This post recounts a journey I made to Padang, Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2009.
If you say “Sumatra” to someone, it will conjure up images of tigers, impenetrable rainforest, exotic coffee and maybe even the 2004 tsunami. On Thursday afternoon we flew from Yogyakarta, through Jakarta to Padang, a medium sized city on the island of Sumatra. As we landed in Jakarta for our transit, we stressed about possibly missing the connecting flight and laughed at Air Asia’s taxiing music – “from the groovy 70s to the funky 90s, this is AirAsia FM!”. We also discovered that everyone in Jakarta’s airport transfer lounge had apparently been to deportment classes, as their posture was amazing.
Once in Padang, we discovered that we had perhaps misjudged what Sumatra would be like. While wilderness does exist in Sumatra, so do mega cities. Padang is only about the size of Australia’s Newcastle, but it’s port-town sleaze was straight out of Bangkok’s stereotypes. We got the feeling that many of Padang’s hotels did not cater to tourists of the sleeping variety; everyone was friendly to us, but service was delivered with a knowing wink.
The next morning we hired a car and drove to the nearby town of Bukittinggi, home of the Minangkabau people. The Minangkabau are a matralineal society, meaning that property, finances and surnames are passed down by the women. They are one of very few societies in the world where this takes place. The Minangkabau take their unusual practice from their tribal origins. They converted to Islam hundreds of years ago, but wove their traditional tribal customs in with their new religion. In Mingangkabau society, men are the head of the household (according to Islam), but they rely on the women’s finances and independence (according to tradition).
The Minangkabau are also different from other Indonesians because of their ancestry. Because of Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Minangkabau are actually (apparently) descended from Macedonians, so while they still look Asian, they have lighter skin than others and some even have green or blue eyes.
The other thing to do in Padang is try its legendary cuisine, makan padang. Padang food is considered the mother of all Indonesian food, and it’s especially notable for the style in which it’s served. In the morning, huge pots of every dish on a Padang restaurant’s menu are made up. You walk in to the restaurant and sit down, and the pots are laid out before you. You get a plate of rice to start, and then take what you want; at the end you only get charged for how much you’ve eaten. It’s the perfect cure for any language difficulties, because there is no ordering involved; it’s also very nerve-wracking because everyone picks from the same pots which have been sitting out at room temperature since morning. We hit the sampled the delights of Padang food early in the morning, hoping to get in before the other customers and bacteria could take hold!
Have you been to Sumatra? Which part? What did you think of it?