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The Minangkabau culture: Muslim, but different

West Sumatra is the domain of the Minangkabau. In the beautiful landscape around Bukittinggi, the typical Minangkabau houses are owned by the women in a matrilinear system. They manage to combine that system with the strict Muslim faith, in which the men are dominant.

Minangkabau muslim girls

From Singapore we cross over to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The ferry brings us to Pulau Batam within an hour. This is a small island in the Riau archipelago, from where we can take the boat to the mainland of Sumatra. The boat only leaves in the morning, so we have to hurry to catch it. An Indonesian guy "helps" us, gets tickets and leads us to the boat in a hurry. Once on the boat, we realize we have been scammed. The exchange trick costs us 20 US dollar extra, but what is worse: we are on the wrong boat. Instead of going to Buton, we are heading for Dumai now.

More Adventure travel tales in Indonesia:
Ubud, Bali
Komodo Dragon Cruise
Flores Island
Tana Toraja
Lake Toba
Bukit Lawang
Southeast Asian Tales:
Angkor Wat temples
Sapa Valley Vietnam
Luang Prabang in Laos

Family in front of a typical Minangkabau house

In Dumai, we have to arrange a bus to Pekanbaru. Again, there are around 20 men around us shouting to "help" us. This time, they are out of luck, we are fierce negotiators this time. We finally end up in a bus full of Indonesians. The ride is long, bumpy and with a number of stopovers, but around 9 PM we are finally in Pekanbaru.

Poppy's Homestay

Sabine relaxing in a homestayPoppy's homestay is the only backpacker facility in Pekanbaru. We cannot find it, until we are helped by a few locals. Surprisingly enough, they don't rip us off, they do not even want a tip for their help. Our faith in the Indonesian people is a little restored. Especially when the owner of Poppy's appears to be very friendly. He tells us where to exchange money and how to get to Bukittinggi the next day.

Although we are asked to enter the bus early, it takes a long time before it leaves for Bukittinggi. It drives circles in the city to attract more passengers, and then it stops for breakfast. But in the end, we leave and in a short time we are winding through the mountainous area of central Sumatra. After a few hours more and more houses with bullhorn shaped roofs appear. We are approaching West Sumatra, the domain of the Minangkabau.

Mountain View

We are dropped off at the edge of Bukittinggi and have to make a long walk to the center. The name of the town means high hill, so we have to climb that as well. Besides, it is difficult to read the map, which isn't correct either, so it takes some time to get where we want to be. The hotel we picked, however, doesn't exist anymore, but there is a good alternative. A little while later we are relaxing and enjoying the view of Mountain view Guesthouse.

Our first day in Bukittinggi we take it slow. We take our time to find out what can be explorer around town, and how to move on to Java. We also meet Johanna. She is a Dutch girl in a room next to us, and she has an Indonesian boyfriend, Jas. She is here for the third time now, and has a lot of tips for us.


Visiting a Minangkabau weddingIn the afternoon, Johanna suddenly arrives, asking us if we want to go to a Minangkabau wedding. Well, that's a yes, and in the evening the four of us join the wedding, celebrated in between the houses, where the people are waiting on chairs. The bride and groom are in a house, and once in a while a group of people can visit them. They are offered some food, after which they can congratulate them and make room for the next group. The bride and groom stay inside.

When it is our turn, we take off our shoes and go inside. In a large circle we sit on the floor, the men cross-legged, the women with their legs to the side. The food is typical Padang style: in the middle are dishes with chicken, meat, and vegetables, mostly prepared with many spices. Everybody gets a plate with rice and takes wat het wants from the dishes. It is an art to shape the food with the right hand into little balls, and eat those. We have some more trouble with it, and finish last. Then we congratulate the bride and groom and go back outside.

Outside, a band is playing. Everybody is invited to come and sing on stage, but we decline. We can not refuse to make a dance, however. So here we are, on an Indonesian wedding, and the few Dutch people have to start the entertainment. Maybe it is the lack of alcohol to loosen the people up a bit. A number of guests do want their picture taken with us, so apparently we are the attraction here. Around 10 PM the party is nearly over and everybody leaves. We do not get to see the bride and groom again, they are probably counting the gifts in the anonymous envelopes.

