Back in September of 2011, my friend Scott and I spent 2 weeks living with a Mentawai family on the Island of Siberut. It was one of the most rewarding and unique experiences of my life and if you want to visit the Mentawai people and see their culture and way of life I can’t recommend it enough.

The reason we chose to visit the Mentawai people is because we had seen the blog and video made by Joel L, a photographer from America who had gone to Siberut to document the Mentawai People. After reading his blog post and knew that we had to go.
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We were in Padang, the gateway to the Mentawai Islands celebrating the end of Ramadan with our friend Wahyu. He was living in Padang and I had met him because I wanted to learn Indonsian and he was my language partners friend. We told Wahyu that we wanted to go and stay with the Mentawai people and asked him if he wanted to come along. He said he would help us get to Muara Siberut and then come back to Padang.
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Wahyu was a huge help for us in arranging the ferry to get there and then arranging a reduced fee once we go to Siberut so if you would like his help you can contact him here. He is very friendly and will be happy to help you out. He isn’t a tour operator or anything like that just a friend of ours so he won’t charge a fee or anything like.
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Back in 2011 there weren’t too many options to get to Muara Siberut but with the rise of Mentawai Islands as a surf mecca there seems to be more and more fast boat operators popping up to serve the surfers going there. Back then the fast boats were very expensive so we chose the public ferry from Padang to Siberut to go on. We were tight backpackers and at the time it seemed like the best option.
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Wahyu, Scott and I on the front deck of the ferry to Siberut. Delirious at 3am.
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The ferry leaves from Bungus Port and the cost for the 12 hour overnight ferry was less than 100,000 IDR. This trip is only for the truly adventurous because I can tell you it isn’t that pleasant. When we arrived to get on the boat it looked like Noahs Ark. People were loading animals, food, supplies and everything into the big boat. We paid for the cheapest class and this was just sleeping on the floor of the big ferry. There are sections for sleeping but it gets so hot and stuffy in the sleeping quarters that it would be impossible to sleep in there.
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We found out that on the deck was by far the best spot and we got a good spot on the front deck where we could lay down and get a good nights sleep. If you wanted a better experience there is a fast ferry that takes 4 hours and leaves from the same port. You can’t book any of this online so the best thing to do is to go to the port and buy your ticket there.
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Our ferry was a night ferry and left a 7pm and arrived 12 hours later at 7am in Muara Siberut. If you are taking this option definitely take the night ferry as the temperatures are much cooler, daytime travel is horrendously hot.
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In Padang, the harbour is shallow so you have to wait until the high tide before you can leave. This goes for the ride back as well. On the return leg we had to anchor just out side of the harbour and wait for 2 hours for the tide to be high enough for us to enter the harbour.
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Arriving at the harbour on Siberut at Pelabuhan Maileppet
Once we were on Siberut it is actually 7kms from the port to the town. All of the motorbike taxis were taken so we decided to walk there. It was early in the morning so we didn’t feel like we needed to rush. We walked the whole way and found a really cool museum with all the history of the mentawai people in there. Most people come to this part of the world to go surfing but few go into the jungle to go trekking. It really is one of the best things to do on this island.
We arrived in town and decided to ask around and see how we could get out to visit the Mentawai People. There had been 5 Germans on the ferry with us and one found us on the street and said that there was a Brittish couple who were going to see the Mentawai People and they were leaving soon. We went down to the river and found them. It turned out that they had booked a 10 day tour and the cost was 3 million rupiah (300AUD). We talked to them and explained that we didn’t want to join their tour we just wanted to get a lift to the village. They said we could come with them as long as it was ok with their guide.
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The long boat we took for 3 hours up river
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We paid 200,000 IDR ($20) each for the boat to get to the Mentawai village. The boat ride was amazing. For 3 hours we went up the river in the small long boat. There were 6 of us in the boat plus our driver. Some sections the river narrowed so much we felt like we were going through a small mangrove.
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3 hours later we arrived at a small village where the guide, Lugie’s parents lived. I asked how old they were and he said they didn’t know. In the Mentawais, no one knows how old they are, they don’t keep track of age and also have animist beliefs. One such belief is that if you are bitten by a snake you have to race the snake to the river. If the snake beats you you will die but if you beat the snake then you will live.
Uma we stayed at the first night
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By this stage it was getting late so slept here at the small Uma (a traditional mentawai house). We took our tent with us as there were millions of mosquitoes in the jungle. It was a lifesaver as the Uma’s are open to the air so anything can easily get in. We ate a hearty meal of white rice as thats the only food that we bought and got ready for bed. The area around the Uma is usually muddy so guests sleep on the hard wooden floor at the front of the Uma. If you go be sure to take a sleeping matress and mosquito net because you’ll have a terrible sleep and get eaten alive if you don’t.
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The walk from the government village to Attabai is the real deal. There is thick mud, rivers and as you can see in the photo I was bear foot for the whole way. The mud was so bad the shoes would get stuck and come off straight away. One of the people we went with lost a shoe in there and it was never found

The next day we walked 8 hours to a small village called Attabai. This is one of the main villages in the area but first we had to go through a government village. Many of the Mentawai people do not live how they traditionally did. The government of Indonesia has set up a big village for the Mentawai people to live in with a school and health care. Many Mentawai are choosing to live here now and its only the larger families that still live the traditional way.

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Note – If you have a lot of gear and need a porter expect to pay a lot of money. When you are out there in the jungle, 8 hours from the river and the porters say they want 400,000 ($40) to carry your gear, then you’re going to have to pay them or your stuff stays. So either carry your own gear or be prepared to fork out a fortune for the porters. 

