Traveling in West Sumatra, Indonesia- information, tips, and facts

Traveling in West Sumatra, Indonesia- information, tips, and facts

Let’s go to the equatorial zone of the Earth. This is a place of eternal summer, usually hot and humid. The line of the Equator crosses South America, Africa, Indonesia, and Oceania. Now, our choice is Indonesia, the island of Sumatra, the western part of this island. This is West Sumatra, today a province of Indonesia. Let’s go there on a journey and reveal the best it can offer!

Geographical overview

Indonesia is a large country, occupying one of the largest archipelagos on the Earth. And one of the largest islands in this archipelago is Sumatra, which is also one of the largest islands on our planet. It has a prolonged shape, stretching from northwest to southeast. Its west-southwestern part is mountainous while the rest consists mainly of plains. And now we are focusing on the middle part of its mountainous west-southwest.

Today, this area is roughly occupied by the Indonesian province of West Sumatra (Sumatera Barat), but physically, it extends a bit beyond its administrative borders.

Rural landscape in West Sumatra
Rural landscape in West Sumatra

But that’s not all. Look at the map closely. You can see a chain of small islands, located west-southwest of Sumatra. These are the archipelagos of Nias, Batu, and Mentawai. And since Nias is located in the north, we will focus on the second archipelago- Mentawai. In other words, the subject of this article is the whole province of West Sumatra including the Mentawai Islands, as well as some physically inseparable areas that belong to the neighboring provinces.

Overall geography of West Sumatra

So, what geographical features you can see and explore in West Sumatra?

First, West Sumatra is located in the equatorial zone, and what you can expect is an all-year-round hot and humid climate with lands covered by equatorial rainforests (similar to those in the Amazon). Second, the seaside is equatorial too- with warm waters, coral reefs, mangrove forests at the seacoast, and tropical marine wildlife.

But there is more, and it is specific here, in West Sumatra. There are high mountains. Also, these mountains lie in an active tectonic area with a lot of volcanoes. They are covered by rainforests too, but due to the higher altitude, these rainforests are different than in the lowlands.

The west-southwest coast of Sumatra, and particularly the Mentawai Islands are also directly exposed to the vastness of the Indian Ocean, and nothing can stop the high waves from the storms around Antarctica, Australia, and even Africa. As a result, you can expect a good swell, perfect for surfing.

Finally- the human side. The mainland of West Sumatra is home to Minangkabau people- an ethnic group, closely related to the other Indonesians in Java and other islands, but still with its own unique history, culture, architecture (famous for their horned-roof Rumah Gadang Minangkabau houses), and traditions. And on the Mentawai Archipelago, you can visit the indigenous Mentawai people. Some of them still live in forest villages, with a lifestyle that is unchanged for centuries.

Rumah Gadang- a traditional Minangkabau house
Rumah Gadang- a traditional Minangkabau house

So, let’s get into details.

Seacoast of Sumatra

Let’s start with the seacoast of Sumatra Island. As you can see on the satellite maps, the West Sumatra section is mainly straight, without promontories, bays, cliffs, adjacent islets, and rocks. The exception is only a small area south of Padang and in the northwestern end of the province. Everything else consists of endless beaches, interrupted only by river mouths, directly exposed in front of the ocean.

Beaches

The beaches are mostly narrow, in some places so narrow that they almost disappear. These beaches are usually empty, because going to the beach is not too popular among the locals, and only a few tourists visit them. In some places, they look like a classical “tropical paradise” with leaning coconut palms, although their sand is relatively dark. Many of them form sand spits with some canals and swamps on the other side. And unfortunately, near the larger towns and cities, they are polluted. Here are some of the best beaches:

  • Sikabau Beach. One of the most beautiful beaches in West Sumatra, on a sand spit with hills covered by rainforests.
  • Sikiland Beach. A long and lonely beach, next to Sikabau, narrower than the first one.
  • Katiagan Beach. The widest beach in West Sumatra (almost 200 m wide), formed on a sand spit.
  • Tiku Beach (Bandar Mutiara Reserve). One of the most visited beaches in West Sumatra. Beautiful, although without too many coconut palms.
  • The beaches of Pariaman. Pariaman is a seaside town with several short beaches, good for relaxation.
  • The beaches of Padang. They are just city beaches, segmented by several river mouths, so they are not so clean. Their best value is just to be like a nice “walk-in-the-park” scenery. Anyway, you can still swim there.
  • Sumedang Beach. One of the most beautiful beaches south of Padang, with some “classical” tropical scenery.
A beach on the coast of West Sumatra
A beach on the coast of West Sumatra

The hills south of Padang

This is an area where the ridges of the Barisan Mountains reach the ocean. The coast is rugged, with steep shores, cliffs, bays, promontories, and small adjacent islands. Here the waters are cleaner (with transparent turquoise color, great for diving), and there are also some small pristine “hidden” beaches.

