Sumatra: Overall Review and Tips


  • flying for three hours and still being in the same country
  • seeing orangutans in the forest at Bukit Lawang
  • everyday life at Dokan Batak village
  • the size of Lake Toba
  • visiting Bp Doro’s shop in Pangururan, Samosir
  • general helpfulness of people when looking for the right bus
  • sightseeing in Bukittinggi
  • city with a beach at Padang
  • seeing so many forested hills
  • huge landscapes



  • food was much more expensive than I expected (average Rp.15000 per meal)
  • bus journeys that made my stomach churn
  • people shouting at me in the street because I’m white
  • young men latching on to me


Friendliest place for meeting other travellers: Bukit Lawang

Easiest place for talking to local people (in Indonesian): Dokan

Best accommodation for quality and value: Lekjon at Tuktuk, Samosir

Worst place for solo female traveller: Padang. Bukittinggi comes a close second.

Most beautiful scenery: Lake Toba


Useful Contacts and Information

The following may be helpful if you are planning a similar trip.


Blue Angel Hostel, Rp.50000 a night for fan and bathroom, no hot water. Pondok Wisata Blue Angel, Jl S.M.Raja no 70, Medan, North Sumatra. Tel: 061 732 0702. If Blue Angel is full there are other hostels just up the road.

Transport from airport: airports taxis very expensive at Rp.45000+. Walk outside and you will be accosted by unofficial taxi drivers who will take you for as little as Rp.20000 if you haggle. Or take a motorbike taxi (ojek) for around Rp.10000.


Bukit Lawang

Guide and generally helpful person: Muhaidir tel: 0813 7585 8817 or 0813 7610 0337. Email:

Rain Forest / Nora’s Homestay, from Rp.30000 a night, shared bathroom, no hot water.



Losmen Sibayak, from Rp.55000 a night, shared bathroom, no hot water. Jl Veteran no 119.



To get there from Berastagi, get a minibus to Kabanjahe (Rp.3000) then change to a Dokan bus (Rp.3000). Ask to be let off at “simpang Dokan” (Dokan crossroads), then, walking, turn left off the main road and follow the small road a couple of kilometres to Dokan.


Lake Toba

To get there from Dokan, take a bus to Pematang Siantar, commonly called Siantar (Rp.15000, two hours plus), then change to a Parapat bus (Rp.10000, one hour max). From Parapat you can get a ferry to Tuktuk on Samosir Island (Rp.7000). Choose which hotel to look at first before you get there because the ferry will let passengers disembark at each hotel jetty.

Lekjon Cottages is right on the lake, from Rp.40000 a night, private bathroom. Rp.50000 gets you hot water. Nice clean rooms with lake views. Decent restaurant too. Address: Tuk-tuk Siadong, Samosir Island, North Sumatra 22395. Tel: 0625 451259. Email:

Bp. Handoro Gurning (Bp. Doro) in Pangururan, Samosir, has a shop where he makes handicrafts from the water jacinth plant that grows in Lake Toba. You can learn to make something, buy his products or just hang out there. His wife runs a cafe there too. Good place to learn about the lake and its environment. Some people there speak some English. Bp. Doro has experience teaching foreigners including groups, but there is no pressure to buy anything. To find his shop in Pangururan ask for: Bp. Handoro Gurning, Jl. Danau Toba, Depan Rumah Dinas Bupati.

To get to Pangururan from Tuktuk walk or hitch a ride to either Ambarita or simpang Tuktuk, on the main part of Samosir. Then get a minibus (angkot) to Pangururan (Rp.10000, one hour).

The bus from Parapat to Bukittinggi takes about 14 hours overnight, and costs around Rp.200000 if you buy a ticket from one of the agents on Samosir.



Hotel D’Enam from Rp.60000 per night. Jl Yos Sudarso no.4. Tel: 0752 21333


Lake Maninjau

Cafe and Homestay 44, Jl Penurunan Maninjau, 26471. Tel: 0752 61238. Rp.40000 per night. Excellent restaurant with a long menu of Indonesian and Western options. Peaceful atmosphere with simple wooden bungalows right by the lake. Friendly family-owned and run.



Brigitte’s House, Jl Kampung Sebelah 1 no. 14D, Padang. From Rp.75000 per night for bed in dormitory. Lovely large clean house with home-like atmosphere. They also arrange airport transfers, offer surfing trips and motorbike hire. See website for prices, map and directions: Tel: 081 374 257162.

Transport to airport: Damri buses go from Imam Bonjol every hour from 6.15am to 5.15pm, cost Rp.18000 and take up to an hour. They also do the reverse journey from the airport into the city.

Airport departure tax from Padang: Rp.100000 per passenger for international departures and Rp.35000 for domestic departures. Pay in cash after check-in.


Sumatra: Dokan

Leaving Berastagi for Dokan I boarded a minibus to Kabanjahe (Rp.3000) then changed to the Dokan bus (Rp.3000). Dokan is a village populated by people of the Batak ethnicity where a number of traditional-style Batak houses remain.

After getting off the bus at the Dokan junction (simpang Dokan) I walked the couple of kilometres to the village. The weather was gorgeous, the road peaceful and the flora fantastic in its vibrant colours and shapes. Arriving in the village I was asked to sign the guestbook and make a donation. A fair number of travellers come to this village to see the traditional Batak houses, but today I was the only one.

