Journey to Bukittinggi

Minangkapau roof

We left Singapore three days ago to begin our journey to Bukkittinggi, which is a city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. According to the guidebooks we’d read, the trip should have been an early morning ferry from Singapore to Palau Batam (45 minutes), then a ferry to Pekanbaru (6 hours), and finally a bus to Bukkittinggi (6 hours). We knew it was going to be a long day, but we set out at 6am determined to give it a try.

What we expected to be a one day journey turned out to be a three day odyssey. We caught the first ferry from Singapore to Palau Batam, only to arrive and find out that the only ferry onwards left an hour before we arrived. Since there was only one ferry per day, it seemed we were stuck on Palau Batam for the night. We took a taxi to the nearby town of Nagoya to look for a place to stay. The budget hotel that was recommended to us was full, so we settled on one across the street. It was called the Rose Hotel, and the price was decent. Our guidebook had warned that most budget hotels on Palau Batam doubled as brothels, and that certainly seemed to be true in this case. They were advertising hourly rates, and I’m pretty sure we passed a few of the “employees” drinking beers in the lobby. On the plus side, our hotel had hot water and HBO, so we took a nap and a shower and went out to explore Nagoya a little.

There wasn’t much to see in Nagoya, but we did manage to find a shopping centre where we ate some fried noodles and seafood for lunch. After strolling through the stores for a while, we headed back to our hotel. If we wanted to stand a chance of catching the ferry in the morning, it was going to have to be a pretty early start.

We checked out of the Rose Hotel at 6am, and headed back to the port. We were accosted by half a dozen people the moment we stepped out of our taxi, but we were prepared. We’d memorized the name of a recommended and supposedly reputable ferry company, and we made a bee-line straight for it.

Us: Ferry to Pekanbaru?

Them: Yes, yes. No problem.

So we paid, and boarded, and were pleased at how well things seemed to be going. We didn’t even mind that the ferry looked like it could fall apart on the way. We had life jackets under our seats, and we were moving. We settled in for our six hour ride.

Nice looking ferry

After about five hours, we pulled in to Buton. This wasn’t our first stop; we’d made a couple of drop-offs already. But this time was different. Everyone seemed to be getting off, even a woman who had expressly told us that she was also going to Pekanbaru. Confused, we tried to ask for an explanation. We managed to find out that we needed to transfer to a bus, and that would take us to Pekanbaru. This was supposed to have been very clear to us, since that was what our tickets said (in Indonesian). So we grabbed our bags, followed the crowd, and got on a bus.

Loading our bus

The bus was a relatively small one, with no A/C and most of the luggage on the roof. We managed to keep our backpacks with us inside the bus. We were especially glad we did when it started pouring rain. The bus was splashing along through deep potholes, weaving through traffic, and leaking from everywhere. The rear doors of the bus didn’t close, but that turned out to be a good source of fresh air, since everyone in the bus was smoking filterless cigarettes constantly. We were surrounded by the smells of smoke, bus exhaust, and durian fruit. Once you smell a durian, you’ll never forget it. It is a ridiculously pungent smell, and a very, very unpleasant one (in my opinion at least). It’s odor is so strong that it is banned in hotels and on public transit in Singapore. No one on our bus was actually carrying durian with them, but the road was littered with stands selling them, and the smell would leap from the side of the road to assault the bus even as we sped past.

We hadn’t eaten lunch or brought much food with us, but this proved to be no problem at all. Every time the bus stopped (or even slowed down enough) it was swarmed by people selling food and drink. Most things we didn’t recognize at all, but we were impressed by the sheer number of hawkers that passed through. Many of them spent an extra few minutes on us, since we were the only tourists on board. It was like having a buffet walk past your seat, except that the people serving it would often have to climb over you to move on to their next customer.

