Sumatra: misplaced in the history books, misspelled by many early travelers. Maybe that’s why the biggest island of Indonesia isn’t known much these days.
My story starts back in January when I met Sadi on the beach of Batu Bolong, Bali. He was a surf instructor from Sumatra. At that point, I didn’t know anything about Sumatra, except that the way it sounded on my lips was incapsulating. I can only explain my fascination as a mystical call from the Universe itself. I felt connected. I kept asking Sadi and his friends to tell me stories about their hometown. They were very visual, their memories felt so close and their longing was so dear. Before I left for Amsterdam, I promised myself to go visit Sumatra.
The opportunity presented itself when Sadi mentioned that they were planning a trip for Ramadan and invited me to see his hometown. How can I resist? I pulled out all the money I saved up by that point and bought a ticket to Bandar Lampung, Sumatra.
Sadi’s friend Matt, who also lived and worked as a surf instructor in Bali, pick us up from the airport. After such a long flight I was tired and ready to hit the sack, of course, the local boys forgot to mention that it’s a six-hour car ride from the airport to their hometown – Krui. I was surely exhausted by the time we arrived. Sadi, as requested, found a local-owned homestay. The prices for the homestay were expensive, although I found out later that it’s possible to negotiate the price if you stay longer and if you know the right people. The room was humble, there was a fan in the room, a bucket and a pipe for a shower. But it was clean and the owner made the best banana pancakes in town.
The next morning we set off to Mandiri beach just twenty-minute drive away from the homestay. The beach was clean, with no establishments, empty, white sand, palm trees and the ocean – a paradise. Sadi, Matt, Daddy, Septa, Risky, Ari, Randi, and Harun have reunited once again, some that I already knew from Bali and some that were still living in Krui. They ripped the waves that morning, all as one. Besides them, there was almost no-one else at the beach or in the water. The wave was a perfect left. I enjoyed watching the boys laugh, smoke clove cigarettes and talk about memories. They were all keen to share part of their childhood spent here, their first wave that they caught on this same beach. A certain nostalgia filled the air as the boys exchanged memories and the nonspoken realization that they were only visitors here now…
Just outside our homestay the Indian Ocean, the waves smoothly touch the shore, on a little wooden hand-made bench I drank my coffee each morning and wallow in the ocean wind. I love this place, I feel as if I dreamt of it. Just after my morning coffee, we run into Deano who invites us over to his local dinner “Lani’s”, we accept the invite and head to Deanos place. It seems a lot of surfers had a liking to this place for it’s more western cuisine and I must say, best tempeh burger I had so far. We spent many evenings here, listening to Deanos stories, drinking Bintang (local beer) and meeting travelers that came for the waves. I took a liking to Deano, some evenings we spend bouncing off our favorite tunes, some chatting about life and the local life. He spoke perfect Bahasa Indonesian and was well accepted in the local community. His charming wife and daughters would color the air with laughter and smiles.
Deano’s wasn’t the only place we spend our days, another popular spot to hang out was Indah where the local boys went surfing each day. I met many interesting travelers there, all great surfers as expected for the size of waves there. Actually, I had a chance to meet two legendary surfers Dexter Green and Mark Anderson on the very same spot and they were kind enough to share their surfing stories from the past with a couple of cold Bintangs. I met two Aussie surfers Brad and Dennis. Anyways, enjoy their company in the mornings and evenings, watching beautiful sunsets. It was the first time I heard about ‘the green flash’. Dennis explained to me; “to see this phenomenon you will need to watch a hell of a lot of sunsets, but it’s worth it. Just seeing it once.” To those who not heard of the green flash before just like mua, let me explain; just before the sun sets into the ocean, before disappearing into the horizon, on the right moment, the elements create a natural phenomenon called the green flash, watch each sunset and one day the conditions might be just right to see it.
Also known as “Festival of Breaking the Fast”, is a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. Oh, I forgot to mention, we arrived in Krui, Sumatra during Ramadan. For those who might not know Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community. For those who only visited Bali, I’ve got some news, most of Indonesia, to be accurate 87.2%, are Muslim.
