Mandala Airlines flight to Padang

A lady working in the picturesque rice fields

Stunning scenery out in the mountains

Traditional Tari Piring Plate Dancers

Pencak Silat performance in Bukittinggi

The view of Sianok Grand Canyon from my window at Grand Rocky Hotel in Bukittinggi

Girls on their way to school in Harau Valley


What a serene place to live in Harau Valley


In the rainy season there are so many beautiful waterfalls in Harau Valley


Harau Valley rice fields

Pencak Silat demonstration by students in Sanjai Village

Treated to a horse and carriage ride through Sanjai Village

Jumping through flaming hoops in Sanjai Village

Local women deliver our lunch to be eaten in the middle of the rice fields.. it was amazing..


Traditional Padang food – I am still to master the Indonesian art of eating with your hands

Our dessert… so tasty and refreshing


Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago and is a place of rich and diverse culture and natural beauty, much of which is off the main tourist trail and therefore has managed to retain its original charm. The local people are always quick to offer a friendly smile and show you warm and welcoming hospitality, which is a major appeal when travelling throughout the country.

In December 2012, Mandala airlines opened up a new sector with direct flights from Jakarta to Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra, making the area more accessible and providing opportunities for both local and international lovers of nature to reach and explore the majestic scenery in just over an hour and a half.  I was honoured to travel on the first flight from Jakarta to Padang with a group of journalists from Indonesia and Singapore and it was a whirlwind tour and lots of fun.

All I had ever heard about Padang in the past was ‘Masakan Padang’ which is the traditional food of the area and seemingly one of the favourite dishes of everyone in Jakarta.. People in Jakarta love to talk about their food, so it was great to find they have loads of tasty vegetarian dishes available and everything tasted so fresh with no added MSG everything tasted extra delicious.

One of the first and most striking features I noticed upon arrival was the distinct Minang architecture which can be seen scattered throughout West Sumatra, where the elegantly styled and decorated roofs soar high up to the sky at both ends, looking enchanting against their mountainous backdrops. This styling resembles the look of buffalo horns and symbolises the Minangkabau culture and according to Indonesian folklore, it originated from a legend of a fight between two buffaloes in a war between the Minangkabau and an invading Javanese clan.

Due to its tropical rainforest climate and average temperature of 26 degrees celcius, it is one of Indonesia’s wettest cities with frequent rainfall throughout most of the year, which has resulted in vibrant green vegetation, lakes and rivers in plentiful water supply. During the heavier rainy season starting around November, Harau Valley is not to be missed as the water cascades over the sheer and magnificent rock faces transforming them into breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls. The area is absolutely stunning with rice fields and lush tropical foliage and a perfect location for those who love the outdoors and enjoy hiking and rock climbing, or just soaking up the tranquility provided by Mother Nature. Anai Valley Waterfall is also worth visiting as the spray from the waterfall brings welcome relief from the hot sun and is easily accessible from Padang city.

Nature lovers will also enjoy Singkarak Lake – the biggest lake in West Sumatra – spanning 1,000 hectares. It is set in a dramatic volcanic landscape with breathtaking vistas, where you can enjoy the sunset over the cloud capped mountains with a cup of local coffee and fresh seafood snacks, surrounded by the natural beauty that Indonesia is famous for.

Bukittinggi is one of the largest cities in West Sumatra and is set in the Minangkabau highlands close to the volcanoes of Mount Singgalang and the active Mount Merapi. At 930 metres above sea level, it is popular with visitors for its cool climate and is a perfect city to explore on foot. A great place to stay is at the Grand Rocky Hotel which was newly completed in early 2012 and has breathtaking views out to the Sianok Grand Canyon – also walking distance to ‘Jam Gadang’ – the giant Clock Tower built by the Dutch in 1926 and Pasar Atas and Pasar Bawah, the traditional downtown markets in the centre of Bukittinggi.

If it’s culture you are searching for, you can enjoy a candlelight barbecue dinner under the stars with music and performances of the martial art of Pencak Silat and the beautiful Tari Piring plate dancers where the women wear lit candles in their headwear before smashing their plates and dancing on the broken pieces. You may also like to take a walking visit through the quaint kampungs and rice fields of Sanjai Village where you can also visit the cassava factory and sample fresh and delicious cassava chips to keep up your energy for more exploring.

