Saturday, 9 August 2008

Appeasing the mountain spirits

One of the Semangat Gunung hot springs resorts, called Rindu Alam. Unmistakably in the background is the Sibayak volcano with visible thermal / volcanic activity.

Soaking (In)donesia
In the coming months you'll slowly see the number of soaking sites visited rise, especially after my most recent visit to Indonesia, arguably the top spot for soaks in Southeast Asia, at least in numbers. But how do they compare in quality?


The first soak ever taken in Indonesia was in Semangat Gunung, which is located under the shadow of the ever active volcano Sibayak. No active lava flows or eruptions though (the last eruption was more than a century ago), but up in the crater of Sibayak, the volcanic activities exist of a number of fumaroles / steam vents; enough to give the
mountain a permanent plume of white cloud slowly dissipating into the north Sumatran air. But no hot springs on the mountain itself.

Inside the crater of Sibayak: not too dangerous, just a fair number of steam vents

The steep flanks facing and leading down to Semangat Gunung are also fumarolistic, if such a word exists (does not seem so). The sight from the village towards the mountain is quite special, a huge gash exposing, as it seems, part of the innards of the volcano, producing a number of clouds.

Captured heat
The same facing flanks also produce a great source of heat. Coming down from the mountain you will pass a electricity generation project, a small 2 MW project run by Petramina, which possibly might be upgraded to a 10 MW plant, even that is not considered large. Surprisingly, This plant is just one of three in all Indonesia despite the huge existing potential. However increased investment is 'heating up', Iceland leading the way!

Harnessing the steam, Semangat Gunung's thermal energy plant

Mountain spirits?
Coming from the mountain one needs to make a sharp bend before entering the town of the mountain spirit. Continue straight at this bend (or right coming from Semangat Gunung) you'll come to the site of Pertek Teken (or secret place) where locals pay tribute to the mountain spirits by offering fruits and foods.
Continuing straight you'll run into a large number of hot spring resorts. Typically these are places which either offer extended soaking facilities or have a small pool adjacent to a restaurant.

The biggest of these resorts is Alam Sibayak, but the beats emanating from this resort shroud the whole village. From the adjacent road, we could witness guests doing their moves, pool side. Maybe this was a draw for the weekend crowds from the million plus Sumatran capital of Medan, which is just 1,5 hours drive down the road. Or possibly this is the way to celebrate a soak in Indonesia.

Rindu Alam
We settle on the resort of Rindu Alam, mostly because it has many pools on offer, there are other people in the water (always a good sign ...) and is the furthest away from the aforementioned hot springs disco. There are about 10 public pools, private pools don't seem to be available. All pools contain water with varying temperatures, not necessarily from hot to cold. The ridiculous cheap entry fee (0,5$) however apparently doesn't include maintaining any hygienic standards apparently; the waters are quite filthy and a maintenance man nearby, whose job for the day consists of scrubbing the tiles surrounding the pool, regularly lets the resulting rinse water, flow back in to the pool! Luckily all water is a very cloudy white which hopefully obscures any other irregularities.

Rindu Alam: 10 pools with blue walls covered with Disney characters. Now, can anyone explain the connection between the two?

Business is slack, despite it being a Saturday, but a few out-of-towners have turned up. Possibly Sunday might be a day to avoid.
Besides Semangat Gunung having an ex proportional amount of restaurants and resorts the town also has a small market where most cars park. On sale are the various products from the sloping mountain fields. The produce on offer mid July are strawberries, small mangoes, avocado's, oranges, rambutans, passion fruit and tamarillo's. Another crop widely cultivated in the area is coffee.

As if there are not places to soak, more are on the way. This one looks big, but hardly adds to the existing choice. Moreover it will be viewable from the road. Could it be their main selling point?

The main town here is Brastagi (also known as Berastagi), which offers tourists a breath of cool fresh mountain air and a large number of resorts to stay. In the evening, the main road sidewalks turn into a large food market. The daily fresh produce market is very busy, with much local produce on offer. There is also a tourist market from where horse rides can be taken.
A nearby peak offers views of both Sibayak and Sinabung volcanoes. The highlands around Brastagi are populated by the Karo Dayak, which give a certain distinctiveness to the area.

More information on Brastagi can be found here:
Some sites mentioning Semangat Gunung also refer to the village as or confuse it with another nearby hot spring called Lau Debuk Debuk. Another blog entry on Semangut Gunung hot springs is by Neil Hogan.

Getting There:
Semangat Gunung is located 5 km's up a side road of the main Medan - Kabanhanje road. The turn off is located roughly 10 km before the mountain resort town of Brastagi, where there are ample opportunities for overnight stays.

Soaking Experience: Despite some serious reservations concerning the hygienic standards, the pools provided a great place to sooth the possible pains and strains of walking up and over Sibayak volcano from Brastagi, a 5 hour venture. The pools were hot, but not too hot and had a good depth, though all pools were a bit small. Don't know why the resort was covered in Disney characters, I myself preferred gazing up the mountain. There were no private pools and most pools can be seen from the road side. Changing facilities were poor and despite the setting there was little 'natural' to the soaking surroundings beyond the view.

Overall Impression: Would I travel far to soak here? I think not, but it being en route to and from hiking Sibayak, this certainly encouraged a soak. Let's hope Indonesia has more like this or even better on offer!

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