“Bukittinggi is a 300-horse-power town,” smiles Andi Taufik as he threads his stallion Benasok through the tangle of bendis (horse-drawn carriages) that throng the streets of the town’s lower market. “I’ve been driving a bendi since I was a kid and back then there were over 1,000.”

Words by Jack Orchard


The cool mountain air carries the sweet scent of tropical fruit and dew-fresh vegetables, along with the spice-laden breeze from stalls selling cloves, mace, coffee and the biggest sticks of cinnamon I’ve ever seen. Horse-drawn carriages are being loaded up with fresh produce and housewives clamber aboard, swapping cheery chatter with their chosen charioteer of the day.

This highland town, perched on the volcanic slopes of West Sumatra, is famous for its vibrantly painted bendi carriages. Before arriving in the town I’d imagined that these days the horses would be reserved for tourist trips around the historical sights of the town but Andi Taufik assures me that, with more than 300 bendis plying the streets, these traditional vehicles remain an essential part of Bukittinggi’s public transport system.

The town was founded in rich farming country as the central marketplace for five rural villages in the region. These days, however, it is a leading business and educational centre. But, despite being the second-biggest city in West Sumatra (after Padang), this bustling town with its population of 117,000 is surely one of the most relaxing in Indonesia. Take time to explore the city at a sedate pace under horsepower (or on foot) and you’ll see that Bukittinggi still retains much of its peaceful country market-town atmosphere.

The wonderfully iconic Limpapeh Bridge (which connects Fort de Kock and the zoo) offers some of the best vantage points over Bukittinggi old town.

Although there are bendis on most corners, most of the must-see sights in this historical city are easily explored on foot. The Dutch colonials located their main garrison here and called the town Fort de Kock after Lieutenant Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Hendrik Merkus de Kock. The fort itself, Benteng Fort de Kock, was built as a major strategic centre during the Padri War in 1825. The grounds of this old stone fortress are at their most peaceful these days with couples and families strolling among pretty little pavilions and between the ancient iron cannons left behind by the Dutch. The great soaring parapets of Limpapeh Bridge link the fort with the upper quarters of the town that became known literally as ‘High Hill’ in 1949.

Bendis are the most scenic and traditional ways to explore the main streets of Bukittinggi.

This bridge (now a pedestrian overpass) was one of Sumatra’s great colonial engineering triumphs when it was built and today offers the best views over the sweeping, buffalo-horn roofs that are typical of Bukittinggi’s traditional Minangkabau architecture. On the eastern end of the bridge you find Bukittinggi Zoo and beyond that the tangled alleyways of Pasar Atas (Upper Market). While the market at the bottom of the hill has always been a trading place for produce, the Upper Market is now a fascinatingly sprawling bazaar selling everything from clothes and locally made hardwood furniture to unique relics of Japanese and Dutch occupations. Still further up the hill, in Taman Bundo Kanduang park, you find Bukittinggi’s most famous landmark, the Jam Gadang clock tower, which was first placed here by the Dutch in 1926. It was originally decorated with a roof that was mounted with a rooster (then a Japanese ornament during the war) but after independence it was replaced with a more fitting Minangkabau-style roof. (The clock is unique in another way too: only the long-dead clock-maker could ever have explained why the number 4 is represented with IIII instead of the usual IV.)

Just on the outskirts of the hill town of Bukittinggi in the Minangkabau highlands, lies this breathtaking canyon which the locals call Ngarai Sianok, or the Sianok Canyon. Its panorama is particularly beautiful in the early morning light when the first rays of the sun pierce through the mist covering this deep valley that has majestic Mount Singgalang looming at its background. Ngarai Sianok has two steep walls facing each other almost vertically, falling to a flat bottom where a river meanders among green ricefields.  Its height is about 100 to 120 meters and the canyon itself is 15 km long. This gorge separates the towns of Bukittinggi and Kota Gadang on its opposite side. The beauty of Sianok can be seen from Panorama Park in Bukittinggi or you can also walk down into the gorge, where are a settlement and paddy fields. Then crossing a bridge over the river, climb up to Kota Gadang, home of silversmiths who produce the finest filigree ornaments.  

Bukittinggi holds an important place in Indonesian hearts as the centre of the struggle for independence and there was one particular place of homage that I really wanted to visit, which was a little further from the centre of town. It was late afternoon when we arrived at the house where Mohammad Hatta (affectionately known as Bung Hatta), one of the founding fathers and first vice president of Indonesia, was born. He was born here in 1902, and the house has been preserved as the Birthplace of Bung Hatta Museum, which offers fascinating insight into what life was like for young Hatta growing up under Dutch dominion. This well-maintained timber house with its simple furnishings is an enchanting glimpse into an Indonesia that almost disappeared.

As I strolled around wondering just how much Bung Hatta would recognise of modern Bukittinggi, I stepped out into the back garden and caught sight of a familiar object. Parked in the back yard was a perfectly restored bendi carriage that had belonged to Bung Hatta’s family when he was a small boy.

It was almost identical to the vehicle with which Andi Taufik was waiting on theroad outside. I realised then that, among the many historical riches of this ‘300-horsepower town’, there would certainly be more than a few aspects that Bung Hatta would very much appreciate if he could see them again.

Jakarta to Padang

Flight Time 1 hours 20 minutes

Frequency 49 flights per week

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From Colours September 2016

A macaque enjoys the view over the great chasm of Sianok Canyon.

5 Senses – Sight

The road from coastal Padang up to the Bukittinggi Highlands is far too beautiful to be rushed. Take time to hire a private car and driver and allow at least half a day so that you can stop along the way to explore winding jungle valleys where monkeys line the road and hornbills soar overhead.