Sumatra info

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Medan
The Capital of North Sumatera Province and the largest city in Sumatera with a population of around 2 million. Many travellers stay around the Grand Mosque, or Mesjid Raya, where there are a number of budget hotels as well as star rated ones. The Mosque, one of Indonesia’s largest, was built in 1906 in the Moorish style. Remember if you want to look inside to dress respectfully, no shorts or bare shoulders, take your shoes off before you enter. Maimoon Palace is also open to the public. Medan does not get very good write ups in some guide books and many tourists don’t think of staying very long, but it can be a fun place. It has bars with live music, cinemas, disco’s, you can go 10 pin bowrling, play pool, swim, or take a city tour. It’s also the best and the cheapest place to catch up on your e-mail or surf the web.

If you find yourself stuck in Medan for longer than you wanted and are bored, you could try The Library, an excellent collection of reference books and novels, including many classics in English. Tourists can join, taking two books for a deposit of Rp 25.000 each book. Or if you want to be entertained and educated at the same time, you could visit the Indonesian Palm Oil Research Institute at Jl. Brigjen Katamso 51, Medan. Everything you could ever want to know about palm oil production, cloning, eco pest control (breeding owls to control rats) and the dozens of uses the tree can be put to, from furniture to fuel and compost to cosmetics. Drs. Is. Witjaksana speaks good English and is happy to show you around. Tel (061) 762466

A cheap, pleasantly cool afternoon can be spent at the picturesque swimming pool at Danau Toba International Hotel for around a dollar, and their popular Tavern Bar in the evening for live music, or you can go to one of the shopping mall’s cinemas, where many of the Western world’s latest releases are being shown.

But if you really have to get out of the city for a day - go to the beach. Pantai Cermin is just one hour, or 45 km north. Take the Sumbar Jaya bus from Amplas bus terminal to Derbaungan city, (Rp 3.000) and a blue mini bus to the beach. (Rp 3.000) An easy day trip.

The Medan Tourist Workers Association (MTWA) at Jl. Sisingamangaraja No 76 can organize a city tour which takes in all the sights or can be tailored to suit your wishes. They can also arrange transport to any destination or organize jungle trekking, including the 3 day trek from Medan to Berastagi. They can also help to sort out any problems you may have.
The Medan Tourist Workers Association (MTWA) at Jl. Sisingamangaraja No 76 can organize a city tour which takes in all the sights or can be tailored to suit your wishes. They can also arrange transport to any destination or organize jungle trekking, including the 3 day trek from Medan to Berastagi. They can also help to sort out any problems you may have.


Changing Money
The Rupiah has been hovering around 10.500 to the US dollar through the last years. However, the currency is still volatile and you are unlikely to get the rates quoted in newspapers unless you use your credit card. Some ATM’s will charge a fee of Rp 25.000 per transaction if the ATM does not represent your own bank. Cirrus and BNI are two of these. Some of the best places to cash money in Medan are the Bank Buana Indonesia, Bank Lippo, Bank Bali and the BII. One of these will generally have the best rate in town, but money changers are often very competitive. As rates change daily you may find it difficult to change money at banks before 10.00 am, or until the new rate comes in. At some, money can only be changed between 10.00 am and 12.00 noon. All the banks are walking distance from The Grand Mosque.
If you are changing cash rather than travellers cheques you may find that even slightly soiled, creased, or stapled notes are not acceptable. Cash, if clean, usually gets a better rate than travellers cheques. Rates will generally be better in Medan than elsewhere in Sumatera.
Tourists can open bank accounts with Rp 100.000. This will give you an ATM card which you can use at many outlets in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia with a limit of Rp Two million per day, but you may have to wait about a week to ten days for your card.
At the BNI, you can have 3 types of account. Savings Account. In Rupiah. Passbook, ATM card. Account earns interest. Deposit Account. In Rupiah. Deposit for one month minimum, with a roll over. Account earns good interest. Dollar Plus Account. Cash remains in Dollars and earns interest, but you cannot withdraw dollars. You can withdraw Rupiah at today's rate or you can transfer money out of the country still in dollars. However, you can only draw cash at the branch where you open the account, so is only useful for people who want to stay in one area for a few months.

Medan’s Shopping Malls
There are a number of A/C shopping malls and Plazas in Medan, all have ATM’s, supermarkets, shops and western fast food outlets like McDonalds, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts, but many offer entertainment as well.

Yuki Simpang Raya:
The pink building next to the Grand Mosque. ATM, Amusement arcade, No Internet. Limited food court.

·Perisai Plaza:
Opposite Lippo Bank. 10 Pin Bowling. Internet. 6 screen Cinema. Kristal Disco. Karaoke, Amusement Arcade. Lunar Café with pool tables. Cheap software.

Deli Plaza:
3 Plazas joined together and you can find most things there. Good for cheap software. Internet. 6 Screen Cinema. Amusement Arcade. Good Chinese and Thai food. Bus 30 or MRX

Thamrin Plaza:
4 Screen cinema. Excellent food court. Fire Disco. Amusement Arcade. Swimming Pool. Internet. No direct bus, Becak +/- Rp 4.000.

