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


Sumatra: Berastagi

To get from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi by public bus (much cheaper than the Rp.100,000 tourist bus) involves going via Medan. I walked to the bus terminal at Bukit Lawang, once again seeing many oil palm plantations, and boarded the Medan bus. This cost Rp.15,000. I got off near Pinang Baris bus terminal in North Medan and caught an angkot (minibus) towards Amplas terminal in the south of the city. Getting off at a junction near the terminal I was able to board a bus for Berastagi, a smaller and more crowded vehicle. The journey, which took several hours and cost Rp.8000, ended by climbing up into the mountains and I got off in Berastagi, a small mountain town. I was starving by this time so I immediately found a warung (small eatery). It was a relief to be eating normal food at a more reasonable price after the tourist world of Bukit Lawang. Then I walked up the main road to Losmen Sibayak, recommended by a traveller I met in Bukit Lawang. They have three cheap rooms up on the roof, with excellent views across the town. I rented one of these, with shared bathroom and no hot water (it is cold in Berastagi due to the high altitude) for Rp.55,000 per night.

Berastagi is a lovely little town perched up near Mt. Sibayak and Mt. Sinabung. The majority of the population is of the Karo Batak ethnicity and, according to a friend, is 80% Christian. Nevertheless the Muslim call to prayer boomed loudly across the hills from the nearby mosque.

After a freezing cold shower, surprisingly refreshing after my long journey, and a short rest, I ventured out into town. Warungs (food stalls) had opened for the evening trade along the main road. I decided to have mieso, which in Central Java is meatballs in stock with noodles and chicken. In Berastagi, however, mieso turned out not to involve meatballs, but had an ample serving of chicken, and small krupuk (rice crackers) mixed into the stock. Then I tried bandrek, the local name for hot ginger drink, with condensed milk. All very tasty and set me back Rp.14,000. There is not much to do in Berastagi at night so I retired to my hotel.

Buildings in Berastagi with mountain background

Buildings in Berastagi with mountain background

The next day a friend of a friend who lives in the area wanted to meet up. We ate corn on the cob and watched the Sunday market. Many people come to Berastagi from Medan on Sundays to have a refreshing break in the mountains. Horses with and without carts ply the streets near the market, offering rides. We headed to my friend’s house to relax and have lunch, before going to a wedding reception later on.

My friend’s father is a farmer, so I was taken on a little tour of his land. He grows many types of flowers and vegetables, and even coffee. We ate some tirung jepang, a fruit, crushed with sugar. I remarked that it tasted a lot like blackberry, which made my friend’s wife laugh, because blackberry is a phone here, not a fruit!

That afternoon we jumped into a minibus with various friends and went to a Padang-style wedding reception in Kabanjahe, a nearby town. The marriage had already taken place that morning and throughout the day and evening friends and well-wishers would come and go as they pleased, eating a buffet-style meal and listening to the pop singer with keyboard backing that were providing the entertainment. After we had eaten, the bride and groom came out and sat in their special chair with flowers and decorations behind them, and we had a photo taken. It was interesting for me that guests just came and went whenever, without being invited at a specific time or having to sit through any speeches. After the photos we left, and I returned to Berastagi for the night. After the touristic nature of Bukit Lawang I had enjoyed having a more normal day, accompanying local people in their activities and making some new friends along the way.