I asked my friend Matt how I should behave as I’ve never been to a Muslim country during Ramadan. He said that it would be appropriate to cover my knees and my shoulders, but no one would mind me walking around in a bikini on the beach. Then again, whenever I went to the beach on my own I was accompanied by loads of local kids, but I’ll get back to that later. I also found out even tho everyone was fasting whenever I visited Sadi’s family I was always offered food and coffee or freshly picked coconut.
Tanjungh Satia, a town near Krui, celebrated Idul Fitri with a local market. The market was loud as most Indonesian places, full of motorbikes, kids laughing and waving and shouting ‘mister’ cuz they weren’t thought ‘missis’… I found it quite hilarious, to be honest. I quickly realized that standing around for too long in the market was inconvenient to my local surf friends as most of the people that came from smaller towns down the mountains wanted to take pictures with me: “Photo! Photo!”. Sometimes I would stand there for 20 minutes taking pictures with all their families, holding babies. It was quite an experience but after a while, I realized that I would never wish to be famous.
Local Surf Competition
The pinnacle of my trip was the Krui Surf Competition’19. So it happens I became way more involved than expected. My friends from Bali; Matt, Deddy, Septa, Sadi all entered the competition. I knew about it even before my travels. I was very excited to see local boys surf as you might or might not notice – there ain’t much diversity in international surfing competitions… let’s just leave it at that for now. As I followed my friends down the beach of Krui, ready to document their surf experience and the vibes of the competition I heard a voice from the stage directed at me “You look like you surf…”. I turned around there was a white man on stage with a goatee, his name was Zane. Of course, Zane. What a name, what a character. It appears that one of the judges was running late and Zane wanted me to help run the show… I tried to explain to him that I’m only a beginner surfer but he was persistent, so I came on stage, sat down at the judging table and was handed a sheet for marking the entrees. Luckily, the other judge was Mark Anderson, the legendary surfer I met previously and he was nice enough to explain to me the rules and the system for placing points. I learned more that day than I’ve ever learned in the water. It seems the phrase “those who can’t – judge” fit.
The competition ran for three days. It really was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been part of. Sadi told me that when they (Matt, Daddy and Sadi) started surfing, it was frowned upon by the local community, they got bullied in school for having dark skin, their parents weren’t supportive of their passion for surfing. Now things have changed dramatically, ever since the boys went out and made a living from surfing and were able to bring money back home, surfing has been celebrated and supported. There were many families watching the competition, some of them were cheering for their sons, nephews and young cousins that entered. A whole new generation of young surfers are coming out of Krui and it’s nice to see that the tides have changed and surf is being celebrated more and more.
On the very last day of the competition, even the government showed up to say hello. We waited patiently as they lined up in front of us. I was surprised to see so many women in uniform, apparently, it’s part of the law to include women in the government. Sadly, my camera died at the end of the competition and I wasn’t able to record the winners. The open league champion was Latip, who got a barrel on his very last wave! It was a spectacular performance! The younger league champion was eleven-year-old Cikal. He really captured my heart not only with his passion, determination and great style, also with his sweet smile and a dream in his eyes. Actually, I started writing a documentary pitch deck with my friend Alex from Columbia about this boy in the hope that his story will be heard.
Plastic, oh plastic
There is a plastic crisis in Indonesia. It’s most seen when u visit these remote places and understand the lack of structure in the waste industry in general and the lack of education. The government doesn’t seem to be bothered by most countries (yes, recycling doesn’t work newsflash) dumping their waste in Indonesia, a large group of small islands… Of course, most of the landfill ends up in the ocean. The problem seems to be leaking from all sides; government not creating policies, huge companies and their factories creating a lot of waste and not being regulated, the ignorance of where the western society dump their trash and the belief that recycling works and also the local communities not being educated on this topic and lacking tools and knowledge to do anything about it. When u live in western society, you don’t really see these issues anymore, all is hidden “the government is taking care of it” but how? Most of us don’t know. In Indonesia, you can see the problem clearly as there aren’t that many measures to ‘hide’ the problems. As I was walking down the beach of Krui, I was astonished by the amount of garbage. Even worse, when I visited Banana Island, the island next door, that doesn’t have that many inhabitants and the beach is covered in plastic, you start to understand the severity of this issue. I’ve now started participating in plastic-free movements, focusing on education. Reduce, reuse, recycle is the news structure. I will write a separate post about my learnings about plastic here in Indonesia but for now, I urge all travelers not to hide plastic waste in their pictures, pretending that all is good in paradise. The reality is, it’s becoming a dump. Even the most distant beaches have plastic waste on their sandy shores. Don’t hide the plastic in your Instagram stories. I rather live in the real-world with issues that together we can solve than pretend that “all is well”. Krui Surf competition did a little competition for the kids to collect all the trash from the beach and then turn that trash into animal art. I feel, that each surf competition should have an environmental cause running next to their sport.
