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. Often overlooked and underrated, we’re here to tell you that Sumatra is an absolute gem!
Getting around Sumatra
Ellie McManus from Sumatran Orangutan Discovery gave us her best tips for getting around Sumatra:
The most convenient (and cheaper) way to get around Sumatra’s cities is by using online taxis such as Grab and Go-Jek. These services can be booked through an app on your smartphone. They are often much cheaper than regular taxis. However, rural travel or long-distance travel isn’t always an option with this app.
If you are making a long journey there are three main options; private car, tourist bus or local bus. Let’s look at each option.
Clearly, the most convenient but least ecological option would be private car. Private car hire ranges from 38-55USD depending on the distance of your journey. This includes your fuel and driver. If you are a big group of friends, this option often works out cheaper per person and gives you the flexibility to leave and arrive when you like.
The tourist bus isn’t really much of a bus, and more like a family car. This option can be very convenient if you are flexible about your departure time and doesn’t often take much longer than the private car option. However, the tourist bus will only take you to a main stop, from there you will need to find your own way.
Public transport can be a far from a comfortable option, it is much cheaper, but takes longer. Expect to find yourself on many a bumpy bus 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!
Be aware that very few local buses have aircon, and you can easily end up waiting a long time in traffic jams, as well as the endless picking up and dropping off of passengers. We don’t recommend this option if you are in a rush, or going to catch a flight. For intercity travel, there are VIP bus options which come equipped with comfortable reclining seats, air-con and toilets. We highly advise taking a jacket or blanket and earphones to try and block out the night-long serenade of karaoke. Read more about Sumatran Bus Travel here.
Top 5 Places to Stay in Sumatra
Sumatra is often overshadowed by the islands of Bali and Lombok, meaning hostels can be in short supply outside of the main cities. However, luckily there is plenty of budget accommodation, offering privacy for a low price. Make sure you stay at one of these unique and amazing places during your travels in Sumatra…
1. Ecolodge Bukit Lawang (Bukit Lawang)
Visitors to Bukit Lawang who are looking for a responsible choice will love the Ecolodge. They operate sustainably and provide community-based tourism. Every room is equipped with a fan, mosquito net and desk. Bike hire is available to help visitors explore the local area.
The cheapest rooms come in at $30USD a night but do sleep two people. These rooms also have a garden view from which guests report it is possible to see wild monkeys. It is more pricey than some of the local options but the standard of accommodation is high and travellers can sleep easy knowing they have put their money into a place with a good ethos.
2. Oseda Nias Surf House (Pulau Nias)
A favourite amongst beach bums, Oseda Nias Surf House sits right on the beach, providing the ideal sunset setting. All of the rooms are private but clean and comfortable. Free bike rental and drinking water are included in the price.
Breakfast is provided and there is also an on-site restaurant that guests rate very highly. A deluxe single room with a beachfront view (how nice does that sound?!) will set you back around $29USD a night.
3. ZEN Hostel Kualanamu (Medan)
Located in Medan just 10 minutes from the airport, the pod-style beds have been a hit with travellers. There is also a free shuttle service to the airport included in the room rate which leaves several times a day.
Although not somewhere you are likely to stay for long (Medan is a popular jumping-off point for many other much more beautiful parts of Sumatra), it provides everything that a backpacker needs for an overnight stay. Dorm beds start at $7USD per night.
4. Pulau Weh Paradise (Pulau Weh)
The name of this place says it all. Quite simply, this is paradise. Double rooms begin at $16USD but those looking to splurge on the ultimate luxury can stay in a beachfront bungalow for just $32USD per night!
As well as featuring a restaurant and barbecue, there are also motorbikes to rent. The vibe is peaceful and relaxing which provides the perfect opportunity to recharge your batteries after an intense few diving sessions!
5. Toba Cats Garden (Lake Toba)
Animal and nature lovers will adore Toba Cats Garden! Uncle Bon is somewhat of a local celebrity on the travel scene and will wow you with his storytelling and in-depth knowledge of the surrounding area.
As well as a personal feel, Toba Cats Garden also offers guests a beautiful view over the lake and a chance to make some new furry friends! Don’t worry though, the bedroom and bathroom are separate from the cat’s area. A standard double room at this guesthouse comes in at $13USD.
The Best Places to Visit in Sumatra – North to South!
The North and East Coast of Sumatra – Must Visit Places
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.
The Northern city of Sumatra is strictly Muslim, home to some impressive mosques and some great food! Most backpackers use it as a jumping off point for the island of Pulau Weh (see below) but hang around a while and you’ll discover some unique treasures. Just 15km from Banda Aceh is the off the beaten track surfer’s paradise of Lhok Nga Beach. You can read our full guide to Banda Aceh here.
In the northwest 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 Southeast 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. Read our destination guide to Pulau Weh here.
Situated in north Sumatra about three hours bus drive from the main city, Medan, Bukit Lawang is mainly famous for being one of the best places to see Sumatran Orangutans in the wild. 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. Read our guide to Bukit Lawang here.
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 the 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.
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. Read our destination guide to Lake Toba here.
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.
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.
West Sumatra – Must Visit Places
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!