Medan Mall:
Internet. An interesting Mall with A/C section plus market stalls, and the older, large Olympia Plaza nearby. A good area for cheap shopping. Bus no. 03 from Mesjid Raya.
Medan Mall is for most people only a large, block square four story modern shopping complex - and it is all that. Well, it does have a halfway good book store on the 4th floor, a couple of stores where you can buy music and cheap software, but if you have never explored beyond the first mega mall - you will have missed 90 % of what the area has to offer. Walk through the first Mall and you will discover another one behind it, almost as large, but this is a true native market. A two story labyrinth of a souk, comprising of almost one thousand numbered shops, each competing with the one next to it, to offer you the best of the cornucopia of Sumatera. It is a vibrant village unto itself, and you will find it full of friendly people. If you enjoy a good cup of strong coffee and want to make your own I would recommend shop No. 266, where you can find several grades of bulk ground coffee. Grade 1, his strongest, is a bargain at Rp. 7.500 per half kilo because you don’t need to use very much of it. The coffee is from the highlands of Sidikalang, a gateway city to Aceh, and goes by the brand name of Tennis Ball. Outside, adjacent to the native market, you will find an Indian section of shops, and several specializing in bulk dried herbs, spices and grains. They also sell ‘Jamu,’ the packaged native Herbal Medicine which is so popular in this country for a variety of ailments.

At first glance, Medan appears to be busy, noisy, polluted, and not a place to stay, but there are several places which are worth a look or a photograph or two. The Military Museum at Zainul Arafin St. has lots of old cannons and guns, including weapons used in the War of Independence, and paintings depicting struggles against the Dutch. Just a few hundred meters further on is the Hindu Sri Marriamman Temple, built in 1884 and devoted to the goddess Kali. This typically colourful and elaborate temple is Medan’s oldest and most venerated Hindu shrine. Remember to remove your shoes before entering, and keep quiet inside the temple grounds.

The Sri Marriamman 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 Sumatera, 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, 500 meters south of the Hindu Temple.

Maimoon Palace was built in 1886 and is open to the public. The Palace, the impressive, ornate, black domed Mesjid Raya or Grand Mosque, (built 1906) and Taman Sri Deli (garden) are historically all part of the same complex.

The Museum of North Sumatera at 51 Jl. H. M. Joni (open Tue to Sun, 8.30 - 12.00, and 1.30 - 5.00), was established 20 years ago to present and preserve the natural and cultural history of North Sumatera’s ethnic groups. Like most provincial museums in Indonesia, this is large, informative, well laid out and inexplicably deserted. The concrete reliefs on the museum’s facade depict a couple dressed in traditional costume from each of the area’s ethnic groups. Inside is the history of Sumatera from pre-history to the present day. Highlights include a couple of Arabic gravestones from 8 AD and a number of ancient stone Buddhist sculptures found buried under Medan’s Chinatown district.

There is also the Crocodile Farm, Asam Kubang Village, 10 km from the city centre, with 2.000 crocs of different species, open from 9 am to 5 pm. And then there is the Zoo, three hectares full of animals, with traditional shows given on Sundays, but both the Zoo and the Crocodile Farm may have limited appeal to many westerners.

Medan Architecture  To the first time visitor, Medan can appear as an uninteresting city of tin roofs and gaudy shopping plazas, but to those with some enthusiasm for exploring where they are, there are some wonderful examples of Dutch architecture and Art Deco buildings. Constructed largely during the mid nineteenth century, these buildings are a testimony to the wealth generated by the plantations owned by the colonies. The Central Post Office and Grand Mosque are obvious examples of this, but many others are hidden in back streets and in the outer city suburbs. Unfortunately, many of the original facades have been covered with later ones, but the original design can often be easily seen. Architectural evolution can be traced over this period through the many different buildings scattered around Medan. Many buildings have become derelict, vandalized, or abandoned, but by searching the back streets you are rewarded by fascinating glimpses of the past, - a cosy bungalow, a disused warehouse, unique to this period of Dutch occupation. Some of the best areas to find these buildings is around the central city area of Balai Kota, and out towards Kampon Keling and Medan Baru. The wealthy estate owners had fine houses built around Polonia (where the airport is), and their management and employees in the Silalas area. Many of the former estates close to the city still have the workers houses, either long buildings sectioned off for separate families or neat rows of semi detached bungalows. These are now privately owned and usually occupied by the Melayo peoples, who originally lived in the area before it was cleared for plantations. The best way to see this architectural heritage is by bicycle or motor bike.

From Medan by bus:

Bukit Lawang
To Pinang Baris Terminal, Medan on blue bus No. 37, or No. 64, or white MRX for Rp 1.400 (from around Grand Mosque)

Berastagi Red Mini Bus No 41 to Padang Bulan Bus Terminal Medan for Rp 1.400

Singkil for Pulau Banyak
From Restaurant Singkil Raya on Jl Bintang at the bird market near Olympia Plaza, departure 9.00 to 10.0 am, or mini bus to Subulussalam from Padang Bulan bus terminal.

Kutacane, for Ketambe
From Pinang Baris Terminal or Padang Bulan Bus Terminals, Medan.

Sibolga
From Jl Sisingaramgaraja, Sempati or Bhineka mini buses, at 8.00 am & 10.00 am and 8.00 pm & 10.00 pm, or from Amplas. bus terminal

Pulau Weh
Day or Night bus from Pinang Baris Terminal, Medan, or by overnight Pelni Ferry from Belawan Port. Check latest developments before going by bus.

Lake Toba
Nearly all mini buses go to Amplas Bus Terminal in Medan approximately every two minutes, Rp 1.400. Buses to Parapat at various prices depending on A/C or non A/C.


Hospitals & Clinics
There are good, reasonably priced hospitals (Rumah sakit) in Medan, one of the most popular being The Saint Elisabeth Hospital, 7 Jl Haji Misbah Tel. (061) 545158 or 544164.

Gleneagles Hospital at No 6, Jalan Listrik provides first class health care at Singapore standards. Tel 4566368.

The Klinik Spesialis Bunda, a 24 hour clinic at Jl. Sisingaramgaraja No 17 which has good facilities and specialist doctors.

Klinik Mata a little further up the street toward the water tower, No 10/23 specialises in eye problems.

