The Mentawai Islands

150km off the coast of the coast of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean lie the Mentawai Islands. The indigenous Mentawai people who live in the jungley interior of Siberut, the largest of the islands, have preserved a lot of their traditional culture, including medicine men, full body tattooing, sharpening teeth into fangs, wearing loincloths and several families living together in one uma, or longhouse.

Monkey skulls decorating the front of a Mentawai uma or longhouse on Siberut, Indonesia

The Mentawai people in the jungles of Siberut eat monkey meat and use the skulls to decorate their uma, or longhouses.

To get to the Mentawai Islands you first need to go to the town of Padang on the island of Sumatra. There are around 10 daily flights there from Jakarta, Indonesia‘s capital, which take just over an hour. Garuda, Mandala, Merpati, Lion Air and Jatayu all fly the route. There are also a few direct flights a week to Padang from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru. There are also buses from Jakarta to Padang, but they can take up to 2 days and are not significantly cheaper than flying. Padang can of course be accessed by boat and bus from Malaysia and Singapore.

Once in Padang you need to get the boat to Siberut. 2 boats a week go from Padang to Siberut. One leaves Padang on Mondays at 8pm, arriving in Siberut at 7am. The return journey leaves Siberut at 8pm on Tuesday, arriving in Padang at 7am. To book tickets call (0751) 23 321. Another ferry leaves Padang at 8pm on Thursdays, arriving in Siberut at 7am. The return journey leaves Siberut at 8pm on Fridays, arriving in Padang at 7am. Call (0751) 23321 / 27153 / 34037 to book tickets. These schedules are valis until the end of 2011. You are unlikely to get someone who speaks English on these numbers, so it may be easier for you to book tickets through Bevys Sumatra, a travel agent in the Hotel Batang Arau in Padang (tel: 7517810835, address: Jalan Batang Arau).

The boat arrives in a small “town” called Maura Siberut. Here ask around for a guide willing to take you to the jungle. You will be able to find an English-speaking one immediately and leave for the jungle a couple of hours after you arrive on the ferry.

Be careful that your guide is a genuine Mentawai. If he is a Minangkabau (the ethnic group living in the area around Padang) this will make you very unpopular with tribal groups you visit in the jungle.

Tours can be organised in Bukkitingi or Padang on Sumatra, but it is highly recommended that you DO NOT go on them. One reason is that the guide will be Minangkabau. Another is that they will just take you to an area of the jungle very near Maura Siberut where they always take tourists and where the Mentawai people have grown used to tourism, know what tourists want to see and have adapted to it.

Mentawai guides in Maura Siberut may also try to take you to that area. If you want to go deeper into the jungle insist on a longer trek with many hours walking every day, sleeping in different longhouses. Guides also try to insist on starting the trek with an hour or two in a motorboat, thus making your trek much more expensive, but it is not really necessary unless you are very rushed for time. The first Mentawai longhouses can be reached within a day’s trekking from Maura Siberut.

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