North Sumatra & Aceh in 10 Days (4): Barus


Pakkat is quite busy in the early morning: People start coming out, bus pools, travel agents, and restaurants are opening. Life in this small transit town begins. I’ve prepared my backpack outside the restaurant and wait for Sampri minibus to Barus. It’s 4:30 AM, I still have ½ hour, but 10 minutes later, a car appears. The restaurant owner asks the driver if there’s any seat available. Once again we’re covered with luck, there are two seats available. So, El and I hop into the car after saying many thanks to the restaurant owner for his hospitality.

On the road, we have a nice conversation about Barus with the driver and one of the passengers, whom is a native of Barus. It’s a very old city, probably the oldest in the country, where Islam was first introduced to Indonesia around 7th century. That also makes Barus different from any other region in North Sumatra, where most of its citizen’s religion is either Protestant or Catholic. In Barus, the majority is Islam, almost absolute. The city name ‘Barus’ is taken from Barus tree that produce camphor (Indonesian: kamper/kapur barus. Camphor used to be the city’s most prestigious goods, exported to all major cities in the old world, especially to ancient Persian and Egypt. But that’s history, now the trees are in the brink of extinction, spread thin around Barus and forgotten.

The road to Barus is mostly covered with mud in this rainy season. There’s no road fence, if somehow the car is slipped to the edge of the road, there’s nothing to block it and the car would be fall into the cliff, or in this case, I call it the abyss. You can see the damaged road on the local news portal here: Thank God it’s still dark so I don’t have to experience the visual horror.

The driver informs us that there was a massive landslide three days ago that the road was completely closed. Barus was cut off for a couple of days. Then, he throws a story that just about a week ago, a Sampri bus fell into the cliff at night. Well…thanks mister driver for this “encouraging” news. Apparently, even for an experienced driver, the road is tough and challenging, especially in this wet slippery rainy season, not to mention when it’s dark, there are no road lights at all.

From Pakkat, we have to pass a couple of hills through thick forests. No wonder with its secluded and remote location, only few people are willing to go here for a simple vacation. We’re entering the border of Barus after 1-hour ride, then it’s another ½- hour ride to the city. Pakkat-Barus isn’t far but with all the trouble on the road, it takes longer time to reach the city.

Morning Arrival

Entering Barus, we’re all welcomed by adzan. After dropping off the other passengers, the driver wants to pray at the mosque. So we head to Barus Grand Mosque (Mesjid Raya Barus) to have a Subuh prayer. In the big cities, grand mosque is usually a big-sized building with huge capacity, usually thousands of people. But the ‘grand mosque’ in Barus is small and humble. No luxurious ornaments, no fancy carpets or state-of-the-art sound system.

After Subuh prayer, we realize there’s a problem thet needs to be solved: Since we didn’t plan to spend the night in Barus, the only remaining question is where we can put our heavy baggage while exploring this legendary city for a day? El asks the mosque caretaker and he refers us to the old man that just arrived. The old man, nicknamed Ustadz Pangeran, offers us to put our baggage in his restaurants. Apparently he’s quite famous in Barus, got a restaurant in the city too: “Pangeran Restaurant”, hence the ‘Ustadz Pangeran’ nickname, and it’s the most popular restaurant in the city. He refuses to tell us his real name though. “If you tell people my real name in Barus, nobody knows, but if you ask for Ustadz Pangeran, everybody knows”.

We put all our backpacks in his restaurant, after that, walking around the city. Suddenly Barus is crowded, full of people going to the offices or schools. I watch something I didn’t experience since I came in North Sumatra a few days ago, the street is filled with women in hijabs, it’s a different experience.

I see a small kiosk that sells traditional snacks. A perfect reason to stop for a breakfast. I can see and smell the notorious pisang goreng a.k.a hot fried bananas, the cornerstone of healthy, proper Indonesian breakfast. There are also some indigenous snacks. Bongkol, for example, made of whatever-heavenly-ingredients covered in banana leaf, tastes really good that I have an instant tongue-gasm. There are two ways to enjoy bongkol: hot & liquid or cold & hardened. I taste three hot liquid bongkols, just don’t have enough patience to wait it cold.

There’s a guy in the kiosk with a big heart willing to lend his motorcycle to us, two strangers/tourists/amateur travel photographers from Jakarta. Strangely, he doesn’t ask for any payment and gives us a short tour around the city enthusiastically. The guy says “Just call me Bang Pohan, everyone in the city knows who I am, call me if there’s any problem.” while giving us his numbers.

Tour de Beach

With borrowed motorcycle, first we advance to harbor and fish market for a quick stop, then…to the beaches!! The first destination in our tour-de-beach is Kahona beach. The road to the beach is awful. But seeing the coconut trees formed a beautiful, neat formation makes all the trouble disappears.

How about the beach itself? Not so really good, no. It’s a white sand beach with a nice long smooth curve line. I bet the sunset is lovely in this place, but….this beach is polluted with plastic garbage, lots of them. Not only it covered with garbage, also I can’t find any decent trash bin anywhere on the beach. Plus, the open shacks where tourists can enjoy the view are also ugly and hideous.

All of my disappointment is gone when a shepherd leads a grup of buffalo approaches me. I take a few pictures, say hi to the shepherd and watch him disappear into the trees formation. We spend ½ hour at Kahona beach and then continue our tour-de-beach to Sitiris-Tiris.

One word for Sitiris-Tiris: Anticlimax. The road to the beach is more ‘challenging’ or in plain English: a fucking disaster. Sure if you’ve never seen a beach in your life you would say this place is gorgeous. I’m so dissatisfied that I don’t take any picture of this place. The tour-de-beach is over, we don’t have enough time to explore all the beaches in Barus, it’s time to leave for another destination: Papan Tenggi, after the Friday prayer.

Papan Tenggi

Papan Tenggi is a holy site for muslim pilgrims. There’s a tomb of Sheikh Mahmud, one of the earliest people who spread Islam in Barus. There are many holy sites (mostly tombs) scattered in Barus, but Papan Tenggi is unique because it’s located 200 metres above the hill. The sky is clear, the sun is shining bright. At noon this place is a nightmare for those who rarely exercise.

To reach the top, there are more than 700 stairs to climb. El climbs the stairs without any significant struggle, regulating his breath with precise intervals, damn you veteran mountain climber! At the top, the main tomb is extremely long, it’s said that Sheikh Mahmud was a very tall, big man, but I think the story and the size of the tomb are just another exaggerated folklore.

A Calm Sunset

After finishing grilled fish with delicious sambal and then take a refreshing bath in ustadz Pangeran’s restaurant, we’re strolling the city beach waiting for sunset. After two disappointments at “tour-de-beach”, I hope this time is different. Well it is different, the sunset is mesmerizing although it’s not a perfect sunset, the horizon is covered with thick cloud. We spend some good time until the night creeps in then walking back to the restaurant. Barus after dark is really quiet, there are very few people outside. All of a sudden, this old city looks like a deserted town in a wild wild west movie.

Our time in Barus is short, now we have to go to our next destination: Medan. The travel car has parked outside the restaurant after we’re having dinner, the driver is warming  it up while we say goodbye to Ustadz Pangeran, Bang Pohan and a few kind-hearted people in Barus that have been helping us.

Finally, all the passengers are aboard and then we ride into the dark.


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