Five Years of Indonesia Photos 2006-2011 on Flickr


To mark five years since I came to Indonesia for the first time, I have created a set of what I think are my best Indonesia photos from 2006-2011. I think the set captures the colourfulness and variety of sights in the parts of Indonesia I have visited, from people, their clothes and activities, to lush green tropical vegetation and volcanic destruction, from music and performing arts to natural landscapes and mountainous vistas. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to comment here or on any photo and let me know what you think of it.  www.flickr.com/isawasi

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Sumatra: Overall Review and Tips


Highs

  • flying for three hours and still being in the same country
  • seeing orangutans in the forest at Bukit Lawang
  • everyday life at Dokan Batak village
  • the size of Lake Toba
  • visiting Bp Doro’s shop in Pangururan, Samosir
  • general helpfulness of people when looking for the right bus
  • sightseeing in Bukittinggi
  • city with a beach at Padang
  • seeing so many forested hills
  • huge landscapes

 

Lows

  • food was much more expensive than I expected (average Rp.15000 per meal)
  • bus journeys that made my stomach churn
  • people shouting at me in the street because I’m white
  • young men latching on to me

 

Friendliest place for meeting other travellers: Bukit Lawang

Easiest place for talking to local people (in Indonesian): Dokan

Best accommodation for quality and value: Lekjon at Tuktuk, Samosir

Worst place for solo female traveller: Padang. Bukittinggi comes a close second.

Most beautiful scenery: Lake Toba

 

Useful Contacts and Information

The following may be helpful if you are planning a similar trip.

Medan

Blue Angel Hostel, Rp.50000 a night for fan and bathroom, no hot water. Pondok Wisata Blue Angel, Jl S.M.Raja no 70, Medan, North Sumatra. Tel: 061 732 0702. If Blue Angel is full there are other hostels just up the road.

Transport from airport: airports taxis very expensive at Rp.45000+. Walk outside and you will be accosted by unofficial taxi drivers who will take you for as little as Rp.20000 if you haggle. Or take a motorbike taxi (ojek) for around Rp.10000.

 

Bukit Lawang

Guide and generally helpful person: Muhaidir tel: 0813 7585 8817 or 0813 7610 0337. Email: muhaidir7718@yahoo.com

Rain Forest / Nora’s Homestay, from Rp.30000 a night, shared bathroom, no hot water.

 

Berastagi

Losmen Sibayak, from Rp.55000 a night, shared bathroom, no hot water. Jl Veteran no 119.

 

Dokan

To get there from Berastagi, get a minibus to Kabanjahe (Rp.3000) then change to a Dokan bus (Rp.3000). Ask to be let off at “simpang Dokan” (Dokan crossroads), then, walking, turn left off the main road and follow the small road a couple of kilometres to Dokan.

 

Lake Toba

To get there from Dokan, take a bus to Pematang Siantar, commonly called Siantar (Rp.15000, two hours plus), then change to a Parapat bus (Rp.10000, one hour max). From Parapat you can get a ferry to Tuktuk on Samosir Island (Rp.7000). Choose which hotel to look at first before you get there because the ferry will let passengers disembark at each hotel jetty.

Lekjon Cottages is right on the lake, from Rp.40000 a night, private bathroom. Rp.50000 gets you hot water. Nice clean rooms with lake views. Decent restaurant too. Address: Tuk-tuk Siadong, Samosir Island, North Sumatra 22395. Tel: 0625 451259. Email: lekjoncottage@yahoo.com

Bp. Handoro Gurning (Bp. Doro) in Pangururan, Samosir, has a shop where he makes handicrafts from the water jacinth plant that grows in Lake Toba. You can learn to make something, buy his products or just hang out there. His wife runs a cafe there too. Good place to learn about the lake and its environment. Some people there speak some English. Bp. Doro has experience teaching foreigners including groups, but there is no pressure to buy anything. To find his shop in Pangururan ask for: Bp. Handoro Gurning, Jl. Danau Toba, Depan Rumah Dinas Bupati.

To get to Pangururan from Tuktuk walk or hitch a ride to either Ambarita or simpang Tuktuk, on the main part of Samosir. Then get a minibus (angkot) to Pangururan (Rp.10000, one hour).