A day at the beach
One morning Sadi suggested I take his two nieces out to the beach; Dara who at the time was eleven and Dea who was three gladly hopped on my motorbike and so we drove towards my favorite beach Mandiri. Clear sand, palm trees and not a person in sight for miles, a true paradise beach. The girls didn’t speak much English but I learned really fast that kids have a different way of communicating, especially the three-year-old. To give you some context, each time I visited this beach, I’m always accompanied by the local kids. Krui doesn’t have that much tourism and even less western female travelers, so I guess I was a sight to see, tall, blue-eyed and blond. Even though most of them didn’t speak much English, I would always try to chat, I’ve learned some basic phrases and realized that learning the language with kids was more enjoyable and easier.
As we walked down the empty clear beach of Mandiri, once in a while running towards the beach crabs, a light feeling of love, grace and full-filment entered my chest. After all these years of chasing a career, working in advertising and always rushing – I suddenly had a realization of space. How nice it was to have this space to appreciate a simple act of walking down the beach with children. It became very clear to me that the most meaningful thing in life is having space and time that allows you to notice what is. I knew that moment really changed me. It was clear to me that I’ve not been present in my life enough. I’ve always been in a rush, in a rush to succeed, catch up, prove myself. There and then, it was very clear to me that I did not want to waste a second of my life anymore doing the things that don’t bring me joy or purpose. I started to adopt a new mentality, I started to crave space and emptiness in my life. I no longer wanted to fill my agenda with activities. I wanted to work less, read more, buy less and just allow myself to be. Make so much space that I get bored out of my mind. That I emerge in that space. I wanted to melt in the vastness of this space, the emptiness of it. Even though this idea scared me, it also liberated. It scared me to think that I could lose all control. Just emerge into the void and see what happens… I didn’t know then but this walk at the beach will really hit the very essence of my existence. I will call this chapter of my life “coloring the void”. I must apologize to the reader that none of my stories are sequential but I also don’t feel that my life is. It’s a cycle. Not a linear happening.
Commonly asked questions?
What airport did you fly to? Lampung International Airport from there it’s a 6-hour scenic ride to Krui.
How much money should I take? It really depends on how you travel and what for. You can spend a lot or you can travel cheaply. I always aim for a 1000 Eur. a month traveling anywhere in Indonesia. It seems to fit my lifestyle. Yet the accommodations in and around Krui are more expensive than Bali.
Is Sumatra Muslim? Yes. 87% of Indonesia is Muslim.
Why the island of Gold? I found that Sumatra used to be called The Island of Gold with not much explanation in W.Marsden book “The history of Sumatra” why.
Would you go back? Yes yes and yes.
Surfing? Ujung Bocur is great for advanced surfers. Krui is a bit more gentle and could possibly be used for more intermedia and on some days beginner surfers. Mandiri is a beach break but only good for advanced surfing as the current is quite strong and the take-off is steep. I would say 80-90% of surfers here are looking for barrels, big waves, and have at least 10 years of experience. Most breaks are reef breaks making most spots not beginner-friendly.
My personal favorite places:
Lani’s Resto – my favorite diner, best tempeh burger in town.
Krui Market – it works each day every day and is a wonderful place to do some local fruit and veggie shopping.
Useful links and private trustworthy contacts:
+62 822 1058 2394 (whatsaap) – Sadi, Surf Instructor & Surf guiding
+62 813 6945-3512 (whatsaap) – Matt, Surf guiding in Sumatra