Let’s start off by saying that Sumatra is Indonesia’s most underrated superstar. Everyone talks about Bali this and the Gilis that… and trust me, they both have their merits and are stunningly beautiful islands, yet when I close my eyes and think of Indonesia it is the scenery and essence of Sumatra that comes to mind. Okay, that’s only 90% true; I lived in an overcrowded city in West Java, so the first thing I see is a nightmare-like montage of Indomarets, motorcycle taxis, broken sidewalks and men shouting, “Where from Mister? So beautiful!” But after that momentary intrusion, my dreams are filled with only Sumatra.
Not only is it Indonesia’s 3rd largest island (and the world’s 6th), but it is conveniently close to Kuala Lumpur so hopping over set me back $20 in money and one hour in time. Having already fallen in love with Lake Toba in the north, we decided to venture to West Sumatra, home to Padang style food (ubiquitous throughout all of Indonesia), the tallest volcano in the country, and the Mentawi Islands (a surfer’s paradise and home to an indigenous tribe from the last frontier). Unfortunately, we experienced none of these things since I once contracted a gnarly stomach infection from the first, the second was closed off to hikers for being too dangerous, and the third was a 10 hour boat ride away. Despite this, the trip was, of course, a dream. Our first stop in West Sumatra was Bukittinggi, a town surrounded by luscious green jungle, temperamental volcanoes and beautiful blue lakes.
Bukittinggi isn’t exactly known for its exciting list of accomodation options, however, there is a hidden gem known as Bamboosa Guest House that’ll sweep you off your feet. Well, that’s as long as you’re swept away by afforable 2 star hotels and not those fancy-shmancy 5 star resorts. It’s a humble place with everything you need (comfy bed and hot shower included!) as well as a happy little family running it to boot! Plus, who doesn’t love eating breakfast with a cute cat or two buzzing around?
As far as Indonesian cities go, Bukittinggi (meaning “high hill”) is pretty delightful. It is near the base of this bad boy of a mountain too, which definitely earns it some bonus points.
AS HIGH AS A KITE
Not far from the hotel sits an immense and beautiful canyon covered in greenery from the abundance of trees and rice paddies. Getting there made for a nice little(ish) walk from our hotel and was the start to our little adventure. On the way to the canyon is a tunnel made by the Japanese during WWII (which we skipped) but we were spotted by a group of guys who immediately saw our two white bodies and pointed to the tunnel, assuming that’s where we needed to be. We saw a small path going up the hill and wanted to take a look, but of course the guys tried to coax us back to the tunnels, which were decidely the only attraction and insisted there was nothing there to see up the hill. Well, they were wrong.
Against their advice and in line with our gut, we took a detour up the hill and spotted a tower in a decrepit graveyard with kids flying kites. And c’mon, let’s be real, what part of that doesn’t sound like fun? We climbed the tower and one of the kids even let me fly their kite! Unfortunately, I didn’t prove my kite prowess quickly enough and was soon demoted back to a lowly spectator, but it was fun while it lasted. We also chatted with one of their dads (or uncles, maybe a stranger, possibly a cousin?) and he told us of some cool places to walk to around the canyon.
Moral of the story: locals aren’t always the best for advice (especially if it’s a group of guys likely profiting from a tourist attraction), unless of course you find a cool local in a graveyard, then go with it.
Down the canyon we went and our first stop of the day can be seen as the squiggly line in the bottom right corner of this picture.
And from this squiggly line spot, you can spot the kite tower on the tip top of the hill. These were the greenest and most luscious paddies I ever did see.
THE GREAT WALL OF NOT CHINA
At the end of the rice fields is the path to the the “Great Wall.” Although only slightly smaller than the real thing by a few bajillion miles, I was getting a serious step workout in for the day. While walking up we heard a lot of yelling and hullabaloo, which isn’t exactly unheard of in Indonesia (I swear these people thrive on noise), but it was a strange kind of yelling even by Indonesian standards. When we got to the top we learned that we were in the midst of a great wild pig hunt and the guys at the top of the Great Wall were yelling instructions to the men running around in the canyon below chasing after the pigs. It didn’t make sense to me either but it was an interesting (and sad) spectacle.
And of course we ran into some furry friends, because would it really be a successful trip if there weren’t any?
A WALK IN THE WOODS
And by “woods” I mean banana forests, which are even cooler. Well, they were cool until I was eaten alive by mosquitos, then it was very much uncool and necessitated a nice jogging pace to get back to the mosquito-less road. But still pretty cool.
RAMADAN & OTHER ADVENTURES
First, a quick word on Ramadan.
We traveled during the Islamic month of fasting, and let me tell you, nothing is more depressing than travesing a country without access to food all day. Even as a non-Muslim, eating can be a tough business because restaurants are closed until the late afternoon. Here’s how it works: Around 4pm, restaurants open their doors and are packed with people starting to order food and reserve their tables. Right after ordering, the people leave the restaurant. Around 5-6pm they return to their reserved table where they find their food waiting for them like a well laid out buffet. Then they stare at it. Just stare. The next 30 minutes involves a lot of salivating and staring, really. The minute the sun finally sets, and I mean the exact minute, the real fun begins. At 6:27, or whatever the exact moment is on a given day, the city-wide prayer call is heard, and this indicates that it’s time to feast and everyone happily digs into their grub with great enthusiasm and delight! It’s quite a sight.
Unfortunately, tables go quick during Ramadan, so we usually waited for the mad dash to pass before eating. Luckily, Muslims are down to business and after not eating all day, they scarf it down and are outta there in 2o minutes flat, so we could finally snag a table around 7pm. During the day we subsisted on convenience stores goods and random food stalls along the road that happened to be open.
On this particular day, we passed through the seven levels of the banana forest, through the sea of swirly twirly stones along the Great Wall, then walked through the green canyon, and at the end we were capital-H Hungry. At the most opportune moment, a super cool treehouse restaurant came into view but unfortunatly they said they weren’t serving food until 4pm. To pass the time until they opened, we walked around the area a bit more.
First we met a dashing lady that we named Melinda:
Then we stumbled on this piteresuqe place along the river:
And finally we walked back to the treehouse, pictured below:
Since it was 4 o’clock they said that we could order food, HALLELUJAH! Then they mentioned the fine print: we can order now but we won’t be served until 7pm. Oiiiii, RAHMADAN STRIKES AGAIN! So we sauntered off, two sad and hungry souls in search of the elusive treasure of food. Fortunately, I’m a firm believer that ice cream can remedy nearly every problem, and miracle upon miracles, there was a shop selling some along the way. We also found a Beng-Beng or two, which is clinically proven to raise happiness levels by 92% in 2 bites alone.
When we got to town we headed straight for Pizza Hut. Now here me out… In America, Pizza Hut is considered a lower-caste fast food chain serving unimpressive food in mediocre settings, but in Indonesia, after eating rice for three meals a day for months on end, it is like finding a fine-dining experience in the middle of a desert. It truly is a 3 Michelin star beauty after weeks of nasi goreng and squishy jelly-like mystery foods wrapped in banana leafs. And as would occur at any fine-dining establishment we delicately sat down, politely ordered, then viciously devoured two large cheese-stuffed crust pizzas like ravenous bears coming out of a hard winter’s hibernation.
WHAT A DAY, WHAT A LOVELY DAY
After our day frolicking through the canyon and basking in our other Bukittinggi adventures we headed to Sungai Pisang to stay at an ecolodge, where we happened to be the only guests. It was such a wonderful little place that it is deserving of it’s very own post, which hopefully I’ll get to soon!
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