Bukittinggi, Sumatera – Deep In The Minang Heartland
One word that greatly sums up the interior highlands of Western Sumatera, Indonesia. It’s not just the coexistence between human and nature striking harmonic balance but the strict adherence of the Minang people to their “Adat Perpatih,” centuries-old customs that are almost exclusively matrilineal, is something to be respected.
This place is both blessed and cursed – where its inhabitants can reap bountiful harvests all year long as long as the volcanoes decide not erupt and wipe out an entire civilization. Existential threats aside, Bukittinggi and its surrounding villages are a treasure trove of the Minang culture, from hand-woven songket to the archipelago-famous dishes of nasi padang.
Here are 7 experiences not to be missed deep in Minangkabau territory.
1. PAY A VISIT TO THE RUMAH GADANG
The bull-horned roof of the Rumah Gadang, meaning “big house,” is as iconic as you can get when it comes to Minang architecture.
The outrageously pointed tops can be traced back to the origin of the wods “minang” (victorious) and “kabau” (buffalo) where a local supposedly ingeniously won a bull-fight against a prince to settle a territorial dispute. A fine specimen of the Rumah Gadang is found at the town of Padangpanjang, 20 km out of Bukittinggi.
This home doubles up as a cultural repository for the region, where the guide explains how these houses are built without using a single nail but are remarkably earthquake-proof and why rice is kept in a separate building with detachable stairs. The center also offers traditional costumes to dress up in and usage of the gorgeous house as a photo shoot backdrop.
Entrance to the house costs Rp.5,000 (USD0.40) and costume rental costs Rp.35,000 (USD2.80) per person.
2. RIDE THE CLOUDS AT DANAU MANINJAU
A 45 minute detour from Bukittinggi along tight and winding roads leads you to the caldera of Danau Maninjau (Observation Lake). Its length of 17 km end-to-end is not as massive as its big sister Danau Toba up north but it still provides breathtaking views nonetheless. The drive down requires you to navigate through Kelok 44 (The 44 Bends) but we stopped at Bend 37 to enjoy a cup of hot egg tea at a cafe overlooking the lake.
It is so mystifying to see the lake being shrouded in mists before revealing itself once the clouds have been blown away. Another vantage point is Puncak Lawang, a flat hill that provides a panoramic view of the lake where you could see the hovering clouds race past by the lake as if they were cars driving on a highway. Believe me, the beauty of Danau Maninjau could make you stay there the whole day here.
Entrance to Puncak Lawang costs Rp.5,000 (USD0.40) per person.
3. INDULGE IN 101 DISHES OF NASI PADANG
Perhaps one of Sumatera’s greatest exports to the world, nasi padang is rice served with up to 20 different dishes at one go (I lied about it being 101), where most of them are traditionally spicy.
Once you sit down at a nasi padang restaurant, the service staff brings out all their available dishes and you would only have to pay for the ones you eat. Expect to see chicken cooked up to three versions – gulai (spicy stew), lado mudo (green chili) or goreng (fried) and always ask if they have specials – usually family-run places have their own signature dishes.
My personal favorite so far is Gulai Itiak Lado Mudo which is duck cooked in a thick stew of green chili and spices. It might not be the most beautifully crafted dish in the world but the sweet duck meat blends well with the fiery chili smothering it.
A solid nasi padang meal for lunch or dinner would cost about Rp.35,000 – 70,000 (USD3.00 – 6.00) per person.
4. Descend Into Sianok Canyon and Japanese Tunnels
Once you’re in Bukittinggi town, wind down the evening by taking a stroll at Taman Panorama, a park built by a cliff overlooking Sianok Canyon with gigantic Mount Singgalang looming at the background which is not far off from looking like the set from Jurassic Park.
Adventurous ones can hike down the canyon and cross to the other side via the Great Wall of Koto Gadang while nature enthusiasts like me prefer to observe the canyon shine from the rays of the setting sun and the large clouds wrapping the dormant mountain.
An intriguing attraction is Lobang Jepang, tunnels built by the Japanese during their World War II conquest of South East Asia. You can either take a guided tour or explore yourself but make sure to stick by the lighted tunnels since some parts are still “inhabited” by restless spirits.
Entrance to Taman Panorama costs Rp.5,000 (USD0.40) per person.
5. HANG OUT WITH THE LOCALS AT JAM GADANG
Bukittingi is centered around the iconic Jam Gadang, a Dutch-designed clock tower with the ubiquitous Minangkabau horns gracing the roof. It acts as a focal point for locals to meet-up and peddlers to ply their trade. Tacky souvenirs can be found in abundance while street food like grilled corn and Martabak Bandung (the best street dessert on the island) are snacks ready to be munched on.
The square gets bustling after sunset as the roads are closed-off to accommodate more people and vendors. It’s a fun place for people watching and if you feel slightly touristy, take a ride on a horse cart around the clock tower. Jam Gadang is also a good place to start ones shopping spree as it is surrounded by a shopping mall, a garment bazaar and a jewelers row all within sight.
6. SHOP FOR TRADITIONAL GARBS AT PASAR ATAS
As previously alluded, Jam Gadang is the unofficial kilometer zero for all major shopping trails and a stone’s throw away from is the Pasar Atas (upper market), a maze of shops selling all kinds of traditional garbs and hand-woven songket. Pasar Atas is reminiscent to Terengganu’s Pasar Payang, where almost all the storekeepers would joust for your attention and a price check can be easily done by going to the neighboring shop.
Bargaining is a must so never shy away from haggling down to the last thousand Rupiah. The style of baju kurung here is more to being basic where a bright dress is embraced with a prominent floral design. It is a reflection of the simple life followed by the Minang people and their utmost appreciation of the pure colors of nature.
7. TAKE IN THE BEAUTY OF THE SUMATERA HIGHLANDS
Take it all in.
This is my first ever visit to the island of Sumatera and I was loving every moment of it. My travels have taught me to never generalize a group of people by their nationality and embrace the cultural nuances each of them has to offer. The Minang are proud race still practicing the customs of their ancestors and there is much to learn about them. Although Malaysia has a sizeable population of Minang in Negeri Sembilan, the preservation of Adat Perpatih is slowly eroding away due to modernity and migration. Sometimes its good to visit their homeland and see for yourself the embodiment of the Minang spirit is well and truly alive.
- The best way to travel around Bukittinggi and its surrounding towns is by hiring a private car. A friend of mine recommended Starlight Tour and we had a pleasant experience with the tour guide-cum-owner, Mr Aldi Safri. Fluent in Bahasa Malaysia and English, he was also very accommodative to our needs and flexible with our scheduling.
- Contrary to Google Maps’ calculation, the journey from Minangkabau International Airport to Bukittinggi takes about 2 – 3 hours depending on your mode of transportation. The main road is a single carriageway and traffic jams is a common occurrence during weekends and public holidays so manage your time wisely.
- Shopped too much at Pasar Atas and ran out of Rupiah? You can exchange your currency at any gold shop along Jeweler’s Row across the bazaar. Unlike the typical money changer where the rates are fixed, the jewelers here are open to bargaining.