UPON emerging from the Minangkakau Airport in Padang, the first thing that caught my attention was the imposing twin peaks of the Minang Highlands - Mount Singgalang and Mount Marapi.
Mount Marapi, not to be confused with its more violent cousin Mount Merapi in Central Java, looks more like a mountain range with its undulating peaks. Whereas, Mount Singgalang, standing beside it, is distinguished by its classical conical shape.
But the twin towers, which loom over the city like two watchful guardians, are the reason why many tourists, like myself, flock there each year.
From the airport, I hopped on a cab straight up the hills to Bukit Tinggi, some 930m above sea level.
The air up in the hill town was cool and refreshing, compared to the humid heat of the university town beneath.
With the warm sunshine and cool air, I found walking around the town the perfect way to sightsee, although most locals get around in minibuses, or bemos.
Many tourists use horse carriages - and their rhythmic 'click-clack' sounds provide a nostalgic glimpse into what the town used to be, before cars, hotels and the constant honking of bemos inundated this small hillside town.
The Dutch had used Bukit Tinggi, formerly known as Fort de Kock, as a military stronghold in the Paderi war, when the locals on Sumatra island revolted against Dutch rule, from 1821 to 1837.
But I had three aims for my trip here. One, to take it easy and maybe catch up on some reading, which I did in the comfort of numerous cafes along Jalan A. Karim.
Two, to see the volcanoes, which I did at the Panorama Park for just 3,000 Rp (60 cents).
Three, where else to eat nasi padang than in its birthplace Padang (as the name suggests) itself?
I found food cheap, familiar and in abundance, especially local Indonesian fare like sate (satay) and nasi goreng. A hearty meal for two set me back at most 50,000 Rp.
But be warned. Chilli is served in copious amounts and spicy, even by seasoned Singaporean standards.
And be prepared for mercurial changes in weather, for it can be bright and sunny in the morning and turn nastily wet in the late afternoon.
On the last day, the weather washed out my plans to visit Batang Palupuh, 45 minutes from town, where I had hoped to catch a buffalo fight.
The sun also sets pretty early and it is usually eerily dark by 8 pm, with most people retiring to their homes, the shops shut and the roads unlit.
So unless you want to sit in bed and watch HBO on satellite television, come prepared with a stash of books.
What to see
Where to sleep
- At the four-star Novotel Bukit Tinggi (Jalan Laras Datuk Bandaro, tel: 62-752-35000), one of two luxury hotels in town, a twin room goes for about $130.
- A cheaper option is the Gallery Hotel (25 Jalan Haji Agus Salim, tel: 62-752-23515). The air-conditioned rooms are clean but spartan. Rates start at $35 a night.
Where to eat
- Drop in at Selamat (19 Jalan Achmed Yani) for dishes like fried chicken, chicken curry and curried vegetables. I downed everything with a honeydew milkshake, then paid up all of 33,000 Rp (S$6).
- Try the Sianok restaurant at the Novotel Bukit Tinggi (Jalan Laras Datuk Bandaro, tel: 62-7523-5000) with its excellent spread of Italian, French and local food. Round it off with a Minang Woman - a passion fruit, lime and orange cocktail (20,500 Rp).
Where to shop
- Go browsing at Pasar Atas (junction of Jalan Minangkabau and Jalan SultanSyahrir). Traditional Minangkabau costumes cost about 100,000 Rp (S$18).
- Peer into the quaint Tanjung Raya Art (85 Jalan Achmed Yani) for Javanese puppets (35,000 Rp). Or pick up a traditional hunting bow (65,000 Rp).
Getting there: Tiger Airways flies thrice a week to Padang's Minangkabau Airport. Fares start at $36.98 (one-way). Taxes are $80.50 (return basis), as well as 75,000 Rp a person for Padang Airport's departure tax. A two-hour taxi ride to Bukit Tinggi costs about 185,000 Rp (S$34).