in Sumatra though – that honour goes to the far larger (though perhaps not quite so magical) Lake Toba in the Batak Highlands of northern Sumatra. Toba is another caldera lake but on a much greater scale and with a large island in the middle called Samosir, another place you could easily spend weeks forgetting about the world at large.
It’s a beast of a night bus from Bukittinggi / Maninjau to Toba though, which I’ve done in both directions (having been back to Sumatra again since that first visit); there’s a luxury bus and a local bus. Definitely take the luxury option, it’s seriously worth the extra dollars! The local bus was completely packed out, people sleeping in the aisles, someone puking in the stairwell all night, crying babies… it was a rough trip, and the bus broke down for a couple of hours to boot. The only issue on the luxury bus was the fierce aircon – make sure to layer up!
Another thing you could include on your route is a visit to Nias island (Palau Nias) or the Mentawai islands; Palau Nias has great fame in the surfing community, while the Mentawai islands are home to hunter gatherer tribes still living their traditional lifestyles. There are a number of independent guides in Bukittinggi who’ll find you in the guesthouses to offer their services (volcano climbs etc), and if you want to visit the Mentawai tribes they can make the arrangements and take you to the islands as your guide and interpreter. Of course you have to be a bit careful about visiting them and the potential pitfalls of tourism in such undeveloped places, and we decided not to go; but the Bukittinggi guides were all good guys to hang out with even though we didn’t engage their services and I did feel they would’ve handled things sensitively had we gone. Boats to Pulau Nias leave from the port of Sibolga, which is located between Bukittinggi and Lake Toba; boats to the Mentawai leave from Padang city, near Bukittinggi.
Lake Toba and Samosir island are the heartland of the Toba Batak people, another highland ethnic group that was forced to adopt a monotheistic religion in place of their traditional beliefs, but ended up blending them together – in this case, blending Catholicism with their animist practices. The Batak people traditionally built longhouses with images of deities under the gables and over the doors, and in the Toba region you see churches with the same kind of gables and carvings – again, something that would probably be considered quite blasphemous by mainstream Christians!
The Batak people are renowned in Indonesia for their artistic and musical skills, and it certainly seems like anyone and everyone there can sing & play guitar! Their handicrafts are also of famously high quality, especially the wood carvings which are sold in the shops of Samosir. I have an absolutely beautiful hand-carved wooden Batak chess set at home, it’s a real work of art and though it was a bit of a pain to carry it home it was worth the effort.
From Lake Toba we made one more stop to climb the Sibayak volcano in Berastagi (in the Karo Batak Highlands), a straightforward hike affording great views and the chance to walk through the crater at the top. For some reason we skipped Bukit Lawang (famous for the population of rescued orangutans living in the Gunung Leuser nature reserve) and went straight to Medan for the ferry to Penang (I think we did this because we were already planning to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo a few weeks later).
On my second visit to Sumatra, we basically did the same route in reverse i.e. from north to south, but visiting Bukit Lawang instead of Berastagi (and had a wild journey to get there from Medan); seeing the orangutans there was pretty incredible (yet tragic), and I’d definitely recommend including both Bukit Lawang and Berastagi on your Sumatra itinerary. After that we went to Lake Toba and Bukittinggi, from where my then-girlfriend and her friend had an onward flight; I proceeded to visit Lake Maninjau again, and then did this insane 2-day bus ride to Jakarta. While I can’t recommend Sumatra highly enough, I’d strongly advise against going by bus from West Sumatra to Jakarta; it was mental! (though there was a silver lining – it left me with a newfound appreciation for Led Zeppelin)
Recommended Sumatra overland route (approx 2 weeks)
Note that the Medan – Penang ferries ceased operating a few years back due to competition from budget airlines, but the Malacca – Dumai ferries still run so you can do the following, flying in / out of Medan (flying in or out of Padang is also an option if you don’t fancy the boat & bus trip over from Malaysia or Singapore, and Bukittinggi is 2 hours from the airport in Padang):
Have you been to Sumatra, or do you have any questions about it? Leave a comment below!
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Also see my Indonesia overland travel guide