The bus from Parapat to Bukittinggi takes about 14 hours overnight, and costs around Rp.200000 if you buy a ticket from one of the agents on Samosir.

 

Bukittinggi

Hotel D’Enam from Rp.60000 per night. Jl Yos Sudarso no.4. Tel: 0752 21333

 

Lake Maninjau

Cafe and Homestay 44, Jl Penurunan Maninjau, 26471. Tel: 0752 61238. Rp.40000 per night. Excellent restaurant with a long menu of Indonesian and Western options. Peaceful atmosphere with simple wooden bungalows right by the lake. Friendly family-owned and run.

 

Padang

Brigitte’s House, Jl Kampung Sebelah 1 no. 14D, Padang. From Rp.75000 per night for bed in dormitory. Lovely large clean house with home-like atmosphere. They also arrange airport transfers, offer surfing trips and motorbike hire. See website for prices, map and directions: http://brigittehouse.blogspot.com. Tel: 081 374 257162.

Transport to airport: Damri buses go from Imam Bonjol every hour from 6.15am to 5.15pm, cost Rp.18000 and take up to an hour. They also do the reverse journey from the airport into the city.

Airport departure tax from Padang: Rp.100000 per passenger for international departures and Rp.35000 for domestic departures. Pay in cash after check-in.

Sumatra: Padang


To get from Lake Maninjau to Padang the only direct bus leaves at 6am. Not wanting to get up that early I decided to take two buses. First I got a minibus to Lubuk Basung (Rp.10000, 30mins) and the driver dropped me off on a large road where I immediately got on the bus to Padang (Rp.15000, 3 hours plus). The journey was pleasant though slow, with frequent glimpses of the sea as the road followed the coast to the south.

The bus terminated before Padang city centre and I hopped in an angkot (minibus) to get to my hotel. According to what I had found out online, Hotel Tiga Tiga seemed cheap. The hotel receptionist showed me an expensive-looking price list, over twice as much as the prices I had seen online, then taking the price of the cheapest room, she added tax, then gave me a 50% discount. In the end the price was Rp.77000 for a single room, private bathroom, cold water only and no breakfast. When I tried to haggle a discount for a 3-night stay she told me that because I was a foreigner I should not expect her to lower the price any more. I was quite shocked by the outward “foreigner” treatment and checked in for just one night. The room was large with an oversized bathroom, and although it wasn’t exactly dirty, it seemed old and shabby, not in good condition at all. Never mind, I thought, just for one night, and I quickly looked for alternative accommodation online. I came upon the website for Brigitte’s House, a guesthouse that opened just four months ago. By phone I was able to book a dorm bed with breakfast for Rp.75000 per night. Since this would save me the cost of a meal each day it seemed worthwhile. So I spent my first night in Padang at Hotel Tiga Tiga.

In the evening I went out for dinner and walked along the road next to the beach. I liked that this large city was right on the coast, giving it a relaxed seaside town feel. Looking out across the ocean several small islands were clearly visible on the horizon. I ate satay and drank coconut juice straight from a coconut as I watched the sun set over the ocean.

sunset over the ocean

sunset over the ocean

The next morning I moved hotels. Brigitte’s House was so much nicer, set in a quiet neighbourhood in the south of the city. It is in fact Brigitte’s house where she and her family live, and she has made it into a guesthouse with just a few rooms. I rented a dorm bed in a room with three beds for Rp.75000 including free wifi and breakfast. The room was lovely and clean and the bed exceptionally comfy. The shared bathroom, also very clean, had a shower but only cold water. Given the hot weather in Padang a cold shower was actually very refreshing. I checked in and then headed straight out to explore.

