Sumatra offers a breath of fresh air for those travellers looking to escape the chaos of Java. An explorer’s paradise, the vast majority of the island remains undiscovered. Most of the highlights are in the north at places like Bukit Lawang, a jungle-shrouded river offering the best chance in Indonesia to see orang-utans in the wild; Danau Toba, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a magical place to lose a few days and relax in one of the numerous waterside resorts on the island of Samosir; and the stunning crater lake of Danau Maninjau. On the west coast lies Padang, recently rebuilt after the horrific earthquake of September 2009 and set within easy reach of dozens of idyllic islands including the remote Mentawai, filled with adventure potential. Near Sumatra’s southern tip and just a short ferry hop from Java sits Bandar Lampung, within striking distance of Krakatau and the surfing hub of Krui.
Getting around Sumatra on public transport can be gruelling – distances are vast, the roads tortuous and the driving hair-raising. The good news is that many of Indonesia’s domestic airlines have made safety a higher priority and now offer affordable connections to all the major centres in Sumatra. While most travellers these days skip to North Sumatra in a matter of minutes, those with time on their hands should take advantage of a fast-disappearing phenomenon in Southeast Asia: the unbeaten path.