Through Sianok Canyon

Scenic view in the Sianok CanyonThe next day, Jas offers his services as a guide for a walk through the nearby Sianok canyon (Ngarai Sianok). From Bukittinggi we walk down and via some rice fields we end up in a forest. Further downhill we arrive at the river that flows through the canyon. We follow the river and pass it several times since it flows from one side of the canyon to the other. We see enormous bugs, and flying foxes, a bat species with sizes up to 1 meter. We pass several small waterfalls and see a few monkeys in the distance. The climb up is hard, but once on top we have a magnificent view over the canyon. Via the silver village, where people are making silver jewellery, we walk back to Bukittinggi.

Minibus tour

The next day we booked a tour by minibus through the surroundings. At the first stops we are taught about the different herbs and fruits that grow here on the slopes of the volcanoes. Again nice views, and we spot a few eagles. Then we arrive at a coffee mill. Driven by the water in a stream, poles are lifted and released in a receptacle full of coffee beans. Built by the Dutch, the mill is now owned by a corporation. The people can come here to grind their coffee beans for a small payment.

Then we arrive at the tourist palace. It is a copy of the original palace of the king, constructed for the tourists. It is a traditional Minangkabau house, with the bullhorn shaped roof. In the Minangkabau culture, however, the houses belong to the women. Why this house is not called the palace of the queen is not clear to us.

After lunch (padang food again), we visit the oldest still existing Minangkabau house. For over 350 years, the eldest daughters of a certain family lived here. The Minangkabau men can visit and stay the night, but they do not live here. Male children leave their house at the age of six, the rooms are for the daughters. The Minangkabau are muslim, however, according to which religion two thirds of all possession is inherited by the male descendents. In the Minangkabau culture, that only concerns newly acquired goods.

Oldest still existing Minangkabau houseThe lack of houses make Minangkabau men a wandering species. It is therefore that the Minangkabau also appear in other parts of Indonesia and even Malaysia. It is even expected of a man to spend considerable time (a few years) outside of his village. Mostly, however, they come back, or their wives follow them.

The men of the Minangkabau do have communal functions. Every "clan", consisting of the descendants of a mother or grandmother, has a representative. Oddly enough, this is not her husband, but the eldest brother of the firstly married woman in the house. This man, whose children belong to a different clan, has the responsibility over the children of his sister's clan. All these men, from every clan, together form some kind of city council. Every generation also has its leader this way. When something needs to be arranged, like a wedding, that leader is approached, who will gather the rest of his group to organise things.

Bull fight

In between some showers we move on to a large crater lake, Donau Singkarak. We can take a swim here, with thunder in the mountain as a backdrop. The stop at the wood workers is also short, it is time to move on to today's main attraction: the bull fight.

Minangkabau Bull fightOn Sumatra, people don't fight the bulls as they do in Spain. Instead, the bulls fight each other. They bash their heads together and try to push each other away. The one that runs looses the game. According to the story, this is how the Minangkabau got their name. When the people from Java came to conquer Sumatra, they convinced them to let the bulls fight for the victory. The people from Java came with a huge bull, but the Sumatrans only had a small, hungry calf, with its horns drenched in poison. The calf thought the bull was its mother, and went searching for her udders, wounding the bull. The bull ran, and the people shouted "Minang kabau, minang kabau", which means "Victory for our Bull".

We have a good view over the arena, from a hill around the field. Most of the audience is on the field, as close as possible to the bulls. The first fight takes long, neither one of the bulls wants to give up. The supporters of both bulls are shouting and pushing the bulls to force a decision. Then, after 20 minutes, one of the bulls runs away. The second fight is much shorter, after the first bash, the sensible one of the bulls takes a hike. The third one is also short, but has a spectacular ending. The fleeing bull can not find a clear passage through the crowds, and bashes into the people. Two people are injured, and the rest runs for their lives. Next, the bull runs up the road, followed by the other bull. All ends well, but we are told that sometimes people are killed by fleeing bulls.

Fort and Zoo

Bukkittingi also has a few places of interest in town. So we head for Benteng de Kock, the fort that the Dutch built on the hill. But there are little remains of the once mighty fort. There are a few canons around the hill, now occupied by a kind of water reservoir. Via a suspension bridge we move on to the Zoo. But this is a sad sight as well, especially the anorexia camel we see. Yet, there are some animal species we see for the first time, like the komodo dragon.

