Sumatra in Western Indonesia is the sixth largest island in the world. While it doesn’t have the temples and beaches of Bali or Java, what the region lacks in historic sights, it more than makes up for in awesome scenery and thrilling adventure experiences. Home to Batak ethnic groups – the term used by Malay settlers to describe non-Muslims in Sumatra – the area is steeped in tradition and fascinating culture. Here are a few reasons why you should visit the north of this gorgeous island.
1. To leave the beaten track far behind
North Sumatra has some stunning scenery and an extremely welcoming population, yet with so little tourism development here traditions have remained intact and visitors are few. Take the drive from Lake Toba to Berastagi to experience the region at its best. Spend half a day slowly snaking your way north and enjoy the extraordinary views, the bucolic landscape, the brilliant Piso Piso Waterfall (the highest in Indonesia), roadside markets, and some fine Batak villages.
2. To get up close and personal with orang-utans in the jungle
The tropical rainforests of the Gunung Lesuer National Park surrounding Bukit Lawang (a small village two hours north west of Sumatra’s capital Medan) are one of the few places where you get to see our red-haired cousins in the wild.
Treks ranging from a couple of hours to several days are on offer. You venture into the heart of the jungle where it’s possible to feed the orang-utans, bushwhack through the undergrowth, and, if you stay overnight, wake up to an exotic dawn chorus.
Giant parasitic rafflesia flowers, Thomas Leaf monkeys, macaques and gibbons are just a handful of the thousands of species found in this thriving eco-system.
3. To find some peace and quiet on Lake Toba
At over 1145 square kilometres with a depth of approximately 500 metres, Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. It’s so enormous that it even has an island the size of Singapore at its centre. This is a place to relax and enjoy pristine scenery whilst exploring the traditional Batak villages on Samosir Island.
4. To visit a longhouse
Although the Batak have many traditions, they are probably best known for their unique architecture.
The bale (“meeting hall”), rumah (“house”) where groups of families live communally, and sopo (“rice barn”) are the three main types of building, and the typical ‘Siwaluh Jabu’ longhouses, with their distinctive saddle shaped roofs, are often home to as many as twelve families.
At Dokan, a Batak village, an hour’s drive from Berastagi you are able to see inside one of the traditional houses. For a small donation, a local guide will enthusiastically tell you about his home and village.
5. To watch a traditional Batak Toba dance
The Batak Karo people are famous for their traditions and rituals dating back centuries. The most striking are the wedding and funeral ceremonies, often lasting several days.
To get a taste of their unique culture, head to a traditional Batak Toba dance called the tortor. At the Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo on the Northern tip of Samosir Island on Lake Toba, displays take place daily at 10:30am, Monday–Saturday.
6. To get your five-a-day
The fruit market in Berastagi has an enormous variety of tropical fruits, many of them unfamiliar to visitors. There’s no difficulty in getting your five-a-day here. Passion fruit, known as mariska, is particularly popular, especially the yellow variety. Also look out for salak, often known as “snake skin fruit” due to its scaly skin, and tamarillos, small tree tomatoes, another speciality from one of Sumatra’s most fertile regions.
7. To climb to the summit of a volcano
Choose between Gunung Sibayak volcano at 2094m, or take the more strenuous climb up Gunung Sinabung, slightly higher at 2452m. The hardest part of climbing Gunung Sibayak is finding the path back down. Be sure to take a guide and reward your tired legs with a leisurely soak in the hot spring at the bottom.