I was curious to see the hill known as Gunung Padang (Padang Mountain), right where the river meets the sea. So I set off walking, crossing the river at Siti Nurbaya Bridge and headed for the hill. Unfortunately during this short walk I heard more calls of “hello mister” and similar irritating white foreigner attention than I had heard anywhere else on my entire trip. Nevertheless I continued my walk and followed a small footpath around the base of the hill. The scenery quickly changed from village to jungle and the views out to sea and back to the shore were fantastic.

buildings on the river edge

buildings on the river edge

A couple of young men decided to pester me, the lone white woman, and insisted on firstly following me, then when I stopped, chatting to me. After a while a group of teenagers passed on the footpath, and I decided to start walking again so I could walk close behind them and hopefully lose my stalkers. This tactic was successful and I followed the path with many many steps as it rose up to the peak of the hill. From the top the view was spectacular. On one side it was possible to see the whole city of Padang spread out along the coast with the beach and then the huge expanse of ocean dotted with tiny islands. The other side of the hill looked out to Pantai Air Manis (Air Manis Beach) and many more small islands. At low tide it is possible to walk from Pantai Air Manis to the nearest island.

I sat on one of the many benches and rested, sweating profusely after the long uphill slog in the heat. I was glad I’d brought some water with me because there were no stalls or shops at the peak, just a toilet and places to sit.

The two men who had followed me earlier showed up at the top of the hill and I did my best to ignore them and hoped that they were harmless. Also enjoying the view was a family and when they were about to descend to the bottom of the hill, one of them came over and said that she was concerned about the two men and suggested it would be safer for me to go with them. I agreed and so we made our way slowly back down, chatting along the way. We stopped and looked at the grave of Siti Nurbaya, hidden behind a large rock down some steep steps. She was a local heroine or literary figure whom the parkland of the hill is named after, Taman Siti Nurbaya. As the story goes, Siti Nurbaya was at the centre of a complex love triangle. Ultimately she was poisoned to death and this hill became her grave.

view of the city from Gunung Padang

view of the city from Gunung Padang

From Gunung Padang and Taman Siti Nurbaya I walked back across the bridge and into the city centre. I wanted to find out if there would be any music performances at the Taman Budaya during my stay, which there weren’t, and I found myself at the Adityawarman Museum (Rp.1500). The museum is set in a park-like area and is built in the shape of a traditional Minangkabau house. Inside were many exhibitions – it is much bigger than it looks from outside. There were displays of model Minangkabau houses, weapons, household items, and information about the Minangkabau matrilineal system. Downstairs there was a room of displays about the people of Mentawai, with examples of hunting equipment, jewellery and black-and-white photographs showing Mentawaian people. There was then a larger room devoted to Minangkabau wedding costume, which varies from between regions. Further rooms displayed traditional musical instruments, information about flora and fauna, and much more. It was generally very interesting. Forced out by closing time (3.30pm), having underestimated the size of the place, I strolled back to my homestay, pleased to have seen and done so much in a day, but looking forward to some peace and quiet from the men shouting at me in the street.

The next day, my last in Sumatra, I had a more relaxing time and focussed on buying souvenirs. Padang is famous for two types of snackfood: kripik balado and karak kaliang. I found the shop Christine Hakim very near my homestay with a huge range of local and regional snackfoods. Taking snacks as “oleh-oleh” or gifts for friends and family back home is big business in Indonesia and many people were buying box-loads. I bought some kripik balado and some karak kaliang to take back to Java.

In the evening I once again went to the beach and watched an even more fantastic sunset. The sky was fairly clear and, as I ate my soto (rice soup) and drank iced tea, the sun very quickly dipped down behind the horizon leaving a brilliance of orange and red in the sky.

a beautiful sunset

a beautiful sunset

Resting up at my homestay and preparing for my journey home the following day, I felt like I had been away for longer than two weeks, with so many kilometres covered, places seen and people met. I had spent no more than three nights in one place and more often just one or two. My whirlwind tour of Sumatra had been a success. I was happy to have seen a great deal in a short time and have had a taster of this diverse island.

Sumatra: Lake Maninjau


Lake Maninjau is a fairly short bus ride from Bukittinggi. I took an angkot (minibus) to the bus terminal (Rp.2000) and from there caught the bus to Maninjau (Rp.15000), or rather I boarded the bus and then waited for an hour while it filled up with passengers before departing. Lake Maninjau is, like Lake Toba, the result of a volcanic eruption, a lake in a crater. The last part of the journey took us straight down into the crater via a series of 44 numbered hairpin bends on the narrow road. Having picked a seat near the front so I didn’t feel sick, it was terrifying watching the bus so nearly going off the side of the road as it slowly turned the tight corners. I was glad I wasn’t driving!