Finally, there is also a Minangkabau museum on the premises of the Zoo, obviously in the shape of a traditional house. Inside, the traditional clothings are on display, as well as miniature versions of typical buildings, sheds, and tools. And there are also many items that have nothing to do with the Minangkabau, like coins and paper money from different countries, and stuffed Siamese twin goats. Strange, but interesting.

Jungle Trek

Walking through the riverIn the meanwhile, we decided not to move to Java by bus, but to take the boat. Since it is leaving on Sunday, we have enough time for a jungle trek to Lake Maninjau. Eric, who speaks a little Dutch, has convinced us in the nice Lonely Planet caf� to join him. A bus brings us out of town until we reach the river where our jungle trek starts.

The first part of the trip is nice and easy. Then, we have to cross the river for which we exchange our shoes for slippers. We keep these slippers on, since we have to cross the river about 10 more times. The fast flowing water almost reaches our crotches, so it's not always easy. Then Eric decides to climb up from the canyon, via a waterfall. Just as we wonder if there are no leeches here, Eric indicates to put our shoes back on, and we find a few. And while we are tying our shoes, we are startled by a wild pig, being chased by dogs. That's a good start for our jungle trek!!

Climb and Descend

A buffalo powered tread wheelComing up from the valley the path slowly goes down again. Beautiful views over forest, river, rice fields, and mountains until we get down, pass a bridge, and move up again. This repeats itself about four times, in the meantime adding a big shower. Then, after 5 hours of climb and descend, we finally stop for lunch.

After lunch, a few motorbikes bring us further to the edge of the huge crater in which Lake Maninjau is situated. We enjoy the view but are interrupted by thunder clouds and rain drops, so we quickly descend into the crater. The crater is heavily forested, and the path is slippery. We slip and slide, and when we stand still we can see the leeches on the floor standing upright, ready to hitch a ride on our feet. When the rain gets worse, we walk faster, and we end up almost running, as we arrive at Anas Homestay.

Anas Homestay

Anas is a collections of cottages in the middle of the jungle. Enjoying a cup of tea we dry up and come at ease, enjoying the beautiful view.

We take a shower from the water that is captured from a stream via some bamboo branches. Sabine and Eric are playing the guitar, and we play cards with the two other guests, Calypso and Ben. What a beautiful place to be�

The night at Anas is less pleasant. Patrick finds a leech and we stay too alert to have a good night sleep. But the nice breakfast compensates for that and a little while later we are ready to move on.

Anas Homestay with a view

First we head for a waterfall. Eric moves fast, and the rocks are still slippery from the night before. So we slip and slide again, until Patrick disappears into the abyss. Luckily, the forest keeps him from falling very far, but he is a bit shaky. At the waterfall, we take a nice shower, but not before we find a large number of leeches on our legs. They must have gone right through our socks to get to our blood.

The rest of the descend goes well. The path gets less steep and we pass a few rice fields. Then we arrive in the village of Maninjau. We walk on until we cross the last rice field to reach Lily's homestay at the lake. But before we reach that, we see a big monitor lizard of 1 meter, and a few small colorful ones.

At the lake

Lily's homestay is a nice relaxing spot on Danau Maninjau. We swim at the small beach and relay with a meal and a drink. Too bad we didn't know about this place before, we could have spent some nights here. Now we take the local bus to bring us back to Bukittinggi. The road up on the crater wall is great, with 44 numbered hair pins, beautiful views, and many monkeys along the road watching the cars go by. After one and a half hour we reach Bukittinggi and look back at an intensive, but nice jungle trek.

The market of Bukkittinggi with clock tower and tiger statuesOur last day in Bukittinggi we take it slow. We visit the market, and walk around town. We enjoy another Padang meal on a banana leaf with Johanna and Jas, before we say goodbye. The next morning a minibus picks us up at 4.30 AM to bring us to the boat in Padang in time.

For our standards, we spent a lot of time in Bukittinggi. There is a lot to see and do here. The beautiful landscape is perfect for trekkings, but there are also good places to relax. The Minangkabau culture is slowly decaying, but very intriguing and present in the background. These friendly people have surprised us, which we needed after being ripped off by the first Indonesian guy we met.

Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: West Java

Return from Minangkabau to Southeast Asia
Return from Minangkabau to Adventure Travel Tales and Tips

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