So, if you are looking for a “tropical paradise”- here is the best area on the mainland of West Sumatra to find. Some of the best points here include Pamutusan, Kapo-Kapo Village, Dermaga Sungai Pisang, and more. All of them are natural reserve areas with some resort zones, inside a stunning tropical landscape.

Now, let’s go to the interior of West Sumatra.

Mountains

The interior of West Sumatra is mainly mountainous. The mountains that cover this area are called the Barisan Mountains- the main ridge of Sumatra Island. They form typical mountainous tropical landscapes, with peaks and valleys covered by lush rainforest, and some high-altitude plains scattered here and there.

But what makes the Barisan Mountains more special are the volcanoes. And these are the three main types of destinations you should focus on here: volcanoes, lakes, and mountainous rainforests (with rich wildlife).

Volcanoes

Several volcanoes are rising in West Sumatra. Most of them are still active, with recent eruptions. Here are the best of them:

  • Kerinci (3805 m). This is the highest volcano in Indonesia. Administratively, it is located on the border between West Sumatra and Jambi provinces, but physically, it is in the same geographical zone. Today, Mount Kerinci is one of the best destinations for hiking in Indonesia.
  • Marapi (2891 m). The most active volcano on Sumatra Island. It is closely related to the local Minangkabau culture, and there is a hiking trail to its top.
  • Sago (2271 m). This volcano is dormant, and, in fact, it is just an ordinary mountain with volcanic origin. Today, the area around it is turned into a natural reserve.
  • Singgalang (2877 m) and Tandikat (2438 m). Twin volcanoes, located west-southwest of Bukittingi. While Tandikat last erupted in 1924, Singgalang is dormant.
  • Talakmau (Mt Ophir) (2919 m). This is a complex volcano with no recent eruptions, in the north of West Sumatra. Today, it is another popular hiking destination.
  • Talang (2597 m). An active volcano, located east of Padang, with the last eruption in 2005. Today, it is another popular hiking destination.
Mount Kerinci (3805 m)
Mount Kerinci (3805 m)

Mountain lakes

Several beautiful mountain lakes “decorate” the geography of West Sumatra. Some of them are caldera lakes, formed after ancient volcanic activity. So, they are also worth exploring, due to their geographic features and the spectacular landscapes that they offer.

  • Lake Maninjau. This is the only lake that naturally outflows to the west of Sumatra. Today, it is a lake with developed fishing activity.
  • Lake Singkarak. This is the largest lake in West Sumatra, and at the same time, the most popular one.
  • Lakes Dibawah and Diatas. These are twin lakes on the foot of Mt Talang. They are not connected but form a beautiful area for exploring, along with the volcano above them.
  • Lake Gunung Tujuh. This is the most beautiful caldera lake in the geographical West Sumatra (administratively, it is located in Jambi Province), today a popular hiking destination, a part of Mt Kerinci’s hiking area.
  • Ladeh Panjang. This is not a lake, but the highest wetland in Southeast Asia (2045 m altitude). It is a wild adventurous place with a trekking route. And there are two small “normal” lakes in the area, a part of the same destination. Again, administratively, it is located in Jambi.
Lake Singkarak
Lake Singkarak

Mountain rainforest

The other typical geographical feature to explore in West Sumatra is its wild rainforests. Since the terrain is mountainous, they are vertically zoned. In the lowlands, they are layered like in the Amazon, and in the higher altitudes, they gradually become lower, less abundant, with different plant and animal species. Along with that, you can dive into a wild paradise of jungle-covered valleys, and hills, with waterfalls, caves, and other wonders of geography.

Here you can see some amazing local animals: Sumatran tiger (although it is a tiger, it is very shy), Malayan tapir, siamang (Sumatran gibbon), Malayan sun bear, and the nearly extinct Sumatran rhino, as well as an abundance of other mammals, birds, reptiles, and more.

However, have in mind that the large animals mentioned above are very difficult to spot. Don’t imagine just going to their habitat and enjoying watching them, in fact, during a normal hike, the possibility to see a tiger or a tapir is less than 10%. To increase your chance, you have to go on a multi-day expedition with day and night watching. Anyway, it is still worth wandering in the wild rainforests, even just to see their natural habitat.

Orangutans and elephants? Unfortunately, these animals can’t be seen in West Sumatra in the wild anymore. Today, orangutans can be found only in the north of Sumatra, and elephants- in the south and east.

The best places to explore the West Sumatran rainforests are in the south, in the area around Mt Kerinci. And the best wildlife hiking route is in Ladeh Panjang.