Alighting in the town named after the lake, Maninjau, I walked down the main road and out of the town towards the area with homestays. Maninjau itself seemed a fairly unremarkable small town, with some traditional Minangkabau shaped rooftops. Many of the houses were built from wooden planks, with little window panes, and the typical corrugated metal roofs. I liked seeing these quaint houses.

Houses near the lake

Houses near the lake

After looking at two homestays which did not impress me, I saw the turning to Cafe and Homestay 44, a small path leading down from the main road to the edge of the lake. I followed the path and came to a series of wooden bungalows and a cafe. The beach area was kept as a grassy garden with palm trees and some steps leading down to the water’s edge. This was a beautiful peaceful setting. I got a simple but nice wooden bungalow for Rp.40000 per night. The bathroom was shared with two other rooms but there were no other guests while I was there.

The woman who ran Homestay 44, named after those hairpin bends, was very friendly. She and her husband, who had since passed away, set up the cafe and homestay in the early 1990s. They were always busy with guests. Then, in 1998, Krismon, the massive economic crisis, hit Indonesia, and their business and others in the area suffered terribly. Since then the local tourism industry has never fully recovered. Now the homestay is run by her grown-up children as well. I ate meals at the cafe and found them always delicious, with ample portions. Whether Indonesian or Western food, the flavour was just right. One of the sons told me he had spent a month learning to cook Western food from a Dutch man. It was also wonderful for me to stay in a place where I could relax without people trying to sell me things. I hope places like Homestay 44 manage to survive.

Lake Maninjau is much smaller than Lake Toba, but still impressively large, and having seen Lake Toba just a few days before, Maninjau is the second largest lake I’ve ever seen. Lake Maninjau is also more peaceful than Lake Toba. The only boats I saw were fishermans’ canoes, and down at the edge of the lake there was hardly anyone around. I spent time just watching the clouds move up and down over the hills on the opposite side of the lake, about 8km away. Sometimes it was possibly to clearly make out houses over there, and at other times it was like looking out to sea, with everything completely hidden by cloud. I paddled and looked at the pebbles on the lake floor. I had been told that the water is not so clean these days, and there were a few pieces of rubbish floating in it, so I declined to swim.

fisherman on the lake shrouded in clouds

fisherman on the lake shrouded in clouds

Unfortunately I could only spend two nights in this beautiful place, and even worse, it rained almost all the time. When it rained heavily on my first night I was told that it hadn’t rained for weeks before that. The next day I had a little walk around the area, still admiring the quaint wooden houses. Yose, one of the sons who runs the homestay, told me that some of these houses were around a hundred years old. He pointed to one large metal-roofed house in particular and explained that it was so big because in the past it would have been the home for several families, as in traditional Minangkabau houses. In this area the Minangkabau shaped roofs are rare but the traditional lifestyle did exist. Nowadays that house is inhabited by just one family, and people no longer live such a communal lifestyle as in the past.

Then the rain started again, and it rained for the rest of the day and nearly all night. What with the clouds and the rain I didn’t do various things that I might have, like climbing Lawang Top, the hill from which you can see a full view of the lake on a clear day, or going to the hot spring nearby. But I enjoyed spending time at Lake Maninjau and getting to know people there. The next day, still raining lightly, I left for Padang, the final stop on my Sumatra trip.

looking across the lake

looking across the lake

Sumatra: Bukittinggi


The freezing cold air-conditioned bus from Parapat to Bukittinggi took about 14 hours. The narrow road, somewhat inappropriately called the Trans-Sumatran Highway, twisted and turned, weaving its way through the forested hills. Whatever is said about Indonesia’s forests being destroyed by logging, I have never seen so much forest as I have in Sumatra. The scenery was beautiful but the undulating road made my stomach turn. Eventually after taking some motion sickness medicine and resolving to refrain from vomiting while it did its work, I fell asleep. At about 7.30am I arrived in Bukittinggi, having had a fair few hours of interrupted sleep.

