Despite being in a scenic, culturally rich and diverse region, I've always found it somewhat surprising that most Singaporeans do not venture beyond a few familiar destinations for their holidays. Perhaps it has to do with not wanting to leave their comfort zone, or the desire for a fuss-free vacation, but most Singaporeans generally would limit themselves to Phuket, Bali, Bangkok, Hong Kong and a few other places. The more adventurous might head to the Indochina region or to places in the Philipines. And the favorite activities of Singaporean tourists are typically shopping and eating, which is something of a pity since that's pretty much what most Singaporeans do on weekends in Singapore too.
On some level, I can identify with Singaporeans on this, but fortunately, as a result of taking up paragliding, I've had my eyes opened to the diversity of the region. There are just so many great places to fly in the region and as a result of my flying habit, I've been pushed to explore the region a bit more thoroughly.
I travelled to Lake Maninjau on Sumatra, Indonesia, for the annual FunFly festival a few weeks ago. As a novice pilot, the range of sites suitable for me to fly is limited and I had been told that Lake Maninjau offered wonderful flying even for novices.
And it was wonderful indeed. I logged 8 flights and doubled my airtime to date. And met some wonderful people as well.
Lake Maninjau is diminutive, but a real gem of a lake. See for yourself. These are views from Puncak Lawang, the launch site.
What made my holiday unusual was that the annual paragliding event is billed as an "International Festival", which is really just an excuse for the local Indonesian authorities to throw a big shebang of a party to get media coverage, increase tourism exposure, and get some facetime for the local officials. The pilots (all seven of us) were just the accessories for the event. Not that I wasn't bemused by it all. It was funny when the officials had clearly recycled their speeches from previous years, as there were obviously no pilots from Hong Kong this year, contrary to their grandiose speechs at the podium. For the record, there were 2 Singaporeans, a Malaysian, a German, an American, and 2 Australians this year. Here's a pic of the procession at the opening of the Festival.
It wasn't all flying at Lake Maninjau though; on days with bad weather, like fog for instance in the morning:
we did other things, like drive around the lake. The earthquake devastation from the Padang earthquake of 2009 was still evident in some places.
And relaxing by the lake in the evenings with a Bintang was simply great.
The hotel was built right by the lake, so going for a dip at anytime was no problem at all, though the water was far from clear. Kind of like swimming in an aquarium. All green and murky with fish everywhere.
But as far as a tourist destination goes, I have to say that Lake Maninjau, while beautiful, has much less to offer to the non-pilot. There are no other activities there other than flying, and even Internet access is to be found only in small roadside shops. Tellingly, none of the other pilots had brought their spouses or significant others with them. For destinations with activities for non-pilots, Phuket and Bali (typical Singaporean tourist destinations), are still better bets.
Notes for pilots:
I went to Maninjau in May and the weather was ok, though comments from other pilots had it that the weather was better the previous year. There was a fair bit of parawaiting, but that's par for the course in this sport. One has to pay one's dues on occasion. The season doesn't end in May but extends for a few more months. Contact Sumatra Paragliding for details.
Launch is from Puncak Lawang, about 1000 m above the lake, and is relatively easy, even for a novice like myself. The pics at the beginning of this post of the lake were taken from Puncak Lawang. The LZ is a grass patch, muddy in some places, demarcated by a road, the lakeshore, and fish ponds/rice paddies on the other two sides. It is fairly large and landing is generally ok when there is wind coming from the lake. When the wind is cross or when there is no wind, it can get a little tricky, but is still manageable. Note that the LZ lies beyond powerlines, so it is imperative to fly over the power lines first. It is generally a bad idea to cross back over the power lines once one is over the LZ. Altitude can be lost over the lake before the final approach. Below is a zoomed in view of the LZ from Puncak Lawang. It is the grass patch 2 o'clock from the 4 red-roofed houses in the centre of the pic.
The flying is mostly ridge soaring, but thermic flying is possible. The air can be bumpy in some places, but the flying is mostly safe. On good days, the air just got really lifty and it was possible to see the volcanoes behind the launch far in the distance. No pics for that though; I like my hands on the controls when I'm flying.
At the time of my visit, a new launch site was being developed as an alternative to Puncak Lawang. Here is a pic of the lake from the new launch site, a zoomed in view of the same LZ from the new launch site, and finally, a zoomed in view of the Puncak Lawang launch site from the new launch site. Note that Puncak Lawang in the pic is at the grass patch at the very top of the pic, bordered by trees. The open field slightly below it, bordering the winding road up the mountain, is an LZ suitable for top landing, for those with the requisite skills.
Tigerair used to have direct flights from Changi to Padang Minangkabau Airport, but these were discontinued during the Great Recession of 2009. No word on when flights will resume, but I'm not holding my breath. Airasia still flies to Padang from Kuala Lumpur, for those based in KL.
The most direct way to get to Lake Maninjau if you're based in Singapore is to take the Penguin ferry to Batam Centre from Harborfront, then a taxi from Batam Centre to Batam Hang Nadim Airport, then a flight to Padang on Mandala Airlines. From Padang, it's about a three hour drive to Maninjau. The total journey time takes something like 7-9 hours inclusive of waiting time, which is amazing when you consider that on an atlas, Maninjau and Singapore are sooo close to each other.