 

After the government village it was a further 3 hours or so to Attabai and then another hour to a small Uma where a Mentawai Shaman by the name of Amatombli lives with his family. This was a true traditional house, far away from the government setup, a few hours back through the jungle.
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Our home for the next week
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The trek in here was nothing but difficult. The path went through knee deep mud, thick jungle, trough river beds and in the end Scott and I walked bare foot. Sulai, one of the guides for the Brittish couple had never worn shoes in his life and he was 31. His feet were webbed like a duck and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. There was nothing to hold the shape of his feet so they’ve splayed out and given him exceptional robustness. It really was the only way to go because the shoes would just keep getting stuck or coming off in the thick mud.
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Cooking pig for dinner
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The home of Amatombli was to be our home for the next week aswell. The way of life was simple. Amatombli’s son and wife had 3 children and we would spend almost all of our time hanging out with them. We would go hunting or fruit picking, go for hikes in the jungle check out their collections of monkey skulls.
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The Mentawai people used to hunt monkeys and eat them but they’ve totally wiped out the population. They have monkey skulls hung up all around the Uma. They now subside off fruit when it is in season, pigs and chicken when there is a special occasion and sago.
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Sago is made from a rotten tree root. The rotten tree root is ground down into a powder and mixed with water to make a paste. It is then made into a ball, put onto a banana leaf and then rolled into a stick. It is then placed over the fire to cook. After around 15 minutes it is ready to eat. Let me tell you that after eating this for 10 days I never want to see it ever again. It tasted like wet paper and had zero nutritional value. However this is the staple food for the area so if you’re coming out here for a while it’s best to bring some extra food. In the Mentawai life everything is shared so if you do bring your own food you’ll be expected to share all of it, with everyone. So keep those treats hidden well.
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After spending a week staying with Amatombli’s family in Atabai it was time to go back to the government village and catch a boat back from there. By this stage we were running seriously low on money. Siberut had no atm so we still had to pay for our return ferry back to Padang. We bargained with a local boat owner and he agreed to take us the 3 hour journey by river for 300,000 IDR ($30 AUD). If you can speak even basic indonesian you’ll have a huge advantage here so even 30 minutes a day for a month beforehand will be plenty to have a much more pleasurable experience.
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On our return to the ferry terminal, we discovered that the boat had been delayed by a day due to a storm so we had to spend an extra night in Siberut. By this stage our money situation was becoming incredibly dire. We only had enough left for a few meals and the ferry ticket. We actually asked a local (In indonesian) if we could stay the night and he happily agreed. There is a status thing when Indonesians are friends with foreigners so a lot will say yes to having you stay if you are in a small village.
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If you want to read my diary entries from the trip you can find them here. They offer a good insight into what it really is like out there.

Logistics for the trip

Ferry to Siberut

– Leaves from Teluk Bungus 3 times a week. For adventurous only.

–  For those wanting the fast option fast ferry leaves every Tuesday – Saturday at 7am and costs $40 USD. You can find the timetable by clicking here.

 Where to stay

 – Most of the places on Siberut are surf camps so if you are going to see the Mentawai people you’ll have to just arrive and plan it from there. The place you’ll want to go to is called MUARA SIBERUT, (Pelebuhan Maileppet). This is the main hub and 7kms from the ferry port. There are some motorbike taxis that you can take to get into town from there.
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There are no places online in the town of Muara Siberut but there are some guesthouses. It is very back in time so you’ll have a real adventure. If this isn’t your thing there are package tours that you can find from Padang offering 5 day/4 night tours to see the Mentawai people.
 
Once you arrive in town it will be easy to arrange everything from there. Just be sure to take plenty of cash with you to last you your whole time on the island as there is no atm.

How to get to the Mentawai people

To see the mentawai people you’ll have to take a 3 hour boat up river and then hike for around 8 hours to get to the village of Attabai. You can also take a ferry to the government village and walk from there. You may want to arrange a guide in Muara Siberut to come along with you. Boat up river will cost 300,000 IDR ($30) and then same back again. To stay with the Mentawai people is free but you may want to bring some rice, cigarettes and food for them as they just live off the land and their food is pretty bland. In the government village you can find everything from the small little shops there.

What to bring

For a pleasant experience you’ll want to bring some special things along for this trip. You’ll need clothes that you don’t mind getting destroyed because the jungle is unforgiving. Most of the Mentawai people get around in traditional loincloths so you wont need any cold weather clothing.
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A rain jacket or umbrella is definitely a handy thing to bring. Looking back, rubber boots would be the best thing to bring through here. You’ll need ones that come up as high as possible. This will help a great deal in the extremely muddy jungle and you can see this photo below to see how muddy it really is.
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A good inflatable sleeping mattress, sheet or jungle sleeping bag, mozzie net or tent without the fly is also a good idea. We used the Chaos 2 by Ferrino but any free standing tent will do.
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You’ll also want to bring lots more money than you think you’ll need. After spending the 700,000 IDR transport (200k each there and 300k both for return) for the long boat to the Mentawai tribes we didn’t really spend much on anything. There are some small shops in the government village where you can buy snacks and food if you need. Also count on spending an extra day or 2 on Siberut at the end if the ferry is delayed. Have a few million more than you think you’ll spend as a safety net.
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A small first aid kit with disinfectant, bandages and the like. You can easily get stabbed by a tree branch and cut your foot in the river and there is no medical help out here. Better to be prepared than naive.
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Are you planning to go to the Mentawai islands? If so get in touch if you have any questions and I’ll try help you out.