We figured that our bus ride should be about an hour long, since we’d been on the ferry for 5 and the journey was supposed to take 6. Wrong again. After 2 hours on the road, the bus driver pulled into a roadside restaurant, went in, and sat down to eat lunch. We took this as a bad sign — if we were stopping for lunch after two hours on the road, how much further would we have to go? After a twenty minute stop, we drove another hour and a half until we arrived at a river that had to be crossed by ferry. This was in the town of Perawang, which of course wasn’t on our little map, so gave us no clue as to our whereabouts.

While the bus waited in line to get on the ferry, Meghan struck up a conversation with a woman sitting in the vehicle next to the bus. We had our window open, and the woman noticed us and called hello. It turned out that she spoke english quite well. Her name was Srie, and she asked us our names, where we were coming from, and where we were going. It turned out that she was also headed to Pekanbaru, where she lived. After talking for about twenty minutes, we were very surprised and excited when she asked us if we’d like to join her and her colleague in their vehicle instead. Would we ever! They were riding in a very new-looking Toyota SUV, and it looked wonderfully comfortable and safe compared to the bus we were on. We accepted, and grabbed our bags.

We were all smiles as we came around to the back of the Toyota to throw our bags in the trunk. The door swung open, and *POW* — we were hit in the face with the smell. The trunk was full of durians! Of course, because it was an SUV, the trunk was open to the rest of the vehicle. In Indonesia, of course, durians are commonplace, and the smell is appealing. Meghan seemed not to mind it too much. I could hardly stand it. Still, we weren’t about to pass up this generous invitation because of a new smell, so we climbed in, unrolled our windows, and tried to let our noses adjust.

Srie was wonderful. We stopped at another roadside stand where she introduced us to duku fruit, which was delicious and very much not at all like durian. It turned out that Srie worked for Chevron, which has a major stake in Pekanbaru and owns a vast stretch of land in the area. Because of this, we got to drive on the roads that cut through Chevron’s property, which are reserved for employees only. The roads were smooth, free of traffic, and well maintained — a far cry from the public roads we had been on. As we approached Pekanbaru, we drove through the Chevron employee housing, which Srie called Little America because it looked just like a North American suburb. It was interesting to see how Chevron’s presence here had such an impact on the city. Once we reached Pekanbaru itself, there was a marked difference between the public and government areas and the residential ones. Perhaps this was due to oil money, but we couldn’t say for certain.

By this time, what was supposed to have been a 6 hour boat ride had turned out to be a twelve hour travel day. It was already getting dark, and we had nowhere to stay. Srie invited us to come to her house for dinner, and we gladly accepted. Hers was a beautiful, big house, located on a narrow street and surrounded by many much less impressive dwellings. We met Srie’s husband and two daughters, and we sat in the living room while they served us tea and snacks before dinner. We kept looking at each other with smiles and disbelief in our eyes. Was this all really happening? They were absolutely wonderful hosts. We sat for a dinner of spicy meat with coconut, chili fried fish, omelette, rice, and (you guessed it) durian. Everything was delicious, with one notable exception. Meg and I both tried the durian, because it’s not fair to say that you don’t like something if you don’t at least give it a try. The texture was pasty and slimy, creamy yet dry, and the taste was pretty much on par with the smell. We both declined to have seconds. Our hosts found the whole thing quite entertaining.

Dinner with Srie and family

After dinner was over we said our thank yous and our goodbyes. Srie’s daughters drove us to a hotel, and even ran in to see if they had space before we unloaded our bags. We can’t thank Srie and her family enough for their wonderful help and hospitality. It was a very memorable day.

We slept well and woke up for a third day of trying to get to Bukittinggi. We caught a taxi to the bus terminal, which was a big, empty looking building outside of town. We were directed to one of the many ticket windows, and we purchased two tickets on the 11:30am bus to Bukittinggi. By now, we knew better than to relax at this point. Surely it wasn’t going to be that easy. As soon as we settled down to wait, we were told that our bus was in fact full, and we would have to wait until the bus at 2pm. We insisted that this was no good for us, since we’d hoped to arrive during daylight hours. No dice. We were at a loss, but five minutes later we were approached again. This time, Meghan was handed a cell phone with a woman’s voice on the other end. She told us that she had room to take us on her bus, which was leaving immediately. Meg said that sounded great, but when she asked if there was a price difference, the woman just hung up on her. We didn’t think any more of it until, about 15 minutes later, the woman actually showed up. She told us it would cost about 20,000 rupiah extra each (about $2 canadian), so we accepted. We followed her outside to her bus, which turned out to be a small silver SUV (but not a shiny new one like Srie’s had been). We climbed in with one other passenger, and we were off.