I walked into the centre of town and found myself at the Pasar Bawah (Lower Market) full of women selling vegetables. Walking up a long flight of steps I arrived at the Pasar Atas (Upper Market) where snacks, souvenirs, clothes and other products were being sold. The town of Bukittinggi is divided into these two levels, and is a very hilly town to walk around. Nestled between three mountains, there are fantastic views of the rooftops of the town against a mountain backdrop.

Having travelled hundreds of kilometres, crossing the equator during the night, the atmosphere in Minangkabau West Sumatra was different to that in the Batak region. Minangkabau people are traditionally Muslim and the majority of women I saw in public were wearing jilbabs. Religion is considered important and necessary across Indonesia, where every citizen must subscribe to one of five listed religions. In Bukittinggi Islam is the prominent religion, with the call to prayer and religious sermons boomed across the town from the mosques on a daily basis.

Just past the Pasar Atas I came to Jam Gadang (large clock), a 26m high tower with a clock face on all four sides, which was built by the Dutch in 1926. According to the information boards around the clock, its motor, which was imported, is one of only two in the world, the other being that of the rather more famous Big Ben in London, UK. During the Dutch period, the top of the tower was in a Dutch design. When the Japanese occupied Indonesia they changed it, and once again after independence the design was altered to feature a Minangkabau-style roof.

Jam Gadang

Jam Gadang

I walked on and found my hotel, D’Enam, the cheapest hotel or hostel I could find. A room with shared bathroom, cold water only, was Rp.60000 per night, a little more expensive than I had hoped, and the dearest place I had stayed so far on this trip, but there was no cheaper option. My tiny room, in contrast to most gloomy cheap rooms, was full of windows, and I rather liked the light airy feel. I checked in, had a shower and rested for half an hour before venturing out. Given the cost of staying in this town I decided to see as much as possible in one day and perhaps stay just one night.

First I walked the short distance to Benteng de Kock (De Kock Fort), built by the Dutch in 1825 and named after a Dutch military figure. The area has been made into a zoo, so when you enter the fort area (Rp.5000), perched on a hilltop, you are also entering the zoo. The fort itself was not particularly interesting, just a 20m tall building with some rusty cannons, but the park area was nice, affording glimpses across the town between the trees. I don’t really like zoos, but having ended up in one, I decided I may as well have a look around. Birds in large aviary-style cages were dotted around the fort area. A spectacular wide footbridge led straight over the main road of the town to a neighbouring hilltop, where the rest of the zoo and a Minangkabau museum were situated. The zoo was pretty horrific and depressing. Having seen the semi-wild orangutans that had been released from captivity at Bukit Lawang, here at Bukittinggi were orangutans in cages. They looked a malnourished underexercised lot. There were also bears, in a circular enclosure with no shade, various types of monkey, two elephants, a camel, a whole herd of deer, crocodiles, lizards and small mammals, all cooped up in cages and enclosures too small with little hope. It was like a prison for these poor animals. I declined to pay extra to enter the aquarium. The museum was more interesting (Rp.1000), built as a Minangkabau house. Inside were many examples of traditional Minangkabau items, from clothes to cooking utensils to musical instruments. Descriptions were in Indonesian and English. There were also miniature models of Minangkabau houses and buildings. Rather like the Batak tradition, Minangkabau people used to live as a group of several families in one large house with its characteristic pointed rooftop. However, the Minangkabau house and rooftop has a different shape to the Batak one. Neighbouring buildings served various purposes such as rice storage. The museum also featured, very oddly, some stuffed animals. However these were not normal animals, rather animals with deformities, such as siamese twins, creatures with extra legs and so on. I found these extremely disturbing to look at. There was also a collection of money from various countries, including old Indonesian money such as a one rupiah note.

the museum in a traditional Minangkabau-style building

the museum in a traditional Minangkabau-style building

After leaving the slightly strange museum and the depressing zoo, I walked to Ngarai Sianok (Sianok Canyon), not very far since Bukittinggi is quite small. The viewing area for the canyon, which is called Taman Panorama (Panorama Park, Rp.3000), has been nicely done out, with paths and a viewing tower, and the view is breathtaking. The canyon is enormous with the inside of it clearly visible making a sharp contrast between the forested hills and bare brown earth of the canyon. Looming large in the background is Mt. Singgalang. Small monkeys inhabit the forest here, sometimes venturing up to the visitors’ area.

