Sumatra, the largest of the Indonesian islands has everything that a destination needs to make the intrepid traveller’s mouth water. Dense rainforests, steaming volcano treks, deserted islands, remote surf beaches, volcanic crater lakes, hot springs, wilderness, all that and a chance to get up close and personal with our closest relative, the orangutan.
There’s an interesting mix of cultures, languages, religions and colonial history and the locals are so welcoming that they’ll invite you into their homes and cook you some of that delicious local curry, Rendang!
Compared to its neighbour, Thailand, Sumatra receives very few tourists and you will find a different kind of backpacker on the ferry over from Malaysia than those that populate Thailand’s South islands.
Transport leaves a lot to be desired in Sumatra, so expect to find yourself on many a bumpy journey crammed in a seat next to a few chickens, an old woman chewing betel nut, a couple of chain smoking men and some curious noisy babies – but this, my friends, is where all of the best adventures begin…
The North and East Coast of Sumatra
The capital of Sumatra, and the third largest city in Indonesia has little in the way of attractions for the traveller. Busy, polluted and dirty – most backpackers tend to fly into the city and get a bus straight out! If you do linger around though, or end up spending the night here due to a late transfer into the city, probably the best thing about the place is the food, sold at the many food stalls and hawker centres across the city.
With a large mix of ethnic minorities in the city from Chinese, to Toba-Batak, Karo-Batak, Javanese and Southern and Northern Indians, the food is varied, cheap and tasty! The city is the gateway to exploring Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang and other naturally beautiful parts of Sumatra.
In the north-west of Sumatra, in the area known as Aceh, you will find the small paradise island of Pulau Weh, surrounded by the Andaman Sea. A protected wildlife area, the island is a haven for nature lovers with its active volcanoes inland and pristine coral reefs.
Snorkelling and diving here are some of the best in the whole of South East Asia with clean, warm waters and a diverse and rare variety of sea life. Getting to the island from the mainland of Banda Aceh takes two hours.
Photo courtesy of Alex Gannes.
Alex spent six months in Sumatra including a month motorbiking around Aceh and North Sumatra exploring the most remote, wild, and beautiful areas he could find. You can read more about his awesome adventures and find out more about Sumatra on his blog,‘Finding My Lost Pulau Blogspot’.
Situated in north Sumatra about three hours bus drive from the main city, Medan, Bukit Lawang is mainly famous for the Bohorok Orangutan Viewing Centre. However, aside from the main attraction, Bukit Lawang is a small place that often leaves a big impression on travellers due to the friendliness and positive attitude of the people.
As with much of Indonesia, Bukit Lawang has had to deal with its own natural disaster which devastated the village in 2003 and has seemed to put off tourists indefinitely. A flash flood occurred at night while many people were unaware in their homes. The flood literally wiped out the entire village taking hundreds of people and buildings with it. Most people now in the village have lost someone to the flood.
However, through all the hardship and grief the people of Bukit Lawang have been through they have still managed to rebuild their village and are welcoming tourists with open arms to visit them once again. As well as seeing our hairy relatives, Bukit Lawang is an idyllic place to visit if you just want to relax, go trekking, tubing or rafting on the river.
Naturally beautiful, Bukit Lawang – Photo by Mike Alty
An excellent stopover town on the way to the glorious destination of Lake Toba (read next!), from Medan Berestagi is a good place to soak up some local Sumatran atmosphere. The town is small (and there isn’t a tourist in sight!) with a few markets, basic guesthouses and restaurants.
A great day-adventure is to climb the local volcano “Gunung Sibayak” (2094m) from the town, which takes about three hours through rainforest canopy to reach the top. The crater is a steaming, eggy-smelling place alive with the sound of gases rushing out of holes in the earth’s surface.
Don’t worry though, this isn’t one of Sumatra’s active volcanoes, and last exploded more than 4,500 years ago! After a day of climbing, you can then head back towards the town for a soak in the boiling hot springs at the base of the volcano. Heaven.
