From markets, mosques and mountainous coffee farms to villages of the Kerinci valley, the cultural exchange of Sumatra and surrounds has limitless value.
Unlike other exotic locations across South-east Asia such as Bali and Phuket, Sumatra in Indonesia is little known to most tourists. Those who are familiar with it often come mostly for its beaches like those found on Sabat or the lush jungles and exotic wildlife of places like Kerinci Natioanl Park. But visitors who come to Sumatra only for these kind of experiences will be missing out on so much of what Sumatra has to offer.
My journey through this lush island paradise began in Medan, the 3rd largest Indonesian city and the gateway for those wanting to explore the Sumatra province of Banda Aceh. Like many major cities, Medan is seemingly always on the go and offers little in the way of unique views and adventures.
As soon as I overcome jet-lag, I catch a mini bus to a mountainous region known as the Gayo. Known mostly for producing large quantities of coffee for global brands like Starbucks, this region is an infrequent tourist destination which are just the kind of places I like to go.
After 13 cramped hours in the mini-bus, I am more than eager to get out and start exploring the markets, mosques and mountainous coffee farms. My base for exploring the Gayo Region is the mountain city of Takengon. While small and without much to offer most tourists, what this enclave lacks in bells and whistles it makes up in rich culture and welcoming locals.
With my cameras in tow, I set out to get lost, make new friends and see what adventures will emerge. Over the course of three days, I am invited in to a local coffee farmer’s home to sample the world famous Kopi Luawk coffee, meet three Indonesian adventurers who are driving their 4×4 jeep through lush and roadless jungles of Indonesia from Banda Aceh to Medan and experience hours of conversation, coffee and cultural exchanges with locals I meet in markets and mosques.
When my time in Takengon comes to an end I make the long trek back to Medan en-route to Bengkulu via Jarkata. Like Takengon, Bengkulu offers little to most tourists other than serving as a launching pad for exploring local beaches and the rugged mountains of central Sumatra.
Like Medan, Bengkulu is only a way stop for me as I make my way to Padang and Bukittinggi via Kerinci, which is home to the largest National Park in South East Asia. Just like in Medan, a cab or mini-bus which are really the only options for travelers looking to get around most of Sumatra.
On my way to Padang and Bukittinggi, I spend three days in Kerinci styaing with locals and exploring the many numerous villages and valleys of the Kerinci valley. Again like Takengon, these villages offer little to tourists that are looking to be entertained. But for those who can let go of their agenda and go with the flow of life like locals, there is no shortage to the rich cultural experiences to be had.
Because of my willingness to get lost and be guided by locals, I find myself teaching English to two dozen Indonesian high school students who all want pictures then creating images of local cinnamon farmers and staying with a local guide who has guided for National Geographic explorers, heads of states and many other kinds of visitors to the region.
Regrettably, my time in Kerinci ends too soon and I make the 12 hour trek to Padang and Bukkittinggi. Of all the places I have visited in Sumatra, these two destinations are by far the most known by tourists. Bukkittinggi offers rich cultural experiences like cultural dances and horse-drawn carriages as well as beautiful natural scenery all within minutes of the downtown center.
My three days in Padang and Bukkittinggi go by too fast and before I know it, it’s time for me to make the long trek home. As I reflect on my journey around this lush and rugged Island, I am thankful not only for the natural beauty and ruggedness of Sumatra’s landscapes but also the hospitality and friendliness of the local people who welcomed me into their homes and opened their
lives to me.
Joe Murray is a photojournalist and documentary photographer whose assignments have taken him through crowded urban slums, dusty deserts, steamy jungles and tipsy Indonesian canoes working with people from all kinds of cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, walks of life and ages.Based in Clarkston, Georgia USA, Joe’s main focus is on creating images of global people and places for personal projects and assignments with non-profits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social entrepreneurships and other socially-responsible companies and corporations.