Early on a bright, clear morning, the market town of Bukittinggi sits high above the valley mists as three sentinels – fire-breathing Merapi, benign Singgalang and distant Sago – all look on impassively. Sun-ripened crops grow fat in the rich volcanic soil, as frogs call in the paddies, bendis (two-person horse-drawn carts) haul goods to the pasa (market), and the muezzin’s call sits lightly on the town. Modern life seems far removed.
Until 9am. Then the traffic starts up, and soon there’s a mile-long jam around the bus terminal and the air turns the colour of diesel. The mosques counter the traffic by cranking their amps to 11, while hotel staff try to pass off cold bread and jam as breakfast.
Such is the incongruity of modern Bukittinggi, blessed by nature, choked by mortals. Lush. Fertile. Busy. And at 930m above sea level, deliciously temperate all year round.
The town (alternatively named Tri Arga, which refers to the triumvirate of peaks) has had a chequered history, playing host at various times to Islamic reformists, Dutch colonials, Japanese invaders and Sumatran separatists.
Bukittinggi was once a mainstay of the banana-pancake trail, but regional instability, shorter visas and the rise of low-cost air carriers have seen the traveller tide reduced to a lower ebb. The town's still definitely worth a visit though, and is a good base for setting out to the Harau Valley and Danau Maninjau.