Bukittinggi - you must have never heard of it

20.12.2010 In: Travel destinations

Is tourism normalization on its way in West Sumatra? While Padang is still struggling to recover as urban reconstruction moves at slow pace, the rest of the province is back to the normal. This is especially true in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra’s largest tourist destination. The city has a population of over 90,000 inhabitants and is considered as the cradle of the Minangkabau culture, the principal ethnic living in the region. Only 90 km from Padang, the city can be reached from the capital in two hours. Its cool climate made it a favorite retreat during the Dutch colonial time as many European-style bungalows still testify. Next to the Jam Gadang (a clock tower built in 1926 by the Dutch) a local open-door market is the most attractive destination for tourists. Bukittinggi offers also a few museums and a zoo. Most impressive is Ngarai Sianok (Sianok Canyon), a natural reserve next to the city which managed to retain its wild landscapes.

Over 290,000 tourists visited the city in 2008 but the number of foreign travelers remains low, representing only 33,000 arrivals in 2008. It has even decreased following last year earthquake. “Many foreigners feel unsecured to come, especially from Malaysia, our major market,” explained Juni Amri, head of Bukittinggi Tourism.

Bukittinggi has been designated by the local government as a “tourism city”. Annual tourism budget in 2010 reached US$ 275,000 to help improving tourist infrastructure and produce reading materials such as maps. Among Bukittinggi new projects are the reconstruction of the clock tower square, a popular venue for both tourists and locals as well as the development of a new handicraft market. Construction work recently resumed on a new five-star hotel, which could open to the public by 2012. “ We lack luxury accommodation and this five star hotel will be a welcomed addition as we lack rooms,” added Mr. Amri. Bukittinggi has currently 13 star-rated hotels with 698 rooms.

The laid-back atmosphere of Bukittinggi attracted a decade ago many backpackers. “We still receive some Europeans or Australians as they seem more adventurous,” explained the owner of one of the five funky bars in Jalan Ahmand Rani, Bukittinggi’s main thorough lane for young travelers looking for a break on their way to Maninjau lake, Mentawai Islands or Harau Valley.

While Maninjau Lake has lost its appeal due to environmental problems – algaes are now covering parts due to fish farms - nearby Harau Valley capitalize with success on eco-tourism. Located an hour away from Bukittinggi, the park is a succession of canyons and cliffs opening on lush valleys where local farmers continue to grow rice and vegetable. Looking at attracting more tourists interested into eco tourism, an eco-resort is now available at the entrance of Harau valley. Run by a single family, Lembah Echo Homestay has created a couple of years ago a simple resort offering a dozen of charming wooden bungalows, with most of its furniture made from recycled material. Lembah Echo Homestay has found a niche market. It attracts even small domestic conventions as it offers meeting facilities in its restaurant. Foreign visitors include mostly Malaysians and Australians attracted by trekking in stunning landscapes.

But most foreign travelers will look in West Sumatra at discovering Minangkabau’s lifestyle. It is one of the most unique in Indonesia as it combines a matrilineal society – the largest in modern world - with a strong faith in Islam. Parallel to Islam principles, Minangkabau people follows also their own customs (‘adat’) shaped by animist believes.

All these elements give a very distinctive culture that Minang people are proud to preserve. It is particularly visible in the architecture of local houses, the ‘Rumah Gadang’ (‘big house’). Built in wood with carved floral motives, the houses show an impressive curved roof structure with multi-tiered, upswept gables. According to tradition, the roof shapes emulate buffalo horns, a symbol of power. More gables on a house roof mean that the family living in the premises is blessed with many daughters. Entire villages have little changed over the last 50 years as they are still dominated by the high silhouettes of the gables crowning rumah gadang.

The most beautiful villages to be discovered by travelers are located in the surrounding of Bukittinggi on the slopes of Mount Marapi - the name has nothing to do with the volcano which erupted recently in Java. Pariangan and Sungayang villages are some of Minang’s oldest settlements with their beautiful houses. Batusangkar district has an abundant number of houses representing colonial and Minang styles. The district leads to one of West Sumatra’s architectural highlights: Pagaruyung Palace. Previously the grand house of a Minang king, the Palace burnt down in 2007 as it was struck by lightning. However, its completion is almost finished and the spectacular palace is due to reopen in 2011. A testimony that West Sumatra can overcome any catastrophe…