This historically isolated highland valley sits at the heart of the island of Sumatra, tucked deep within the Bukit Barisan mountain range. Known as the “secret valley of Sumatra” by the Dutch, Kerinci was one of the last places in Indonesia to fall to their control, as late as 1903, and the first road out of the valley wasn’t built until the 1920’s. Even now, there are only three roads out of the area, with the nearest city, Padang, being a full 8 hours away by car. Being so secluded, local cultures remain very traditional, and tourists are few and far between– despite there being an endless plethora of beautiful sites to see and unique experiences to engage in. Come visit!
Mirroring the biodiversity of the rainforest surrounding the Kerinci valley, the people who live here are culturally and linguistically unique from village to village. Those who call Kerinci home came to the area over a long period of time. Most of those in the northern parts of the valley trace their lineage back to the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, while those in the south trace their history to the eastern and southern parts of Sumatra. On top of that, the transmigration policy of the Dutch, followed by the Indonesian government, saw the arrival of Javanese into the area, especially around the tea fields in Kayu Aro. This mixture of cultures has contributed to the region’s vibrant diversity.
You may find the people of Kerinci to be some of the most friendly people on the planet. They are proud of their rich heritage and, despite their isolation, are eager to share what they have with the outside world. Their smiles are infectious, their hospitality is unmatched.
Every village in Kerinci has a slightly different dialect and each one has slightly different cultural practices. A Kenduri Sko, for example, is an important custom throughout and unique to Kerinci that offers thanks to God for the harvest and is a time to remember ancestors and past traditions. Yet, the way these festivals are celebrated and the specific traditions vary. Some villages hold them yearly, some are held only once a generation. All involve traditional dancing and music, food, pageantry, and displays of the martial art silat. The Kerinci people may have converted to Islam long ago, and are often more conservative and devout than many in larger modern cities, but ancestor worship and animism still play a large role in many of their traditions and forms of art.
One of the highest forms of art throughout Indonesia, and still made by hand in Kerinci, is batik. While many cultures have similar styles of dying cloth with wax-resistant dyes, it is a practice that has been a part of Indonesian identity that predates written history. Batik has traditionally been used in a number of significant rituals, and certain patterns can signify political importance or indicate area of origin. Today, batik is commonly worn as a sarong for men and women, as a dress shirt in formal settings, and even used as a sling for babies.
Be sure to stop by the traditional Batik workshop in Kerinci where you can watch it being made (though it can take a week or longer to complete), and even take lessons if you arrange it ahead of time. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the background pattern on our website and in our tiger logo are traditional batik motifs native to the Kerinci area.
There are three types of complementary governing codes in Indonesia: civil, religious, and traditional, and each play an important role. Every neighborhood has a Pak RT or Kepala Desa (village head) who serves as the primary leader at the smallest level of civil government organization, and is the go-to guy for any issue, big or small, in the community. The Depati and Ninik Mamak, however, are in charge of upholding the adat (traditional law) and culture of a village, which is never more brilliantly displayed than at the Kenduri Sko festivities mentioned above.
No village is complete without several small neighborhood prayer houses as well, called musholla, which also act as community gathering spots. The larger, more decorated mesjid (mosques) fill up during Friday noon prayers.
Completely encircling the valley is the Kerinci Seblat National Park, the largest national park on Sumatra and one of the largest protected areas in all of South East Asia at 13,791 square kilometers (5,325 square miles). To put it in perspective, this park is two and a half times the size of Bali and has more protected forest than all of Costa Rica. That’s a lot of room for some of the world’s most beautiful plant and animal species to flourish!
The National Park is also one of thirteen Globally Important Tiger Conservation Landscapes. There are more tigers here than in all of Nepal, and all of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and China combined – which speaks to the quality of the forests and the abundance of prey species. Seven million people (15% of Sumatra’s population) and 10 million hectares of agricultural land rely on water that has its source in the forested mountains of the national park.
The Kerinci valley is like a donut hole within the Kerinci Seblat National Park, with more than 300,000 people living here. There are very few, if any, national parks in the world that have such a populated hole in the middle of them. Rich volcanic soil helps support the population, which grows rice in the level valley, and mostly cinnamon, coffee, chilies, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, and tea (the largest and second highest tea plantation in the world is here) in the hills and plateaus. It’s known as the “rice barn” (ie, bread basket) of Jambi province and the surrounding areas of central Sumatra.
Its lowest point is Lake Kerinci at about 785 meters, and is an important source of fish for region. The high coffee growing areas are between 1200-1600m above sea level, and is recently becoming known for producing exceptionally good Arabica coffee. Almost the entire population of the valley (95%) relies directly or indirectly on agriculture for their family income. Kerinci is the largest producer of cinnamon in the world, and the bark can often be seen curling up as it dries along the roadsides. There are still a number of forest communities that collect bamboo, rattan, wild honey, and other forest products as their main livelihoods.
The government is the second biggest employer in the Kerinci valley, with government jobs being highly sought after. If neither of those opportunities pan out, many Kerinci people try to seek work in Malaysia. Some villages in Kerinci have 75% of adults working overseas.
With a growing population within a valley completely surrounded by protected land, and lack of reliable employment opportunities, ecotourism goes a long way in giving people alternate means of income without further encroaching into the National Park.
In every sense of the word, Kerinci is a cool place. The high elevation of the region combined with its vast swaths of rainforest work together to make the area one of the coolest places in Indonesia, if not Southeast Asia as a whole. Expect to see a lot of misty mountains and fog hanging in the valley, especially in the morning. The lowest point of the valley, Lake Kerinci, sits at around 785 meters above sea level, while the surrounding mountain range and plateaus rise from 1500m, all the way up to Mt. Kerinci at 3805m. In the town of Sungaipenuh, mid-day temperatures generally hover around 25°C (77°F), with the low being around 17°C (62°F), with a nice, refreshing breeze almost constantly blowing. However, being in such close proximity to the equator, direct sunlight can feel more intense than what one might experience in higher latitudes, and the humidity can make it feel somewhat hotter.
Obviously, temperatures feel much cooler up in the rainforest-shrouded mountains – you’ll see your breath every morning when camping, and you’ll definitely want a jacket! Thanks to this more temperate climate, hiking is quite comfortable and there are usually few insects buzzing in your face- quite a different experience from the often steamy, sticky, oppressive environment of most other jungle areas of Southeast Asia.
On Sumatra, there really isn’t a defined, predictable wet and dry season – every year seems to bring something different. That said, May through September are generally considered the somewhat drier months, with the wettest month often being December. This is a tropical rain forest after all, so always expect and be prepared for rain, no matter what season it supposedly is. Thankfully, things usually clear up quickly, and very rarely are there days where the rains never cease.
They say if you are in the forest and become lost, tigers will often appear to show you the way out. If someone breaks the laws of the forest, adat hutan, a tiger might come and punish them. There are even a number of mystical dances in Kerinci where participants or audience members will become temporarily possessed by the spirit of their ancestral tiger.