If mrbrown’s “Don’t Use Sampan” sounded familiar, it might be because you know Teresa Teng’s “Tian Mi Mi”. But did you know that “Tian Mi Mi” was an adaption of an Indonesian folk song “Dayung Sampan”.  Indonesia’s culture certainty influence the region more than most Singaporeans realise.  For example, besides the obvious food link between Singapore and Padang in West Sumatra, Indonesia, I discovered that there is another surprising link between Singapore and West Sumatra.

Join me as I journey through a place in rich in culture and history, unique in its matrilineal system where women get the land inheritance, and where rendang (beef that’s been stewed in dry spiced paste) is the undisputed star of a kingly meal.

Paddy fields enroute to Harau Valley, West Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo © Justin Teo.

The Legend of the Minangkabau

According to legend, before they were known as Minangkabau, the band of settlers in West Sumatra area was attacked by a different tribe of outsiders.  The two groups decided to settle the battle by proxy, and agreed to use buffaloes to fight instead.

The outsiders sent their largest and strongest buffalo with big horns, while the minangkabau decided to field a nursing calf. The calf was was kept from its mother for three days and before it was released on the field, the minangkabau attached a sharp knife on its head.

As the starving calf charged towards the large buffalo on the field, thinking of getting milk from the adult buffalo, the big buffalo ignored the calf as it didn’t seem like a threat.  The winners then shouted “minang (victorious), kerbau (water buffalo)!”

The buffalo symbology is ubiquitous in Padang once you know what you’re looking for – the roofs of traditional minangkabau architecture feature graceful curves which terminate in sharpened tips, resembling the horns of a water buffalo.  A guide told us that the traditional buildings also resemble an ark because the minangkabau people believed they arrived to West Sumatra from the sea.

Reason 1 to visit West Sumatra: Cultural

If you have an anthropological streak when you travel, you’d love a trip to Padang, West Sumatra.  The minangkabau retains much of their tradition, such as the matrilineal system where the land inheritance gets passed from mothers to daughters only.  I’m not sure if the guys get anything, like heirloom rendang recipes, but it seems common for many minangkabau men choose to leave home to strike their fortunes elsewhere.

A visit to the Istana Pagaruyung (Pagaruyung Palace), or the Pusat Dokumentasi dan Informasi Kebudayaan Minangkabau (Center of documentation and information for Minangkabau) will let you dive into the history of the minangkabau and you learn nuggets like why the provincial flag of West Sumatra looks like Germany’s – the tricolours represents the three main historical areas of development of the minangkabau.

Although the Istana Pagaruyung is not the original palace, which was burned down in the early 19th century, the current palace is also a relatively new rebuilt, since the modern replica burned down after getting struck by lightning in 2007; The palace still smells of the wood varnish after more than a decade.

These two sites are also great photo opportunities with minangkabau that constantly stream in decked out in their dazzlingly ornate clan costumes, the elegant architecture providing a grand backdrop.  I lost count of the number of different clan costumes that I saw.

Visiting the Istana Pararuyung, a royal palace for the Minangkabau. Photo © Justin Teo.

The second floor of the Istana Pararuyung, where the unmarried women of the royal household sleeps. The first level is for the married family, while the bachelors stay separated in another building. Photo © Justin Teo.

Many visits the Istana in their clan costumes to take photos. Photo © Justin Teo.

Getting a wefie with the ladies. Photo © Justin Teo.

The Minangkabau Culture Documentation and Information Center. Photo © Justin Teo.

Minangkabau family in their clan costumes pose for a photo. Great photo opportunities at the Center. Photo © Justin Teo.

The Cultural Center offers a quieter venue for photos for many Minangkabau. Photo © Justin Teo.

A candid shot of a Minangkabau woman in her clan costume. Photo © Justin Teo.

Reason 2 to visit West Sumatra: Off the Beaten Path

For travellers who love to forge new paths, West Sumatra is a worthy destination to clock another notch in your travel diaries.  Tourists from West Malaysia and other Indonesians might have come to Padang to get acquainted with their minangkabau ancestry, I feel that West Sumatra hold great potential for the rest of us.