Although Padang is a place that is generally missed off of traveller itineraries, foodies should not skip it. Padang is the birthplace of Indonesia’s most regional famous dish and there is no better place to try it than here!
Also known as the Yosemite of Indonesia, the scenery at Harau Valley is stunning. This area is home to many free-roaming monkeys which make for a truly authentic Indonesian experience.
The high rock formations are a photographers dream and those who prefer their days fuelled with adrenaline will relish the rock climbing opportunities there. There are two beautiful waterfalls on the cliffs. Ask the locals where to find Aka Bearayun and Sarasah Bunta for your chance to see them!
South Sumatra – Must Visit Places
The capital city of the South Sumatra province is one of the oldest inhabited parts of Indonesia. Also known as the ‘Venice of the East’, Palembang is a great stop for foodies.
As well as the abundance of history to be explored there, the Musi River plays host to a whole range of restaurants on the waterfront which serve local delicacies such as pempek (fishcake with tapioca pearls).
One Week in Sumatra – A Traveller’s Experience
Day 1 – Catching the ferry from Georgetown, Penang to Medan
We sat in the monsoon rain on the island of Penang, Malaysia pondering where to go next. My friend and I had been travelling in Southeast Asia for six months. We’d both ticked off the ‘must do adventures’ and had visited the most ‘raved about’ destinations. But now, with only one week left in Asia before my friend caught her flight back home, our next adventure lay before us like the unwritten pages of a journal. But where to go?
As my friend leafed through an old guidebook in the hostel her attention stopped on what sounded like a dream isle only a three-hour ferry ride from Penang. As she read out the blurb, this place sounded too good to be true. Amazing scenery, volcanoes, surfing beaches, rainforests, enormous lakes, friendly locals and dirt cheap accommodation. “Just one thing” my friend said after she’d finished reading, “It mentions there are quite a lot of earthquakes, er… and volcano eruptions, and flash floods, oh and the transport is atrocious. Also, we should be careful of terrorism when we’re there, other than that it really does sound awesome!”
I’m of the opinion when travelling that if you want to go somewhere, you should just do it and don’t let things that you read or what anyone tells you put you off. We’re not talking stupid here like walking into war zones, but from my experience, you can scare yourself half to death reading about the dangers that could befall you in a foreign land. If you paid too much attention to government warnings you’d never leave your front garden. And we were here to explore!
So, at 8am we caught the ferry from Georgetown to Indonesia’s third-largest city, Medan, arriving about 1pm. My friend slept the whole way, but I was restless after a local had told us that swashbuckling pirates roam the Indonesian seas, so I’d been looking for sightings of the Black Pearl on the horizon all the way. Having resigned ourselves to each others company for the next seven days, thinking we wouldn’t meet many others coming this way, we were surprised to see a few backpackers on the ferry, and before we knew it there were five of us travelling together.
Day 2 – The bus to Berestagi
After a bit of a crazy ride from Medan port on a clapped out, durian smelling bus, filled with betel-nut chewing locals, we arrived at our first destination, Berestagi… Berestagi is a small town surrounded by volcanoes and hot springs that has very little in the way of tourism. We booked ourselves in our first night in Hotel Ginsata, which was basic, but perfectly fine and then headed to the nearest eatery.
We ended up in a quirky little place called ‘Raymonds’ chatting with some very interesting locals who all spoke excellent English. They were eager to talk to us ‘foreigners’ and after a while we found out that some of them were running for local government! We discussed the decline in tourism in Sumatra over the past 20 years. They attributed the decline to recent terrorist activity in Banda Aceh, North of Berestagi which they say greatly affected the number of visitors to Sumatra as a whole. “People are scared to come here” they said “Just because of the actions of a minority.”
It occurred to me the immense power that the media has on influencing tourism. Negative TV and newspaper coverage of a place can seriously damage the livelihood of small, local-run businesses that depend on overseas visitors. It seemed ridiculous to me, sat in this lovely bar feeling totally at ease with welcoming locals, that an incident hundreds of miles away could put so many people off visiting the entire island.
Day 3 – Climbing Gunung Sibayak
The next day, we climbed the volcano “Gunung Sibayak” (2094m) from the town, which took us about three hours through the rainforest canopy to reach the top. The crater was a steaming, eggy-smelling place that was alive with the sound of gases rushing out of holes in the earth’s surface. It was wonderfully atmospheric and even though it last exploded 4456 years ago, you couldn’t help but feel a little nervous that it may spurt again at any moment!
The views from the top were fantastic and after a day climbing, soaking in the boiling hot springs at the bottom of the volcano was just heaven. It was hard to drag ourselves out.
Day 4 – Arriving at Lake Toba
The next destination was Lake Toba, a one day bumpy bus ride from Berestagi, on various buses with various drivers, all of whom had clearly had dreams of becoming Formula One racing drivers in their youth. With a bit of luck, we made it there safe and we knew at once we were in for a treat.
Lake Toba is the biggest volcanic Crater Lake in the world. It is said that the crater was formed by a huge volcanic eruption that occurred more than 75,000 years ago. We’d heard great things about it from everyone we’d met. As the steamy rainforest began to thin, the bus turned the corner and the lake came into view we began to see why. A beautiful silver sheen sparkled on the horizon, in-between luscious green mountains as monkeys played at the side of the road.
