Just returned from three months lazing away in West Sumatra. I stayed in three places (yes…only three places in three months. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was ‘lazing’). I spent a few nights in Padang, and about 6 weeks divided between Bukittingi and Danau Maninjau.
I thought a report on accommodation etc might be useful for people travelling to this area. This is part 1, about Bukittingi, and I’ll write about Lake Maninjau and Padang in the next part.
First of all, if you are considering a trip to this area all I can say is GO!! Luscious scenery, low prices, fascinating culture and not too many other tourists. The other plus is that it’s so easy to get to from Singapore or S/E Asia. Padang, the capital of the region, is just 1 hours flight from Singapore and you can get super-cheap tickets from Tiger Air.
I sampled quite a few hotels in Bukittingi looking for the right place for me, and ended up back in the hotel I started with…only this time I had industrial strength ear-plugs so I could cope with the noise from the mosque at 5am. This hotel was called Hotel Kartini, and, if you can put up with the noise from the mosque (right across the road) then I think this hotel is the best value in Bukittingi.
It’s on Jalan Teuku Umar, which a fairly quiet road so there isn’t much noise during the day.
The rooms are clean and have their own bathrooms, shower, and hot water, and the managers, Din and Ema, could not be more friendly. (Although, they don’t speak ANY English, which is a bit of a challenge!).
The rooms range from 50,000rp to 80,000rp per night.
The best room is the one right at the top of the building. It has a little balcony, is light, and has a non-musty smelling bathroom. You get a decent breakfast (egg, toast, fruit salad), with the room price. The good thing about this hotel is that it has a few different sitting areas, including a nice balcony on the first floor which looks out over the rusty roofs of Bukittingi.
Also, it’s not really a backpackers place, more of a hotel for Indonesians, so it’s a good place to practice your Bahasa.
There are several other hotels along Jalan Teuku Umar, all a bit further away from the mosque. They are, Hotel Orchid and Hotel Asia. Hotel Orchid is the main backpacker hotel. It lacks charm but has decent, basic rooms, a little bit cheaper than Hotel Kartini. Hotel Asia reminded me of a correctional facility…horrible! I only stayed one night there and maybe I over-reacted but I really didn’t like the ‘vibe’ of the place. It had small, musty, windowless rooms, separate bathroom, and a spring bed whose springs had lost their spring! And, there was no sheet on the bed just this old blanket with holes in it. For 80,000rp per night this was not good value.
Around the corner from Hotel Asia is the Hotel Benting where I spent one hilarious night in “4 star” accommodation.
It costs around 150,000rp per night, although you can bargain them down because the place seems to be pretty much empty. The rooms are fairly decent, the best feature being the view from the balcony over the town of Bukittingi. There are also baths in the bathroom, which was a luxury.
But, don’t believe the staff when they say they have no bath-plugs. I had to get quite stroppy and act like someone out of ‘To the Manor Born’, asking “Well, how am I supposed to have my baaarth,” when the manager said she didn’t have any bathplugs. After my I had a little aristocratic fit she produced a bathplug from behind the counter.
Down the road from Hotel Benting is Merdeka. This is a lovely old Dutch building but is a bit run down. The rooms are large, but bathrooms very basic. It’s also not quite as close to the main town of Bukittingi as the other hotels I’ve listed. It’s 50,000rp per night.
I haven’t travelled to other parts of Indonesia so it’s hard for me to compare Bukittingi to other towns, but, travellers I met said that it was one of the most laid-back places they’d been too. They commented on the lack of touts, especially compared to the Danau Toba area, where many of them had come from.
Bukittingi has a population of about 80,000, although during the day this rises to around 200,000 with people from surrounding villages coming in to the markets etc. There is a large commercial area near the bus station, which is a few kms out of town. Tourist accommodation and attractions are all centrally located along one strip of the main street. Bukittingi is a lovely town to walk around because it’s quite hilly, and because it used to be a market town, it has lots of alley ways and steps connecting different sections of the markets (lower market and upper market). It’s nice to get onto these alley ways and away from the motor bikes!
Here are some places I really enjoyed visiting:
Markets… There are two market, an upper and a lower. The upper market has lots of clothes, shoes, electrical stuff etc and isn’t so interesting, but I just loved the lower market, which just sells food. It has heaps of atmosphere and the people there are really friendly. I really enjoyed wandering around buying as many different kinds of bananas as I could! You can get a little red bus to the lower market along the main road (Jalan A. Yani).
The Ngari Sianok Canyon… Bukittingi sits right on the edge of this beautiful canyon. It’s about 100 metres deep and probably 5-6 kms long. You can view the canyon two ways, either by going to the Panoramic Park on the edge of town and looking over it, or by going down into it. I wouldn’t go to the park on Sunday though, because there are too many people there (lots of courting teenagers with nowhere else to go!) It’s quieter during school days, and within school hours.
