At some point during your motorbike adventure in Sumatra, you’re going to be overwhelmed with a blissful feeling that the world has become your playground. Navigating a jungle road with volcanoes on both sides does that to a person. Even better, friendly residents often wave as you pass; they still seem genuinely excited to see visitors come to explore their exotic landscape.
Bali is beautiful, there’s a reason it’s one of the top destinations in Asia, but Sumatra is the place for adventure! Fortunately, flights to Sumatra from Bali and other points in Southeast Asia are inexpensive. If you want to compliment your Bali beach trip with a memorable adventure on two wheels, the big island of Sumatra is an excellent choice.
Although more travelers visit Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, there is plenty to explore on earth’s sixth-largest island! West Sumatra receives fewer international visitors and is loaded with geological delights. For independent travelers, West Sumatra offers new challenges and an even greater sense of reward.
Getting into West Sumatra
Begin by flying into Minangkabau International Airport around 14 miles outside of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.
You’ll want a convenient base for launching your motorbike adventure in West Sumatra, that way you can lock up bulky luggage and only take what you’ll need for the road. Although Padang will work, it’s busy and has a metropolitan population of 1.4 million people. Driving and navigating the big city can be hectic.
Instead, consider using Bukittinggi (around two hours north) as your base. Bukittinggi is a much smaller town but still has everything you’ll need. Plus, Bukittinggi’s strategic location puts you within easy reach of the two big lakes, the beautiful Harau Valley, and prominent volcanoes—some of which are active.
The fastest and easiest option for getting from the airport to Bukittinggi is a taxi; expect to pay around $25. If you want to look around Padang first, take the DAMRI bus into town. Later, you can catch one of the many inexpensive minivans onward to Bukittinggi; however, they are slow and usually overcrowded.
Establishing a Base
Jalan Teuku Umar on the western side of Bukittinggi has a short strip of guesthouses, budget hotels, and cafes that attract Westerners. Speak to the friendly reception at Hello Guesthouse next to Hotel Kartini about securing a motorbike and map. They’ll have the inside scoop for upcoming events such as pacu jawi (traditional cow racing). Just up the street, you can also check with the owner at De Kock Cafe or some of the loitering guides.
If you’ll be spending a couple of days in Bukittinggi, the Novotel (a five-minute walk from Jalan Teuku Umar) offers inexpensive passes to the pool area for non-guests. Remember: The equator is only a short drive away!
Renting a Motorbike
“Motorbike,” or simply "motor" in local slang, is a loose term. Even a 150cc scooter counts as a motorbike in Sumatra, and a bike that size will actually be sufficient for your adventure. If you want to go bigger and have the experience, search for a dirt bike to rent. The rugged tires and suspension are well suited for tackling Sumatra’s rough roads, but these types of motorbikes are less common.
First, make sure the helmet you’re given with your rental fits well and is comfortable. Although not all locals choose to wear their helmets, police may fine you for not wearing one.
Expect to be drenched during your motorbike adventure in Sumatra! Getting caught in some torrential downpours (much more intense than the average bathroom shower can produce) is pretty well inevitable. West Sumatra receives abundant rainfall throughout the year, especially in October, November, and December. Waterproof your passport, money, and electronics.
You’ll need good eye protection. The dirt and pebbles on Sumatra’s rough roads are an eye threat, especially when following behind trucks, as is often the case. In the evenings, clouds of insects hang low and could cause eye injury or distract you. Sunglasses are good, but you’ll also want glasses with clear lenses for driving when the sun is low.
Along with eye protection, you’ll need a bandana or something that can be pulled up around your nose and mouth for protection when stuck behind trucks that belch black exhaust.
Sometimes heavy rains bring wriggling leeches out on the sides of the roads. Leeches also live on the trails. Bring tall socks and DEET for side adventures and walks to waterfalls.
