Sumatra: A Surprising Piece of Indonesia

Mount Sinabung seen from Berastagi
Mount Sinabung seen from Berastagi. Photo by Silvia Martin

Travelling to Sumatra, Indonesia, is like slowly pulling a veil off a hidden treasure. The tension, the excitement, the surprise and then at last the discovery! Largely surpassed in number of visitors by the better known Java and Bali, Sumatra, the world’s 6th largest island, gets the rare privilege of preserving its character. Forged by its raw, pure and beautiful nature, landscape and wildlife, it is an exceptional place for the more adventurous and curious traveler.

Bukit Lawang is a good place to begin your journey into the depths of the forest. This small village edging Gunung Leuser National Park – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is home to some of the last orangutans. Our gentle and highly intelligent “cousins” with whom we share 97% of DNA are critically endangered and can only be found to date in Sumatra and Borneo.

Bukit Lawang offers  one of those rare experiences: spotting the orangutans in their natural environment by attending a feeding session lead by an experienced guide. Seeing them up close is no doubt an emotional, unforgettable moment.

Lake Toba Sumatra
Lake Toba

While in Bukit Lawang, take the opportunity to chill on the banks of the Bohorok River and opt for tubing. It’s a thrilling, fun activity and will certainly rank among the highlights of your trip.

If you want to go deeper into the jungle, travel some 20 km further north from Bukit Lawang on a bumpy road and stop at Tangkahan. The charm of Sumatra is that travelling from one point to the other often requires a sturdy 4×4, but the destination is well worth the efforts.

In Tangkahan, the isolation is complete, the grass dense and tall, the rivers windy and fast and the waterfalls an unexpected sight and a treat for the weary feet. Although the main attraction in the area is bathing the Sumatran elephants, I urge tourists and travellers to look for alternatives to elephants rides for the sake of the animals. There are trekking and swimming opportunities aplenty and Tangkahan is a splendid setting to relax and watch the villagers go about their daily business.

Vihara Gunung Timur Temple in Medan
Vihara Gunung Timur Temple in Medan. Photo by Silvia Martin

Jungles aside, Sumatra is also where the world’s largest volcanic lake can be found: Lake Toba, which you can reach at the end of roughly one hour journey by ferry departing from Parapat.

Right in the middle of Lake Toba, Samosir Island is a blissful stop, an oasis of beauty and tranquillity that is hard to leave behind. Stretching on a surface almost as big as Singapore, Samosir Island is reputedly the world largest island within an island and a wonderful display of nature’s power to create true beauty.

This is where time and universe seem to have come to a standstill – nothing but water and sky and their moody, ever changing colours. And if this doesn’t take your breath away, Lake Maninjau surrounded by forests and rice fields just might. Surely the 44 impressive hairpin turns of the road Kelok 44 taking you down to it will!

Berastagi village, at the footsteps of Mount Sibayak and Sinabung, is another stunning and colourful location in North Sumatra, famous for the quality of the fruits and vegetables (the passion fruit is king here). Trekking up either of the volcanoes very early in the morning (usually 3 a.m.) to see the sunrise is an attractive pursuit, but to do this a mountain guide is essential. But if you go for this option, know that there is hardly anything more rewarding than spending some hours in the natural hot springs soaking in the surrounding views thereafter.

A visit to the Taman Alam Lumbini Buddhist temple is also a must-do while you are there. This replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma is considered to be the most beautiful pagoda in Indonesia. It is, in fact, so beautiful it hurts your eyes. Covered entirely in gold, it sheds a blinding light in full sun exposure.

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