Wonderful | Padang

In Sumatra Barat (West Sumatra), fertile uplands ring jungle-clad volcanoes, waterfalls cascade into deep ravines and nature takes a breath in deep, still lakes. Rainforest still clings to the steepest slopes, while rice, tapioca, cinnamon and coffee bring in the wealth.

This is the heartland of the matriarchal Minangkabau, an intelligent, culturally rich and politically savvy people who have successfully exported their culture, language, cuisine and beliefs throughout Indonesia and whose soaring architecture dominates the cities and villages.

Bustling Padang, on the Indian Ocean, is a popular pit stop for surfers, trekkers and indigenous culture enthusiasts bound for the Mentawai Islands. Nestling in the cool highlands north of Padang, scenic Bukittinggi is surrounded by picturesque villages where traditional artisans still ply their trades, with the gorgeous Danau Maninjau and the secluded Harau Valley providing plenty of scope for outdoor adventure. Nature lovers also head south to explore Sumatra’s largest national park in Kerinci, the last stronghold of the Sumatran tiger and with hidden lakes, volcanoes and jungle trekking galore.

An urbo-Indonesian sprawl of traffic and smog, Padang sits astride one of the planet’s most powerful seismic zones, centrally located on the tectonic hotspot where the Indo-Australian plate plunges under the Eurasian plate. Significant tremors occur on an almost annual basis, the most recent being in 2012.

Padang is to West Sumatra what Medan is to the North – a handy transport hub with excellent connections to major regional attractions, including Mentawai islands, Bukittinggi, Danau Maninjau and the Kerinci Highlands. Due to the sheer volume of backpacker and surfer traffic passing through, it also has an above-average amount of good budget accommodation and an excellent dining scene, with regional food the most globally famous of Indonesian culinary offerings.

Mentawai islands

Though not a great distance from the mainland, the Mentawai Islands and its people were kept isolated until the 19th century by strong winds, unpredictable currents and razor-sharp reefs.

It’s thought that the archipelago separated from Sumatra some 500,000 years ago, resulting in unique flora and fauna that sees Mentawai ranked alongside Madagascar in terms of endemic primate population. Of particular interest is siamang kerdil, a rare species of black-and-yellow monkey, named simpai Mentawai by the locals.

The largest island, Siberut, is home to the majority of the Mentawai population and is the most studied and protected island in the archipelago. About 60% of Siberut is still covered with tropical rainforest, which shelters a rich biological community that has earned it a designation as a Unesco biosphere reserve. The western half of the island is protected as the Siberut National Park.

Pulau Sipora is home to Tua Pejat, the seat of regional government and a surfer drop-off point. The archipelago’s airport is located at Rokot. With only 10% original rainforest remaining, it’s also the most developed of the Mentawai Islands.

Further south are the Pulau Pagai islands – Utara (North) and Selatan (South) – which rarely see independent travellers.

Change has come quickly to the Mentawai Islands. Tourism, logging, transmigrasi (a government-sponsored scheme enabling settlers to move from overcrowded regions to sparsely populated ones) and other government-backed attempts to mainstream the culture have separated the people from the jungle and whittled the jungle into profit. It isn’t what it used to be, but it is a long way from being like everywhere else.

Surfers comprise the other island-bound pilgrims, many of whom rank the Mentawais as the ride of their life.

A magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit the islands in October 2010, with a resulting tsunami killing more than 500 people and leaving more than 8000 homeless in the archipelago’s southern islands.


Bukittinggi is the cultural center of the Minangkabau people, the only ethnic group in Indonesia with matriarchal-like features. Land and home ownership is always bestowed on the women. Here you can see the unique culture and exceptional architecture of the Minangkabau, which is represented by the Rumah Gadang, the traditional houses with roofs designed as bull horns. Bukittinggi is located in the Bukit Barisan Mountains with a beautiful landscape and quite cool temperature throughout the year.

As a tourist center, Bukittinggi has a multitude of craft and souvenir shops as well as those for jewelry and antiques. For some of the better stuff and to be where a lot of it is made then it is advised you travel further out of town where many of the craft villages are. But it is also possible to visit ... yes, the equator. Near Bukittinggi a monument that is built over the road marks the equator. Travelers can stand in both hemispheres at the same time.

Maybe the best example for the traditional Minangkabau architecture in Sumatra is the museum of Bukittinggi. The traditional house hosts cultural and historical items of the Minangkabau people.

Just on the southern outskirts of Bukkitinngi the Panorama Park is located. Here you will get great views of the deep Sianok Canyon. There is also a delightful walk into the canyon and along the river, which takes about 4 hours. On the river bank all kinds of plants such as Rafflesia and medicine plants can be found. And if you are lucky, wild monkeys can be seen.
A must do in Bukittinggi is to step up Jam Gadang, a clock tower build in 1926. The clock was a gift from the queen of Holland, the former colonial power in Indonesia, but meanwhile the tower has become a typical Minangkabau roof with the symbol of the buffalo horns. Those who take the effort will enjoy great views from here right into the highlands.

From Jakarta International Airport to Minangkabau International Airport near Padang it will take about 2 hours, after you arrive you can take a taxi or bus to Bukittinggi. The taxi price from the airport to Bukittinggi is fixed at Rp. 185.000.

Danau Maninjau

The first glimpse of this perfectly formed volcanic lake sucks your breath away as you lurch over the caldera lip and hurtle towards the first of the 44 hairpin bends down (yep, they’re numbered) to the lakeshore. Monkeys watch your progress from the crash barriers as the road takes you down from the lush rainforest of the highlands to the ever-expanding farms and paddies of the lowlands.

When the traveller tide receded from Bukittinggi, Danau Maninjau was left high and dry. The locals looked to more sustainable sources of income and aquaculture to fill the void. Fish farms now dot the lake foreshore.

Ground zero is the intersection where the Bukittinggi highway meets the lake road in the middle of Maninjau village. Turn left or right and drive 60km and you’ll end up back here. The lake is 17km long, 8km wide and 460m above sea level. Most places of interest spread out north along the road to Bayur (3.5km) and beyond. If coming by bus, tell the conductor where you’re staying and you’ll be dropped off at the right spot.