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Things to do in Bukittinggi, Indonesia: An interview with a resident

Bukittinggi is a city in West Sumatra, Indonesia, known for its historical significance, vibrant culture and surrounding natural beauty. It’s a popular tourist destination, with the region being home to the the Minangkabau people, an ethnic group native to the west central highlands of Sumatra. We spoke to Dewi, an Indonesian born in Bukittinggi, to learn more about the city.

Thanks for speaking with us, Dewi. So you know West Sumatra very well but do you think people consider it as a tourist destination when visiting Indonesia?

Dewi: People in Indonesia know Padang well, the capital of West Sumatra, but when it comes to international tourists, I don’t think many people know about it. Sometimes people get confused between Padang and Minang. Padang is a location. Minang is an adjective, for example, Minang food and Minang people. Just like Batak people and Batak food of North Sumatra.

Ok, so what are some nice places to visit in the region?

Dewi: Most tourists who have an interest in Indonesian history, they know where to go. The most visited location in West Sumatra is Bukittingi. Bukit means “hill” and tinggi means “high”; high hills. The second is Padang Panjang or Payakumbuh, where I grew up. Padang is more of a transit city, so it’s not really a priority for many tourists. It’s rare to find a foreigner in Padang but when you go to Bukittinggi, there are popular tourist attractions like Jam Gadang, a historical clock tower in the centre of the city, and the Japanese Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels built by the Japanese during World War II. You’ll see quite a lot of foreigners there. Also there’s the Fort de Cock Castle, a Dutch fortress built during colonial times.

Jam Gadang, Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia
Jam Gadang clock tower in Bukittinggi.

What’s the best way to get to and around Bukittinggi?

Dewi: Well, to get to Bukittinggi, you need to go to Padang first. One of the ways to reach West Sumatra from another region is by landing in Minangkabau International Airport, located in Padang. From there you can take a train to the City Centre of Padang and then take a bus to Bukittinggi. Just check with the driver if they are passing the Bukittinggi route. But the most common way to get to there is by taking a private taxi. Bukittinggi isn’t as well connected as Jakarta with busways everywhere, but you can use Grab or Gojek. It’s very easy. Also a lot of tourists get around on foot because the weather is quite pleasant.

And what about language? Let’s say you can only speak English. Will it be difficult for a tourist?

Dewi: People will understand English a little bit. But they’ll also understand the places most tourists are looking to visit. So if you have images of the attractions you want to go to, that will help. Over time people have gotten used to welcoming foreigners to Bukittinggi, so they know how to interact with tourists. They’ll be kind and try to help.

What about safety? Is it ok to visit as a solo traveler?

Dewi: Bukittinggi is mostly safe. It’s not a very crowded, big city. People are very humble, very nice and friendly. So one shouldn’t worry. Some might even welcome you to their own house for lunch and dinner. It’s not strange to hear tourists being invited to a family’s home for food and being given a ride to a nearby tourist attraction.

What weather can we expect there? Maybe there’s an assumption that it’ll be hot because it’s Indonesia.

Dewi: Different city, different weather. Padang is quite hot, as hot as Jakarta. But when you go to Bukittinggi, the weather is a little bit colder but still mild. The same goes for Padang Panjang, which is colder because it’s closer to the mountains. Payakumbuh is warm again but not as warm as Padang.

Do you have any culinary recommendations for those visiting?

Dewi: We have Sate Padang, cubed beef pieces with spicy sauce, and Nasi Padang, steamed rice often served with various meats, fish and vegetables. Nasi Padang represents all Nasi (made from rice) meals from West Sumatra. Specifically in Bukittinggi we have Nasi Kapau. The ingredients are more bold and the santan (coconut milk) has a richer taste. Nasi Kapau is always completed by gulai kol (cabbage curry), long beans or cempedak (a tropical fruit). You should really try it. We also have a drink called Kahwa Daun. It’s a tea made from coffee leaves. It’s different to tea and different to coffee, and you drink it in a coconut shell. What’s the best way to describe it? The best way I can describe it is the taste is ‘different’ and it’s a mix between tea and coffee.

Nasi Padang
Nasi Padang.
Kahwa Daun drink, West Sumatra, Indonesia
Kahwa Daun, a West Sumatran speciality.

From a personal perspective, is there anything in particular you appreciate about Bukittinggi?

Dewi: I like the community vibe. We know and help each other. The people are very kind. Even if someone doesn’t know you very well, they will still help you. And that treatment is extended to foreigners. We welcome everyone from around the world. You should visit.

Do you have any other tips for people thinking of visiting Bukittinggi?

Dewi: Just be you. The thing is, we respect everyone and we expect that tourists respect us too. Sometimes Minang people can be quite direct, but don’t worry. We have a kind heart.

And apart from Bukittinggi, what other cities in West Sumatra do you recommend visiting?

Dewi: An interesting thing about West Sumatra is that every city has a different touristic character. Padang has its islands, beaches and panoramic viewpoints. Bukittinggi has its history, and when you go down a little bit to Payakumbuh, you have Harau Valley. Harau Valley has beautiful scenery consisting of rock hills, rice fields and waterfalls. Sarasah Bunta is quite a large waterfall where people like to swim. Apart from waterfalls, people can do staycations around the valley, go camping and hiking. You can get some really delicious, authentic and affordable food there. And also Padang Panjang has Pagaruyung Palace, a traditional house showcasing Minangkabau architecture. It’s a great place to learn about Minangkabau history and culture. You can even hire some Minang traditional clothing and take some photos.

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