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One of West Sumatra's prettiest lakes is Lake Singkarak. Located at an elevation of nearly 1200 feet in the highlands east of Padang, Lake Singkarak's shoreline is cool and inviting after experiencing the hot and humid coast. The second-largest lake in West Sumatra after Lake Toba, the lake now provides vitally-needed electrical power to the surrounding area. Much of the outflow has been diverted to the Anai River to feed a new hydro-power plant. Nestled against a backdrop of the lush, green Barisan Mountains, Lake Singkarak has long been a favored fishing lake for locals. The shoreline is dotted with cafes, small hotels and hostels, and the rough road around the lake passes through several small settlements. Some of these areas offer small shops to purchase traditional crafts common to the Minangkabau culture.
Lake Singkarak is a favorite spot to swim or simply enjoy the beautiful view. Several areas along the 32-mile shoreline offer natural sandy beaches. Children delight at the sight of the bilih fish swimming around their feet in the crystal clear water. Boat tours may be arranged in the town of Umbilin, and personal boat rentals are a popular way to enjoy the large lake. At least 19 species of fish are known to live in the lake. The sasau is usually the one most sought-after by leisure anglers. This white-fleshed fish is known to reach about five pounds and is considered a fine table fish.
Many of the local inhabitants have survived here for generations on fishing and small farming. Lake Singkarak is one of only two lakes that hold the endemic bilih fish, which is a type of small carp. There are claims that the bilih will survive nowhere else, including in aquarium environments. The bilih has become famous as the main ingredient in several local dishes and is served at nearly all of the local restaurants, crisply fried with green chilies. Recently, complaints have been raised that the lake isn't producing as many fish as were previously caught. The blame appears to lie in over-fishing, and efforts are underway to correct the situation. Local fish farming of the bilih in nets has been somewhat successful in meeting the always-growing market for these tasty fish.
Located 45 miles east on the coastal resort city of Padang, visitors can take the train to the lake or risk a ride on the somewhat unreliable local buses. Most people rent a car and drive to enjoy the scenic sights along the way. In recent years, more people have become aware of Lake Singkarak's charms by the publicity generated over the professional "Tour de Singkarak" bicycle race that takes place each year.
The 900-km international UTI-Asia Tour race takes about a week to complete, beginning in Padang and circling Lake Singkarak before heading inland through several West Sumatra cities. As a result, cycling around the lake has become more common and allows the casual bike rider the opportunity to pause at various vantage points and enjoy the scenery at leisure. Hiking along the shoreline and in the surrounding hills has become increasingly popular with visitors. Such interest has convinced West Sumatra officials to try to encourage more tourism to the area. Currently, the nearest three, four and five-star hotels are located as far away as Padang, although local hotel properties are being encouraged to upgrade their facilities.
Visitors who do not expect world-class accommodations at the lakefront will likely find some type of lodgings suitable for a stay of a day or two. Although there don't appear to be any organized campgrounds, usually hotels in West Sumatra offer a small area for tent campers as long as they eat a meal or two in their restaurant. Tourist agents familiar with the area can easily direct visitors to the best accommodations and campsites.
Lake Singkarak is an excellent addition to any vacation or holiday in West Sumatra. The area around Padang is noted for excellent diving waters and popular for deep sea fishing and water sports. Several resorts there offer every amenity. Padang is noted for surfing, with surfing tours being operated by several companies in the city. Minibuses regularly transport visitors 18 miles north to Bungus Bay where the surfing is excellent, and the off-shore islands support beautiful coral reefs for snorkeling or diving. Ferry travel to nearby offshore islands is also popular. Due to a large Chinese presence because of Chinese shipping concerns, Padang has a bustling Chinatown with many restaurants and spice shops.
Most visitors plan at least one day to visit the colorful city of Bukittinggi, 22 miles north of Lake Singkarak. Bukittinggi is the cultural home of the Minangkabau and features the typical architecture of distinctive buffalo horn roof peaks superimposed even on old Dutch Colonial buildings. Remnants of Dutch rule are still evident in such edifices as the 1926 Clock Tower. The museum across from the ruins of Fort de Kock is worth a visit to brush up on Sumatran history and antiquities. Of interest in Bukittinggi, the Japanese caves built with slave labor are preserved as a glaring example of Japanese occupation during World War II. Nearby, the Military Museum exhibits weapons and historic artifacts from the war for independence from Holland, an attempted communist coup in 1965, and the fight against Fretilin guerrillas in East Timor. Minangkabau culture is on display every evening at the Culture Center with performances of native song and dance. Surrounding it all are the lush green Highlands with cool lakes, spectacular waterfalls and even a few active volcanoes.
The long-held explanation of Lake Singkarak's origins has been that it was a flooded volcanic crater. Recent scientific explorations have challenged that explanation. Instead, scientists are now certain that ancient lava flows from other volcanoes dammed water outflow, creating the lake. Recently, interested international groups have worked to find a solution to deforestation occurring around the lake to prevent future degraded water quality. These groups hope that a plan to pay the local residents to protect the hillsides may result in both better water protection and additional investment in tourism facilities. Increased tourism may be the solution to the thorny problem of deforestation from farming. Meanwhile, Lake Singkarak is cool, scenic and delightful. And there are enough bilih fish being produced to guarantee everyone a taste of the local delicacy.
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