The picturesque tropical coastlines contrast with the dramatic reliefs of the highlands and paddy terraces.  In particular, the awe-inspiring cliff-faces on both sides in the Harau Valley offer an opportunity to see more than a dozen waterfalls during the wet season, if you’re lucky.  The wet season is sometime between October to December, so aim for those dates you’re planning a trip to the valley.

There are a couple of popular spots in Harau Valley where you can go for a dip under these stellar waterfalls when the surrounding plateaus drain the rainwater from dozens of meters up.

Lush coastline of Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo © Justin Teo.

Fishermen pulling in the day’s catch along Padang’s beach. Photo © Justin Teo.

Preparing the day’s catch for sale. Padang, West Sumatra. Photo © Justin Teo.

Dramatic cliffs at Harau Valley. Photo © Justin Teo.

The highland town of Bukittinggi offers a cool relief to the tropical heat and has a couple of interesting stops.  One of these is the Panorama Ngarai Sianok (Sianok Valley) where you can visit Lobang Jepang, which is a tunnel system that the Japanese built during the Second World War for ammunition storage.  There are plans to develop further it into an even fancier tourist spot, such as getting one of the caverns to be an underground café!

Seeking cool relief up in the highlands in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. Photo © Justin Teo.

Watching the farmers in the rice paddy in Puncak Kawa, the “most beautiful village in the world”. Photo © Justin Teo.

The rice paddies offer great insta-op. Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. Photo © Justin Teo.

Diving into the Japanese Tunnel in Bukittinggi. Photo © Justin Teo.

The entrance of the Japanese Tunnel at Bukittinggi. Photo © Justin Teo.

I also really enjoyed the tragic myth of Malin Kundang, in which the protagonist gets cursed and turned into stone when he denied his mother.  The petrified remains of Malin Kundang and his ship can still be seen to this day on the beach of Air Manis.  Regardless of whether you believe the myth, I highly recommend braving the traffic to the beach of Air Manis for sunset; Even though I got there late, the departing crowd hinted of a party right before the sun sets.

Rocks that look like the petrified remains of Malin Kundang. Air Manis beach. Photo © Justin Teo.

Sun sets over Air Manis beach. Padang, West Sumatra. Photo © Justin Teo.

Reason 3 to visit West Sumatra: Food

Nasi padang and rendang . ‘Nuff said.  Rendang, made with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillies, coconut milk and a myriad of other tropical spices and slow-cooked to fuse the rich complex flavours with lean cuts of beef, is the highlight of any nasi padang spread.   Try eating a nasi padang meal with your bare hand for the full experience, including burning fingers afterwards.   Just remember to use only the right hand to eat.

Even if you’re not moved by heritage cuisine such as nasi padang and rendang, Padang and its surrounding towns offer great street food at backpackers’ budget.

A nasi padang spread reminds me of a swedish smorgasbord. Photo © Justin Teo.

The pride of a nasi padang meal is rendang, slow-cooked beef in an amazing mixture of spices. Photo © Justin Teo.

Street vendor with Indonesia’s variation of cendol dessert drink. Photo © Justin Teo.

Bika, a sweet snack made of glutinous rice and coconut milk. These ones at Koto Baru is baked with firewood. Photo © Justin Teo.

AsiaAsia launches direct flights to Padang and Medan

AirAsia just launched its first flights directly to Padang and Medan from Singapore in February 2018.  Now travellers in Singapore can pop over for a getaway in about the same time it takes for a train to get from Joo Koon to Changi Airport.

AirAsia is offering promotional rates to Padang, West Sumatra, from as low as SGD 39! Grab these low fares for a quick qetaway before the promotion ends.

AirAsia passengers on the inaugural flight to Padang poses for a photo. Photo by Justin Teo.

About that surprisingly link between Singapore and West Sumatra; Singapore’s first President, Mr Yusof bin Ishak, is a descendent of the Minangkabau people and can trace his lineage back to West Sumatra. Like I said, the men don’t get the inheritance and many of them leave home for other opportunities; Mr Yusof bin Ishak father was one of them. So the next time you look at a ten-dollar Singapore note, you might think about visiting West Sumatra.