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Exploring Indonesia – The Discovery of Minangkabau

Much like India, Indonesia has a vast and varied culture, which can’t be fully explored in one trip. Going beyond the famous Bali, we scouted other regions of this chivalrous country. In the first part of this article, we show the various facets of the Western Sumatra region and the immense natural beauty that we encountered here.

Much like India, Indonesia has a vast and varied culture, which can’t be fully explored in one trip. Going beyond the famous Bali, we scouted other regions of this chivalrous country. In the first part of this article, we show the various facets of the Western Sumatra region and the immense natural beauty that we encountered here.

Indonesia? Luxury? The last we heard, it wasn’t more posh than India. But then, that’s where my usual glitter-infused definition of luxury collapsed. Indonesia, in fact, compelled me to re-asses the word ‘luxury’.

Nature’s bounty
Roaming the islands of Sumatra and Java, I was astounded and delighted by the luscious views that met my eyes. Rice fields, frangipani flowers, cinnamon trees, high-rise volcanoes…the country is brimming with the luxury of purity and sheer beauty. A fellow tourist we met on the way called Indonesia “one big garden.” It was, indeed, just that.

Starting our tour from Padang, in West Sumatra (also traditionally known as the Minangkabau region), we looked out the gushing, ferocious waves of Indian Ocean, and like true tourists, we stood out in various poses and group formation to shoot photographs. Cooling ourselves with some fresh coconut water, we then moved towards the Singarak Lake. The vast blue expanse of the lake was mesmerizing. If you crave for more activity, take off to a nearby river where rafting can be done till grade four.

We stopped for lunch at Pondok Flora restaurant, which was built in the middle of rice fields. And there we sat, with lush greenery around us and equally delicious food furnished on our table. Indonesian food, in fact, will be quite a favourite with Indians who like spice on their tongue. Randang, a fiery beef preparation, was much popular among our group. The Bilih fish, quite indigenous to Indonesia, are finger-sized small fish, which are fried for a crunchy mouthful. The sambal sauce, a piquant preparation of chilies, is an absolute delight for an Indian and can be had with almost anything on the table! Coconut water is always in plenty in this country, while the soursop juice is another unique drink to savour if you are tired of the usual orange and pineapple juices in hotels.

Next destination was the majestic Harau Valley, where granite cliffs meshed with hundreds of small waterfalls. With nothing but peace reigning in this region, it is an apt place to spend a night at least. The Lembah Echo Homestay & Convention, situated in the Harau Valley itself, presents a charming picture. Looking like just out of a fairytale, the space comprises of various wooden rooms and bungalows. Have a lazy stay or step up with the various indoor activities that the lodge provides. If you are feeling a little more adventurous, get into your trekking gear for Harau Valley and try your courage at paragliding!

Culture treat
We ended the first day at Bukkitingi, where our hotel, The Hills, having a Rajasthan-inspired décor, awaited us. Traditional Indonesian meals didn’t seem to have proper courses. Everything used to be already laid out on the table when we reached for a meal. But at The Hills we were served with one course at a time. It was a lavish one, but we had to hurry with it to catch traditional Indonesian dance performances.

The programme included seven performances, each depicting a certain event or emotion in the Indonesians’ life. Get marveled with these short performances, as they also make an effort to include you, but be ready to stare out in horror at the last performances. Tari Piriang, as it is called, celebrates the happiness of a farmer at getting a good harvest. While it started simply enough with the dancers holding saucers in both the hands, it was at the end of the performance when they started stamping, bare feet, on broken china plates, and very energetically at that, that we all get astounded! “Would you also like to learn and try the dance?” the host of the show asked us. We asked him innocently if we could try it with our shoes or socks on? “Oh no,” he said, in a low, deep voice, as if admonishing little children.

Each city in Indonesia, it seems, has a China Town area, where a string of pubs and discotheques are located. Bukkitingi was no different. After the show, we went towards the China Town, where some of us downed a beer at a quaint pub and rested after a hard day of travelling.

A treasure of heritage

On the way towards Maninjau Lake the next day, our spacious air-conditioned bus stopped first at the Sianok Canyon. A big brother to the Harau Valley, it had even more sprawling cliffs and meandering little water bodies. But what gave the entire view more magnificence were two volcanoes, Singgalang and Merapi, which were stabbing the clouds. Awe-struck at these imposing references of power, we couldn’t cease flashing our cameras, trying to capture some of that beauty into the little machine.

If you are a history buff, the Lepang Japan will certainly interest you. Indonesia was under Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. They made this tunnel to protect themselves from aggression. The tunnel was built with the usual Japanese art of precision, starting with more than 150 steps down, branching into various sections, each one created for a specific purpose, like storing arms or cooking food. It ended at the Sianok Canyon, where the Japanese soldiers could flee if the need arose.

Another historically important landmark for Indonesians is the Fort de Kock. Ignoring all the usual rules of fort building, this one didn’t have any high walls. It was, in fact, quite open. One lone building with a high seating stood in the middle, from where the soldiers could see anyone approaching. If it was threatening, then one of the many canyons surrounding the fort were commanded to make a hit at the enemy. This unique plan did seem to have worked since the little fort was still standing uptight and secure!

We drove on to Maninjau Lake, which took quite a while, and encountered rain on the path too. And it was a beautiful experience to see the rain pampering the greenery around us, which became even fresher and youthful. Swirls of smoke arose from the roads, cooling them off gradually.

Reaching our hotel for the night, Nuasa Maninjau Resort, we stashed our luggage in our rooms, and clambered back to the bus to have a view of the Maninjau Lake. Winding down towards Lake Maninjau, by crossing 44 bends, the view of the lake was divine. On reaching there, a strong stench hit our noses. The guide informed us that sometimes sulphur is released on the lake bed, which kills fishes. This leads to a loss of livelihood for the local fishermen and the stench too. Either way, the lake looked surreal with sunrays piercing the clouds and touching the lake lightly. Finding a café by the lake, sitting there and sipping our coffees and lemon sodas, we soaked in the tranquility.

Back at the hotel, the chilly Indonesian night was another beautiful experience. Indonesian food has very less vegetarian options. But on request, the culinary staff at Nuansa Maninjau whipped up some vegetarian delicacies for our group specially. A hot dinner down our stomach, we were all fired up again for some activity. And karaoke was the perfect option to expend the energy! Shuffling to the hotel’s karaoke lounge, we screamed our lungs out and enjoyed thoroughly as we belted out some classics on the mic.

Next day, the highlight was seeing traditional craftsmen at work in the Pandai Sikat Village. Indonesia is known for its meticulous wood carving and creation of songket, a luxurious fabric, which is hand-weaved in myriad colours and patterns. Watching a woman weaving the songket, we stood in awe as she patiently sat at the machine and placed one thread at a time in position. Luxury brands entering Indonesia could well make use of this heritage fabric to relate to the local population.

While the first few days of our trip were more explorative of nature, culture and heritage of Indonesia, the rest of it showed a more contemporary side of this courteous country.  Await my second part of the story!