This post was last updated on May 27th, 2020 at 09:40 am
Everyone has a list of places they would like to visit again or things they would like to do again. Spotting Gorillas in Uganda, visiting Machu Picchu, Bhutan, climbing the Rinjani volcano, and so on. One thing has been at the top of our list for years, visiting the Mentawai Islands. Not the most obvious destination, but because of our great love for Sumatra we were already fascinated by these islands and especially by the original inhabitants.
In recent years we have visited Sumatra several times. Every time we tried to combine a visit to the Mentawai islands with these trips, but somehow it didn’t work out. The main reason was the amount of time that a trip to the Mentawai islands takes, and the fact that it was quite difficult to organize a visit to these islands on our own. This year we went back to Sumatra and we finally had the opportunity to travel to the Mentawai Islands. Curious about this trip? Then keep reading!
Day 1: Padang to Siberut
We leave for the Mentawai Islands from the city of Padang in West Sumatra. With the fast ferry we take about 3 hours to get to the main island of Siberut. We were a bit afraid of this crossing because the waves around the Mentawai Islands are high and one of us gets seasick quite quickly. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about. Everything went really smoothly.
On arrival we are met by Yan, our guide for the next 6 days. Yan grew up in Siberut but left for the Netherlands around the age of 26. He lived and worked there for years and speaks fluent Dutch. He came back to Indonesia several years ago and he guides tourists to one of the most special places of Sumatra, the Mentawai Islands.
On this first day, Yan takes us to Butui, a small village in the interior region of Siberut. To get here we have to sail for about 3-4 hours. First on a larger boat with an outboard engine and then we transfer to a small boat, a so-called “pong pong”. This transfer is necessary because the river becomes too shallow for the larger boat. The scenery is very beautiful and the boat trip reminds us of the times we visited Borneo. Occasionally we come across a village and see how women are catching river mussels. Furthermore, not much happens on the waterfront and we just enjoy the peace.
In Butui, we arrive at the house of Aman Ikbuk. He lives here with his family and the first night we will spend the night at his house. We had expected it to be primitive somehow, but we were happy to see the shower and toilet. Fortunately, there is running water to shower, but the place where we had to wash is very muddy and slippery and there is no door or curtain behind which we can hide. Yan provided a thin inflatable mattress and a mosquito net for sleeping and this turned out to work well for a few days.
The home of a Mentawai family is called an Uma and is very important in traditional life. Everything in and around the house is about tuning the souls of everything. Yan shows us around and shows us all kinds of attributes that are used to get this done. The Mentawai people believe that everything and everyone has a soul, including inanimate objects. Aman Ikbuk shows how he traditionally makes a loincloth and how tattoos are made. If we want we can even get a tattoo, but we decide to sleep on it for another night. 😉 He also shows how he makes poisonous arrows manually, to go hunting.
Day 2: Butui to Attabai
The next morning we say goodbye to Aman Ikbuk and his family and we go deeper into the jungle. After 15 minutes of sailing, we continue on foot and Yan first shows us some other villages. Not traditional villages, but so-called government villages. These villages have received money from the government to build schools and health centers, among other things.
People here have the opportunity to become acquainted with the modern world and ultimately to be part of it. Many people choose to walk this path, which is understandable. On the other hand, it’s also a bit sad, because it is at the expense of the traditions and authenticity of the Mentawai culture.
After lunch we prepare for a tough hike of about 3-4 hours through the jungle. Men are being brought up to carry our bags because it is not responsible to do this yourself. At first, we thought it was nonsense, but later we found out that this is really necessary. After a fifteen-minute walk it suddenly starts to rain hard. In no time the path turns into a giant mud pool. We are up to our ankles in the mud and every step we take, we have to be careful not to fall down. When we arrive in Attabai we are covered in mud from head to toe, everything is soaking wet.
We stay in Attabai for 2 nights with Aman Topele and his family. The house is similar to the house in Butui, only instead of a shower, we have access to a river with running water where we can relax. There are a lot of pigs, chickens, and a cow around the house. A very kind animal.
One of the most important trees in the life of the Mentawai people is the sago palm. This tree is used, among other things, to prepare food for both humans and animals. Aman Topele shows us how to work this tree. On his own he chops the trunk into four and one by one he drags the pieces to the house. Jokingly we try to lift a piece of wood, but this turns out to be quite heavy. It’s hard to believe that such a small man turns out to be so very strong.
Day 3: Daily Life in Attabai
While we are sleeping peacefully, we suddenly wake up at 3.00 a.m. due to sawing sounds. Yan had told us that today Aman Topele would show us how he would win sago flour from the pieces of wood. He forgot to mention that he would start doing that at 3:00 a.m. Later we hear that this can’t be done later during the day because otherwise the work would not be finished on time. Together with his wife and later with his oldest son, Aman Topele keeps working and baskets are filled with the sawdust from the sago tree.
Later in the morning we see Aman Topele “dancing” in a large container filled with sawdust from the sago palm and water. It is very entertaining to see how he works. He tramples with his feet and the flour is finely sieved out of the container.
