Monday, July 28, 2008


A slight depression has been afflicting me for the past few weeks. I initially wondered what was going on, I mean, my finances weren’t in any more parlous a condition than they usually are and my lady friend and I weren’t getting along any more dreadfully than we do in general.

After a while I realized that I needed a proper week long holiday and not just a weekend in Bali like I had recently had (a mere act of self abuse next to the loving caress of a proper getaway in the country).

And so it’s another non-Jakartan column just to further enrage all of you busway surfing smog breathers. The holiday season it most definitely is and this week I’ve been enjoying the tranquility of Lake Maninjau which is situated near Padang in West Sumatra.

After a charming Air Asia flight to Padang, the most memorable feature of which was a half hour period of underwear soiling turbulence, I checked into a flop house for the evening.

Described in everyone’s favorite cheapskate guide book The Lonely Planet as being, “As sweet as a tall glass of Fanta,” the guesthouse in question alas didn’t quite live up to this billing. Hopefully by the next edition they’ll have added the phrase, “…that has been left out in the sun for several days,” to this description.

The next day I had a quick stroll through town which turned out not to be the, “Krakow of Indonesia,” as a friend of mine had acerbically described it. On the other hand it didn’t seem to be a tremendously exciting place either. However, as with many other places in Indonesia, the hot, shabby and dusty city is more than compensated for by the stunning surrounding countryside.

I hopped on a bus which took me on a three hour journey up through the hills to Bukittinggi. After a hearty lunch of Nasi Padang (surprise surprise) I had a quick spin around the town before bagging another two hour bus ride to Lake Maninjau.

The descent to the lakeside is quite awesome. Fantastic views over the water are afforded as the bus winds downwards through the lake’s surrounding mountains via 44 extremely sharp hairpin bends.

Finally, having managed to avoid plunging off the edge of the road to certain death, we arrived at the small lakeside town of Maninjau itself. The lake is smaller than North Sumatra’s famous Toba, South East Asia’s largest. Nevertheless, at 17km long and 8km wide, Maninjau is an awe inspiring sight.

There are no motor boats on the lake at all, only hand paddled kayaks and the local inhabitants farm fish as well as the lush surrounding hillsides.

There are a few places to stay in Maninjau town although it’s better to head four or five kilometers north, following the lake’s perimeter road until the Bayur area. Here, several beachside cottage complexes provide backpackers with basic facilities and fabulous lakeside views for a whopping Rp.40,000-50,000 per night.

I checked in and dived straight into the lake for a refreshing dip. The water is warmer than that of Lake Toba and is mirror calm.

The next day, after more spicy Padang food (sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome beware on those Sumatran jaunts) I rented a bicycle and set out to circumnavigate the lake, a journey of some 40km.

The ride took me though forest and small villages and there were superb views of the lake to be had at every turn. The mountains towered vertiginously above and the water shone like pure alabaster. On every street, kids shouted hellos; and what a lot of kids there were! Mr. Bambang, the proprietor of the fine hostel that I was staying at had told me the previous night that his offspring numbered a healthy five.

Such fecundity is typical of Indonesia’s boondocks (and cities for that matter) and I wondered how these swelling ranks of Sumatrans would impact on the Maninjau eco-system in the future.

I stopped for a bite to eat and had a pleasant conversation in Bahasa with an elderly lady who then proceeded to serve me the most appalling Soto Ayam I’ve ever eaten. Afterwards, I continued peddling around the lake in the burning sun and was thankfully only a kilometer from my hostel before my ancient bicycle’s dodgy gearing system finally chewed itself to bits.

It had been a splendid day though. Get yourself up to Padang pop pickers…