Medan, Indonesia’s third-largest city, occupies a strategic point near Sumatra’s northeast coast. It serves as a major entry point for flights from Malaysia, while the nearby port of Belawan is one of the busiest in the Strait of Malacca. For such a large city Medon lacks much of the chaos of other Sumatran cities and it holds some glorious examples of nineteenth-century colonial architecture, built by the Dutch gentry who grew rich on the back of the vast plantations that stretch up the slopes of the Bukit Barisan to the west of the city.
Most travellers spend no more than a day or so in Medan, using it as a transit point to Bukit Lawang, Danau Toba or Malaysia.
The large, informative Museum of North Sumatra, at Jalan Joni 51, 500m east of Jalan Sisingamangaraja (often shortened to SM Raja) on the southern side of the Bukit Barisan cemetery near the stadium, tells the history of North Sumatra, and includes a couple of Arabic gravestones from 8 AD and some ancient stone Buddhist sculptures. Eight hundred metres north of the museum, on Jalan SM Raja, the black-domed Mesjid Raya is one of the most recognizable buildings in Sumatra. Designed by a Dutch architect in 1906, it has North African-style arched windows, blue-tiled walls and vivid stained-glass windows.
Jalan Brig Jend A Yani, at the northern end of Jalan Pemuda, was the centre of colonial Medan, and a few early twentieth-century buildings still remain. The weathered Mansion of Tjong A Fie at no. 105 is a beautiful, green-shuttered, two-storey house that was built for the head of the Chinese community in Medan (wtjongafiemansion.org). It’s closed to the public, but the dragon-topped gateway is magnificent, with the inner walls featuring some (very faded) portraits of Chinese gods.
The fine 1920s Harrison-Crossfield Building (now labelled “London, Sumatra, Indonesia TBK”), at the road’s northern end, was the former headquarters of a rubber exporter. Continuing north along Jalan Balai Kota and taking a left, you reach the grand, dazzlingly white headquarters of PT Perkebunan IX (a government-run tobacco company), on narrow Jalan Tembakau Deli, 200m north of the Natour Dharma Deli hotel, which was commissioned by Jacob Nienhuys in 1869.
In the west of the city, on Jalan H Zainul Arifin, is the Sri Mariamman Temple, Medan’s oldest and most venerated Hindu shrine. It was built in 1884 and is devoted to the goddess Kali. The temple marks the beginning of the Indian quarter, the Kampung Keling, the largest of its kind in Indonesia. Curiously, this quarter also houses the largest Chinese temple in Sumatra, the Taoist Vihara Gunung Timur (Temple of the Eastern Mountain), which, with its multitude of dragons, wizards, warriors and lotus petals, is tucked away on tiny Jalan Hang Tuah, 500m south of Sri Mariamman.