Aman Topele’s wife leaves the house with their daughter around 8:00 a.m. They are going to get taro and have to walk for a few hours. Taro is a kind of root vegetable and looks a bit like a potato. We wonder why it is not possible to get the taro closer to home, but this appears to be because they cannot plant it closer to home, otherwise, the pigs will eat everything. The same goes for banana trees. In the end, we only get home around 4:00 p.m. In the afternoon Aman Topele shows us how traditional medicines are made. He shows which plants are used and how it is prepared. Very interesting.
Day 3 is also the day when a ceremony will take place. It’s very fun and very special to be able to experience this, but we still find it difficult when animals are sacrificed. Of course, we respect their traditions and we will attend the ceremony, but the moment an animal (in this case a pig) was caught and killed, we didn’t really want to be there. Fortunately, this is taken into account and we were sent away on time.
Later we heard from Yan that rituals in the Mentawai community are very important because they also look at the health (read: the soul) of the animals. If the organs and blood vessels of a slaughtered animal look good and the animal does not turn out to be sick, it means that the family and souls around the house are doing well. If an animal turns out to be sick, the souls are disturbed and rituals will have to take place to restore it. Forgiveness is always requested before an animal is slaughtered. It’s a nice gesture!
Before the ceremony, all family members of Aman Topele and his wife are gathered. Everyone has their own task and it is funny to see how the meat is distributed piece by piece among the families. Everyone gets exactly the same amount, there are no exceptions. Later in the evening, there is dancing and singing. Together with another medicine man, Aman Topele goes crazy and everyone sings along happily.
Day 4: Leaving Siberut
After spending 3 nights in the Siberut jungle it is, unfortunately, time to leave. With pain in our hearts we say goodbye to Aman Topele and his family and thank them for their hospitality. We will spend the last 2 days of our trip to the Mentawai Islands on a beautiful tropical island. But to get there we first have to walk back to civilization. Fortunately it is dry this time, but because of the rain the days before, it is still quite muddy. It is bizarre to see how much trouble we have to hold on and how easily the local people move barefoot through the mud.
When we arrive in the village we first have a quick lunch and then it is time to sail to the island. First 1.5 hours back to Muara Siberut and then another 1.5 hours to Pulau Karangmajat. Our accommodation on Pulau Karangmajat is completely in traditional style, only a lot more comfortable. For example, we simply have a bed and an (external) bathroom at our disposal. Pulau Karangmajat is picturesque and somewhat reminiscent of the beautiful Banyak islands. The first day here we do nothing at all. The days with the Mentawai tribes were great, but also tiring. It is very nice to relax for a few days.
Day 5: Pulau Karangmajat
On day 5, Yan shows us more about Pulau Karangmajat. He takes us to one of the highest points on the island, shows us another resort nearby, and sends us out with the boatman. He takes us to a beautiful, uninhabited island and he wants to show us a sandbar nearby. Unfortunately, we can not get out here because of a turbulent sea.
Then he takes us to a surfing spot, where dozens of surfers do their best to catch the perfect wave. The Mentawai Islands are known as a top surfing destination and people from all over the world come here to surf. Most accommodations on the Mentawai Islands are (expensive) surf resorts. Fortunately, Umata Village is an exception. It is not aimed at surfers and it is affordable.
More About Surfing
Since 1990, surfers from all over the world have been coming to the Mentawai Islands to experience the amazing waves. The Mentawai Islands are considered to be one of the most consistent surfing destinations in the entire world. You can find big waves here all year round. However, the most ideal time to surf is during the dry season from late March to early November. There are several surf spots per island that vary in intensity and strength. Nevertheless, you need to be confident of your surfing skills, and be prepared to surf high waves breaking on a shallow coral reef. The best way to get around the Mentawai islands is by boat, this is expensive but you will have a fantastic time. In addition to surfing, you can also snorkel here, so bring your own snorkel set because you can not rent anything there.
Day 6: Saying Goodbye
The last day of our Mentawai adventure has arrived. Today Yan brings us back to Siberut and from here we take the fast ferry back to the mainland of Sumatra. What an amazing trip it was! Expectations were high but ultimately exceeded completely. Of course, we would have liked to see many more of these beautiful islands, but this was a nice taste. Chances are that we will go back someday!
Where to Stay
It is difficult to find budget-friendly accommodations in the Mentawai Islands. Several resorts can be found on all islands. In particular on the islands of Siberut and Pulau Masokut you can find a number of beautiful resorts. Furthermore, many surfers stay on a charter boat, with which they sail from surf spot to surf spot. On Booking.com you will find the largest offer and you can easily book a room or bed.
Before you go to the Mentawai islands, it is wise to prepare a few things, because there is nothing else available on the islands and you do not have a mobile network. In other words, the modern world is very far away! What you should not forget are malaria pills and DEET, because there are both malaria and dengue fever on the islands.
How to Get There
There is an international airport in Padang, West Sumatra. No major airlines fly to Padang, but you can book a direct flight to Padang from places like Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta.
Previously, you could only take a twelve-hour ferry that left Padang late in the day and arrived in Tua Pejat the next morning, from where you could possibly travel by speedboat to your island of choice. With the new Mentawai Fast you can now travel to the Mentawai Islands in three to six hours. You pay considerably more; US$40 versus US$15 for the slower ferry. In our opinion, it’s worth it to pay a higher price since you will free up a lot of time in your travel itinerary.