Travel Diaries: August 2016 | NOW! JAKARTA

Travel Diaries: August 2016


North Sumatra is my favourite destination for a one week escape holiday. The people are warm and friendly, the scenery is sublime and the traditional architecture often sensational.


Garuda now has flights from Jakarta direct to both Silangit — at the southern end of Lake Toba and just a hop and a skip to Samosir Island on the crater lake — and to Sibolga on the west coast, which faces Nias Island in the Indian Ocean.

I am researching a book on the traditional architecture of Sumatra so I planned a trip over Lebaran holiday to include Nias Island — my favourite for exotic villages — and a drive from Silangit to Sibolga through Tapanuli, hoping to find some handsome Mandailing houses.

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[caption id="attachment_33498" align="aligncenter" width="700"]A syukuran procession of aunties through the main Bawomataluo village common A syukuran procession of aunties through the main Bawomataluo village common[/caption]

Getting to Nias is now easy, with over seven scheduled flights daily from Medan and one every two days (Susi Air) from Sibolga. One can connect straight through from Jakarta without much hassle, if you take a morning flight.

I chose to visit South Nias, where most of the interesting villages are, but there are  many excellent beaches with basic homestays in North Nias and some fabulous surf camps on the islands off the coast — Pulau Asu being the most famous.

[caption id="attachment_33499" align="aligncenter" width="530"]Garuda Pancasila on a bamboo fence at a Nias school Garuda Pancasila on a bamboo fence at a Nias school[/caption]

The three hour drive south from Gunung Sitoli airport to Saroke Beach on the south coast is enjoyable: the roads are fine and the coastal views divine. I made a few pit stops at villages on the way to cruise the architecture, ostensibly, and at Teluk Dalem, the main town of South Nias, which has one excellent Padang cafe.

I stayed at Barriga Feliz Surf Camp on the Sorake Beach, which is just a few kilometres from my favourite villages of Orahili, Bawomataluo and Botohilitano. The hotel has 8 spacious A.C. rooms and an excellent restaurant run by the owner’s wife and her sister — great Nias Prawn Surprise and grilled fish.

[caption id="attachment_33500" align="aligncenter" width="560"]Victor, the guitarist at the Bawomataluo church Victor, the guitarist at the Bawomataluo church[/caption]

The owner also connected me with an excellent transport service (booking things on line is not yet organized so one needs to have a good contact). Contact: Barriga Feliz Surf Camp, mobile: +6281263773818, Email: originally directed me to a crumby hotel near Teluk Dalam.

[caption id="attachment_33501" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Sunrise at Sorake Beach, South Nias Sunrise at Sorake Beach, South Nias[/caption]

The old Saroke Beach hotel in the 1980s has yet to recover from the 2004 tsunami and other calamities. There are not a lot of comfortable options in Nias so you need to research a bit. For the intrepid, a homestay is opening soon in Bawomataluo village where we went on our first afternoon.

Mercifully, I found Bawomataluo village virtually unchanged since my last visit in the 1980s: it is still a masterpiece of megalithic era village architecture, unrivalled in South Asia (Japan would be nearest rival).

[caption id="attachment_33502" align="aligncenter" width="506"]Top: Syukuran procession at Bawomataluo village; Bottom: Rahmad and Nias seniors in the village common Top: Syukuran procession at Bawomataluo village; Bottom: Rahmad and Nias seniors in the village common[/caption]

It was happy hour in the village when we arrived — I kind of suspect that every hour is happy hour in Bawomataluo — and everyone was  out in the main communal square which runs the length of the village between five rows of splendid two or three storey timber Nias houses.

Village seniors sat on stone menhir (platform) as village youth played volley ball and ping-pong.

[caption id="attachment_33503" align="aligncenter" width="560"]Young teens hanging out under a Nias village house Young teens hanging out under a Nias village house[/caption]

We ended up at the open air lafo (men’s club) scoffing palm toddy and eating freshly fried flying fish with green Nias sambal. Delicious!

We came back the next morning for the Sunday church service —lively, with a rock-band (The Jahovas) on an interior balcony — and a visit to the neighbouring village. Two guides had adopted us; one took my Batak friend for his first surfing lesson at nearby Sorake Beach, which is a bit like Kuta Beach in the early 1970s. Similar to the Balinese, the Nias Islanders are supremely co-ordinated and athletic and learn fast. There is definitely a future world champion among the nippers we saw surfing today.

[caption id="attachment_33504" align="aligncenter" width="560"]Young Tapanuli teenager on Hari Raya Idul Fitri Young Tapanuli teenager on Hari Raya Idul Fitri[/caption]

Day three starts with another village tour to Botohilitano and a leisurely drive to Gomo, the Nias village in the centre of the island with incredible megaliths, called osa-osa. Before our flight to Medan we had a delicious meal at the driver’s cafe, just inside the airport gates.