Fortunately, most of the rainforests of West Sumatra are protected (at least partially) by the established Kerinci-Seblat National Park.

Kerinci-Seblat National Park

Kerinci-Seblat National Park is the largest national park on Sumatra Island. It spreads in the provinces of West Sumatra, Bengkulu, Jambi, and South Sumatra. So, here we will not focus on the whole park, but only on its northern part, and especially its best area- the area around Mt Kerinci, which is also a border area between the provinces of West Sumatra and Jambi.

Mountain rainforest in Kerinci-Seblat National Park
Mountain rainforest in Kerinci-Seblat National Park

The Equator

The Latitude Zero of the Earth passes through the northern part of West Sumatra. Of course, physically, you would not see anything special- just the same tropical landscape everywhere. Three markers of the Equator can be found here, and other than this, only your GPS can tell you that you are on the Equator’s line.

Several paved and dirt roads cross the Equator, but currently, markers are installed only at three of them. They are landmarks worth visiting by geography lovers.

So, if you want to explore the nature of mainland West Sumatra- this is what you should focus on. Now, let’s take a look at the other part of West Sumatra- the Mentawai Islands.

Mentawai Islands

These islands are the “special pearls” of West Sumatra. They are a chain-shaped archipelago of 4 big and more than 70 smaller islands, islets, sandbars, and rock, separated about 150 west-southwest from Sumatra Island.

The largest island is Siberut, covered by thick equatorial rainforest, and the other 3 big islands are Sipora (known also as Sipura by foreigners), North Pagai, and South Pagai.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, the Mentawai Islands were almost unknown to travelers, remaining a completely off-the-beaten-path destination. Their popularity started rising only recently, and yet they are far behind the popularity of Bali in Indonesia.

Tropical paradise on Sipura Island
Tropical paradise on Sipora Island

So, what these incredibly beautiful pieces of land can reveal?

Surfing paradise

Surfing is the key to “opening” the Mentawai Islands to the world. They are directly exposed to the vastness of the Indian Ocean, and the far “echoes” of the storms around Antarctica and Africa reach the Mentawais forming some of the perfect swells for surfing in the world.

These swells were discovered in the 90s of the last century, and gradually they attracted surfers. As a result, tourism appeared here, presented by new resorts, hotels, surf camps, surfing tours (surf charters), and more. But that’s not all.

Find surf camps on Mentawai Islands!

Tropical paradise beaches

The Mentawai Islands are located very close to the Equator. So, you can expect tropical rainforests, coconut palms, and stunning beaches with white sand. And yes- you can find all of this here. Some of the beaches are exposed to the strong swell, but other beaches are calm and pristine, with pure transparent shallow waters in turquoise color- a perfect “tropical paradise”.

This “paradise” was also noticed by travelers and recently became a second reason for visiting the Mentawai Islands.

Coral reefs

Warm waters are perfect for coral reefs too, and coral reefs are great for diving. So, here you can find some amazing diving spots. The shallow spots are good for snorkeling while the deeper ones require scuba diving.

However, they are not everywhere. The swells from the open ocean are accompanied by strong currents, so you can expect to find coral diving spots in calm waters- between some islands or bays.

Deep island rainforest

Let’s look into the interior of the Mentawai Islands. All of them are covered by lush equatorial rainforests. But you can find the best of it can be found on Siberut Island. The separation of the Mentawais from Sumatra has caused an authentic, unique flora and fauna that can be found only here.

The jungle on Siberut Island is a lowland type of equatorial rainforest. Although the island is not flat but hilly, the hills are low, as the highest point on the island is 384 m above sea level.

The uniqueness of the Siberut rainforest is the reason for creating the Siberut National Park which covers the western part of the island. In addition, the local Mentawai people deep in the island’s interior still live a primitive lifestyle.

All of this makes the rainforest of Siberut Island a great adventurous place for jungle trekking. And this is the second most important reason for visiting the Mentawai Islands.

This is the physical geography of West Sumatra in short. But that’s not all. There is the human side of this place- the local people, their history, culture, and lifestyle, worth exploring too. So, let’s start with the history.

A jungle trail on Siberut Island
A jungle trail on Siberut Island

History

West Sumatra has a long history. However, this history is different for the mainland of Sumatra and the Mentawai Islands. Anyway, to summarize it and make it simpler, we can divide it into periods:

Prehistorical period (unknown to 1st century AD)

Nobody can say who were the first inhabitants of West Sumatra. But it is known that the first known inhabitants were Minangkabau people on the mainland of Sumatra, and Mentawai people on the Mentawai islands.