You can go down into the Canyon by foot, or by bus or motorbike. The turn-off to the Canyon can be reached easily by continuing to walk up Jalan Teuku Umar (where Hotel Kartini/Orchid etc are). You will go up hill, then across a road, then downhill. The next intersection you reach is the Canyon cross-road. If you continue straight ahead you are going down into the canyon.
Going into the canyon by bus is a bit difficult because the buses are always full by the time they get to these cross-roads. (If you want to get the bus you would almost have to get on it back at the bus terminal, which is about 3kms away!) The other option is to go on the back of a motorbike.
There are heaps of guys hanging around these cross-roads who will take you. They charge 3000-5000 for a trip. It is much easier to get a bus on the way back, so you could go down on bike and back on bus.
If you are a bit tired and sore, there is a woman in the canyon who gives a very invigorating traditional massage. Her house is almost at the other end of the canyon. You go down into the canyon, across a bridge, then go another 3-4 kms. Just before the next bridge (a large metal one), there is a house on the LH side of the road. This is where the woman who does the massage lives. She charges 20,000 rupees for around a 20 min massage. (It is best to go to her in the morning, before eating, because she prefers to do massage on an empty stomach.)
A lovely spot in the canyon is ‘Pancu’s Place’. It’s about 2kms along the canyon road and has a big sign. It’s a little café with a small place to sit across the road from the café where you can look out over the canyon bed.
Pancu is a really interesting guy to talk to, and he and his wife make a lovely noodle soup.
If you are interested in crafty things ask to look at his wife’s embroidery…it’s exquisite!
If you have a week or more in Bukittingi she can do some embroidery for you.
I bought her some cotton material and she did two small lines of embroidery for me on it… (costs around 50,000 rupees). You can camp at Pancu’s place if you want to, and he also hires out camping equipment.
There are lots of day trips you can do from Bukittingi. I didn’t go on a formal tour, but my father came over to visit me for 10 days he went on one.
His guide was Hendri, and my father said he was excellent – very knowledgeable.
Hendri is a great guy, a very experienced guide with excellent English. He helped me a lot while I was in Bukittingi and I found him to be a very genuine person.
He hangs around at Hotel Orchid and I would really recommend him as a guide.
If anyone wants to contact him before getting to Bukittingi his e-mail address is hen_westsumatrayahoo.com.
There are heaps of Padang food restaurants in Bukittingi. I ate at quite a few and never had any stomach trouble (surprising, since the food sits in the windows all day!) Most of the rumah makans are covered in Lonely Planet (etc), but a new place worth mentioning is in Jalan Teuku Umar (just up the road from Hotel Kartini and Hotel Orchid). If you walk up towards the top of the hill it’s on the RH side (called ‘Pizza Inn’…or something like that). Indra, the chef, makes his own bread and it is YUMMY! Crusty, thick slices…heaven!
If I could say one thing about this area it would be.. GO!! The lake is just so beautiful and the weather sublime.
To get there you can take a bus from Padang, or from Bukittingi. The bus ride from Padang is about two hours, and 1.5 hours from Bukittingi. I can’t remember how much the buses cost but I think it was around 10,000 – very cheap. Buses run from Bukittingi bus station every hour or so in the morning, and less frequently in the afternoon.
There are two entrances to the lake – one comes in at a gap in the mountains surrounding the lake, and the other (from Bukittingi) comes down the side of the crater walls. This trip is where you get the famous ’44 bends’. The road snakes down the side of the crater walls in very tight bends, gradually getting you closer and closer to the lake. There are rice farms and a few houses on the way down. The whole thing is incredibly picturesque. I would recommend coming or leaving this way…you have to experience it once!
If you get the bus from Padang you will come into the lake at the opposite end from the entrance from Bukittingi. I think you have to get off the bus in this village (sorry, can’t remember what it is called) and then catch one of those little buses leftwards towards Bayur or Maninjau, which is where most of the accommodation is.
From Bukittinggi, the bus turns right as you get into the village of Maninjau and you can either get out at Maninjau or travel onwards towards Bayur.
If you want to have a little side trip on the way from Bukittingi to Maninjau you can get off the bus at Embun Pagi (this is just before you get to the top of the 44 bends, about an hour into the trip). This is a small village, and you get off the bus at the oval/soccer field which has a concrete monument next to it. The bus will continue straight ahead, but if you go up the road on the right you will get to the village of Lawang, and a bit past that, to a site on the edge of the crater over looking Lake Maninjau. The views are great from here – you can see the whole lake, and a patchwork quilt of rice paddies sloping the 600m down to the water.
There will be young guys hanging around at the intersection when you get off the bus and you can easily get a lift on a bike to Lawang. (I was in a car, so I don’t know how much this costs… 10,000 to 15,000 would be reasonable, maybe a bit more). You could also hire a motorbike in Maninjau and ride up the 44 bends to get to this spot (motorbike hire – 50,000 for half day, I think!)
There is a little shop up on the edge of the crater but no accommodation up there. Don’t bother going up if it is very cloudy or raining because I don’t think you’d see very much.
