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.

Village of King Siallagan

The stone chairs of King Siallagan

Stone statue in the Village of King Siallagan

Traditional lion’s head and lizard carvings

Traditional Batak houses. The shape of the roof is raised at both ends, one end raised and providing shelter from the rain when drying rice, and the other end to symbolize that the family hopes their offspring will have greater success then they have.

The carved front cover of a ‘Pustaha’ magic book

This is a small version of the Pustaha. There is one version stored in the library of the University of Lieden that measures up to 15 feet.

Bataks character writings inside the Pustaha book.


Ambarita is located about 3km from Tomok on Samosir Island and is the home of the village of Siallagan which has become a tourist attraction for its cultural and historical past.

The village is surrounded by stone walls and entry is through a small gate and nearby stands a statue representing King Siallagan, who was the first man to discover Siallagan, take control of the area and opened it to outsiders.

In the centre of the courtyard, which is lined on one side by traditional Batak houses, there is a large tree which shades the stone chairs and small round table left by King Siallagan.  It was on these chairs that the King brought justice to the criminals in the village.  If a person was caught committing crimes such as stealing, cheating or murdering, they would be taken to the King and tribal leaders to be dealt an appropriate punishment.  One form of punishment was to place the criminal in stocks and another was to have the criminal beheaded.

The death sentence carried a very strict rule which needed to be followed.  Once the execution date had been determined, the criminal was held in stocks in a wooden cage under the King’s house as a prisoner.  On the execution day, under the watch of the local leaders, the prisoner was taken out of the stocks and was given the chance to say their last words or request a last meal of their choice.  They were then taken to the stone chairs, where the executioner would test if they had magic power by slightly cutting the prisoner’s skin to see whether or not they bled.  If there was blood, it meant no magic was present and the execution could take place immediately.

There are two conflicting stories as to what happened to the criminals as far as removing magic goes.

The first theory is that if there was no blood, it was believed magic was present and the executioner would have to say special spells before scraping the cutter on the ground to remove it.  After performing this ritual, the magic power of the prisoner would be gone and the execution would take place before throwing the body away into a ravine near Lake Toba.

The second theory is that once the prisoner was beheaded, it was believed that the magic power would still be present in the body, so that once the person was reincarnated the magic would remain with them.  Therefore, certain parts of the body were eaten by fellow Bataks (who were known to be cannibals in the past) to remove the magic once and for all.

Also to be seen in the village is the ‘Pustaha’, which is a traditional Batak cultural book of medicine which contains notes, occult sciences, information on spells, how to resist evil, predictions of both good and bad, and how to forecast dreams.  This book is written with Batak characters and the cover is usually made of wood, bark, or bamboo and is decorated with a traditional motif or carving of the lizard god, who symbolises Boraspati ni Tano.

The science written in the pustaha can be divided into three major parts – a living science, a science that destroys life and a way to foresee the future, and is usually used by a ‘dukun’ (shaman) or a student studying to become a dukun.

Although this village has now been set up for tourists and you can become overwhelmed by sellers trying to sell souvenirs as you try to leave, it is nonetheless a great experience to learn more about the Batak culture and traditions as we continue on our journey in the magical land of Batak…

Shrines in Samosir

A shrine sits up high in Tuk Tuk overlooking Lake Toba

A shrine in Tuk Tuk

A grave on the mountainside at Tuk Tuk

A colourful shrine on the edge of Lake Toba

Children running against the wind near some tombs in Pangururan

Tomb inside the complex of The Stone Chair of King Siallagan

Shrine on the outskirts of Tuk Tuk


Travelling around Samosir, you can’t help but notice the hundreds of graves and shrines scattered around the edges of Lake Toba – it’s like one giant cemetery in honour of each families ancestors.  I was stunned that the dead are lay to rest in incredibly lavish and expensive tombs, whilst their living relatives live alongside them in states of poverty.