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In Medan we stayed overnight at the d’Prima Stasiun Hotel, just metres from the Airport Express platform.

We shopped at the giant mall opposite the station and ate at ‘Garuda’ Padang Restaurant around the corner.

The next morning we flew Wing Air to Silangit  (30 mins).

Everyone had advised me that the Silangit – Sibolga road trip was a bad idea but I was determined to track down some Mandailing architecture to complete my book.

[caption id="attachment_33505" align="aligncenter" width="540"]Top: House of Pasaribu Clan Raja NalNal; Bottom: Interiors at Bali Hotel, Tarutung, North Tapanuli Top: House of Pasaribu Clan Raja NalNal; Bottom: Interiors at Bali Hotel, Tarutung, North Tapanuli[/caption]

The new airport at Silangit is rather fabulous — stocked with Batak ‘bodjie’ taxi drivers in red cowboy shirts.

I lucked out with a singing Batak driver and a clean Innova and set off for our first stop, Tarutung, the old provincial capital.

On the way we stopped at Boli-Boli for lunch and a dip in the thermal baths and at Siborong-borong to check out the wild fashion in the market place.

The roads were excellent and the scenery mesmerising — what a fertile valley.

[caption id="attachment_33506" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Mandailing - Modern house, Tapanuli Mandailing - Modern house, Tapanuli[/caption]

In Tarutung we stayed at the lovely Bali Hotel which has spacious, naturally-ventilated rooms (it’s cool up there). Local attractions include: the Opung Nomensen memorial called Salib Kasih which sits high on a hill above the picturesque Hutabarat clan village (Nomensen is the German Lutheran who  introduced Christianity to the Bataks in 1861) and the Batak Karo BBQ pork cafe opposite the Monumen Sri Raja Pangabean.


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The next day Lebaran, we drove to Padang Sidempuan, the capital of South Tapanuli, through some gorgeous countryside with raging rivers and verdant tropical forests. The highlight for me was the town of Sipirok with a smattering of Mandailing-modern houses and wealth of old colonial Sumatran architecture.

As it was Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr) the many villages along the way had mosques gaily decorated and bursting with festively dressed folk.

In Sipirok one Christian family even dragged me in for a Muslim gulai kambing (goat curry) meal.

[caption id="attachment_33507" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Miss Mardiana Lestari, Wings Air hostess with the mostess Miss Mardiana Lestari, Wings Air hostess with the mostess[/caption]

We arrived early afternoon, blissed out and bloated, at the smart Mega Permata Hotel in dreary Padang Sidempuan.

That afternoon I visited the old historical Istana Raja Najungal palace (ground zero for the Harahap clan) now a museum — a  semi-living treasure in what my Delhi friends would describe as the ‘Disco Palace’ style (masses of plastic flowers and heavy gloss furniture).

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The next morning we visited the colourful traditional market and stocked upon the local sweet dodol salak for the west coast,  and the afternoon drive to Sibolga.

[caption id="attachment_33509" align="aligncenter" width="517"]Top: Sibolga Bay; Bottom: Mosque on the road to Sibolga Top: Sibolga Bay; Bottom: Mosque on the road to Sibolga[/caption]

The drive took us through snake fruit (salak) plantations and river valleys of such extraordinary beauty and past some exciting heritage architecture, including the old ‘palace’ of the Raja Nal Nal of the Pasaribu clan — a bijou bungalow in the colourful Malayu colonial style.


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Sibolga was a bit of a disappointment after the wonders of the Tapanuli Highlands but it does have a beautiful bay facing a string of pretty islands.

[caption id="attachment_33508" align="aligncenter" width="700"]Entertaining the troups of Sipirok Entertaining the troups in Sipirok[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_33510" align="aligncenter" width="494"]Architecture of Nias and Tapanuli, North Sumatra Architecture of Nias and Tapanuli, North Sumatra[/caption]

BREAKING NEWS: EUREKA MOMENT (for scholars of Majapahit culture only). This afternoon I discovered chain decorative stencil motifs on the columns of the Gelanggan Naso Marrongit (mosquito-free royal hall) at the Istana Tonggang Bosar (Raja Najungal Harahap) palace museum outside Padang Sidempuan in South Tapanuli, Sumatera. Plus some other very Majapahit-era symbols on carvings and columns including Tedung Jagat (yellow umbrellas (see photos below)). Behind the old palace, now a museum, the royal family have recently built a ginormous new residence and palace mosque of spectacular Malaysian Modern ugliness, where once stood a charming timber mosque.