Accessible from Taman Panorama is Lobang Jepang (Japanese Caves, Rp.5000), a network of underground tunnels built and used by the Japanese during World War II. I joined up with a group of visitors from Jakarta and went on a tour (recommended donation Rp.20000). The complex network of tunnels featured many rooms and caverns, including escape routes, a prison room, and a hole where corpses were pushed out into the river. The original length of the network was over six kilometres, of which 1.5 kilometres has been opened up for visitors. The floor and walls have mostly been cemented to make it safer, though in some places the original walls are still visible. After descending a long flight of stairs to deep underground, we walked through the network of tunnels. Although the main tunnels have been fitted with electric lighting, I was glad to be in a group rather than alone down there. The excellent guide told us about the original use of each room, as well as its current status. There are plans to make Lobang Jepang into a proper visitor destination with film showings and other facilities, but for the time being it was interesting enough to enter this wartime relic and hear about what happened there.

Sianok Canyon

Sianok Canyon

After leaving Taman Panorama and Lobang Jepang I made my way to Museum Perjuangan (entry by donation, I gave Rp.2000), a military museum just opposite the main entrance of Taman Panorama. There I viewed displays of weapons, radio transmitters and other articles used by the Indonesians in their fight for independence during the early 1940s. There were also many old photographs from that struggle and the following independence period, including some rather gruesome shots of war heroes’ bodies.

Exhausted from sightseeing all day, on very little sleep, but fascinated by all that I’d seen, I walked back to my hotel for a well-earned rest. Bukittinggi is a picturesque town with an interesting layout, good markets, excellent sightseeing and beautiful scenery. On my whirlwind budget tour of Sumatra I had seen the major sights and sampled the Bukittinggi atmosphere, and so the next day I left for Lake Maninjau.

pedestrian bridge across the main road

pedestrian bridge across the main road

Sumatra: Lake Toba


From Dokan it is impossible to get a direct bus to Parapat, on the shore of Lake Toba, so I first travelled to Pematangsiantar (commonly called Siantar, Rp.15000, two hours plus on bumpy roads), then changed to a Parapat bus (Rp.10000, one hour max). As the bus began its final descent to Lake Toba there was suddenly a stunning vista across the lake. I had never seen a lake anything like as big as this – it looked as big as the sea! Lake Toba is indeed the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and the largest volcanic lake in the world, created around 70-80,000 years ago by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It is so big you cannot see clearly from one end to the other.

The bus dropped me off in Parapat and I headed for the ferry to Samosir Island. Although not technically an island because of being connected to the mainland by a strip of land, Samosir is commonly called an island. It was created by magma pushing upwards fron the bottom of the caldera. I had heard many stories about Samosir from friends so I was keen to check it out.

Following a recommendation from a fellow traveller I decided to stay at Lekjon. The ferry from Parapat (Rp.7000) drops off passengers at hotel jetties around Tuktuk, a jutting-out piece of land on the edge of Samosir, so it is good to have some idea of where you want to stay. Lekjon had large clean rooms overlooking the lake with hot water and balcony for Rp.50000 and that was just right for me. (Rooms with only cold water cost Rp.40000.)

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

Tuktuk is full of hotels, hostels and homestays as well as restaurants and other facilities for international guests. Clearly it was once a thriving tourist destination, but now many hotels are barely ticking over and some have fallen into disrepair or closed down. According to one hotel worker, this fall in trade was caused by the Bali bomb. Another factor that may account for a lack of resurgence in trade is access to the area. From any direction you are looking at several hours of narrow potholed roads, fine for your average backpacker, but less acceptable for more upmarket hotel clientele.

The following day, after lying in bed looking at the amazing view from my window, I ventured out on foot. Motorbike hire was prohibitively expensive for me, at around Rp.80000 a day. I walked for an hour or more, following the road around the edge of Tuktuk to Ambarita, on Samosir. The views across the lake with its surrounding hills were spectacular, as were the elaborate and colourful Batak graves dotted around. Arriving at Ambarita I went to look at the 300 year old stone chairs and tables that are there. Apparently these were used for meetings of the village chiefs or elders.