There is a Special Clinic for sexually transmitted diseases - the Materna Klinik, Jalan Teuku Umar No 11, Kampung Keling, Medan. 24 Hour testing and treatment for men and women. One Hour Analysis. Tel 4514222


General Consulate's
AUSTRALIA Jl Kartini No 32, Medan. Tel 455780 - 324520
BELGIUM, BRITAIN. Jl Kapt. Pattimura No 459, Medan.Tel 82105259
FRANCE Jl Karim MS No 2 Polonia, Medan. Tel 4566100
GERMANY Jl Karim MS No 4, Medan. Tel 4537108
JAPAN Wisma B.I.I # 5 Jl P. Diponegoro No 18, Medan. Tel 4575193
MALAYSIA Jl P. Diponegoro No 43, Medan. Tel 4531342 - 535271
NORWAY, DENMARK, SWEDEN, FINLAND Jl Hang Jebat No 2, Medan. Tel 4553020
NETHERLANDS Jl A. Rivai No 22, Medan. Tel 4519025


Gunung Leuser national park

Bukit Lawang
Tigers are found everywhere in Sumatra and are very numerous in some districts. On the whole they are useful animals, as they keep down the numbers of boars, which are harmful to cultivated fields. But when the tiger is old and no longer fleet enough to catch wild boars, deer and apes, it has to be satisfied with poorly armed human beings. Such a man eater spreads terror in the neighbourhood and is a hindrance to social intercourse. 'Sumatra, its history and people,' Edwin M Loeb (1935)
The Sumatran Tiger is no longer the 'hindrance to social intercourse' that it once was. There are only about 500 left in the whole of Sumatera, about 60 of which live in the park - one of the largest populations left on the island. Your chances of seeing one of these magnificent creatures is extremely slim, and sadly, they are not the only endangered species in Leuser Park. The Asian elephant, clouded leopard, marbled cat, crocodile and sun bear live here too, and all have dwindled alarmingly over the past 50 years. The park is also host to Indonesia's most endangered animal of all, the Sumatran Rhinoceros. About 40 of these shy creatures are still believed to live in Leuser, in the south western corner in an area out of bounds to trekkers.
Of all the endangered species, the only one you have a good chance of seeing is the orang utan. Thanks to the work of the rehabilitation centre, over 5.000 now live in the park. Other primates that you are likely to see include the white breasted Thomas leaf monkey, the long and pig tailed macaques, the white handed gibbon and the cuddly black siamang. Back on the ground, there are four species of deer, the ajak (a wild dog) and in the upper reaches of the park, a fairly large mountain goat population. Flying squirrels, flying foxes, bats, tortoises, turtles and several species of snake are also present, including the king cobra and the mag- nificent python, the biggest snake in Indonesia at over 10m long.
The Leuser Ecosystem lists over 382 species of birds, 105 species of mammals, 103 species of reptiles and 35 species of amphibians. The flora contains some 3,500 plant species, and in one hectare you can find 130 different tree species. (Compare this to Britain, with about 50 native trees for the entire country.)
The area is largely limestone so there are some caves, one of which is 2 km, or 25 minutes walk south from the Bus Terminal, and which is the home of thousands of bats. Take a torch or flashlight with you. Orang-utans feeding time at the Sanctuary is at 8 am and 3.00 pm daily, but get there earlier. It is a 2 km, very pleasant walk up the river from Bukit Lawang to the Orang-utan Station and then a short climb to the feeding site. Get your permit from the PHPA office and bring your passport. Permits are valid for one day. (2 visits.) The Tourist Information Service, Visitor's Centre, and Permit Office (PHPA) are all close to the bus terminal.
Tubing on the river is great fun, you can carry your tube up river as far as you want to so that you can see the river first, and float back. Or float from Bukit Lawang to Bohorok, about 12 kilometres away, in an inflated tube which you can rent cheaply from many places. Stop at the bridge and return to Bukit Lawang by public bus. Check the river conditions before setting off, and ask the guides if you are unsure.
White water rafting can also be arranged down the Bohorok or Wampu rivers, and of course, Bukit Lawang is a natural centre for jungle trekking, whether it is just for one night or for a week or more. Bukit Lawang is a very popular spot for local people from the towns and cities at weekends, when it can be quite crowded.

To get there from Medan you can go by Tourist Bus, which will pick you up at your hotel, by public bus which leaves Pinang Baris Bus Station every two hours, or by shared taxi.
To get there from Medan you can go by Tourist Bus, which will pick you up at your hotel, by public bus which leaves Pinang Baris Bus Station every two hours, or by shared taxi.

Orang-utans

Orang-utans feeding time at the Sanctuary at Bukit Lawang is at 8 am and 3 pm daily, but get there earlier. It is a 2 km, very pleasant walk up the river from Bukit Lawang to the Orang-utan Station and then a short climb to the feeding site. Get your permit from the PHPA office and bring your passport. Permits are valid for one day. (2 visits.) The orang-utans at Bukit Lawang have all been captive bred in one way or another. They are therefore not afraid of humans, but that does not mean that it is ok to touch them or give them bottles of coke or shampoo packets to see what they do with them.
The DNA in orang-utans is so close to that of humans that they are very susceptible to the same diseases. Even the common cold can kill them. These amazing beings only exist in Sumatra and Kalimantan and they are being quickly wiped out by deforestation, forest fires and neglect by humans. Therefore, it is becoming difficult to preserve them and conservationists estimate that in the next 10 years it will be impossible for them to maintain their population, and in 30 years time they will be extinct in the wild. So; If going trekking, please do not feed them or attempt to bring them close. Consider what is good for them and not what is good for you. They are incredible creatures and we are fortunate to still be able to observe them in a natural setting. Let us hope that we can preserve them for our, and their, future generations.