In the past, custom required that the Bataks rebury the bones of their ancestors in a solemn ritual in a large monument.  Many of today’s Bataks whom have become Christians have continued this tradition, in a different form, as exhuming the bones of their forefathers still holds religious meaning.  An ancestor qualifies for exhumation if he has a great number of descendants, as they are held in great respect from both our world and the nether-world.  Therefore, those that have many children and grandchildren can achieve a higher rank and be exhalted, but their descendants must be willing to hold a big feast.  The bones are exhumed before the feast, as it is believed they can join the festivities before being laid to rest in a concrete tomb.  This tradition was forbidden by protestant missionaries in the past, but a revival was seen after 1930, where the feast and gondang music were permitted, but the churches wanted to end the practise of sacrificing to ghosts.

During current times, the relatives of the deceased, who have migrated to Medan, Jakarta, and other cities in Indonesia, still feel the need to enhance their Batak identity by erecting a monument in their native village.  This is to show the unity of their clan and so that the good fortune of their family may continue, as well as show surrounding clans how prosperous they are.

The most popular monument to be seen has a statue of the ancestor standing dressed in traditional Batak clothing, and underneath the statue are the small apartments for the bones of the various forefathers.  These tombs are usually built up high so that they are clearly visible and the names of the forefathers buried there are engraved on a plaque.

It is such an amazing sight to see these tombs scattered around the island, but I feel it is unfair that so much money is spent on erecting these, whilst the living relatives live in dilapidated housing alongside them.  Perhaps it would be an idea to spend more money on the living so that the lineage can continue in good health and receive a proper education to secure their own futures..

Around Samosir Island…

A few images of our journey around the majestic Samosir Island…..

Goats roaming freely around Lake Toba

Dark clouds loom over the lake

Rounding up the ducklings with a broom..

Chasing the duck that got away!

Relaxing with her grandma in their shop window

Playing around in a wheelbarrow for fun..

Beautiful mountains of Samosir Island

The mountain where it believed the original Bataks fell from the sky

Watching the sunset over the corn fields at the edge of Lake Toba

The sun sets on another beautiful day of discovery on Samosir

Sigale-gale and Traditional Performance at Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo

Sigale-gale dancing doll

A man bearing offerings during a performance at the museum

I love the traditional Batak ulos fabric and buildings in Sumatra

Performing the Tor-Tor dance

Women performing the Tor-Tor

Performing the Tor-Tor for a group of tourists

Traditional Batak Performance

The Sigale-gale doll dances to end the show

After hearing about the traditional Sigale-gale dancing puppet, I was intrigued to see what this tradition was all about so we set off to find and film a performance.  Driving around Lake Toba on a hired motorbike, we passed through some stunning scenery and finally arrived at the northern tip of Samosir Island at Simanindo which is 15km from Tuk Tuk.

Here we found the Museum Huta Bolan Simanindo, and for a small entry fee we were able to look around at the traditional buildings as well as watch a Batak performance and the Sigale-gale dancing.

According to Batak tradition, when a man passed away, their eldest son was to dance at the funeral to ward off evil spirits and prevent disasters and so the Sigale-gale was originally built to dance for people of note who had died without having children to perform for them.  The doll was made with movable limbs, using wood and wires, and danced to set the dead man’s soul at ease.  It was then taken around the village on a little wagon so it could embrace the dead man’s relatives and at daybreak, when the ceremony was over, the doll was left in Lake Toba.

According to legend, a Batak man who had no children to continue the family lineage found himself among the lesser ghosts and nameless slaves in the nether-world, and such a ghost was bent on causing harm to the living.  By making a doll to represent the deceased man, it served as a reminder to the dangerous ghost of his previous state in life, and to remind him to leave the living in peace.

The knowledge and traditions of the doll of the dead has all but disappeared and all that now remains is a puppet show, a caricature of the original ritual, which is performed as entertainment for tourists.

Beautiful Children of Tuk Tuk, Samosir Island

Riding around Tuk Tuk at Samosir Island, trying to do some research on places of interest, we came across some beautiful children, full of smiles and happiness as always! Oh I miss these little faces..

Now that’s one seriously excited face infront of the camera… much cuteness melting my heart!

I noticed these little girls when we were passing on the motorbike… We stayed with them for awhile as they sang and danced and giggled…. Very special afternoon

Oh bless…

Curious little girls…

Little Gia…. she melted our hearts… so after we first left, so we sacrificed our cakes from the bakery for the girls and I can’t describe the excitement on their faces!