300 year old stone tables and chairs

300 year old stone tables and chairs

I then hopped in an angkot (minibus) and headed to Pangururan, Samosir’s main town. Angkots do not go as far as Tuktuk so it is necessary to walk or hitch a ride to Samosir proper first. The angkot journey, which followed the road around the edge of the island (the centre is made up of steep hills), took about an hour and cost Rp.10000. Apparently Samosir is almost as big as Singapore, but with a far smaller population.

Pangururan is a hot dusty little town. I was very hungry by this point, not having eaten yet, so I found a small cafe and tried the local speciality, babi panggang (grilled pork). Being a Muslim country, in most of Indonesia it is hard to find pork, but here in Christian Batak region it is one of their main dishes.

A friend had recommended that I go to Bp. Doro’s shop where he makes handicraft products from the water hyacinth that grows in Lake Toba. This plant is considered a nuisance because of its rampant growth in the lake. Following directions I found my way to the shop, which directly overlooks the lake, and was welcomed in. Bp. Doro was busy at his work, taking the dried hyacinth stems and twisting and weaving them into complex shapes. On shelves above and around him were his finished products: bags, sandals, mats and even a lampshade. His friendly wife runs a small cafe at the shop and there was a small group of men relaxing there, on a break from work. In addition to making and selling products Bp. Doro runs workshops for individuals and groups, teaching handicraft skills with the plant. He already has experience teaching groups of foreigners, and has received orders for his products from abroad. The finished product is rather like that made of thin bamboo or rattan. I had a drink and chatted to Bp. Doro, his wife and friends. One of them, Inceng, who was keen to practise his English, told me about his job monitoring the water quality of the lake. The water hyacinth is considered a pest, and also a symptom of low water quality. Campaigns to keep the lake clean are in evidence, with banners and posters on display, for example, on the ships that ferry passengers across the lake.

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Having spent the afternoon with Bp. Doro and friends I made my way back to my hotel, first by angkot to the Tuktuk junction (simpang Tuktuk) then on foot, probably several miles, following the road around the edge of the island. It had been a tiring but worthwhile day. If you would like to visit Bp. Doro’s shop, go to: Bp. Handoro Gurning, Jl Danau Toba, depan Rumah Dinas Bupati, Pangururan. You will be welcomed in, I’m sure.

The next day I spent on full relaxation and watching the fish in the lake. Toba can be a very peaceful area and it would have been easy to spend longer there, doing not much at all. In the evening I went to a performance of traditional Batak music at Samosir Cottages. Although put on for tourists, it was very interesting to see the Batak musical instruments and hear the songs. The all-male group played Batak drums, guitars, a lute, a bamboo flute, a xylophone and a beer bottle. And three of them sung together. It was a really good show, with helpful English explanations of the meaning of each song. The upbeat lively music made a good finale to my time in the Batak region.

Leaving Samosir and the Lake Toba area, I boarded the ferry to Parapat. As I gazed across the enormous expanse of water I mentally said good bye to this fantastic view. Feeling the waves caused by the wind rocking the ferry it did feel like I was at sea, but without the saltiness and that sea smell.

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

I had lunch in Parapat while waiting for my bus. It is a small but bustling town with many people coming through on their way to and from Samosir, or coming to shop at the daily market. I took a minibus to the bus terminal (Rp.2000), and was glad I did, because it turned out to be some distance from the main town. Then I boarded the nightbus for the long journey to Bukittinggi.

Sumatra: Dokan


Leaving Berastagi for Dokan I boarded a minibus to Kabanjahe (Rp.3000) then changed to the Dokan bus (Rp.3000). Dokan is a village populated by people of the Batak ethnicity where a number of traditional-style Batak houses remain.

After getting off the bus at the Dokan junction (simpang Dokan) I walked the couple of kilometres to the village. The weather was gorgeous, the road peaceful and the flora fantastic in its vibrant colours and shapes. Arriving in the village I was asked to sign the guestbook and make a donation. A fair number of travellers come to this village to see the traditional Batak houses, but today I was the only one.