Day 5 – Pulau Samosir and ‘Tuk Tuk’
We’d heard of an island in the middle of the lake, Palau Samosir, and decided to settle ourselves there for the next few days. We stayed in the only resort on the island, Tuk Tuk, a spot which apparently once played host to its own Full Moon Party a la Koh Phangan. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine lots of drunken people with luminous paint on their faces and buckets in their hands disturbing the lovely peaceful streets. Perhaps the only remnant of a wilder past was a sign outside a guesthouse that read “Laundry and Magic Mushrooms.”
All along the lakeside, rows and rows of cute little restaurants and bars, book shops and cafes were void of people. We had the place to ourselves! Everywhere we went people were excited to see us, going out of their way to make us feel welcome. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad that this wonderful place that had once enjoyed an abundance of cash-carrying foreign visitors had become a ghost town.
We booked into Samosir Cottages in Tuk-Tuk, a great hotel with a lovely atmosphere, cheap food, table tennis, pool, internet and free films. We paid a meagre $5 US a night for a brilliant room with hot shower and a bath, (yes a bath!) so close to the lake that you could hear the sound of the water lapping against the shore as you lay in bed. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Day 6 – Exploring Pulau Samosir
Indonesia is estimated to have around 250 different ethnic minorities and this part of Northern Sumatra, in particular Pulau Samosir, was home to the Batak people. 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, we spent most of our days exploring the island on motorbikes. We were amazed by the natural beauty of the place; bright green rice fields, buffalo roaming the land, blue mountains, waterfalls, hot springs and the metallic sheen of Lake Toba always in view. It was also extraordinary to see quaint little churches dotted here and there, a throwback to the Dutch colonisation of the island 300 years ago. It seemed an incongruous sight after hearing that Indonesia is 88% Muslim.
Day 7 – The tribal village of Ambarita
We also visited an ancient Batak tribal village called Ambarita. At the site, you can see stone chairs where tribal elders once held council. A friendly and informative guide took us around the site and explained the history of the area including the acts of cannibalism that took place there before until the introduction of Christianity by the Dutch.
Apart from exploring the island in convoy, we spent time relaxing by and swimming in the lake, attempting a bit of fishing and having some pretty heated table tennis tournaments. Oh and eating far too much of the amazing local curry, Rendang!
After three days at the lake, we just didn’t want to leave. So much so that we ended up staying an extra day and having to pay a fine on our visa as we left the country from Duran port back to Melaka in Malaysia!
If only we had more time… we’d visit Bukit Lawang!
On the bus, on the way to Duran, we met a lone backpacker who had spent most of his time in Sumatra in a village called Bukit Lawang, a place that is known for the incredible Orangutan Viewing Centre in the midst of the jungle. Apparently, it’s one of the only places in the world where you can get up close and personal with our hairy ancestors in their natural habitat.
He’d been trekking through the jungle with a local guide to visit the centre and had said that experience had been a real highlight of his trip. He too commented on the lack of travellers he’d seen during his time in Sumatra and had been asked repeatedly by local guides “Why are tourists not coming here?” Compared with the immense popularity of elephant trekking in Northern Thailand for example, the Orangutan Viewing Centre in Sumatra received a trickle of travellers wandering of the well-trodden ‘banana pancake’ trail.
As with much of Indonesia, Bukit Lawang suffered its own local disaster which seems to have put tourists off visiting. In 2003, a flash flood devastated the village during the night. Many buildings were destroyed and people were killed. However, with amazing bravery and strength the locals rebuilt their village and are welcoming foreign visitors with open arms. After witnessing ourselves the quiet towns and villages, we wondered just what it would take to lull those travellers back. In my opinion, backpackers were missing out!
Day 8 – Leaving Sumatra with plans to go back!
Aside from the amazing places we’d experienced… reading my guidebook on the way out of the country, (sadly) it sounded like Sumatra had many more secrets up its sleeve! Every place intrigued me and made me want to hop off the bus and go right back! There was Pulau Weh, an island celebrated for its pristine dive sites, Pulau Nias, a legendary surfer’s paradise and the town of Bukittingi, an atmospheric market town surrounded by enormous volcanoes. It was clearly obvious that we hadn’t done this incredible country justice and I vowed to come back and give it my full attention one day and tell all backpackers that I met from now on about our experience in Sumatra.
After reading about all the things that could have gone wrong on our trip before we came, we had encountered nothing but good things. Sumatra really was an awesome destination, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it was a highlight of my travels in Southeast Asia!
How to get to Sumatra
By Ferry: Getting to Sumatra from Peninsular Malaysia is easy by ferry from Melaka. It takes around three hours to reach the Sumatran town of Dumai. There is also the option of taking a ferry from Singapore to Batam. From here you can fly to the mainland, or take further ferries to a few different ports on Sumatra.
By plane: You can fly into Sumatra’s main city of Medan with budget airlines such as Air Asia. Head to our flight 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, Malaysia: 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.