Ketambe
Ketambe, or more accurately, Balai Luta. Ketambe is the name of the river which joins the Alas river as it runs north to south through the Alas valley between the mountains.Situated one hour north of the town of Kutacane by mini bus, there are several guest houses but no shops other than a couple of small “toko” selling basics. Do your shopping in Kutacane. It is better to arrive with money. All the accommodation is situated on the edge of the primary lowland rain forest of Gunung Leuser National Park. Lowland rain forest is becoming increasingly rare because of legal and illegal logging activities.
The road climbs steeply away from the Alas river and there is more accommodation one or two kilometres further on. There are trails into the forest, but it is quite easy to get lost so take a guide with you if you want to feel safe. Dress appropriately, as besides the more exotic wild life you may come across, there are also horse flies, leeches and mosquitoes. Macaquer, gibbons and orang utan are frequently seen here, but these orang utan, unlike those at Bukit Lawang, are completely wild. Keep quiet when you are looking for wild life, and keep your ears open for movement in the branches and falling fruit. Binoculars will make it far more interesting if you have a pair. Two hours walk will bring you to a spot where a hot spring joins the main river, giving a choice of swimming temperatures. Mountain trekking can also be arranged here. It can be fatiguing but unforgettable to see the forest change as you climb higher, and the views of up to one hundred kilometres from the top are magnificent. Take warm clothes and a sleeping bag as it can get really cold at night. Rafting too can be organized, from one to five days, with the first day being the wildest. After Kutacane it becomes calmer and you float pleasantly downstream – although there are still a few exciting spots ahead.

Anyone for Whitewater?
Only a couple of hours away from Medan there are some excellent opportunities to enjoy the thrills and spills of whitewater rafting. Other rivers in the interior of Sumatera are world class, (the world championships were held in Sumatera)
Whitewater rivers can be descended by inflatable raft, or kayak or canoe through adrenaline pumping rapids between gentle glides across some of Sumatera's finest and wildest scenery.
There are two rivers which can be tried by anybody between 16 and 60 and in normal physical condition. The Bingei river is fine for beginners, although it still has a long string of rapids up to grade III - grade IV in high water conditions. The flow of the river is quite sustained as it enters a canyon and the rapids are almost non-stop. It culminates with a 3 meter "Dragon's tongue" drop on the right side of the river, (but this can be avoided by going left.) The descent takes a minimum of three hours, according to water conditions, through a succession of dramatic landscapes until you reach the carpet of rice fields surrounding Namo Sira-sira.
Wampu river, which flows near Bukit Lawang is also an excellent introduction to whitewater and to the dramatic Sumatran landscape, with excellent opportunities for spotting wild life along the way. From the moment you enter the boat it is non-stop rapids for the first hour as the river enters a canyon, and as you leave it there are hot springs for a warm bath. From here the rapids progressively calm down after passing "Waterfall" (Grade III) for you to start enjoying the serene environment of Leuser National Park, with views stretching into the distance.


Lake Toba
Nearly all visitors to North Sumatera visit this beauty spot. Samosir Island in the middle of the lake is the size of Singapore, and it is a fascinating place to explore by motorbike. If you want to go right around the island from Tuk Tuk, bear in mind the trip takes about 7 hours, so start early. It is best to go clockwise, toward Tomok, that way you will do the most difficult part of the journey up the mountain on a dirt road while you are fresh, instead of coming down it, maybe in the dark. Besides, the views from the top are magnificent, and it would be a pity to miss them because of failing light. Drive carefully, as in the eastern end of the island the roads are very pot holed. An easier option is the 45 km trip to the hot springs on a reasonably good road. Bicycles can be rented to explore the local area. Trekking too can be organized around Lake Toba, with a good chance of seeing monkeys or gibbons, or you can walk across the island to the hot springs near Pangururan. (There are two Guest Houses on the top if you want to spread it over a couple of days.)
The temperature of the lake is close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, so it’s comfortable for swimming or getting wet in a rented canoe or tube.
Money changers can be found at Tuk Tuk and in Parapat, but there is no bank, only an ATM. The nearest bank is in Siantar, one hour from Parapat. There is a big traditional market in Parapat on Saturdays, a smaller version on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the town has a 9 hole golf course.
But if you don’t feel too energetic, Lake Toba is the perfect place to unwind and take a break from travelling. There are some good walks, good book shops and libraries, and some good bars to help you relax.

Lake Toba - by Train
At Siantar, walk out to the main road and flag down a mini bus to the Bus Terminal, Rp 700, or take a Becak from the station, approx Rp 4.000 and there you will be shown the bus to Parapat for Rp 4.000, a one hour ride.
The return journey, from Lake Toba to Medan means catching the 10.00 am ferry from Tuk Tuk Harbour to catch a bus to Siantar, to connect with the train which leaves at 1.15 pm, arriving in Medan Station at about 4.30 pm.

Around Samosir Island
Tuk Tuk Siadong
A peninsular of Samosir island. The main area for tourists, with many restaurants, guest houses and hotels of various prices, gift shops, motor bike and bicycle rent. Parapat Ferry hourly, from 7 am to 5 pm.

Tomok
Vehicle and passenger ferry to Parapat. King Sidabuar’s royal stone tomb. Ancient traditional Batak houses with carved beams. Several hotels and many souvenir stalls. Best starting point for motor bike tour right around Samosir Island.

Ambarita
Rows of traditional Batak houses and remnants of King Siallagans reign, such as stone chairs and the execution block. Small entrance fee. There is a museum, and a small donation will earn you a luridly graphic description of past executions. Several hotels & guest houses. Preferred by tourists who want a quiet and relaxing stay. Many souvenir stalls. Ferry to Parapat mornings only. Nice sandy beaches along this part of the coast. Small market on Thursdays. Starting point for cross island trek. Ferry to Tongging on the north tip of the lake.

Simanindo
16 km past Ambarita. The King’s Long House, or Huta Bolon museum, an ancient Batak house which used to host Batak dancing every day tragically burned down late in October. Two small islands off shore. Saturday Market.

