Sumatra, Indonesia: The Forgotten Island…

It’s a land that is often overlooked by backpackers on the well trodden South East Asian trail, yet Sumatra, the largest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands is an absolute gem!

One traveller’s experience…

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 South East 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 guide books 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 sounds 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.

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.

Locals riding on the tops of buses in SumatraLocal school kids riding on the top of the bus just outside 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 15 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.

The next day, we climbed the volcano “Gunung Sibayak” (2094m) from the town, which took us about three hours through 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.

Gunung Sibayak SumatraAmongst the sulphur geezers at the crater of Gunung Sibayak, Sumatra

The crater of Gunung Sibayak SumatraThe dormant crater of Gunung Subayak that last erupted 4,456 years ago

Working in the fields in BerestagiLocals work in the fields underneath the Volcano in Sumatra

Smiling children on the way up the volcano in BerestagiChildren stop playing and run out their houses to greet the trekkers in Berestagi

Hot Springs in Berestagi SumatraSoaking in the Hot Springs after our trek up the volcano was heaven.

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.

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 illuminous 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 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.

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.

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 round 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!

Batak Boat Shaped Houses Pulau SamosirThe Boat Shaped Batak Houses on Samosir Island

Ambarita the Batak Tribal VillageThe stone chairs where elders held council at the Ancient Tribal Village of Ambarita

Lake Toba Sumatra IndonesiaViews on our motorbike ride as sun was beginning to set on Lake Toba

Rice fields and mountains around Lake TobaNight draws in over rice fields on the shores of Lake Toba

After four 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.

On the bus 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 recieved a trickle of travellers wandering of the well trodden ‘banana pancake’ trail.

As with much of Indonesia, Bukit Lawang suffered it’s 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!

Oragutan Viewing Centre Bukit Lawang SumatraSwinging through the trees at the Orangutan Viewing Centre in Bukit Lawang

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 it’s 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 it’s 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 South East Asia.

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