Minangkabau were Deutro-Malayan people who gradually settled here around the 2nd to 1st millennium BC, and as for Mentawais- it remains a mystery.

Local kingdoms period (1st century to 645 AD)

Gradually (yes, it is a gradual process), the Minangkabau people started to form various local kingdoms across West Sumatra. Very little is known about them, only some names. Some hints can be taken from the local mythology and stories, but that’s all.

Melayu and Srivijiaya period (645 to 1346)

From 645 AD, larger kingdoms from outside that dominated the territory and its people. The first one was the Melayu Kingdom, quickly replaces by the Hinduist empire of Srivijaya. However, their control over this land was loose, and the local rulers were quite autonomous. Finally, Melayu appeared again, along with the neighboring empire of Majapahit. During the turmoil between these powers, a new local kingdom emerged- Pagaruyung.

Pagaruyung period (1346 to 1833)

Pagaruyung is the Minangkabau’s historical pride- this is THEIR kingdom. And its first ruler- Adityawarman was the strongest one, a local national hero. Today, the main historical museum in Padang is named after him.

This kingdom ruled the region for 5 centuries, although its power was often weak, partial, or even almost symbolic at times. At first, it was a Hinduist-Buddhist kingdom. Then, in the 15-16th centuries, the locals gradually adopted Islam, and in the 17th century, the kingdom turned into a Sultanate.

Today, the main destination where you can dive into the history of Pagaruyung is the town of Batusangkar with its Pagaruyung Palace (today reconstructed).

At the same time, the European powers arrived, dominated by the Dutch and the British who were often in conflict or at peace with each other, gradually gaining control over West Sumatra. Finally, after a religious war, the last Sultan of Pagaruyung was dethroned, and the Dutch established full colonial control over the land.

Pagaruyung Palace in Batusangkar
Pagaruyung Palace in Batusangkar

Dutch colonial period (1833 to 1945)

It was a difficult period for the people in West Sumatra, as in the whole of Indonesia. The Dutch exploited their land, including slavery. A struggle for independence gradually started but it didn’t succeed until the end of World War 2.

Meanwhile, until this period, the people on the Mentawai Islands remained isolated from the world. Only during the Dutch period, the Europeans started to penetrate the islands partially, but without much success.

In 1942, the Japanese conquered the islands of Indonesia, including West Sumatra, thus ending the Dutch colonial rule. And with the Japanese defeat in 1945, finally, Indonesia found the chance for independence.

Modern Indonesian period (1945 until today)

The new country of Indonesia was established in 1945. During the first years of independence, the Dutch tried to re-establish their rule, but without success. So, Indonesia was born and gradually developed until what it is today.

West Sumatra was arranged as one of the Indonesian provinces, including the Mentawai Islands. At the end of the 20th century, the whole province, including the Mentawais were discovered by tourism, and today these lands are gradually gaining popularity among travelers.

Culture

So, when we talk about the culture in West Sumatra, we have to divide it into the culture of the Minangkabau people, and the culture of the Mentawai people.

Minangkabau people

As mentioned above, the Minangkabau people are one of the larger ethnic groups of Indonesia, closely related to other large ethnic groups like Javanese or Sundanese. Their language is in the same family, and their lifestyle is quite close to the lifestyle of the people from Java Island. They are mostly Muslims- as you can see from their history, they have similar historical periods.

Minangkabau wedding
Minangkabau wedding

But of course, they have their own, unique features that can be seen only in West Sumatra. The first thing you can notice is the amazing architecture of their traditional buildings. They are called Rumah Gadang (or Rumah Bagonjong). You can easily recognize them by their unique roofs, curved upward like the horns of a buffalo.

Minangkabau is a matrilineal society, where inheritance passes from mothers to daughters. Although this tradition is gradually fading (like many other traditions in the world), it is still common mainly in the villages.

Another thing that you can see and explore is their art, music, festivals, and crafts. They are influenced by Islam, however, music is more specific. You can see and hear their vivid dances, and their performers dressed in richly decorated traditional costumes.

The main place where you can explore the culture of Minangkabau is the area around Bukittingi and Batusangkar, the former capital of Pagaruyung.

Now, let’s go to the home of the other ethnic group- Mentawai.

Mentawai people

These people are descendants of some of the oldest tribes in Indonesia. They have come to the Mentawai Islands from Nias Island, probably 2000-3000 years ago, and since then, they have always lived in isolation, scattered in the lush island jungles.