Pangururan
The economic and governmental centre for Samosir. Cross the bridge to the mainland for the hot springs, 3 km from the town. Several swimming pools, or climb up the hill to where the springs come out of the ground. Market every Wednesday. Driving further past the hot springs another 22 km, you climb steeply on a zig zag road to Tele, where there is a tower you can climb for panoramic views of Lake Toba and Samosir.
Further on round the island are the villages of Rianiate, Palipi, Mogang, Nainggolan, Onanrunggu, and Janji Matogu. If you are driving around Samosir, be careful. Some of the bridges are broken and you will need to wheel your bike across (or pay someone else a few thousand Rupiah to do it.) The road between Tuk Tuk and Pangururan is mostly good, but on other parts of the island, very pot holed.

Lake Toba Ferry Times
Ferries to Tuk Tuk leave Parapat Harbour on the half hour from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm., (except 6.30.) Ferries from Tuk Tuk to Parapat circle the peninsula from the Ambarita side, picking up passengers before calling at the main harbour and leaving on the hour from 8 am to 5 pm. There is one ferry at 7 am from Tuk Tuk harbour only. Ferry price is Rp 3.000 whether you buy from an agent or on the boat.
Ferries to Tuk Tuk leave Parapat Harbour on the half hour from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm., (except 6.30.) Ferries from Tuk Tuk to Parapat circle the peninsula from the Ambarita side, picking up passengers before calling at the main harbour and leaving on the hour from 8 am to 5 pm. There is one ferry at 7 am from Tuk Tuk harbour only. Ferry price is Rp 3.000 whether you buy from an agent or on the boat.

Aspects of Batak Culture
Formed by an Earth splitting eruption 75,000 years ago, Lake Toba is now the home of the Batak people. It is the largest and deepest crater lake in the world. 906 meters above sea level, a water surface area of 1,265 square km, 90 km long with a coastline of 285 km, and with an average depth of 450 meters. The population of Samosir Island is approximately 120.000, or 157 per square kilometre - nearly twice as densely populated as the rest of Sumatera. ‘Horas!’ is the local greeting - delivered with enthusiasm!
The Batak people love their lake and island, and many traditional local songs are written about it. You are sure to hear some of these Batak songs on a visit to Lake Toba, it is a part of the local culture - walk past a toddy shop any evening after local men have consumed a few glasses of Tuak, or palm wine, and you will hear it for yourself. It seems everyone can play guitar or pipes and sing, and indeed there are some very talented musicians at Lake Toba as well as some very fine wood craftsmen.
The Batak people love their lake and island, and many traditional local songs are written about it. You are sure to hear some of these Batak songs on a visit to Lake Toba, it is a part of the local culture - walk past a toddy shop any evening after local men have consumed a few glasses of Tuak, or palm wine, and you will hear it for yourself. It seems everyone can play guitar or pipes and sing, and indeed there are some very talented musicians at Lake Toba as well as some very fine wood craftsmen.
Social life in Batak country has its own rules for courteous behaviour and good manners. The most important rule is that the most distinguished person present takes precedent over all others. He walks before the others, who follow in order of rank. He is given the most honourable place. While sitting, one takes care not to turn one’s back on him. One never passes in front of him. If one has to, one apologizes while making a gesture with the right hand and bowing low so as to keep one’s head lower than the distinguished guest. Honour to whom honour is due is the ground rule of courteous behaviour.
On festive occasions, part of the meat is divided up to be taken home according to the nuances of rank and position. The lower jaw and chin, considered to be the finest pieces of pork or beef, are for the most distinguished guests, the shoulders and neck are second best. If there are many guests, the pieces of meat are small but that does not matter, it is symbolic, and the meaning remains the same.
When a guest enters a house, the host bids him welcome, a mat is unrolled and both sit down with crossed legs. When addressing his guest, the host uses his title; sir, uncle, aunt, brother-in-law. One apologises for using a word considered offensive or indecent, such as rat, dog, pig, louse, flea or tail. Anything which might hurt the other’s feelings is avoided. One cannot say no to a glass of tea or a smoke. The women and girls keep a respectful distance from the men.
When a Batak reaches a great age and has many children and grand children, he is comfortably off. The sons and daughters often give a feast to honour their parents, and in former days, they used to go to the forest to get wood for a coffin. When a person dies, the women come to mourn and lament while the men go and inform the people. The gong is sounded. Old people who have passed away often remain above ground for a week before they are interred. Sometimes, food is put on the grave for the ghost of the deceased. After a number of years, the body is exhumed and laid to rest in a concrete tomb, then there is a big celebration at which - so it was believed in former days - the spirit of the deceased took part in the dancing.


The “Magic Stick”
A Batak magical staff is 1,80 meters long and 5 to 6 cm in diameter. Old Bataks tell us that in former days these staves were carved out of a certain kind of hardwood by the priest / Magicians themselves. As often happened with old works of art, there was no clear unanimity as to what a magical staff should look like. That is why no two staves are exactly the same. Nevertheless, they have some common features. Nearly all staves show a vertical accumulation of human and animal figures squatting one on top of the other. The genuine, original staves mostly have seven human figures, besides a serpent, a lizard and a cow. At the top is a male figure and under that a female figure. All human figures have conspicuously big heads. The head of the figure at the top wears a turban with a tuft of horse main. The staff ends in an iron point, enabling the magician, the datu, to stick it into the ground.
Many stories about the magic staff are still in circulation, with incest as their central theme. The staff was used to ensure welfare and happiness and to ward off calamities. It also functioned as a bearer of disaster, disease and death, as a counsellor to rulers, a bringer of rain in times of drought, a dispeller of clouds during the wet season and a mouthpiece of supernatural beings. The magic staff brought fertility to people, animals and the land. It was used to extinguish fires, ward off diseases and epidemics, track down thieves and murderers. There are no original and genuine staves left in Batak country, all are kept in museums. The staves on sale are replicas. (but none the less carved with great skill. They are made in three pieces so can be taken apart for carrying or posting.)

