Stories by PRIYA MENON
Saturday May 23, 2009
THE view of lush greenery, blue green ocean and volcanic mountains below was breathtaking as the Firefly plane approached the Minangkabau International Airport in Padang, West Sumatra.
On the airline's inaugural flight to Padang were members of the Malaysian media who Firefly had invited to experience a three-day two-night's tour of Padang and Bukit Tinggi.
Burst of colours: Scores of colourfully painted mini-vans and small buses provide public transport to the people of Padang.
Upon arrival at the airport, the 15 journalists and Firefly personnel were greeted by a friendly tour guide Mohammad Anthony, 32, or Tony as he preferred to be called, from the Raun Sumatra Tours and Travel.
The first order of business for all of us was lunch at The Ambacang Hotel located in the heart of town.
Along the way we were briefed about Padang, a place known for its cement factories, tuna fish as well as its 14 universities where 50 Malaysians are currently pursuing their studies.
"All the houses and buildings here have the distinctive Minang-kabau architecture like the ones in Negri Sembilan. The roofs are shaped like a bull's horn," said Tony, who has never been to Malaysia.
Looking out the window, we saw scores of mini-vans and small buses that were colourfully painted. To our astonishment, these vehicles, owned by private companies, were the town's public transportation that ferry passengers all across Padang.
After lunch at the hotel we headed for a famous bridge called the "Jambatan Siti Nurbaya" which, according to Tony, was named after a novel with a storyline so realistic that the people believed it to be true.
Latest destination: Firefly now flies to Padang in West Sumatera four times a week.
The view at the bridge was magnificent, with fishing boats docked alongside the river against a backdrop of a hill dotted with houses.
From there we moved on to Bukit Tinggi, a hilly township like Cameron Highlands located just one and a half hours from Padang town.
The drive up the hills was not too bad as we enjoyed the picturesque rustic countryside.
"The people of Padang and Bukit Tinggi are involved in agriculture especially padi which is grown all year long," said Tony.
Tunnel of torture and death: The Japanese tunnel called 'Lobang Jepang' in Bukit Tinggi.
The next morning started off with a history lesson on a Japanese tunnel called "Lobang Jepang".
"The tunnel was built by the Japanese during World War II. The Japanese used slaves from Java and Sumatra to work on the tunnel," said Tony.
The tunnel is 40-metre deep and has a total area of 1,470 sq m. It has 133 steps and is equipped with 21 rooms.
A local tour guide at the tourist spot explained the chilling history of the dark caves as he walked us through the tunnel which, he said, took two years and eight months to build.
"The Japanese tunnel was discovered in 1946, nine years after the Japanese left. They built rooms for ammunition, a food hall, barracks and a prison for slaves who misbehaved," said Jufri Rasad, 43, who has been a tour guide there for eight years.
"Any slave who were too tired to continue working were put into the prison where they were left to die. The Japanese soldiers would dump the bodies down a hole which leads to the river at the bottom of the hill," he added.
When the cave was discovered, the government managed to retrieve some of the bodies which were stuck along the hole and gave them all a proper burial at the Warriors burial site.
Tranquil: Puncak Lawang, which is an hour's drive from Bukit Tinggi offers a panoramic view of Lake Maninjau.
Thankfully, there was light at the end of the tunnel because we all went into shopping spree mode as soon as we got out of the caves. The bazaar located inside the Lobang Jepang is a shoppers' paradise selling handicraft, original leather footwear, knitwear and t-shirts at low prices.
Another place worth visiting is the Puncak Lawang, an hour's drive from Bukit Tinggi where the panoramic view of Lake Maninjau greets visitors. The lake was formed after a volcano that stood in its place erupted thousands of years ago.
Puncak Lawang is home to hang gliding events that are held there every year in May. Participants from all over the world including Malaysia come together for the exciting sport.
"This event was started in 1998 by the Tourism Board and Anten Wisata. Last year, a Malaysian broke the record by remaining in the air for more than five hours," said Eddie Mueis, chief of the Lawang Youth Organisation.
From there we headed to Sulaman Rosmah, an embroidery shop owned by an old lady who now trains young women in the fine art. However, en route to her shop, we decided to stop by a tiny house which sells lempeng a local delicacy made from flour and bananas.
"Lempeng is made from rice flour, bananas, vanilla, coconut water, grated coconut and burnt underneath an earthen pot filled with cinnamon wood," said the owner, Efi,30.
After enjoying the snack we continued our journey to Sulaman Rosmah located at Kampung Basuh, West Sumatra.
The owner of the establishment, Rosmah Abdullah, 83, began the embroidery shop in the 70's when the economy took a dip. She quit her job as a teacher and took orders to make kebaya and baju kurung for the village folk.
"From there I noticed a demand for the business so I opened a school to train young women in the art of embroidery,"she said. So far she has trained thousands of young girls who pay one million rupiahs for a six-month package.
One of her young students Iin Erika, 17, from Medan, said the long study hours from 7.30am till 9pm did not deter her.
"I have been here for two months now and it gets easier with practice," she said.
That day we were fed authentic Nasi Padang at the internationally renowned Pak Datuk Restaurant at Padang Panjang for lunch and Gon Raya, Bukit Tinggi for dinner.
The Nasi Padang is well known for its serving style where seven to eight dishes or more are placed on a table for customers to choose from. Customers are charged based on the dishes they consume.
"Nasi Padang is very popular among tourists. The dishes, consisting of meat and vegetables, are spicy," said the owner of the Gon Raya, Norhayati Safarrudin, 54.
Now all these are within reach of Klang Valley citizens - thanks to Firefly which is now flying four times a week to Padang.
Raun Sumatra director Ucok T. Syahnur said the new route would open up the tourism sector in Padang.
"Malaysians already know this place very well, so the added flight would make it easier and cheaper for them. Padang residents on the other hand can have easy access to KL as the Firefly flies directly to the Subang airport," he said.
Firefly is currently having a promotional fare for Padang flights from RM88 per way. It flies to Padang every alternate day.
Tickets are already available for booking for the travel period from now until Oct 24. 2009. For booking details, log on to www.fireflyz.com.
For Raun Sumatra Tour Agency call +6275221133.