Sumatra Travel Guide

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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.

Bukit Lawang

The popular tourist resort of Bukit Lawang, tucked away on the easternmost fringes of the Gunung Leuser National Park, 78km north of Medan, is home to the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre. On November 2, 2003, a flash flood ripped through the heart of the resort leaving more than two hundred dead, including five tourists. The rebuilding process is finally complete and the decimated area across from the feeding centre has regained much of its former buzz. With a wonderful selection of treks into the heart of the jungle, whitewater adventures and some of the best opportunities to see wild orang-utan in the world, this is a destination worth visiting.

Bukit Lawang has a stunning location below curtains of thick jungle on the banks of the Bohorok River. Aside from relaxing at one of the numerous cafés and bars, the main attractions are the feeding times behind the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the treks in the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The Bohorok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

The reason for the existence of the tourist resort is the Bukit Lawang Bohorok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre (wwww.orangutans-sos.org), founded in 1973 by two Swiss women, Monica Borner and Regina Frey, with the aim of returning captive and orphaned orang-utans into the wild after re-teaching them the art of tree climbing and nest building. The rehabilitation programme was suspended a while ago and though the centre is still open, it is more a tourist attraction than anything else.

Visitors are allowed to watch the twice-daily, hour-long feeding sessions that take place on the hill behind the centre. All visitors must have a permit from the PHPA office. All being well, you should see at least one orang-utan during the session, and to witness their gymnastics is to enjoy one of the most memorable experiences in Indonesia.

Tubing

Tubing – the art of sitting in the inflated inner tube of a tyre as it hurtles downstream, battered by the wild currents of the Bohorok – is popular though not without risk. The tubes can be rented from almost anywhere in Bukit Lawang. If you’re not a strong swimmer, consider tubing on a Sunday, when the locals employ a rescue team along the more dangerous stretches of the river around Bukit Lawang. The rapids can be quite extreme after heavy rain, so should be attempted with caution if you are without a guide. There is a bridge 12km downstream (2–3hrs) of the village, from where you can catch a bus back.

Trekking

Bukit Lawang is the most popular base for organizing treks into the Gunung Leuser National Park, with plenty of guides based here. If you want only a short day-trek, a walk in the forest around Bukit Lawang is fine, and your chance of seeing monkeys, gibbons, macaques and, of course, orang-utans is high. A range of treks is on offer, including a week-long slog towards Ketambe in Aceh province, passing through some excellent tracts of primary forest. Increasingly, visitors are heading deep into the jungle to reach Tangkahan, which offers elephant-mounted treks and whitewater rafting. One of the most popular (and enjoyable) options from Bukit Lawang remains the full-day trek, which includes lunch and finishes with a thirty-minute trip to Bukit Lawang through the rapids on an inflatable tube raft. You must have a permit for every day that you plan to spend in the park, and you must also have a guide, and should also be careful when choosing – make sure they have ITGA approval. Guides supplied by the Jungle Inn have the best repuation. Whoever you decide to hire, they should never feed, touch or even call the orang-utans. Keep an eye out for the notorious Mina, a mischevious, semi-wild female known for intimidating visitors and occasionally descending from the trees to give chase.

Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir

Lying right in the middle of the province, jewel-like Danau Toba is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, and at 525m possibly the world’s deepest, too. It was formed about 80,000 years ago by a colossal volcanic eruption: the caldera that was created eventually buckled under the pressure and collapsed in on itself, the high-sided basin that remained filling with water to form the lake. A second, smaller volcanic eruption, 50,000 years after the first, created an island the size of Singapore in the middle of the lake. This island, Pulau Samosir, is the cultural and spiritual heartland of the Toba Batak people and one of the most fascinating, pleasant and laidback spots in Indonesia.

Pulau Samosir is arguably the best spot in Sumatra to relax for a few days on a hammock by the azure water. Most tourists make for the eastern shores of Samosir where there’s a string of enjoyable resorts, the main one being Tuk Tuk, housing plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars. From here you can trek into the deforested hills within the centre of Samosir or circle the island’s coastline by motorbike, calling in at tiny Batak villages that have flamboyant tombs and distinctive concave-roofed houses, as well as the island’s cultural centre of Simanindo, on Samosir’s northern shore.