The Batak Calendar
Originating in India, the Batak calendar takes into account the succession of the seasons and the time for the planting of the rice. There are three different years. The Great Year of 360 days, the Rice Year of 6 to 7 months and the Maize year of 3 to 4 months. In fixing a good day for a Feast, the datus also took into account the position of the stars. The Calendar, (Porhalaan) was carved on a piece of bamboo and shows a number of small squares, 12 or 13 lengthways denoting the months, and 30 across denoting the days. The Bataks also have a lunar year, which begins when the constellations of Orion and Scorpio appear in the sky together, the former in the western sky, the latter in the east. When the crescent moon in the west passes north of Orion, we have the beginning of the first month of the Batak year. (April.) The Batak calendar is not a calendar in the modern sense of the word. Rather, it is a diviners instrument to decide whether a day will be auspicious or not. The diviner was consulted before any important event: The planting of rice; the fixing of a wedding day; the building of a new house; the laying out of a new village; a sacrificial ceremony in connection with a birth; a name giving; a burial; an exhumation of bones. (a practice which is still continued in certain places.) The calendar is only used to fix a favourable day for the start of an undertaking, not for its continuation. The various calendars sometimes differ in detail but all have the 12 or 13 months and the 30 days. The 7th day is always unfavourable and no important undertaking should be started on that day. The differences between calendars gives the datus a chance of proving that their calendar is the best. Not all datus have the months begin on the same day. The calendar shows a number of empty squares. Those days promise well for the future. In between are squares which show symbolic figures and Batak letters, and these days may be lucky, doubtful or unfavourable.

Exhumation of Bones
“Them bones them bones them, dry bones...” has a special significance for Batak people. Exhuming and re-burying the bones of ancestors is still practiced today, only slightly modified by Christianity. This honour is not accorded to everybody, only to those who had many male progeny, when the deceased is exalted to the status of sumangot, or patron saint. But the descendents must be willing to hold a big feast. Before the feast begins, the forebears are exhumed. They are believed to take part in the feast, after which they are laid to rest in a concrete tomb, examples of which can be seen all around Lake Toba. Reasons for exhumation vary. It may happen that a series of calamities cause descendents to consult the datu, or wizard, who may advise it, or a family may feel thankful to their forebears for their good fortune. There are two sorts of exhumation; one is called pesta turun and is the more honourable feast. Several buffalo are killed and many guests invited. Only rich people can afford this. The more common feast is pesta gombar, and lasts two or three days, but nowadays, there is usually just a prayer meeting. Under the direction of the pastor the bones are exhumed, washed, put into a casket and later taken to the new tomb.

Aceh

Pulau Weh
On the island, thatched beach bungalows are scattered through the palm trees around the beaches. Although one or two offer Air Con and a little luxury, most are basic but adequate, and all have mosquito nets. Monkeys often visit, climbing over the trees and roofs, so don’t leave things on your balcony while you are out. The two main beaches, (although there are others,) are Gapang and Iboih, three and a half kilometres apart and only a few km from the misleadingly named ‘Point Km 0’, supposedly Indonesia’s most westerly point.
There is some first class diving and snorkelling here with some impressive, deep landscapes and a huge variety of marine life: lots of sting rays, moray eels and lion fish, barracudas, turtles, manta and eagle rays, Napoleon wrasses, fields of sea fans, reef shark, The island is also visited by hundreds of dolphins. Contrary t o what is said in a certain popular travel guide book nicknamed the bible, there is plenty of live coral at Gapang beach - and it’s a good place for spotting turtles as well. The coral gardens and underwater landscapes are magnificent, and diving is the ultimate way to experience Pulau Weh. (Glass bottomed boat available for the faint hearted!) Boat trips to Rubiah island, off Iboih, or to other good snorkelling spots are easily arranged locally, as are trips to see dolphins. Motor bikes can be hired to explore the rest of the island, which also has hundreds of large fruit bats, hot mud pools, a small steaming volcano, some hot springs, a swallow cave, and a waterfall hidden in the jungle with a cool pool for swimming.

Pulau Weh by ferry
The best and safest way to get to Pulau Weh is by ferry from Belawan. It leaves at 2 pm and arrives at 9 am, from where you catch the ferry to the island or a bus into Banda Aceh. but check Pelni’s sailing dates which tend to change every few months. Everyone says the snorkelling and diving are excellent and that it is a good place to stay, but some travellers are concerned about going to Aceh while it is in the News. It is safe for tourists, you are not a target and will be welcomed there. However, a totally safe way to go is by Pelni Ferry. It leaves from Belawan, timetable from Trophy Tour, Medan. The cost is Rp 75.000 Economy Class, Rp 145.000 2nd class including the bus from Medan. (Cheaper if you buy it from the Pelni Office at Belawan, but getting to Belawan Port is not always so easy unless a group share a Taxi. You can get to Belawan for Rp 1.500 but Belawan is not Belawan Port.) The price includes meals in the ships Restaurant. You arrive in the harbour - a ticket office, pier and food stalls - from where you get the ferry for Puluh Weh. So no need to go into the town of Banda Aceh.

