85% of the population are Minangkabau, notable in the annals of anthropology as the world's largest matriarchal society: children take their names from their mother's side and, on marriage, the husband moves into the wife's family. Culturally, the hallmarks of Minangkabau culture are their famously spicy food, served all around Indonesia in Padang restaurants (named after the capital), and the soaring-eaved rumah gadang house, shaped like a series of buffalo horns.
On the other hand, the tribal inhabitants of the Mentawai archipelago, a group of islands about 100 miles off the coast of west Sumatra, cling to a traditional agrarian lifestyle that is totally different from that of Minangkabau.
Most people in West Sumatra uses Minang language in their daily conversation. It's somewhat similar to Malay language, due to the fact that Melayu language is the origin root of both languages.
Minangkabau International Airport (Bandara Internasional Minangkabau - BIM) (PDG), located 23 km north-west of Padang, is the main gateway to West Sumatra, with frequent flights to destinations throughout Sumatra and Java, as well as Kuala Lumpur (AirAsia). Tiger Airways and SilkAir previously connected Padang to Singapore, but Tiger ended service October 28, 2009 and SilkAir no longer serves PDG.
Note that if you are flying internationally out of Minangkabau Airport, you are subject to departure tax (75,000 Rupiah as at Feb '08) which you would need to pay for in Rupiah so save some bills for the trip out. The domestic tax is Rp. 30,000.
In West Sumatra its not easy to get off the tourist trail without language, the hotel performances are pretty contrived sometimes.
If you can, get down to Padang Panjang 10km downhill from Bukittinggi en route to Padang, the capital (Padang is a bit boring but has a huge market complex for last minute purchases before flying out).
West Sumatra is a great place for lovely food, and its cuisine is one of Indonesia's best. Water buffaloes are a symbol of West Sumatra and are used in rendang, a rich and spicy buffalo meat or beef dish. Padang food comes from West Sumatra. The Padang food restaurant chains can be found throughout Indonesia and neighboring countries, thus render it as probably the most popular regional dish in Indonesia. Dishes from the region include nasi kapau which is similar to Padang food but uses more vegetables. Ampiang dadiah (buffalo yogurt with palm sugar syrup, coconut flesh and rice) and bubur kampiun (Mung bean porridge with banana and rice yogurt) are other west Sumatran specialties. They have a lot of hot & spicy dishes, since chili is in the majority of their food. Curry is also a big part of their dishes, and quite a few use coconut milk. All of the traditional food is Halal, due to the Islamic faith of the community.
Teh Talua is West Sumatra's provincial drink. If you've chosen a more set up cafe stall ask for a teh talua. Don't grimace - bitter black tea poured over whipped egg and sugar creates a custardy flavoured "cappuccino froth" on your tea. The best has a squeeze of lime. My recommendation for teh talua is Desy's cafe in Jl Pasar Baru I, in Central Padang behind the main market, but more specifically for navigating there, behind the Balai Kota (Town Hall) and Police Station ("Belakang Benteng" is a really clear instruction to a driver) The tiny cafe is where police staff eat and Desyeni the proprietor has a solid lineage of culinary expertise behind her. All food guaranteed clean and superb and absolutely local.
Safer than most other areas because of a Muslim ethic and intact social fabric. Keep safe by making friends. The Minang take great community responsibility. Talk to people and they will look out for you as one of their own. At the same time crime exists and normal precautions should be taken. Importantly, respect their values and, if female, try not to travel alone after dark--in company with other women is OK. The ethos - the community can't look after you if you don't look after yourself. Or if you go places where the honest eyes can't see. So being alone or the only female in male company at night is considered asking for it.