The drive was like nothing we’d ever experienced before. Over the course of 6 hours, we switched vehicles twice and drivers four times. Each one drove like a man possessed. We passed innumerable other cars and scooters, usually with oncoming traffic, and twice our driver had to actually slam on the brakes to avoid head on collisions with cars that had misjudged their passes. The signal light was blinking for the entire drive, because we were at all times looking to pass whatever was in front of us. If we pulled out into the other lane to make a pass, and saw an oncoming vehicle, it simply meant that we’d better pass quickly, and the driver would slam on the gas pedal. And that was when we had the luxury of seeing the oncoming traffic, since many of our passing maneuvers took place on blind corners. Sometimes our driver would talk on his cell phone for long periods of time. At first this made me very nervous, since he seemed to pay much less attention to the driving while chatting. Eventually I learned to prefer when he was on the phone, because our speed would drop by about 20 km/h. We were pretty sure that we weren’t going to make it alive.

Scenery on the way

On the plus side, we drove through some absolutely spectacular landscapes. We passed into West Sumatra, and finally dropped below the equator for the first time in our travels. The land was hilly, and there were lakes and cliffs, terraced rice fields and water buffalo, and breath taking gullies with rivers and waterfalls. Whenever we could pull our eyes away from the terror of what was happening on the road, we were awed by the beauty zipping past us. It looked so peaceful out there. We couldn’t wait for the drive to be over.

Eventually, and incredibly, we actually did arrive in Bukittinggi, a small city 930 metres above sea level, with three volcanoes on the horizon and surrounded by rice fields below. Many of the buildings have traditional Minangkabau roof structures, with soaring peaks and elegant curves. The language is foreign, english is scarce, and adventure awaits. It was a marathon journey, and the most hair-raising and adventurous so far, but probably not the last of its kind.


  1. Dallas Husar

  2. Happy New Year you guys! I hope Bukittinggi holds the best adventures so far!

    Hey guys – kudos to you for venturing off the beaten path. BUT as Meg’s Dad, I have my concerns. Please be careful!!!!!!! BTW where are you going? What’s to see in Sumatra? I understand there’s tons of resource developments taking place including forestry to the point of forestation. Love Dad

    Happy New Year, and welcome to 2010! Hope it’s a great year for you both and glad you made it safely after your harrowing trip. Thank goodness for angels like Srie and her family. Like Dad said, please be careful… Happy trails to you…Lots of Love, xox

    Hi Dad! It’s fantastic here in Indonesia so please don’t worry. There are many things to see and do. Beautiful landscapes and friendly faces. We will also go see some orangutans. Love Meggie.

    Hey Guys, happy new year!

    Looks like it’s durian season there! Another thing you have to try is empeng and cendol.

    Let me know.

    Did you know that Durian’s are a no-fly fruit out here and I”m sure everywhere? One time we had a woman somehow sneak one on the plane. It was wrapped in a garbage bag then put in a bowling ball bag. We could still smell it! So we sniffed it out, found the owner, quadruple bagged it, and left it in the lav for the entire flight. It was so stinky, memorable, and funny. And that was just one Durian, I can’t imagine what you two had to smell through!

  3. Chris Lee

  4. Hi ppl. I will posted to bukit tinggi for 1 week due to conference. Anyone can help me regarding cell phone issue eg. getting local pre-paid mobile line and calling to overseas mobile number? Where to buy and how to use?

Leave a Comment

Your email will not be published.
Required fields are marked *.