Trekking across Samosir

The hills in the centre of Samosir tower 700m above the lake, and at the heart of the island is a large plateau and Danau Sidihoni, a body of water about the size of a large village pond. It’s a ten-hour walk from one side of the island to the other, but a stopover in one of the villages on the plateau is usually necessary. Most begin in Ambarita on the eastern shore, on the uphill path, from where it’s two to three hours’ climb to the tiny hilltop village of Partukongan – aka Dolok or “summit” – the highest point on Samosir. There are two homestays here, John’s and Jenny’s, and Peter’s losmen in the next village on the trail, Ronggurnihuta. The villagers can be a bit vague when giving directions, so take care and check frequently with passers-by that you’re on the right trail. Ronggurnihuta is a three- or four-hour walk away, with Pangururan three to fours hours further on at the end of a tortuously long downhill track (18km) that passes Danau Sidihoni on the way. Arrive in Pangururan before 5pm and you should be in time to catch the last bus back to the eastern shore; otherwise, stay at the Wisata Samosir by the bus stop.

Tuk Tuk

The waters that lap the shores of Tuk Tuk are safe for swimming, though they can be dirty; the roped-off section of the lake by Carolina’s, complete with pontoons, canoes and a diving board, is the most popular place. There are also a few activities on offer in Tuk Tuk, including guided treks through the interior of the island and speedboat trips to Tomok, Ambarita and Simanindo. You can also rent bicycles and motorbikes, should you want to visit the more far-flung reaches of the island.

Padang

The seaside city of Padang is an important transport hub for the rest of Sumatra. Famous for its spicy local cuisine, Makanan Padang (Padang food), the city’s climate is equally extreme: hot and humid with the highest rainfall in Indonesia at 4508mm a year. Most travellers use the city as little more than a transit point for Bukittinggi or the nearby Mentawai Islands, especially after the devastating 2009 earthquake which killed 1300 people and left an estimated one million temporarily homeless. Some of the damage was irreversible: more than eighty percent of the exhibits at the Adityawarman Museum were destroyed. Striking evidence of the earthquake remains in spots like Pasar Raya, the central market, a massive hulk of collapsed concrete around which vendors have set up hundreds of makeshift shops. However, Padang has largely rebuilt itself, and the city now hums with life as much as ever. All in all, its famous restaurants, leafy boulevards, café-lined coast and slew of attractive nearby beaches and idyllic islands, like Sikuai to the south, make Padang worthy of a stopover.

Eating in Padang

It makes little sense to come to the homeland of Padang food without visiting at least one of the city’s restaurants. There’s no menu: you simply tell staff you want to eat and up to a dozen small plates are placed in front of you. Generally, the redder the sauce, the more explosive it is. At the southern end of Jl Pondok, due south of the market area towards the river, you’ll find a small night market of sate stalls. Another night market operates on Jl Imam Bonjol, a few hundred metres south of the junction with Jl Moh Yamin. More convenient for the hotels are the small restaurants on Jl Moh Yamin, near the junction with Jl Pemuda, which serve cheap and filling martabaks and sweet roti canai. Be aware that along Jl Pemuda things can get somewhat seedy at night.

Bukittinggi

Situated on the eastern edge of the Ngarai Sianok Canyon and with the mountains of Merapi and Singgalang rising to the south, the bustling town of Bukittinggi spreads for several kilometres in each direction. However, the central part of town, which is of most interest to visitors, is relatively compact and easy to negotiate. The most useful landmark is Djam Gadang, the clock tower at the junction of Jalan A Yani (the main thoroughfare) and Jalan Sudirman (the main road leading out of town to the south). Bukittinggi’s Pasar Atas (Upper Market) stretches to the south of the tower, while down the hill to the north and west lies Pasar Bawah (Lower Market), both of which swell to bursting point on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Jalan A Yani, 1km from north to south, is the tourist hub of Bukittinggi, and most of the sights, hotels, restaurants and shops that serve the tourist trade are on this street or close by. This is one of Sumatra’s most pleasant towns in which to spend a few days, boasting a range of restaurants and hotels and a plenitude of information on the surrounding area which includes the rafflesia reserve at Batang Palupah, beautiful Ngarai Sianok Canyon, spectacular Harau Valley and the enormous palace of Pagaruyung.