Going to Aceh?
Aceh has become very popular over the last few years, but many travellers have stayed away scared by the political unrest that continues to hit the head-lines. However, until today not a single tourist has had problems connected with the crisis. Singkil, the gateway to Pulau Banyak is one of the safest places in the Province, as it is outside the conflict area, and Pulau Weh remains very popular and as peaceful as it always has been. The Province of Aceh is beautiful, the people are welcoming, friendly and hospitable, but if you are going there it is best to check on the latest developments, either by talking to local people or through the Internet. One rule-of-thumb guide; - if the buses are running, it’s probably safe.
Lho Nga and Lam Puuk beaches are on the west coast of Aceh, about 17 km from the city of Banda Aceh and can be reached by public bus in 30 minutes. These white sand beaches are startlingly beautiful and are excellent for swimming, snorkelling and diving. These are the nearest beaches to the city, but Banda Aceh itself has a few interesting sights.
The Baiturrahman Mosque was originally built in the 12th Century but was burned several times. The present building was built in 1883 by the Dutch Military Government, extraordinary in its architecture and ornamentation. There is also a museum, with many antiquities including a large bell given to the Acehnese by the Emperor of China in 1414. And Gunongan, a man made miniature mountain built by a Sultan for his wife early in the 17th century, and it’s a good spot for watching the sunset.


The West Coast
South of Banda Aceh along the west coast of Aceh province must be one of the most scenic highways in S.E. Asia, recently paved and easily accessible by minibus from Banda Aceh’s main bus terminal. The fifteen hour bus ride from to Tupaktuan in Aceh’s south is filled with white sand peninsulas, virgin jungle, and green water estuaries. Even more interesting are the many stops in between, beginning with Kula Dho, 4 hours south of Banda Aceh, which has two excellent bungalow resorts, surfing, and uninhabited beaches that stretch for 50 km or more.
Further south, the highway winds through a series of small beachside villages until the largest city on the west coast, Meulaboh, 4 hours south of Kuala Dho. Meulaboh has a wide variety of accommodation from losmen to inexpensive higher end hotels. Local surfing and snorkelling, as well as the city’s many late night coffee shops, make it a great stopover before heading inland, where the highway winds into the mountains through jungle and rainforest to Blangpidie, 8 hours inland. At Blangpidie, travellers have an option to travel to Kutacane, a mountain town with hot springs and gateway to Ketambe, or to continue one hour south to Labuhanaje, the ferry terminal for Pulau Simelue. Boats leave three times a week to this extraordinary island which has a few losmen, but also many accommodating locals willing to offer tourists places to sleep at a minimal charge that includes hot food. The surfing here is unbelievable, some say better than at Nias, as well as many excellent unvisited swimming beaches. Back on the mainland, a short 20 minute drive from Labuhanhaljie, is Tupaktuan, a friendly seaside town with cheap accommodation and some of the best seafood in Aceh. Hikes and beach treks are very popular here, as well as relaxing in town. Buses are available back to Medan, which is a 6 hour ride, Sidikalang, and other points further south.

Blangkejeran, Aceh
This 72 km stretch of worn tarmac and potholes is another scenically spectacular ride. For the first 2 hours the road follows closely the course of the Alas river as it winds its way through Gunung Leuser national park. Apart from the orderly squares of paddy fields that hug the river, the landscape is fairly wild and rugged, with only a few tiny villages along the way. After an hour the road passes through Gumpang, an important market town, before beginning the climb up the slopes to the east of the valley. Thirty minutes before Blangkejeran the road passes above Agusan, a small town in the Alas valley and the starting point to climb Gunung Leuser.
Then the scenery changes dramatically. Lush jungle gives way to rolling hills of pasture and tree stumps - you have left the national park! The busy rural town of Blangkejeran stands at an important crossroads; as well as being on the main Kutacane - Takengon highway, it also has connections with both the east and west coasts. An appalling road from Blangkejeran heads to Simpang Trangon, north of Blangpidie on Aceh’s west coast, and a similarly hazardous road from the village of Pinding, 15 km east of Blangkejeran, connects the town with Pereulak on the east coast.
Blangkejeran also lies at the heart of a region which grows tobacco - as well other herbs which can either be smoked, or used in cooking.

Bukit Tinggi

Situated in the heart of the Minangkabau in the highlands of central West Sumatera, Bukit Tinggi is a cultural, commercial and tourist centre famous for its spectacular scenery and cool climate. This prosperous and clean city offers most facilities for travellers and tourists, with a wide range of accommodation, several internet cafes, western restaurants, travel agents and cinemas. Most banks have ATMs for all major credit cards. The central shopping area and adjoining markets are the largest to be found in Sumatera, and include a bird market on Saturdays. Within the city are several places of interest including a clean zoo, Jam Gedung, Fort de Cock (now a ruin,) the Japanese cave and Sianok canyon, and views of the surrounding countryside and volcano are visible from most places in town. Many horse drawn Bendi's make local transport a cheap, and often shared pleasure as you enjoy the sights. Local bars offer live music at night, and traditional dancing can be seen at the Cultural Centre on Saturdays.
Situated in the heart of the Minangkabau in the highlands of central West Sumatera, Bukit Tinggi is a cultural, commercial and tourist centre famous for its spectacular scenery and cool climate. This prosperous and clean city offers most facilities for travellers and tourists, with a wide range of accommodation, several internet cafes, western restaurants, travel agents and cinemas. Most banks have ATMs for all major credit cards. The central shopping area and adjoining markets are the largest to be found in Sumatera, and include a bird market on Saturdays. Within the city are several places of interest including a clean zoo, Jam Gedung, Fort de Cock (now a ruin,) the Japanese cave and Sianok canyon, and views of the surrounding countryside and volcano are visible from most places in town. Many horse drawn Bendi's make local transport a cheap, and often shared pleasure as you enjoy the sights. Local bars offer live music at night, and traditional dancing can be seen at the Cultural Centre on Saturdays.
The picturesque Lake Meninjau is two hours away by bus, and guides will take you to the surrounding peaks. Bukit Tinggi is a 12 hour bus ride from Lake Toba or Dumai, Padang is three hours away, from where you can get a Pelni ferry to Jakarta, or to off shore islands. It is also possible to connect by boat to Singapore or Malacca through Pakanbaru and Dumai.