For a lesson in history you can visit the Lobang Jepang (Japanese Caves) which is a network of underground tunnels and bunkers which were built by the Japanese during World War II. Also on the scenic drive from Bukittinggi to Padang, stop at  the ‘Mbah Soero’ Mining Tunnel in Sawahlunto where you can learn about the tunnels dug out by the ‘chain people’ and miners from 1898 to the late 1920′s. There is a small gallery showing the original chains worn by the workers around their legs and arms and also photos of the Sawahlunto mines. Close by is the Museum Goedang Ransoem which was a General Kitchen built by the Dutch Colonial Government in 1918 to supply food for coal mine workers and hospital patients. There are photo walls and descriptions of the history of the kitchen and outside you can watch the women as they patiently weave traditional cloth.

With a full and satisfied stomach and after the fresh air and idyllic scenery you will feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the chaos of Jakarta once again. I am sure the impression of West Sumatra will have you wanting to return again and again to be reminded of the simple lifestyle and beauty which is now so easily reached thanks to the lovely staff at Mandala Airlines.

Moncak Martial Arts in Sibolga, Indonesia

Moncak movement demonstration outside of Jon Simarmata’s house in Sibolga

Jon preparing for a Moncak fighting demonstration

Throwing each other around the grass field

Jon demonstrates Moncak using a weapon

Practising moves with a long blade

Young children watching the Moncak demonstration

Jon with his students

Jon and one of his top students

I’m not sure this would have been comfortable in the rocky grass..

Team Moncak, Sibolga

One final display of skill!


Situated 10358km from Medan on the West Coast of North Sumatra, lies the city and port of Sibolga.  The was the last leg of our exciting adventures and cultural journey through Northern Sumatra and what a treat to meet with Jon Simarmata, who is a Pencak Silat Master.  In the green field across from Jon’s house, we watched as he and his top students performed fighting demonstrations of the traditional martial art of Moncak as the sun set over the mountains.

According to legend, during the Dutch colonial era in Indonesia, many Batak people fought against the invaders with their bare hands using the traditional martial art of Moncak Batak.  A Moncak Batak martial arts champion is said to have the magical ability to jump high, run fast, defend themselves against sharp weapons and are immune to rifle bullets from their attackers.

Those who practise Moncak Batak are know as Parmoncak and they have various movements and tricks they use when fighting their enemy, which their invaders greatly feared, namely the Bodat stance (Monkey), Alogo stance (Wind), Udan stance (rain) and the most famous which is the Harimo stance (Tiger).

Parmoncak experts are also able to cure various illness and disease with traditional herbal remedies, and were able to assist their comrades who were wounded on the battlefields.  The higher the level of the practising Parmoncak, the more diseases they are able to cure.  Those with the highest level of expertise as known as Guru Moncak (Moncak Teachers).

Due to the popularity of more modern martial arts, the practise and teaching of traditional Moncak Batak has become quite a rarity, but thanks to Jon, the art is being kept alive in the town of Sibolga and we were honoured to watch them demonstrate for us and in such a surreal and beautiful setting.

To end the demonstration, Putra and I were welcomed to their community with a presentation of more beautiful traditional Ulos and this was the perfect way to end a truly magical and memorable journey through Northern Sumatra.

Until next time… HORAS!

Cultural Debt in Barus, Sumatra

Derti stands outside her house early in the morning of her celebration

Little boy in the window at Derti’s house

Derti and friends enjoying some quiet time

Young girls playing ‘elastics’ outside Derti’s house

Derti and friend

Dancing with a traditional Ulos

Preparing meat and rice dishes in the forest

Derti walks to her mothers house with ladies of the village to begin the celebrations

Preparing food for hundreds of guests

Derti becoming emotional during a ritual to speak to the spirits

People gather in the home of Derti’s mother as part of a ritual

Derti with her two children and friends receiving Ulos from the community

Performing the tor-tor dance before celebrations finish for the evening

Derti with children outside her home


Derti Manulang is the local Dukun (shaman) in the town of Lobu Tua, Barus, in Sumatra.  She married her husband twenty years ago and at the time they were unable to afford to hold a traditional Batak cultural wedding.  They had two children together and then sadly Derti’s husband passed away four years after they married, leaving Derti with a cultural wedding debt she had still been unable to pay for, and which meant that she had still not been recognised as belonging to the Batak tribe.

