Singaporeans need little introduction to nasi padang. Yes, piping hot steamed rice served with various dishes — from the spicy gulai ayam (chicken curry) and beef rendang (nope, not the crispy one!) to sambal goreng and sayur lodeh. Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra, however, promises visitors with more than just fantastic culinary treats.

All around this unassuming province, you can find gorgeous lakes, serene waterfalls, majestic mountains, and incredible palaces. There is something for everyone at Padang. For me, I was there for the underrated Pacu Jawi festival.

Nasi Padang in Padang

A feast of nasi padang in a local restaurant

What is Pacu Jawi?

I came to know of this festival when I was planning my itinerary to West Sumatra a few months before. Many online tour agents offer photography trips to watch this festival, but their prices were beyond my budget. I couldn’t imagine myself holding a tacky digital camera among professional photographers with their telephoto lenses — that would be so intimidating! And above all, I was going to travel with a group of friends who were not into photography. I was motivated to find another alternative. After hours of research, multiple emails and messages, we were set to embark on our quest to catch the festival on 20 December 2014.

Cows racing at Pacu Jawi Festival, Padang

Pacu Jawi means cow race in the local dialect, but it is not a typical race where the fastest prevails. The cow race is slightly different.

Pacu Jawi Festival

After flying into Padang and visiting Lake Maninjau, Bukittinggi and Harau Valley within two days, we started our third day at Tanah Datar Regency, the location of the festival. Although it seemed that we had everything planned out, there was one big problem. The regency has 14 districts, and we had no idea which village was holding the race that year. Say goodbye to Uncle Google because there was little to no information about the festival location, except that it’s being held at Tanah Datar.

When Google Can’t Help You

We had no choice but to resort to the basic-yet-effective method: in the locals we trust. But asking the locals every few metres wasn’t as efficient as I thought it would be. No specific address, no GPS coordinates, no distinctive monuments or landmarks — but the more locals we asked, the closer we were to the festival site. I wasn’t even surprised that our driver almost gave up on us after getting round and round for a few hours.

Photo time in Padang, Indonesia

We did stop multiple times along the way just to take “impromptu” selfies just because West Sumatra is too picturesque :) That slowed us down further.

The poor condition of the roads made it a bad idea to travel in cars. Most of the locals own and ride motorcycles to get around the regency, and now I can understand why. In the end, our car had to park 1-2 kilometres away from the festival site as the road wasn’t wide and smooth enough.

Swarm of motorcycles parked along the path to the Pacu Jawi festivalSwarm of motorcycles parked along the path to the festival

Hundreds of locals swarmed the festival to have a good time with their family and loved ones. As we walked closer to the muddy field where the cows ran, we chanced upon a few cows being prepared to enter the track, while others were being washed off after finishing their run. Such a vibrant and lively festival that is most photographers’ dream!

Cows in Padang, Indonesia

After Hours of Car Rides

Spectators lined up along frail-looking wooden fences and were cheering the racing cows. We dared not stand too close to the fence to avoid the mud splash from the field. And the fence — was it even strong enough to shield us from the cow if it were to charge towards us? Well, (un)fortunately we never got to find out.

Race time at Pacu Jawi, Padang

Unlike the usual cow race, in Pacu Jawi, a jockey would ride a pair of loosely-tied cows while holding on to their tails. The three of them will attempt to cross a muddy track in an unused rice field as linearly and as quickly as possible. The jockey would bite on the cow’s tail to make it run faster. The two cows were not tightly tied to each other, so there is a (very high) chance that they will run towards different directions. There’s no prize for guessing what happens to the jockey if the cows are running in different ways.

Cows racing - Padang Pacu Jawi Festival

There will be many hilarious moments that are caused by the cows’ unexpected behaviour. The more hilarious the fall or the better the manoeuvre by the jockey is, the louder the cheers, yells and claps. Pacu Jawi is a tradition originated from hundreds of years ago, and it still keeps true to its original aims which are all about simple happiness, thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest, and showcasing of one’s prized cows. Interestingly, no winners are declared for the race. However, the value for good performing cows will soar, sometimes to twice or thrice its original price.

Wrestling with cows - Pacu Jawi, Padang

Padang: Other Than Cow Races

If you wish to take a break from the cow race, there is a mini “theme-park” and numerous food and drink stalls in the area. Dabao some nasi padang and eat it while watching the race. Just be careful not to get any mud splashing onto your plate!

Mini theme park - Padang, IndonesiaMini theme-park and food stalls to keep everyone happy

In the afternoon, we left for the central city of Padang to spend a night there before catching a flight the following day. On the journey back to Padang, we managed to catch a glimpse of the majestic Singkarak Lake.

Singkarak Lake - Padang, Indonesia The Singkarak Tourist Train /  CC BY-SA 3.0  / Ignatius Antiokhia

Upon reaching the comfortable Premier Basko Hotel, we quickly took turns showering and decided to stay awake until the wee hours, talking about our humbling experience witnessing Pacu Jawi. In spite of the bumpy road and hours-long car-drive, we promised to come back again for Pacu Jawi, hopefully soon.

 

So how do I find the schedule for Pacu Jawi?

To my surprise, when I was writing this article (4 years after my very own experience), there exists a website indicating the upcoming locations and dates for Pacu Jawi for the rest of the year. And the good news: it seems like a few races are held every month now!

So what are you waiting for? Grab your camera and some friends to witness this exhilarating traditional cow race!