Wednesday 30 August 2017

A Week in Western Sumatra

When I was a kid my mum took me to Singapore - well, she snuck us to Singapore - on one of her business trips. It was just a skip over from Hong Kong, so not so far really, and we were taken to the hotel pool, left with the room key card and off she went to her conference while we happily splashed about. I imagine she would've got away with it, except of course, we lost the key. A knock on the conference room door revealed two dripping wet children, asking could we please have Mum's key so we could go back to our room now, as my mother covered her face with her hands. The conference stared. Luckily we were cute kids, and her colleagues insisted on taking us all for black pepper crab every single night that we were there. I remember coming home and announcing I was quite sick of crab now, thank-you-very-much. What a brat.

Anyway, since then my main goal in life has been to get a job where I get to travel and stay in nice places and eat platefuls of crab. So far that has got me to a fair bit of crab-less Eastern Europe, a restricted military island where the coconut crabs are reportedly extremely delicious but illegal to eat, and now, Indonesia. I've been before, in 2014 - Indonesia is huge and this time our destination was Western Sumatra.

Padang is a large, sprawling city. Situated on the coastline, the beach and the sea beyond were not recommended for swimming in due to what the city puts in the sea at that point. There are far better places to do this - we were here to see the markets and the hustle and bustle of daily life. It was sweltering, and as we picked our way through we noticed the distinct lack of foreigners. Tourists usually arrive into Padang as a jumping off point for the islands, such as the Mentawai, for popular surf spots but judging by the attention we were receiving, they don't hang around much. Full of smiles and curious glances, we were celebrities with the locals and were often stopped to have our photo taken, a novelty value on the streets.

The architecture of this particular part of Indonesia is particularly note-worthy - spiked like horns, many buildings took this form. This was a football pitch, no big deal.

We wandered around night time food stalls and ate plenty of satay and mee goreng - the Indonesians really love the instant noodles - but for a more comfortable and air conditioned dinner, Apollo Seafood was so good we went twice. Sure, it's a Chinese restaurant but it serves beer too which is pretty rare in Padang. My beloved crab in chilli sauce was sweet and fairly mild, the claws cracked for ease. I was absolutely covered in sauce by the end of it but you try eating that and staying pristine. They have a huge menu of Chinese classics - depending on how much fresh seafood / crab you order the price can get quite high, though that's only relatively speaking to, say, London.

I had an afternoon to myself so I wandered off in search of Pak Tri, a warung recommended by many on the internet and a local guy we met. It was sweltering, and after a 20 minute walk I arrived dishevelled and lightly glowing. The place was huge, and given it was 3pm no one was in there - I sat down and began a very broken exchange of ordering lunch. They were very sweet and patient, and showed me the fish straight off the ice to check are you sure you really want that much yes thank you I do.

It came grilled over an open barbecue, slathered in a sweet and spicy sambal, with more on the side should I need it. Stir-fried morning glory with a little garlic and more chilli and some rice accompanied it, and it was possible that this was the best meal I'd had in a while. The fish was smoky, charred but expertly cooked, the sauce on the verge of making me suck in air periodically. It was £4.

We headed inland to Bukittinggi, a couple of hours drive from Padang. Our brilliant guide, An, took us to see cow racing, which consists of everyone bringing their prize cows to a mud pit. They have wooden constructions, much like skis, to stand on. The tail goes into the mouth for a quick nip to really get them going, and they're off. There is no such fun-sucks as health and safety, no barriers. Spectators line the sides watching. I stood there terrified as the cows came thundering towards us, eventually leaping out of the way. I was told to stick with the majority of people leaping out of the way, as the cows will go through whichever gaps, and it's better you're not the loner in said gap, for obvious reasons. It was a proper family day out, crowds were there to spectate, and food stalls were set up. Sticky drinks in plastic bags filled with various tapioca shapes (cendol-like) refreshed us.

Bukittinggi itself was all interesting horned temple architecture, lush verdant rice paddies and incredibly kind people. We navigated wet markets and shopping centres, we went to a football match and I've never had so many selfies taken. We were local heroes. All we did was turn up. (Okay we did have a film camera with us.) Unfortunately we missed out on Lake Maninjau which is the reason most tourists head there, but we were on a rigid schedule.

The tradition in Padang, Bukittinggi and the environs is that restaurants have many big bowls of food in the windows - when you arrive they spoon a serving portion out onto tiny plates and place them on your table. They all stack up and you eat what you want - some, you leave completely if it doesn't take your fancy - and you're charged for whatever you eat. I have no idea how you don't get sick from this. There's no refrigeration and the food is out a while, meat and fish alike; we didn't though, and we ate like this a lot. All the dishes were heavily spiced, and the rendangs were especially incendiary and delicious. Fish head curries delighted and challenged our group, and a mystery sausage that was definitely cased using cow guts had the consistence of a firm tofu mousse. Shredded vegetables were tossed in soothing coconut, and nasi goreng and mee goreng (fried rice and fried noodles) were made to order, along with fresh, hot steamed rice. Invariably, every time we neglected to leave anything behind.

Desserts were few and far between but we did have this insanely delicious banana pancake-esque cake - smeared with chocolate, it was fluffy and felt like the insides of a crumpet. They were served warm with a crisp top. I ate them until I felt queasy because if there's one thing I've learnt about travelling abroad, never do the "oh I'll have some next time when I'm less full" because you'll never find it again (Nicaraguan banana cake, I'm looking at you).

We set off to find some beach. Never in my life have I seen so many utterly gorgeous deserted beaches, which was particularly frustrating as I actually needed an abundance of people for the work we wanted to do there. Nevertheless, forget traversing the Thai islands, the place you want to get to is Ricky's Beach Huts, south of Padang. We were picked up in the dark and we were jiggled around for about an hour and a half on a very rustic road. We then met Ricky and his friends in a terrace surrounded by bathtubs of turtles swimming in a foot of water. It took me about 10 minutes to work up the courage to ask if they were for eating. Turns out Ricky also runs a turtle sanctuary.

We were then taken in the pitch black night, in a tiny boat we had to scramble into around the coast for a few minutes. I laughed hysterically, half submerged in the rain, as this was my idea and I was just wondering what I was going to tell our bosses / insurers when we all ended up drowned or murdered. We stumbled into our huts and fell into bed and when dawn broke I woke up to an almost 180 degree panoramic of sand and the sea from my bed. It was pretty amazing.

Go here if you want to sit on a beach, or go on a couple of boat trips but otherwise be largely left alone. It's run by Ricky and his friends, and evening entertainment consists of guitar music and you might get coerced into singing Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd ALL ON YOUR OWN due to a series of bad decisions. Thank god they also have beer.

For somewhere a little less secluded, the Painan is a great jumping off spot to get a boat to neighbouring islands, also incredibly unspoilt but without the commitment of the hour-long jiggle-jeep ride.


Roni's Tours looked after us, and An in particular was brilliant. Very very patient and fun and took us to all the best spots.

Ricky's Beach House also runs tours, though we just stayed in their huts.