Originally, their lifestyle has been always the lifestyle of primitive forest hunter-gatherers (like some tribes in the Amazon, Papua, or Central Africa). Their customs are based on their animist religion. Some highlights of their customs include:

  • They live mostly in big houses in the jungle, called Uma- several families together.
  • Tattooing has always been their tradition, again for religious purposes.
  • They live almost naked, covering only their genitals- men and women.
  • Mentawais still hunt animals with poisoned arrows.
  • They like sharpening their teeth- it is a part of their aesthetic views.
  • They like eating sago and sago grubs.

However, in recent years, they can’t avoid globalization and the invasion of outer civilization. What you read above is still real and can be seen, but only in some scattered areas in the south part of Siberut Island. The majority of the Mentawais have already adapted to modern life- they wear “normal” clothes, use motorcycles, some of them make “normal” business (mainly in tourism and the surfing industry), and don’t sharpen their teeth anymore.

A house of Mentawai tribe
A house of Mentawai tribe

And even the minority of the “authentic” Mentawais in the jungle are not isolated from the world anymore. They still keep their customs as described above, but mostly for tourism purposes- to show their original culture as a part of the tourist’s tour program.

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How to explore West Sumatra- best things to do

So, let’s recap the best things to do in West Sumatra, and the best places to do these things, where you can best explore the main features and highlights of this land, described above. Thus, you can get a better idea of how to build your West Sumatra itinerary.

Explore the Minangkabau culture and history

For this side of your trip, you should focus on the capital Padang and the area around Bukittinggi and Batusangkar. I would highly recommend exploring the Museum Adityawarman, as an initial educational warming-up, as well as the area around it.

Then, go to Bukittingi- a nice town in the highlands, a starting point for exploring the core of the Pagaruyung area. From here, you must visit Batusangkar, the former capital of Pagaruyung, especially the two restored palaces- Istano Basa Pagaruyung and Istano Silinduang Bulan. Then, explore some of the oldest traditional Minangkabau villages- Balimbing, Pariangan (on the foot of Mt Marapi), and Pandai Sikek (under Mt Singgalang).

Enjoy the beaches around Padang

These are the beaches of mainland West Sumatra, and Padang is in the middle. So, if you have time, you can follow the whole coastline of the province, from end to end. But if not, just focus on one of the beaches described above. Or, at least, while you are in Padang, preparing for other adventures, take a walk to the city beaches.

Explore the volcanoes of West Sumatra

To do this, you should focus on two regions.

Minangkabau volcanoes

The first region is the Minangkabau cultural area- Bukittingi, Batusangkar, and the other destinations nearby. Here, you can travel in an exotic volcanic landscape of several volcanoes. They are Marapi, Singgalang, Tandikat, Sago, Talakmau, and Talang. Some of them are active, others not. They are not the highest, but are good for hiking or just observing from aside. It can be just a part of your Minangkabau culture tour.

Mount Kerinci- the highest volcano in Indonesia

This volcano is different. It is the highest in the whole of Indonesia, and it is located in a very different place- at the border between the provinces of West Sumatra and Jambi. Climbing Mt Kerinci is a popular activity, and fortunately, you can combine it with other themed activities.

Here, you can choose the small town of Kersik Tuo as your “base camp”, and attack Mt. Kerinci for two days, or if you are fit enough- even for one day. But from the same “base camp”, you can do some other activities.

Another great place to visit around Kersik Tuo is Lake Gunung Tujuh- a caldera lake, surrounded by volcanic mountains and wild mountain rainforest. Here you can enjoy some fantastic landscapes, “far from civilization”.

On the top of Mount Kerinci
On the top of Mount Kerinci

Seek the local rare animals in the mountain jungle

The area around Mt Kerinci is the best place for this activity too. Again, Kersik Tuo can be your “base camp”. And the best place to do this is Ladeh Panjang, the highest wetland in Southeast Asia.

But as I mentioned above, these animals- Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhino, Malayan tapir, and more, are very difficult to spot just in a short trek. However, there is a better chance at least to see some traces of them- footprints, excrement, or maybe something else. And even if you don’t see these things too, at least you can dive into their habitat- the best of the mountain rainforest of West Sumatra.

So, you can combine these activities from Kersik Tuo: climb Mt Kerinci, explore the wild habitat of rare animals in Ladeh Panjang, and visit Lake Gunung Tujuh and its fantastic landscapes. Plan a week as the best duration for all of these three activities.

Roam into fantastic landscapes

West Sumatra is full of fantastic tropical landscapes. But there is a place with incredibly beautiful, otherworldly image. This is the Harau Valley, called “The Yosemite of Indonesia”. Harau Valley is a wide canyon with vertical rock walls and multiple waterfalls that jump from these walls. This exclusive terrain is covered by lush tropical rainforest, full of wildlife, with picturesque rural fields on the bottom. If you are looking for a fairy tale in this part of the world, Harau Valley is the best proposal. 