I only stayed in one place – the Bayur Beach Inn Homestay. It is not in Bayur, but just after it (as you come from Maninjau). There is a little sign pointing towards it from the road (with a rumah makan across the other side of the road). The inn is right on the edge of the lake and you have to walk through a rice field to get to it. I love that it is off the road, because it was SO quiet. The nearest mosque is a few kms away, so no loudspeaker chanting at 6am either! Paradise!
There are five rooms – four in a row, and one detached bungalow. The four cost 30,000 per night and the bungalow cost 50,000. The rooms were very clean and basic. They have carpet on the floor and cheery bed-spreads but, of course, the beds are rock hard. Two of the rooms share a bathroom, (1 & 2), the third room has an asian toilet, and the fourth a western one. There is cold water in the bathrooms and no showers (except in the third room).
If you really want a quiet night’s sleep I would suggest trying to get room number 4. The bungalow is also quiet (worth checking out just to see that big coral colored bath – with no way of getting water into it!). Beware of the toilet in the bungalow though – good luck getting it to flush!
There is a little café at the inn – with the normal fare, very well cooked by Boy, who pretty much runs the place. All the staff (just 3), are really, really friendly. It has a beautiful, small landscaped garden and the surrounds are kept very tidy. It was a fantastic place to stay.
Things to do:
Well… this will be a short list, because there’s not much to do in Maninjau but relax, have a swim, and enjoy the views.
You can rent a motorbike and drive around the lake (36kms). This is a lovely ride. You can also rent a pushbike and ride around (takes about 3 -4 hours). One tip…if you don’t have time to do the whole trip, the section of the lake that is the most beautiful and rural is to go from Maninjau 5 or 6kms in the opposite direction to Bayur (i.e. you would go left, not right after coming down the ’44 bends’).
You can do a three day walk from Bukittingi to Maninjau, staying over night at Anas Homestay in the middle of the jungle with views of Lake Maninjau. I didn’t do it, but lots of people I met did, and they all enjoyed it. Hendri, from Bukittingi (hen_staryahoo.com) is a fantastic guide, very experienced, reliable and friendly.
In the Maninjau village there are a few tourist cafes and one shows movies in the evening, there is also an internet there (although more expensive than Bukittingi). There is also an elderly Javanese woman who does a wonderful traditional massage (50,000 for about 1.5 hour of bliss). She’s and her family are really lovely. The traditional massage of West Sumatra is quite vigorous but the massage this woman does is very relaxing and gentle. To get to her house you walk from the main intersection in Maninjau about 500m in the direction of Bayur. You will come to a small field with some houses back off the road up to the right, and a little sign that says ‘traditional massage.’
The best mie goreng I had in West Sumatra was in the little rumah makan opposite Bayur Beach Inn. The best padang food I had was in the rumah makan next to the tailors shop in Maninjau. Beautiful chicken and rice.
The general vibe:
Maninjau is a rural area, where the local people don’t depend primarily on tourism for their livelihood – the area is very fertile and there are lots of fishermen who fish daily in the lake. So, coming here is not like entering a tourist enclave, you really don’t see that many other tourists around. The lack of tourists was affected, of course, by the Bali bombings and increased visa restrictions, so many guesthouses have closed down in the last 4-5 years. There are no touts – well, none that I saw anyway.
Like most rural areas, Maninjau is more conservative than city areas. I heard quite a few people who work in the tourism industry saying that there was a lot of ambivalence towards tourists, although I didn’t perceive any of this.
Over the couple of months I spent in Maninjau, the typical tourists there were probably a bit older than your average backpacker. (Put it this way – I didn’t meet anyone on their gap year!) My dad, who is 70, came over from Australia to visit me and he was a bit worried he’d be bunking in with a whole lot of 21 year olds. He was pleasantly surprised though. If you are into a big party and drug scene, Maninjau might not be for you, but if you are looking to relax in a beautiful environment, then it probably is.
It is a great place to chill out if you have been somewhere really busy, or really hot (the climate is perfect – Maninjau is 500 metres above sea level…not too hot, not too cold). Because the lake is surrounded by 600m high mountains (more cliff faces in some places), I had the feeling of being totally cut off from the world. Lots of backpackers who I met extended their stay in Maninjau because they like it so much.
I stayed in two places in Padang…
Mr Scotties Inn– probably rates as a ‘flashpacker’ place. This is a small hostel in a house in Padang. It’s in a residential area with wide streets, trees, and big yards and is really quiet (bit of mosque noise, but not much). The people who run it are super friendly and helpful. They have bikes for hire, food, supplies, internet, movies etc. A really well-run place.
My one quibble would be with the food – not very nice (out of cans) and expensive. Also, the house isn’t close to any rumah makans (I think it would be a bit of a walk to one).
Uncle Jacks – an older backpacker place, closer to the airport than Mr Scotties. Right out of town though, along the beach, in a beautiful setting. You just walk through the coconut trees and you are on the beach! It’s also a friendly place (and food also not great!) There are eight attached rooms – all basic, but clean and with fan. It’s cheaper than Mr Scotties – I think around 30,000 per night.