I saw the pointed roofs of the six remaining traditional houses, surrounded by many more corrugated iron roofs of the new houses. I don’t know why but I had been expecting there to only be traditional houses. Walking into the village people called out greetings to me. The large traditional houses looked stunning with their roofs made of palm tree hairs and all-wooden structures. Built on stilts with very tall roofs they stay cool in the hot weather without being cold at night. I asked if I could enter one of them and was welcomed in.

a traditional Batak house

a traditional Batak house

Although the main language spoken here is Batak, everyone learns Indonesian as well, primarily at school, so I was able to talk to people and find out more about their lives. First I chatted to Nia, 21 years old, who got married last October and lives in the traditional house. The inside of a Batak house is divided into section by cooking areas. Eight families share one house, cooking, eating and sleeping under the same roof. Each side of the living area is curtained off for sleeping and storage. In the main area each family has a mat for sitting on and a place for cooking, and above is storage space for wood, used as cooking fuel, the smell of which reminded me of camping. Electricity has been installed so there are fluorescent striplights and sockets. Nia told me that she would much prefer to live in a modern house, and when she can afford to build one she will then move out of the traditional house. She wants to have more space and privacy, which is impossible in the traditional house, where each family has only a few square metres of living space.

Then I chatted to another family, a mum and dad in their mid-late thirties with three small children, who also live in the traditional house. The house is built entirely from wood, cleverly jointed together without the use of nails or screws. The knowledge of this building technique has since been lost and the enormous pieces of wood required are no longer available in the area. Now they can only repair the houses they have, because no one knows how to build them like that any more. The date the house was built is painted on it: 16-12-1928.

In the past, newly weds would move into this particular house while they tried to concieve, but nowadays anyone who wants to can live in it. Usually people live there if they cannot afford to build a modern-style house. It seems that everyone aspires to have the freedom, space and privacy of a modern house.

I chatted to the family about their lives. Here children start school at seven years old, and many children do not continue through to high school due to lack of funds. Some people marry at 20 years old, others older. The primary industry here is farming, particularly oranges but also vegetables and other fruit. They grow rice to eat, but not enough to sell. People get up at 5am, work in the fields from 9am to 5pm, and go to sleep at 10pm. There is no tradition of a siesta or daytime nap. They had been having problems with the water supply, an outdoor pump, so people showered once after work, not in the morning as well.

inside a traditional Batak house

inside a traditional Batak house - eight families live here

After taking photos, which was strongly encouraged, I climbed back out of the house and had a wander around the village. The people who spoke to me were among the most friendly I have met so far in Sumatra, despite the Bataks’ reputation as harsh or rough, with a history of cannibalism.

I looked at the other traditional houses from the outside. One was in a state of ruin and no longer inhabitable, and another was locked up and unused. I wonder if there is much future for this type of communal living, since given a choice people prefer modern housing. Perhaps one or two traditional houses will be preserved for tourists alone.

By chance there was a wedding taking place in the village, and I went to the bride’s house where the newly weds were due to arrive from church – the Bataks are a Christian people. The bride and groom arrived and entered the house, while I waited outside with other guests who would accompany the procession to the “balai desa” or village hall, for the reception. As the wedding party left the house I took some photos and admired the Batak wedding costumes. The reception featured loud Batak-pop singing accompanied by keyboard. This has replaced traditional Batak music at many events.

Batak bride and groom

Batak bride and groom

Then I left Dokan and walked back to the main road, pleased to have met so many friendly people and fascinated by their lifestyle that is such a mixture of traditional and modern. While “traditional” houses and lifestyles are often romanticised by outsiders I had learnt that the reality is somewhat different. Twenty years ago in Dokan rice was pounded by hand. Then a machine arrived that could do this work more efficiently and it was welcomed. Although people value and uphold many traditions, development and change do occur, and that which is considered to have a positive impact on people’s lives is embraced.

an elderly Batak woman on the doorstep of her modern-style house

an elderly Batak woman on the doorstep of her modern-style house