Touch the Equator

This is in the north of West Sumatra. As mentioned above, currently, there are three markers of Latitude Zero, established along three local roads. Two of these roads go from north to south. One of these spots (Bonjol) also presents a simple museum. And the westernmost spot is at the end of a coastal road. Here you can combine the Equator with a local beach.

Of course, if you have enough time, you can visit all three markers, and even more (with your GPS only), but in general, one marker is enough, and probably the best one is the coastal marker (near the village of Cangking).

Ride the waves in some of the best surfing spots in Southeast Asia

Let’s focus on the Mentawai Islands. Since they are best known as a world-class surfing destination, this is the most popular activity here. The main surfing centers are the southernmost tip of Siberut (the area is called Playgrounds), the north and south (Lance’s Left and Right) of Sipora Island, and some famous surfing spots (like Macaronis) in North & South Pagai Islands.

Today, there are many resorts offering surf camps with tours to various surfing spots. Yes, it is a bit expensive, but if you are a surfer, it is 100% worth it. But what if you are not a surfer?

Mentawai surfing
Mentawai surfing

Find surf camps on Mentawai Islands!

Enjoy the tropical paradise

Again, the best place to do it is on the Mentawai Islands, especially some beaches on Sipora Island- on the island itself, or the neighboring small islets and sandbars. You can swim, walk, or just relax on the beaches of the island, surrounded by coconut palms. Or, you can watch the surfers from afar- not just the surfers, but also the spectacular falling of the waves.

You can visit various great spots on Sipora, North and South Pagai by motorcycle, jungle trekking, or by boat. And some places are so isolated that you can be alone in a fantastic paradise.

Dive in the coral reefs of Sipora

This is another thing you can do on the Mentawai Islands. As mentioned above, coral reefs are not everywhere but only in certain spots. Anyway, you can go there for snorkeling or even scuba diving. Although this is not the most popular activity here, you can still combine it with the other activities- wave surfing (if you are a surfer), beach relaxing, but also something more…

Experience the lifestyle and culture of the Mentawai People

This is the last of the most popular activities in West Sumatra. The place is Siberut Island, where you can see the ancient, original lifestyle of the local Mentawai people.

So, you can go to Muara Siberut, the main town on the island, and join a Mentawai tribe tour. It can be from 2 to 7 days long (even more), and includes jungle river cruising, trekking in the rainforest of Siberut, and living like a local Mentawai in a local Uma house.

That’s the best of West Sumatra. Now is the time for some useful tips, on how to organize your trip to this amazing land.

Another Mentawai tribal house
Another Mentawai tribal house

West Sumatra packing list- what to bring

It depends on what are you going to explore in West Sumatra. Only mountains and volcanoes hiking? Only surfing on the Mentawai Islands? Or only jungle trekking? Or, a bit of everything?

First of all, there are some basic things that you must bring with you no matter where you go- shirts, underwear, toiletry, electronic devices, etc. That’s your basic packing list. But from this, you have to bring some additional things that are specific to the activity you are going to do.

If you want to hike Mt Kerinci, don’t forget that it is 3805 m high. Although it is in the equatorial zone, it can be still cold on the top, even freezing! In addition, the trail is steep and difficult.

If you go jungle trekking on Siberut Island, it won’t be freezing, however, raining still can make you feel cold. If you go exploring beaches, or diving around some reefs, you would need proper equipment too. And if you want to do all of this, you would need to bring all that’s necessary.

Gear for hiking Mt Kerinci

The trail to the top of the volcano is steep. It can be muddy, and in the higher section- rugged and stony. So, you would need good hiking shoes: three-season hiking boots or at least summer hiking shoes. The three-season hiking boots are heavier but warmer, while the summer hiking shoes are lighter but cooler. And both of these should have good traction features.

When you reach the higher sections of the trail, it will get cold. It usually also gets windy above the tree line. Ok, while you ascend to the top, you would not feel it, you can even sweat. If you descend faster, that’s not a big problem too. But if you stop in the night to sleep, you could feel freezing! So, you would need a good sweater, a polar, and a jacket.

It can be rainy sometimes. So, prepare your raincoat. I would also highly recommend bringing hiking poles, due to the difficult level of the trail.

Finally, if you spend the night on the slope of the volcano, you would need camping gear- a proper tent with a pad and a sleeping bag. And since it will be dark, bring your headlamp!

Gear for the sea paradise on Sipora

This is a different activity, without too much walking. If you go there for the most popular thing to do- wave surfing, you should bring your surfboard, of course. Or, you can hire it in most resorts.

If you want to enjoy the beaches of the tropical paradise, you can just bring your normal beach equipment. But if you want to get a bit deeper, you have to bring your snorkeling gear- a mask, a snorkel. You can rent these too, but it is better to bring your own.

