Updated  
December, 09 2013 16:37:50

Discovering the quiet side of Indonesia

Tranquility: Maninjau Lake, a natural crater lake 36km from Bukittinggi City. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep

Virtually untouched by tourism, West Sumatra boasts some of the most serene landscapes in all of Indonesia. Xuan Hiep discovers this long-hidden gem.

Prior to my first trip to Indonesia, friends told me that I must visit Bali, the Indonesian island that attracts millions of international tourists each year. Instead, I decided to bypass the well-known hotspot and venture forth to the less-trammelled West Sumatra.

Soon after arriving in Jakarta, we departed for the 1-½ hour trip to Minangkabau Airport where we met our tour guide, Abdol Abusamad, a 26-year-old Vietnamese Muslim who studies at an Indonesian university.

Our driver of what appeared to be a rundown van was a local Indonesian who spoke little English.

Despite the communication barrier, interaction was easy as Abusamad is fluent in Indonesia's official language, Bahasa, and has in-depth knowledge of Indonesian culture.

Once in Padang, we took a quick tour of the city, stopping at the Adityawarman Museum, which is housed in a traditional Minangkabau structure. It also contains a cultural centre that features traditional dance performances.

As we had only one night in Padang, we had little time to visit Pasar Raya, the city's largest traditional market, but it was clear that the city of 900,000, Indonesia's third largest, was a prosperous one.

In the afternoon after lunch, we stopped at a pristine beach in the southern part of the city to take photos.

Abusamad told us that years ago Padang was home to many fishermen and salt producers. It was once a major trading venue for pepper, cloves, nutmeg and gold, which attracted the Dutch colonialists to the area in 1660. In 1945, the country achieved independence.

In the old parts of the city, the cultural traces of traders from India and China could still be seen.

Top of the Highlands

Our next stop was a decidedly more pastoral area in the Highlands, with a two-night stop in the city of Bukittinggi.

The views as we passed through the beautiful Anai Valley, a top tourist destination, were magical.

As we headed up the Agam Plateau, I was reminded of my recent trip to Sa Pa in the northwestern mountainous province of Lao Cai in Viet Nam.

Home sweet home:A traditional Minangkabau house in West Sumatra.

Located 930 metres above sea level, Bukittinggi, formerly named Fort De Cock by the Dutch, has a cool climate and is surrounded by three volcanoes.

The town, whose name means high hill, is the centre of Minangkabau (Minang for short) culture.

Minang's traditional long houses, built in the Rumah Gadang style, dot the countryside around the town of 91,000 people.

A distinctive architectural feature of the buildings are the roofs, whose corners are shaped like water buffalo horns.

During our visit, I often saw people herding water buffalo in the area.

Abusamad then took us to Ngarai Sianok, a steep canyon 150 metres deep, surrounded by a lush green valley with a winding river at the bottom.

Panoramic as it is, the beautiful canyon is a silent witness of the Japanese army's cruelty during its occupation from 1942 to 1945.

Abusamad showed me the 1.5-km-long cave located near the canyon that had been dug by thousands of labourers abducted from Java Island.

Before the cave was opened to tourists in 1985, a team of surveyors found hundreds of human skeletons inside it.

Hot trend:Padang food, the chili-centric cuisine of West Sumatra, is popular throughout Indonesia.

A local guide told me that the Japanese captors had thrown most of the labourers into the canyon through a small hole inside the cave.

Historians say the Japanese occupiers had killed many of the workers because they wanted to conceal the location of the cave.

Abusamad suggested that I enter the cave but after hearing about the demise of its former inhabitants, I hesitated.

"Visitors should enter the cave to see how deep it is," he said. Finally, I gave it a try. Compared to the narrow wartime Cu Chi Tunnel in HCM City, it was much more spacious.

Tranquil lake

About 36km west of Bukittinggi lies Maninjau Lake, our next location. Although the lake area was the highlight of my trip, getting there was a bit frightening.

Our old, creaky van had to take 44 sharp turns (they are all marked so you can easily see how many are left to go) to descend the mountain to the lake area.

We were a bit tired, and dizzy, when we finally arrived for photo taking and relaxing.

Visitors can rent a canoe or motorboat to enjoy the tranquillity of the area, but we had little time to do that.

Abusamad told us that Indonesia had many beautiful crater lakes, and suggested that we visit Lake Toba, a famous tourist site in North Sumatra.

It was our last day of the trip. So, instead of outdoor activities, we asked Abusamad to tell us more about the area's culture.

He said the Minangkabau in West Sumatra have traditionally been a matrilineal culture, with daughters inheriting the family's name and belongings.

The Minangkabau, the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, are largely Muslim and the only ethnic group in Indonesia that has a matrilineal tradition.

The local cuisine, known generally as Padang food, is popular throughout the country and in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. The dishes are known for the heavy use of coconut milk and chilis.

Despite the beauty of the area, West Sumatra still receives few tourists, even though it abounds in natural beauty, intriguing culture and friendly people.

I was particularly enamored of the children we met during the trip.

At one stop in Bukittinggi, we heard "Bule, bule, bule!", the local word for Caucasian, from children who were playfully shouting at some Western tourists nearby.

Many of the children believed I was from Jakarta, and did not want to take a photo with me because I was an un-exotic Asian!

This has happened to me in Thailand and Cambodia where I have often been mistaken for a local citizen.

But this only amused me and I found the children's innocence and friendliness in West Sumatra to be refreshing and one of the most unforgettable memories of my trip. — VNS

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