Situated on the eastern edge of the Ngarai Sianok Canyon and with the mountains of Merapi and Singgalang rising to the south, the bustling town of Bukittinggi spreads for several kilometres in each direction. However, the central part of town, which is of most interest to visitors, is relatively compact and easy to negotiate. The most useful landmark is Djam Gadang, the clock tower at the junction of Jalan A Yani (the main thoroughfare) and Jalan Sudirman (the main road leading out of town to the south). Bukittinggi’s Pasar Atas (Upper Market) stretches to the south of the tower, while down the hill to the north and west lies Pasar Bawah (Lower Market), both of which swell to bursting point on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Jalan A Yani, 1km from north to south, is the tourist hub of Bukittinggi, and most of the sights, hotels, restaurants and shops that serve the tourist trade are on this street or close by. This is one of Sumatra’s most pleasant towns in which to spend a few days, boasting a range of restaurants and hotels and a plenitude of information on the surrounding area which includes the rafflesia reserve at Batang Palupah, beautiful Ngarai Sianok Canyon, spectacular Harau Valley and the enormous palace of Pagaruyung.
A few hundred metres to the north of the clock tower, Fort de Kock was built by the Dutch in 1825 and is linked by a footbridge to the park and the depressing Taman Bundo Kanduang zoo on the hill on the other side of Jalan A Yani. There’s little left of the original fort but some old cannons and parts of the moats.
Much more pleasant is a stroll around Panorama Park, perched on a lip of land overlooking the sheer cliff walls down into Ngarai Sianok Canyon, the best sight in Bukittinggi town by far, especially just after sunset when bats fly overhead. Beneath the park stretch 1400m of Japanese tunnels and rooms built by local slave labour for ammunition storage during World War II. You can venture down into these dank, miserable depths, although there’s nothing really to see. The Ngarai Sianok Canyon is part of a rift valley that runs the full length of Sumatra – the canyon here is 15km long and around 100m deep, with a glistening river wending its way along the bottom.