It had been 16 years since Derti’s husband died but now as her nephew Effendi was getting married and Derti had been able to borrow money from family, it was decided that they would include a special ceremony for Derti to pay off her debt, on the second day of Effendi’s celebrations.

It was a very emotional day for Derti and her family as she was to finally able to have her cultural Batak wedding, although it was celebrated with her two children, rather than with her husband.  It was a day of more dancing, laughter, tears, eating and rituals and finally the receiving of Ulos from the community for Derti and their acceptance of her as part of their tribe.

Derti was so proud at the conclusion of the ceremony as it meant that now her 100 year old mother would be able to die in peace when her time comes, knowing that all her children have been custom fulfilled.

Batak Wedding in Barus, Sumatra

View of the beautiful bride getting ready by the window


Leaving for the church ceremony

Inside the sweet church

Family of the bride

Beautiful girls collecting flowers for decorations from the forest

Back in Barus village to greet guests

Watching the celebrations outside from the window

Guests performing the tor-tor

Music! The guests spent three days dancing inbetween the traditional rituals

Being presented with traditional ulos by the bride’s parents

A long afternoon of dancing and celebrating

Time to receive gifts from family and friends


I love never knowing what is going to happen next and this was no exception….. Putra had been filming Derti Manulang, a local dukun (healer), in the small village of Barus before I arrived in Sumatra and had been invited to attend her nephews Batak wedding.  After an early morning start and delays with transport in the searing heat, we travelled a few hours from Parapat at Lake Toba to Barus.  After crossing picturesque rivers on rickety wooden bridges we ended up in a little area surrounded by coconut trees and forest and basic wooden houses tucked away from the rest of the village.

Dripping in sweat from the last leg of our journey, crammed into a becak with all Putra’s camera gear and our luggage, we arrived at Derti’s house just as her nephew Effendi and his bride were getting ready to leave for the church.  Everyone giggled and smiled nervously at the sight of a foreigner in their village, but gave a huge welcome to us before we were swiftly directed back into our transport and followed the car to the church, so we could film and photograph the whole event.

The wedding and celebrations continued for three days and was incredible and I feel blessed to have been able to attend.  The locals were incredibly welcoming and friendly and each day I would be followed by a group of beautiful children who all wanted to poke and prod and stare at the stranger in their community.  There was a constant buzz as women and men gathered in groups underneath the trees to prepare meals of meat in enormous pots and stir with poles that were much higher than those using them.  Children played and giggled as prayers were said, music was played at regular intervals and everyone danced the tor-tor and laughed throughout the ceremonies.  Money was exchanged for the bride after long discussions, the bride and groom took to the stage to sing and were handed cash from guests in return for their efforts.  I don’t know where Indonesians get the idea that all foreigners are full of confidence and would be happy to get up on a stage and sing and dance alone for their entertainment, but I refused even after a glass or two of traditional tuak (fermented rice alcohol) and saved myself from utter humiliation.

I have thousands and thousands of images of all the people, rituals and community preparing for each days events in the forest… and most importantly, I have a head filled with beautiful memories.  It seems the most magical moments really do happen when you least expect them….

Batak Documentary Premiere!

I want to tell the world just how proud I am of Mahatma Putra for his Batak documentary – it’s been a fun journey and finally the premiere is nearly here!!

For anyone in Jakarta on 20 December, please join us for the screening and photo exhibition at 7.30pm at:

Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara
Jl Antara no. 59 Pasar Baru
Jakarta 10710

I look forward to seeing you all there :)

Batak – Perjalanan ke Tanah Leluhur (Trailer) from Mahatma Putra on Vimeo.