And if you want to do all of these activities, you have to bring all the necessary gear for them. It can be bulky and heavy, but there is a solution- if you build your itinerary properly, you can leave the things you don’t need in your place to sleep. For example, you can bring everything to Mt Kerinci, but you can leave your diving gear in the guesthouse in Kersik Tuo while you hike. And, you can leave your jacket in your hotel in Padang while you travel to the Mentawai Islands.

Mentawai beach
Mentawai beach

Gear for jungle trekking on Siberut

That’s another type of jungle trekking. The trail to the villages of the Mentawai people is much muddier that the trail in Mt Kerinci. And it often rains- the chance of rain washing during your trek is more than 70%. At least, it would be mostly hot and humid. So, bring your raincoat too.

Have in mind that people going on this trek usually walk barefoot, just like the locals do! It is simply because their feet literally sink into the mud. At the same time, be prepared for leeches. They are not dangerous but definitely not so pleasant!

But the biggest problem is the mosquitos. They are disturbing, and in some cases, they can bring a lighter form of malaria (although lighter, you still don’t want to catch it!). So, bring enough repellents, or a net against mosquitos.

Useful tips

So, let’s get into some important details that you can consider when you plan your West Sumatra itinerary.

Visa policy of Indonesia

Currently, Indonesia visitors can be divided into three groups:

  • Visa-free (for 30 days): all citizens from Southeast Asia.
  • Visa on arrival (for 30 days): most of the countries in the world, including the EU, USA, Russia, China, Australia, and more.
  • Approval in advance: visitors from most countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as citizens from some Caribbean, Central American, and a few more countries. Citizens from several specific countries require also approval from the government.

For more details, see here Visa policy of Indonesia.

Currency

Indonesian Rupiah (INR). Currently, 1 INR + 0,012 USD, or 1 USD = 82,8 INR. Because there are too many zeros in the prices, be careful when calculating.

Electric socket

Plugs: type C and F (both with 2 round pins, like in Europe). Voltage: 230 V (it can be higher for some countries and may require a voltage converter).

Language

The official language in Indonesia is Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia). At the same time, the local ethnic groups Minangkabau (on the mainland) and Mentawai speak their own local languages. Almost all Minangkabau people can speak Bahasa Indonesia too, and in recent years- most of the Mentawai people (but not all).

However, not everybody can speak English. Usually, most of the young people, especially those who work with tourists can understand and speak English. But if you want to communicate with others, you may need at least Google Translate (which requires the Internet).

Transportation

You can use various kinds of transportation in West Sumatra. The main gateway is Minangkabau Airport in Padang– it is an international airport, although connected only to a few other countries.

Check for flights to Padang!

In the mainland of West Sumatra, you can travel by bus or travel minibusses. For example, there are travel minibusses from Padang to Kersik Tuo (the starting point to Mount Kerinci), as well as to Bukittinggi. In addition, there are local minibusses and shared vans between most of the towns and villages.

Book buses and ferries from Padang by Bookaway!

A bus from Padang to Bukittinggi
A bus from Padang to Bukittinggi

You can move around the city of Padang by Grab. It is very convenient and it is cheap- by car or by motorcycle. 

You can also use ojek (motorcycle “taxi”), usually where Grab doesn’t go, mostly in the small towns or villages. But be careful to discuss the price first. 

A good way to travel on the mainland of West Sumatra is by car. But have in mind that the traffic is on the left, and it is quite chaotic! You can also hire a motorcycle- it can be convenient for some short distances, but again- be careful!

If you want to go to the Mentawai Islands, there are several fast ferries. 3 fast ferries a week go to Tuapejat (on Sipora Island), 3 fast ferries go to Siberut Island, 2 ferries travel between Sipora and Siberut, and 2 slow ferries (night ferries) a week travel to Siberut too.

Once you arrive on the Mentawai Islands, there are only ojeks (motorcycles) to some nearby points. Everywhere else, you have to travel by local private boats or just go trekking in the jungle.

Accommodation

You have a lot of options for spending the night in West Sumatra, but not everywhere. There are a lot of hotels, homestays, and guesthouses in Padang and Bukittinggi, from budget to splurge. You can easily find them on Booking or Agoda. But in Padang, since it is a big city without a metro (subway) system, the location is important.

Check for accommodation in West Sumatra on Booking!

Check for accommodations in West Sumatra on Agoda!

For example, if you are going to Kersik Tuo the next day, better find a hotel in the Tabing area, because the buses depart from this place (although there are not too many options in this area). Or, if you are going to the Mentawai, find a place to sleep near the Fast Ferry Harbour (the ferries leave early morning!). Many travelers choose the cheap Batang Arau Homestay or Hotel By The Harbour, located just 50 m from the harbor.