The sulphur smelling crater of Gunung Sibayak, Berestagi
A one-day chicken bus ride from Berestagi, you will find yourself in one of the most magical, serene destinations in the whole of Indonesia – the wonderful, enchanting Lake Toba!
Lake Toba is the biggest volcanic Crater Lake in the world and it is predicted that the crater was formed by a huge volcanic eruption that occurred more than 75,000 years ago. Today, it’s a placid, sparkling silver sheen that glistens in-between luscious green mountains and rice fields.
Pulau Samosir Island (Lake Toba):
Most travellers decide to stay on the small island in the middle of the lake, known as Palau Samosir. The only resort on the island is quirkily named ‘Tuk Tuk’ (although you won’t find any of them here!) which apparently once hosted a very early version of the Full Moon Party and was popular back in the day amongst the hippie trail crowd.
With leftover signs on guesthouses that say ‘Magic Mushrooms and Laundry.’ the signs are still here – although the people are certainly not. The village is deserted, which means extremely cheap accommodation, food and welcoming locals, excited to see tourists once again in their village.
Pulau Samosir is home to the Batak people and the island is distinctly flavoured with their rich culture and heritage, from the local food to the folk dancing and the unique boat-shaped houses which are a striking feature of the island. Away from the “resort” of Tuk Tuk, the island is a beautiful gem just waiting to be explored; bright green rice fields, buffalo roaming the land, blue mountains, waterfalls and hot springs.
Lake Toba and the Batak Houses
Consisting of 131 islands, Pulau Nias is the biggest and most visited. World-renowned amongst surfing enthusiasts for its awesome swell, the most famous being at Sorake Bay. It was also a big destination on the hippie trail of the 1960’s, which inspired the future rush to Bali.
As well as the surf Nias hosts many festivals and celebrations performed by the local people – of which ‘Stone Jumping’ and War Dances are the most popular. Backpackers are often put off from visiting the island due to its difficult transport links and precarious location making it a hotspot for earthquakes and Tsunamis. The earthquake of 2005 killed 800 people and injured 2000.
Dominated by the massive looming volcanoes of Mount Singgalang (inactive) and Mount Merapi (active – yes active!), Bukittingi is a large town on the west coast of Sumatra. Trekking the volcanoes from the town is possible, as well as rafting, kayaking, caving and even para-gliding – Bukittingi has become somewhat of an adventure playground for the backpacker! Be prepared – the climbs can be tough, starting around midnight in order to reach the summits for sunrise!
Mount Merapi at sunrise – Phot by Mike Alty
By Ferry: Getting to Sumatra from Peninsular Malaysia is easy by ferry from either Penang or Melaka. From Penang, the ferry takes about five hours to reach the mainland near Medan and leaves around 8am. And from Melaka, around three hours to reach the Sumatran town of Dumai.
By plane: You can fly into Sumatra’s main city of Medan with budget airlines such as Air Asia. Head to our flights page to check out cheap flights now!
Where to go next?
Melaka, Malaysia: Just a ferry ride from Dumai, Sumatra, Melaka is an atmospheric cultural town with a colonial history, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish influence – and amazing street food! Be sure to check out the interesting Museum of Beauty while you are there.
Penang, Malayasia: Mostly famous for its amazing fusion food, Penang is an island that has a little bit of everything: national park, beaches, shopping malls, a colonial old town, trekking, nightlife and some great hostels!
Java, Indonesia: Continue your Indonesian adventure on the colourful island of Java, which boasts the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta. Climb more volcanoes, such as the spectacular Mount Bromo and visit the largest Buddhist temple in the world, Borobudur.
Bali and the Gili Islands: Skip the cities and volcanoes and head to the beaches! For surf, sand and Bintang beer of the popular holiday island of Bali.
Gili Trawangan just a stone’s throw from Bali is a backpacker favourite with white sand, clear turquoise waters, no road, no dogs and no police!
Header photo by Flash Parker.