Through Sumatra and over the Straits of Melaka

(Above) Women walk past a traditional Minangkabau house. Picture: Courtesy of Paolo Coluzzi.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I LEFT Jakarta around four o'clock on Monday, April 5, with a three-hour delay on the scheduled time as the coach had been delayed on its way from Bandung where it had departed that very morning.

Pity, because I wanted to cross the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra during daytime to look around and enjoy the approach to my last destination in Indonesia.

In fact it took us almost two hours to get out of Jakarta and it was already pitch dark when we reached Merak, where the ferries to Sumatra leave. The two-hour crossing was smooth, with a dangdut karaoke entertaining the passengers. Once we disembarked our long journey northbound began — we were supposed to arrive in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, the evening of the following day, but two breakdowns and a change of tyre added a few extra hours to the initial delay, so that we finally reached our final destination in the early hours of Wednesday, April 7. A tiring trip but very interesting — long chats with the other passengers (all Indonesians; I was the only foreigner both on the bus and on the ferry!) and forests and mountains around us for kilometres and kilometres.

Bukittinggi may not be a very beautiful town, but it's a charming place, with a few sights in the town and amazing surroundings. On top of that it has an ideal climate being at 930m above sea level.

During the four days I spent there I had plenty of time to chill out and visit the most interesting places in town and out of town. In town there are two nice little parks: Taman Marga Satwa is perched on a hill in the town centre with an old Dutch fort, Fort de Kock, on top, while Taman Panorama is only a few minutes' walk south of the centre and overlooks the impressive Sianok Canyon.

A small zoo with mostly local fauna (among which Sumatran orangutans, elephants and tigers) and a museum on Minangkabau culture housed in Rumah Adat Baanjuang, built in the traditional Minangkabau style, can be reached through a footbridge from Taman Marga Satwa.

The Minangkabau are the local ethnic group having their own language and interesting traditions. What calls the attention the most is the style of the roofs of their houses, curved and pointed upwards at the two ends, just beautiful. The second day I went for a long motorcycle ride through the valleys, rice paddies and traditional Minangkabau villages to the south of Bukittinggi, to enjoy both the nature and the traditional architecture, stopping briefly at Danau Singkarak (lake Singkarak) and driving past the foot of volcano Merapi, same name as the one near Yogya.

The third day I took a bus to another lake, Danau Maninjau, 38km west of Bukittinggi, a beautiful volcanic lake lying in a huge crater-like valley, with clouds hovering over its rims. On the last night of my stay I went to see a cultural show of traditional Minangkabau music and dances, which I really enjoyed.

The Minangakabau's main traditional instrument, like for most ethnic groups in Brunei and Borneo more in general, is the talempong, similar to the gulingtangan, a kind of xylophone made of small gongs; they also play various drums and flutes.

On Sunday, April 11, I took a bus that was supposed to take me directly to Dumai, the port on the east coast of Sumatra, a journey of about 12 hours. In fact it wasn't direct, and in the village where the bus left me about five hours after leaving Bukittinggi I had to wait for another eight hours! At 11pm I finally hopped onto the bus to Dumai where I arrived this morning at 6 o'clock. Whereas I could enjoy the view of the green mountains of West Sumatra during the first stretch, all I could see during the second stretch of the trip were some of the oil-extraction plants in the area around Pekanbaru and some rather depressing palm oil plantations and thrashed jungle at both sides of the worst road I've ever travelled — big pot holes and sometimes no tarmac whatsoever. But again, apart from the sleepless night, the terrible condition of the road, the smoke of the cigarettes of my fellow passengers, on the whole it was quite an interesting trip!

The hydrofoil to Malacca left Dumai at 11.30am, a trip of almost three hours over the Straits of Malacca. As soon as we disembarked I walked straight to Chinatown to look for a guesthouse, I found a small room in one which looked pretty nice, and I went straight to bed for a nap to gain some strength so that I could start discovering this amazingly beautiful historical town.

The Brunei Times


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