“Air Manis Beach is a beautiful place to visit. Here we can walk in the sea at low tide and visit the attractive Pisang Island. Air Manis Beach is a favourite spot for Europeans in Padang,” noted L. C. Westenenk, a senior official of the colonial government at Fort de Kock, a 19th century Dutch base in West Sumatra, when he visited Padang.

In his 1909 book Acht Dagen in de Padangsche Bovenlanden (Eight Days in the Padang Highlands), Westenenk noted how the local government had improved and beautified the city: building roads and pavements, cleaning up the environs, and even constructing a pleasure park on the riverbank in central Padang. At the beginning of the 20th century, according to Westenenk, there was an excursion package by boat to De Apenberg, or Bukit Monyet (Monkey Hill), where visitors enjoyed going hiking, caving, climbing and feeding the shy resident monkeys.

Bukit Monyet, usually referred to as Gunung Padang, is a small hill that juts out slightly into the sea off the West Sumatran coast, where it is pounded by waves on the south side of Padang. From Padang city to this tourist attraction is only a 10 minute drive. Before arriving there, I walked through the historic port city. Warehouses nearly two centuries old still exude the distinct aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. According to Ibnu Abbas, an old man who sells spices, the Old Town is a harmonious, diverse community, where people of Minang, Chinese, Bugis, Hindustan and Nias backgrounds work and live, practising a range of religions, from Islam to Christianity, Buddhism to Confucianism.

The Old Town is separated from Gunung Padang by the mouth of the Batang Arau River. Spanning the waterway is the Siti Nurbaya Bridge, a popular gathering spot in the afternoons, especially on holidays.

It is true what Westenenk wrote more than a century before: climb the small hill of Gunung Padang and you will be treated to a beautiful panorama of the surrounding landscape. There is a coral cave and a tomb dedicated to Sitti Nurbaya, a fictional female character in the novel Kasih Tak Sampai (Unrequited Love) by well-known Indonesian author Marah Rusli. This hill has become a symbol of unrequited love, a metaphor for love that is broken by wealth and greed.

Visiting Sitti Nurbaya’s grave is a highly unusual experience, where fiction merges with reality. She died of a broken heart, and her body is now supposedly buried among the coral, between stones, stuck between the bitter earth and the boundless sky. A cool breeze blows from the west, the waves crash against the cliffs, and the blue sea stretches out endlessly towards the horizon.

On the northern side of Gunung Padang are the remains of a fort and cannon, and also a rail line for trolleys to carry the exotic spices that lured Europeans to the Indonesian archipelago, and that made Padang the largest trading port on the west coast of Sumatra.

Standing at the peak, Padang city is clearly visible, a still-buzzing provincial capital crowded with pointy-roofed houses and government buildings within its maze of streets, vehicles travelling back and forth, the river and its mouth dividing the urban centre, and the timeless presence of the beach, waves rolling in white foam, spanning the length of this small city. It is truly an amazing view.

Behind Gunung Padang, I follow a winding road. Several kilometres away, Air Manis Beach spreads out before me, a tranquil spot popular with visitors for its low waves and sublimely picturesque setting, all lush green hills and sleepy islands begging to be explored a mere 500m off the coast. Only 15km from Padang (30 minutes by car), this is the kind of tropical beach that holiday dreams are made of a long belt of sand stretching as far as the eye can see, an invitation to while away the days soaking up the sun, swimming in the Indian Ocean and generally doing not very much at all.

Air Manis is the setting for a popular Indonesian legend about Malin Kundang, an ungrateful son who was turned into stone. In the folk tale of the Minangkabau people, there is the story of a boy who was obedient and diligent, so he was called Malin, a commendable name for a man in Minang culture. Malin lived in a poor sailing community that depended on the salty sea for its livelihood. His mother worked by gathering firewood, and his father was no longer alive.

As a teenager, Malin sat alone watching the Indian Ocean every day. During his reflection, at last he felt a unanimous determination: he would cross the ocean to change his destiny. Changing one’s destiny was not an easy matter on the West Sumatran coast, but Malin was resolute. He found a boat, and then said farewell to his mother and his homeland.

He passed through fierce ocean waves. For months he floated out at sea, pounded by the waves and tumbled by storms. From island to island, from peninsula to peninsula he sailed, trading to change his destiny. Seasons and years passed, and Malin became a famous merchant, and he married a beautiful woman of noble descent from the Champa country. From poor beginnings, Malin Kundang now lived in enviable wealth.

One day, he decided to visit his birthplace across the ocean. He even prepared an ark, complete with dozens of his staff to serve him. However, when the large ark landed on the west coast of Sumatra, he didn’t want to recognise the old woman who greeted him at Air Manis Beach as the mother who long ago had bid him farewell with a face full of tears.

“I am not your son,” he said when his mother welcomed him. The old woman didn’t move. Malin, who used to be submissive and obedient, was facing her, but he was no longer the Malin of decades ago. This man was the Malin who had been raised by the ocean, brought to life by roaming the salty waves. The old woman’s tears fell instantly and were swept away by the water. The sky suddenly darkened. Bolts of lightning flashed and thunder rumbled overhead.

“God, bring back my child as before, even in the form of a rock,” thought the old woman, as the waves crashed increasingly loudly. Immediately, heavy rain began to fall, as the sky went dark and seemed to collapse. The wind blew violently, lightning flashed and thunder roared. Slowly, Malin’s body began to harden into rock. He knelt and begged forgiveness.

These waves were still the same waves as before, the same waves in the legend when Malin Kundang was about to sail away from his home. But what had happened, Malin? Is the ocean strong enough to change a man’s personality?

At Air Manis Beach, the legend of Malin Kundang is brought dramatically to life – I was stunned to see a man kneeling down on the deck of a boat, all made of stone. Part of the statue has been eroded by the tide over time. The petrified rope rigging of his ship makes a broken line towards the west, where the sun sets on the horizon. The waves crash endlessly, pounding the white sand.

According to local residents, in the beginning there was only a rock that resembled a ship o the beachfront. “However, in the 1980s, a sculptor, Isbenzami Usman, perfected it. On the rock that resembled a ship, he presented the figure of a man in a prostrated position. The people believe this is Malin Kundang, turned into stone because of his mother’s oath. After all, myths don’t need proof or clarity, they only need stories and practices,” said Muhammad Ibrahim Ilyas, a West Sumatran cultural expert.

Behind the rock of Malin Kundang, Pisang Island is a vibrant, inviting green. From Air Manis Beach to Pisang Island only takes 10 minutes by boat. In the morning when the tide is out, you can walk over the exposed sand to the island (at other times, you can rent a motorboat to visit). To the south, the white sand of Caroline Beach provides further temptation to stay a while and relax.

The many beaches and peaceful islands are among the main reasons Padang is such an alluring destination. Combined with the city’s colourful past as a historic spice-trading post and the charm of local legends, you will find that one visit may not be enough to sate your appetite for this exotic port of call. The fragrant mix of nutmeg and cloves, seasoned by the salty sharp tang of the Indian Ocean, is sure to call you back.

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