An old-school compass comes in handy for navigation during times your phone isn't charged or doesn't have a signal,
You can pack snacks and fruit, but you’ll pass numerous carts selling both. Every village has small warungs (cafés) that sometimes serve as the social hub for a community. Stopping at them to grab a drink and meet local people is part of the fun.
Driving in West Sumatra
You’ll be driving on the left while in Sumatra. And at some point, probably wondering why every other vehicle on the road seems to be a massive truck driven by a grinning 20-year-old. Infrastructure in the region is being repaired and expanded around the clock—expect to share the main highways with convoys of heavily loaded construction trucks. The drivers, often anxious to finish a job, aren’t shy about making blind, high-speed, head-on passes!
One way that Western drivers get into trouble is by failing to understand the local right-of-way hierarchy. Pedestrians don’t necessarily get the right of way by default. Instead, size is what matters on the roads in Sumatra. Trucks, buses, and big commercial vehicles assume the right of way, followed by cars and lighter vehicles. While driving a motorbike, you’ll be near the bottom of the hierarchy, barely a notch above bicycles and pedestrians on skateboards. Although you may make eye contact with that truck driver at an intersection, he could pull out in front of you anyway, causing you to brake hard—be ready.
Roads, especially rural ones, can be an obstacle course of hazards. Be prepared for loose gravel, potholes, monkeys, snakes (seriously), and animals that dart out into the road.
Choosing Your Adventure
West Sumatra is a geological and cultural wonderland for visitors! Covering the most impressive sights isn’t easy with a simple loop, so your route may end up looking more like a squiggly figure eight. Here are a few of the many fun options:
- Pacu Jawi: Witnessing the exciting, bizarre spectacle of traditional cow racing in Sumatra should be a priority when planning your itinerary. Gatherings are held in different places each week and probably won’t be easy to catch without some local help. Some races are small, hard-to-find gatherings where you may be the only outsider. The races nearer larger towns can be sizable, touristy events. Either way, you won’t believe what you see!
- Lake Maninjau: For a quick adventure, begin by riding out of Bukittinggi due west to Lake Maninjau. The 20-mile takes around 90 minutes, and the first views from above the lake are breathtaking. Plan to stop at one of the viewpoints for lunch. You can stay in one of the homestays directly on the shore and enjoy fresh fish caught a few feet from your porch. An evening drive around the lake pulls the tourist curtain back slightly for a peek into the lives of residents. Families gather for some leisure time at the end of hot days.
- The Coast: You can reach the coast by continuing west for an hour after Lake Maninjau. Tiku Selatan is the first stop; from there, drive south along the coastal road for another hour. You can stop at one or many of the empty beaches along the way. Once in Pariaman, you’ll have to cut west to skirt Kericini Seblat National Park or otherwise continue south to Padang and make a larger loop.
- Padang Panjang: Much smaller than Bukittinggi, the friendly little town of Padang Panjang is known for its university and arts center. You’ll easily meet young, local artists in the market and cafes there. Interestingly, Padang Panjang is one of the very few places in Indonesia where smoking in public is prohibited.
- Lake Singkarak: A short distance south of Padang Panjang is Lake Singkarak, a deep, scenic lake that occupies around 41 square miles.
- Harau Valley: Located two hours northwest of Bukittinggi on the other side of busy Payakumbuh, the Harau Valley is a scenic area of rice fields, rock formations, and waterfalls. Although stunning, the valley is only lightly developed for tourism. Consider staying in Abdi Homestay, a collection of cute bungalows with a view of the big waterfall. Call or email ahead or risk not having a place to stay once you arrive.
- The Equator: No, you can’t see it, but why not be able to say you crossed the equator by motorbike! Backtrack from the Harau Valley toward Payakumbuh, then take Jalan Sumbar-Riau, the biggest northward road. There won’t be a sign when you cross the equator, but there are a few cottages and places to stay in the area.
The best way to enjoy a motorbike adventure in Sumatra is to turn up, grab a map, and go. Your route will evolve daily as locals invite you to their homes and tell you about waterfalls, villages, and interesting places that aren’t on your map.