A few hundred metres to the north of the clock tower, Fort de Kock was built by the Dutch in 1825 and is linked by a footbridge to the park and the depressing Taman Bundo Kanduang zoo on the hill on the other side of Jalan A Yani. There’s little left of the original fort but some old cannons and parts of the moats.

Much more pleasant is a stroll around Panorama Park, perched on a lip of land overlooking the sheer cliff walls down into Ngarai Sianok Canyon, the best sight in Bukittinggi town by far, especially just after sunset when bats fly overhead. Beneath the park stretch 1400m of Japanese tunnels and rooms built by local slave labour for ammunition storage during World War II. You can venture down into these dank, miserable depths, although there’s nothing really to see. The Ngarai Sianok Canyon is part of a rift valley that runs the full length of Sumatra – the canyon here is 15km long and around 100m deep, with a glistening river wending its way along the bottom.

The Minang Highlands

The gorgeous mountainous landscape of the Minang Highlands features soaring rice terraces and easily accessible traditional culture. The highlands consist of three large valleys, with Bukittinggi the administrative and commercial centre of the whole district. The highlands around Bukittinggi are the cultural heartland of the Minangkabau (Minang) people. The Minang are staunchly matrilineal, one of the largest such societies extant, and Muslim. The most visible aspect of their culture is the distinctive architecture of their homes, with massive roofs soaring skywards at either end (to represent the horns of a buffalo). Typically, three or four generations of one family would live in one large house built on stilts, the rumah gadang (big house) or rumah adat (traditional house), a wood-and-thatch structure often decorated with fabulous wooden carvings.

Danau Maninjau

Preceded by the 44 hairpin turns that wind down to the lake from 400m above, Danau Maninjau (Lake Maninjau) is perfect for rest and relaxation on the way to or from Danau Toba. Though only 15km due west of Bukittinggi, the journey by public transport is actually 37km (1hr 30min). Located at an altitude of 500m, the lake is 17km long and 8km wide, with jungle-covered walls creeping up the ancient volcanic crater. Below the sheer walls are the rice paddies and palm-covered fields on the edges of the lake. The area of interest for tourists stretches out from the village of Maninjau, where the road from Bukittinggi reaches the lakeside, and the village of Bayur 4km to the north.

There’s not that much to do here apart from relax and swim in the lake, though you may like to try to track down a rafflesia in the jungle-clad hills behind the village, or visit the nearby waterfall.

Bandar Lampung

Occupying a stunning location in the hills overlooking Lampung Bay, from where you can see as far as Krakatau on a clear day, Bandar Lampung is an amalgamation of Teluk Betung, the traditional port, and Tanjung Karang, the administrative centre on the hills behind. Local people continue to talk about Teluk Betung and Tanjung Karang, and when you’re coming here from other parts of Sumatra your destination will usually be referred to as Rajabasa, the name of the bus terminal.

Travellers rarely stay long in Lampung, instead heading south for the ferry to Java or heading into long-haul buses to the north. However, adventurers may enjoy Lampung’s handful of largely unexplored attractions, among them jungle trekking through swampy Way Kambas, river trips in Way Kanan, boat charters to check out dolphins in Kiluan Bay and the white sandy beaches and frontal views of Krakatau in Sebuku and Sebesi islands. Meanwhile, surfers may want to head straight to Krui on the west coast, one of the best year-round surf spots around.

Boat safety

Indonesian ferries have a record of poor safety, with more than four hundred perishing in the Java Sea in 2006 after a ferry capsized. The inter-island ferries that ply the Melacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia are often overcrowded and sent out from Dumai to Pulau Batam in poor weather. Most recently the Dumai 10 Expres sank after being battered by huge waves on 22 November 2009, which resulted in 29 deaths. The same day the Dumai Expres 15 ran aground on a neighbouring island. Further tarnishing Indonesian ferries’ safety record, in January 2011 a fire broke out on another ferry just outside the port of Merak, killing 11 people. While Indonesian ferries always carry some risk, safety may be maximized by sticking to Pelni boats and checking the weather forecast before heading out to sea.

Top image: Al Mashun Great Mosque, Medan © Sahabat Ransel/Shutterstock

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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