On the Mentawai Islands is different. There are only a few cheap homestays and hotels on Sipora Island (the most popular is Arthur Homestay Telescope). Everything else is expensive resorts (mainly for surfers), and a few more expensive hotels. It is the same in Siberut.

But when you go on an adventure, you normally would sleep in adventurous means of accommodation- camping on Mt Kerinci or Ladeh Panjang. Or, if you join a tour to the Mentawai tribes, you will sleep in their traditional house “Uma”.

Food

Concerning the local food, we again should divide it into mainland (Minangkabau) cuisine, and Mentawai cuisine.

Minangkabau cuisine is very famous, not only in West Sumatra but in the whole of Indonesia and the neighboring countries. These are the main features of it:

  • Minangkabau people are mostly Muslims, and their cuisine follows “halal” principles. So, you can’t find pork, but mostly beef, chicken, goat, mutton, and fish.
  • It is spicy, with a lot of curry and coconut milk, chili pepper, and rice.
Minangkabau food
Minangkabau food

You can find this food everywhere- from expensive restaurants to street food (however, better avoid street food for hygiene reasons, anyway, cheap fast food is ok).

The same food you can find in the towns and resorts on the Mentawai Islands. However, if you go trekking to the native villages of the Mentawai people, you can try their original cuisine. It consists mostly of sago palm flour, usually grilled. In addition, the locals eat a lot of fruits- durian, rambutan, and more. Probably the most exotic thing they eat is grubs, and they can eat them raw.

Internet, communication, SIM cards

You would definitely need communication and internet in West Sumatra- at least for navigation, finding necessary information about a hotel, bus schedules, etc. Without mobile internet, you can only depend on wifi that can be found in your hotel room, some restaurants, and malls (in Padang). But outside, you would be like in the 90s of the last century.

So, I would recommend buying a local SIM card. You can’t buy it from Minangkabau Airport- there is no SIM card store in the airport yet. But you can buy it from a mobile store in the city, or from the main offices of the mobile companies, immediately when you arrive in the city center. Or, just buy e-SIM card in advance.

There are several mobile operators in Indonesia- Telkomsel, XL Axiata, and Smarfren. They offer various packages, from 6 to 60 GB for 1 month, for only 2 to 9 USD. The best is 60 GB/30 days for IDR 125 000 by Smarfren. For more information, see here.

Anyway, have in mind that in the wild places like Ladeh Panjang or the jungles of Siberut, you will be completely “out of the world” without any mobile signals.

Safety

In general, West Sumatra is a safe place. There are no wars, unrest, or high crime rate. But, as everywhere in the world, there are some things you have to consider (yes, there is no 100% safe place in this world!).

The locals in West Sumatra- Minangkabau or Mentawais are friendly and warm. But in the more populated areas like Padang, there are some minor crime activities like pickpocketing or scams. So, when you go to some crowded places, better do what most Indonesians do- put your backpack on your front (or at least on your shoulder).

Some people may look at foreigners (non-Asians) as “moving money machines”, so hide well your valuables. When you take out your camera or mobile for photos or videos, always attach it to your neck- someone could easily grab it from your hand while riding a motorcycle.

Beware of scams- always go to normal offices or shops for everything, and never trust or buy anything important from people on the street! And don’t trust them if they approach you first to “help” you with something!

Get a travel insurance by SafetyWing!

Earthquakes

West Sumatra is a highly seismic zone. Padang lies exactly on the same fault that caused the big earthquake with tsumani in December 2004- the Great Sumatran fault between the Eurasian and Indo-Australian plates. And there was a major earthquake in 2009 that destroyed a lot of the city and killed more than 1000 people. Of course, it doesn’t happen every day, although you probably can feel some small tremors during your trip.

Finally, as mentioned above, have in mind some risks of malaria and several other diseases spreading by mosquitos. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get vaccinated for all of these diseases, but at least prepare well for mosquito biting- with repellents and netting.

This is West Sumatra- an exotic land with incredibly beautiful nature and friendly people. It is a land worth visiting and exploring, with great geographical features, still quite authentic and off-the-beaten. And this was our basic guide to West Sumatra, with the hope to help you plan your adventure there and complete it full of great impressions and nice memories!

Check some travel books about Sumatra, Mentawai, and the west of Indonesia:

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This is a basic guide to West Sumatra in Indonesia- geography, history, how to explore it, how to plan your itinerary and more useful tips. This is a basic guide to West Sumatra in Indonesia- geography, history, how to explore it, how to plan your itinerary and more useful tips.

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