I saw the pointed roofs of the six remaining traditional houses, surrounded by many more corrugated iron roofs of the new houses. I don’t know why but I had been expecting there to only be traditional houses. Walking into the village people called out greetings to me. The large traditional houses looked stunning with their roofs made of palm tree hairs and all-wooden structures. Built on stilts with very tall roofs they stay cool in the hot weather without being cold at night. I asked if I could enter one of them and was welcomed in.

a traditional Batak house

a traditional Batak house

Although the main language spoken here is Batak, everyone learns Indonesian as well, primarily at school, so I was able to talk to people and find out more about their lives. First I chatted to Nia, 21 years old, who got married last October and lives in the traditional house. The inside of a Batak house is divided into section by cooking areas. Eight families share one house, cooking, eating and sleeping under the same roof. Each side of the living area is curtained off for sleeping and storage. In the main area each family has a mat for sitting on and a place for cooking, and above is storage space for wood, used as cooking fuel, the smell of which reminded me of camping. Electricity has been installed so there are fluorescent striplights and sockets. Nia told me that she would much prefer to live in a modern house, and when she can afford to build one she will then move out of the traditional house. She wants to have more space and privacy, which is impossible in the traditional house, where each family has only a few square metres of living space.

Then I chatted to another family, a mum and dad in their mid-late thirties with three small children, who also live in the traditional house. The house is built entirely from wood, cleverly jointed together without the use of nails or screws. The knowledge of this building technique has since been lost and the enormous pieces of wood required are no longer available in the area. Now they can only repair the houses they have, because no one knows how to build them like that any more. The date the house was built is painted on it: 16-12-1928.

In the past, newly weds would move into this particular house while they tried to concieve, but nowadays anyone who wants to can live in it. Usually people live there if they cannot afford to build a modern-style house. It seems that everyone aspires to have the freedom, space and privacy of a modern house.

I chatted to the family about their lives. Here children start school at seven years old, and many children do not continue through to high school due to lack of funds. Some people marry at 20 years old, others older. The primary industry here is farming, particularly oranges but also vegetables and other fruit. They grow rice to eat, but not enough to sell. People get up at 5am, work in the fields from 9am to 5pm, and go to sleep at 10pm. There is no tradition of a siesta or daytime nap. They had been having problems with the water supply, an outdoor pump, so people showered once after work, not in the morning as well.

inside a traditional Batak house

inside a traditional Batak house - eight families live here

After taking photos, which was strongly encouraged, I climbed back out of the house and had a wander around the village. The people who spoke to me were among the most friendly I have met so far in Sumatra, despite the Bataks’ reputation as harsh or rough, with a history of cannibalism.

I looked at the other traditional houses from the outside. One was in a state of ruin and no longer inhabitable, and another was locked up and unused. I wonder if there is much future for this type of communal living, since given a choice people prefer modern housing. Perhaps one or two traditional houses will be preserved for tourists alone.

By chance there was a wedding taking place in the village, and I went to the bride’s house where the newly weds were due to arrive from church – the Bataks are a Christian people. The bride and groom arrived and entered the house, while I waited outside with other guests who would accompany the procession to the “balai desa” or village hall, for the reception. As the wedding party left the house I took some photos and admired the Batak wedding costumes. The reception featured loud Batak-pop singing accompanied by keyboard. This has replaced traditional Batak music at many events.

Batak bride and groom

Batak bride and groom

Then I left Dokan and walked back to the main road, pleased to have met so many friendly people and fascinated by their lifestyle that is such a mixture of traditional and modern. While “traditional” houses and lifestyles are often romanticised by outsiders I had learnt that the reality is somewhat different. Twenty years ago in Dokan rice was pounded by hand. Then a machine arrived that could do this work more efficiently and it was welcomed. Although people value and uphold many traditions, development and change do occur, and that which is considered to have a positive impact on people’s lives is embraced.

an elderly Batak woman on the doorstep of her modern-style house

an elderly Batak woman on the doorstep of her modern-style house

Sumatra: Medan

My first stop in Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, was Medan. The capital of North Sumatra and the largest Indonesian city outside Java with a population of just over two million, is a big, hot and busy city. I only spent one night there and I felt that it was like many large cities around the world – if you have something to do there, like work for example, then it’s great, but as a tourist there is very little to see.

I went to look at Mesjid Raya, the great mosque situated in the centre of the city. It was built in Moroccan style in 1906 by Dutch architect Dingemans, and was certainly impressive. I also saw Istana Maimun (Maimun Palace). Medan’s proximity to Malaysia means that Malay food is available here, as well as foods from across Sumatra. Motorised becaks ply the streets of Medan, a phenomena I have not seen elsewhere. Resembling a motorbike with side-car, these vehicles take the place of rickshaws in other Indonesian cities, taking passengers around town.

motorised becak

a motorised becak

Medan is very much on the backpacker trail, for travellers flying across from Kuala Lumpur and heading down through Indonesia. It has backpackers’ hostels geared towards international tourists. Having not experienced the backpacker world for a long time I checked in at Blue Angel Hostel, just south of Mesjid Raya, which seems to be the current hub of the backpacker industry in Medan. I paid Rp.50,000 for a very clean room with fan and bathroom. The bathroom was semi-indonesian style, with a sit-down toilet, and a bucket of cold water and dipper. The bed was very soft, but I got a fair night’s sleep, and it was very good value. The food was reasonably priced and tasty and cold Bintang beer was available. The Blue Angel had a friendly atmosphere and I was easily able to meet travellers from other countries.

Leaving Medan to travel to Bukit Lawang I walked to Istana Maimon and took an angkot (yellow minibus) no 64 to the Pinang Baru bus terminal. I paid Rp.5000 for this but perhaps it should have cost less. On the Bukit Lawang bus the conductor tried to make a killing charging all the foreigners Rp.30,000 each when it should have been less. I haggled and in the end he reluctantly dropped the price for me, after coming up with all sorts of nonsense about how he’d get arrested. I was surprised by how many foreign tourists I saw in Medan, even in the off-season. It was a bit of a shock for me to be thrown back into the world of being ripped off for being white, but that’s life, as a white tourist in Asia.

Mesjid Raya

Mesjid Raya