When a destination is as big and sprawling as Sumatra – the planet’s sixth largest island – there’s a wealth of exotic and challenging experiences for intrepid travellers. And while the orangutans of Bukit Lawang and the chilled lakeside vibe of Danau Toba draw a regular flow of visitors to northern Sumatra, the southern regions of this equator-straddling leviathan are equally spectacular and interesting.
Plan for a few multiple-hour bus journeys on winding, looping mountain roads, but relax in the knowledge that you’ll be sharing the experience with just a smattering of like-minded travellers.
Padang: big city style
Immerse yourself in the heartland of the matrilineal Minangkabau people of Padang with a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia (www.airasia.com) or from Jakarta on Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id). Padang was hit by a powerful 7.9-magnitude earthquake in 2009, but the coastal city is bouncing back with verve and energy. Ease into a Sumatran sunset with grilled seafood and a cold Bintang beer from the simple huts lining Padang’s beach, or dive into a multi-course sampling of spicy nasi Padang, the local cuisine that’s conquered Southeast Asia. Padang’s also the departure point for jungle trekking or surfing on the Mentawai Islands (allow for a ferry ride of around ten hours).
Bukkittinggi: misty mountain town
From Padang, frequent minibuses trundle for around two hours to the mountain town of Bukittinggi. In earlier times – before the allure of comfortable flights direct to Bali from northern Sumatra's Medan – Bukkittinggi was a travellers’ hub on the Asian overland trail through to Java. There’s still a relatively active backpacker scene, fuelled by cheap accommodation and the opportunity to climb the volcanic peaks of Gunung Merapi and Gunung Singgalang. Other less strenuous attractions include visiting the village of Palupuh, ringed by plantations of kopi luwak (coffee made from beans ingested by civet cats) and forests punctuated by the giant rafflesia flower.
Contact Lite’n’Easy Tour & Travel (www.liteneasy.nl) at the Bedudal Café in Bukittinggi for hiking trips up Gunung Merapi and other active excursions around the town. In Palupuh, kopi luwak tastings and Minangkabau cooking classes are available at Rafflesia Luwak Coffee (www.rafflesialuwakcoffee.org).
Harau Valley & Danau Maninjau: easy-going detours
If you’re finding Bukkittinggi’s commercial buzz just a little too busy, two more laid-back destinations are within relatively easy reach. Negotiate a three-step combo of local bus, minibus and motorbike (or arrange transport with Lite’n’Easy Tour & Travel) to the Harau Valley, around 60km northeast of Bukittinggi. Bordered by soaring limestone cliffs, this narrow valley of shimmering rice paddies is popular with rock-climbing enthusiasts, but less gung-ho travellers can enjoy jungle treks or relax at sleepy village homestays. From Bukittinggi, rickety buses also negotiate the two-hour journey westwards to Danau Maninjau, with the final spectacular descent to the huge volcanic lake featuring 44 corners. Fish farms now punctuate the lake’s edge, but Maninjau is still a good place to recharge the travel batteries after one too many Sumatran bus journeys.
Stay at the Abdi Homestay (www.facebook.com/pages/Abdi-homestay-Ikbal-Noni/135899863151120?sk=info) in the Harau Valley, featuring excellent, home-cooked food from friendly owners Ikbal and Noni. In Danau Maninjau, Muaro Beach Bungalows has a lakeside location free of fish farms, and can organise trekking and motorcycle rental.
Krui: emerging surfing destination
The Nias Islands and the Mentawai Islands are renowned for superb waves, but these destinations off Sumatra’s western coast can be expensive or difficult to reach. Clinging to Sumatra’s southern coast, Krui is now also emerging as an area for savvy wave-riders, and the laid-back scene at beaches like Tanjung Setia also rewards non-surfing travellers. It’s still quite a mission to get here – around 17 hours by bus from Padang or six hours from the nearest airport south at Bandarlampung – but accommodation ranges from simple beachside guesthouses to more comfortable surf lodges with front row views of Krui’s famous Karang Nyimbor break.
Contact Albert at Krui’s Hello Mister Surf Shop to arrange jungle trekking in the nearby Bukit Barisan National Park. Krui’s most laid-back resident can also arrange surf lessons on Tanjung Setia’s more forgiving beach break, or arrange onward bus transport south to Bandarlampung. From there it’s an easy hop across the Sunda Strait to continue your overland journey eastwards into Java.
Brett Atkinson is a travel and food writer who has authored many Lonely Planet guide books. Follow his tweets at @travelwriterNZ.