Padang
There are plenty of quality hotels, though very few for budget travellers. Losmen and cheaper accommodation can be found at the delightful Bungus Beach on the Indian ocean, approx 25 km south of the city, where the jungle clad hills drop steeply to the coast and it is a good place to wait if you have a few days before a ferry connection. Also within easy reach are the culturally rich Minang highlands and the fascinating Mentawai islands where stone age traditions still survive.

Sibolga and Nias Island
Sibolga is the ferry port for Nias and other islands off the west coast, as well as the gateway to West Sumatera, but it has attractions of its own in terms of its historical background, lovely beach, coral gardens in a sea dotted with islands - and wonderful food! There is also a golf course 12 km from town.

Nias Island lies 125 km off the west coast and has been host to the World Surfing Championships. It is the surf which brings people here, but the place also has a history and a unique culture. Gunung Sitoli is the capital, and access to the island is via Bineka airport, 19 km from town, or Pelabukan Angin, the island's harbour, 5 km away from the town.
The traditional houses in the south of Nias are oval in shape, and the older houses are entered by a ladder to a trap-door in the floor. Some can be found just 5 km from Sitoli, and also nearby is the stalactite hung cave of Togi Ndrawa, (meaning foreigner's cave) which was formerly used as HQ for buying slaves. There are several sites and villages around the island featuring 'Rumah adat' as well as megalithic parks containing huge old stone carvings dating from 3,000 years ago, (the oldest megaliths in Indonesia according to Rumbi Mulia, 1980.) Tetegewo, 13 km from Lahusa, Tunorumbawo and Tundrumbaho, are three of these, but just about every village has its share of ancient stone carvings. Bawomataluo is the oldest village, at 400 meters above sea level, and is reached by climbing 88 stone steps. The single gateway is guarded by two stone animal carvings, and inside are 136 traditional houses. These are centred around the King's house, the biggest traditional house on Nias, built on massive decorated wooden beams. Stone jumping and traditional dances can be seen here and also at Hilisi maetano village, which is more easily accessible.
But it is still the beaches and superb surf which attracts people to Nias, and the surf is at its best between April and October. Lugundri and Sorake beaches on the south coast have several kilometers of white, palm lined sand about 12 km from Teluk Dalam. There are other, smaller islands of the west coast of Nias. Bawa Island is a two hour Rp 5000/10.000 trip by daily public boat from Sirombu harbour, it has excellent surf as well as a sheltered beach on the east coast, and a lake with crocodiles. Asu Island can be reached by boat charter and offers surfers left hand reef breaks in the north, as well as sheltered beaches for swimming or snorkelling.
South of Nias lies Pulau-Pulau Batu, a mini archipelago consisting of 101 islands, just south of the equator and reached by a 30 minute flight or a 6 hour ferry ride three times a week. The trip to Nias from Sibolga takes 8 to 13 hours depending on the weather.

Batam and visa runs
Batam, one of the largest Indonesian islands that form the Riau archipilego, is Indonesia's fastest growing tourist destination after Bali, in terms of visitor arrivals. It is an ideal entry point to Indonesia, the ferry ride from Singapore takes only 40 minutes, and from Batam you can travel by air or ferry to numerous destinations. The island has a beauty which is unspoiled by the excellent growing infrastructure. There are 5 star hotels with first rate facilities as well as budget hotels, providing opportunities for island hopping golfers or water sports enthusiasts, as well as sun worshipers who just want rest and relaxation in this latest Indonesian holiday playground.
Places of interest include the Tiara Indah Handicraft Centre as it has a huge selection of crafts from most of Indonesia's 26 provinces; Dapur Dua Belas, which offers a glimpse of a way of life which has vanished from Batam; the beautiful stretch of sand at Nongsa beach, and Pulau Buluh, a traditional village with houses built over water.
Away from the bustling islands of Batam, Bintan and Karimun near Singapore, the Riau islands remain a sleepy backwater ideal for leisurely exploration of an old fashioned way of life which is rapidly disappearing. Pekanbaru is the capital city of Riau province, and has several buildings designed in traditional Riau architectural style, among them are Balai Dang Merdu, Balai Adat and Taman Budaya Riau.

Visa renewal
Coming Back for More?Sixty days is just not enough time to see Sumatra, let alone the rest of Indonesia. For people who are thinking of returning to Penang for visa renewal and coming back, there is an alternative, little used, very comfortable, and inexpensive way to do it. Pelni Ferries run every 4 days from Belawan Port to Batam Island. You can book your trip both ways in advance, whether you are travelling economy or in a cabin. (Economy fare Rp 100.000, 2nd Class Rp 175.000) Otherwise buy a return on arrival at Batam, either from the ticket touts (only slightly more expensive) or from the ticket office by the departure hall. (Which only opens shortly before sailing.) You may only be able to buy an Economy class ticket here, but you can upgrade on the ship as it leaves at 5.00 pm if you want to.
Next, take the speedboat to Singapore - they run every 40 minutes or so. The speedboat costs 26 S$ return at the ticket office on Batam, or the equivalent in Rupiah. You dock at the World Trade Centre in Singapore, and although you will not have much time for shopping, you will have time for a tasty lunch. If you don't have a return ticket for Batam, buy one on the second floor, from where you disembark to go back to Batam. (Remember an onward ticket is an Immigration requirement.)
If you get back to Batam by about 4.00 pm local time you will have plenty of time to get another Pelni Liner back to Belawan, which leaves at 5.00 pm that night and arrives at Belawan around 9.00 in the morning. So, no need to stay in Singapore unless you want to. If so, you can return 4 days later. Other entry / exit points are Singapore to Tanjung Balai, and Dumai to Malacca.