Sumatra is the third largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, and a far cry from the main tourist hotspot of Bali. A bit too far flung to be on most people’s to-do list, it conjures images of dense jungle and endangered wildlife – and it does have these things in spades.
But in actual fact, it’s a surprisingly accessible place to travel through, with well-established bus routes and a whole lot of friendly locals willing to step in when you’re looking lost.
Which, of course, happened to me often.
It’s also effortlessly beautiful: green on green on green in a hundred shades and hues; there’s jungle, yes, but there are also verdant rice paddies and mountains and mirrored lakes.
Travelling through Sumatra was one of the best parts of my recent two-month long trip in Indonesia.
Here are my highlights – in pictures.
All prices are quoted in Indonesian rupiah, and 50,000 rupiah is roughly equivalent to £3 / $5 AUD / $3.70 US.
Orang utan spotting and jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang
Sadly all my orangutan pictures are out-of-focus (couldn’t possibly be the photographer, my camera must have just have been having an off day) – but seeing them was easily a highlight of my Indonesia trip as a whole.
To know that these creatures are so endangered, can only be seen in a few places in the world, and then get to trek through the jungle to within metres of them… well, it was pretty incredible.
First we spotted a few orangutans high above us in the trees, which was exciting enough. We stood transfixed for a solid ten minutes, craning our necks upwards, watching a mother and baby idly swaying through the canopy.
Then a huge male (pictured) swung through the trees directly in front of us and turned his doleful eyes upon us, supremely unconcerned about my barely contained squeals of excitement. It was frankly unbelievable.
Bukit Lawang is the more established place to jungle trek to see orang utans, and can be quite easily reached by bus from Medan. Just head to the main bus terminal and get your haggling shoes on – the price should be about 35k rupiah but they will definitely start their price at about 150k. I’d accept 50k, begrudgingly. Then you can get a lift by motorbike taxi from the Bukit Lawang terminal to the centre, for about 15k – and you’ll have to walk the rest of the way to your homestay or hotel as the bikes can’t go over the (rickety) bridges. Nor would you want them to try.
You can also see orang utans at a slightly less-known place called Ketambe, which again can be reached from Medan but might be a little bit more difficult to get to. I imagine the bus price would be roughly the same, though.
Visiting ghost towns in the shadow of the Sinabung volcano
There is a lot of good volcano climbing to be done in Indonesia, and Sumatra is no different. We climbed up Gunung Sibayak from nearby Berastagi, which was a (relatively) nice easy walk, but even better was the tour around the ghost towns of Sinabung.
It was in equal parts heart-wrenching and fascinating to explore the village that had been evacuated due to the instability of the continuously erupting Sinabung. Ash had settled on the fields, houses were taken over by vines and weeds, scattered possessions forlornly abandoned on streets and in buildings. I’ve never been anywhere like it, and it’s horrible to think that the area around Mount Agung could soon become like this. Four years is all it’s taken for towns to grow silent, for nature to reclaim its land and ash to muffle the streets.
People still go back and forth between their old houses and their new places, so there are still some signs of life. But it’s like an old Western film, where you always feel like something dramatic is about to happen; everything is eerily deserted save for a dog barking or a door creaking on its hinges. And indeed, the air was often filled with new plumes of smoke – and later, safely back in Berastagi we were witness to a particularly big eruption of smoke and ash, which could be seen from many miles away.
We jumped into a car with some friends who were already planning on doing this visit, and by car is probably the most viable way to see the ghost towns. You could probably hire a car for the day for around 400-500k total, and you’d be able to ask them to drive you up to Sibayak start point as well. Sibayak can easily be hiked independently, but a guide costs 200k per person – and you’ll want a guide if you are doing it for sunrise.
In Berastagi, stay at Nachelle Homestay – the lady who owns it is super helpful and will be able to offer advice on all the things to do in the area.
From Berastagi you can also make the trip to see Sipisopiso waterfall – the highest waterfall in Indonesia. We were driven there by the driver we had hired, but there is a public bus stop nearby so it would be possible to go there yourself. From Sipisopiso we got the bus over to Lake Toba (which can also be seen from the waterfall). The bus cost 20k to Senang Batu, then a further 20k to Parapat which is where you take the ferry over to Samosir Island. Just tell the driver where you’re aiming for and they will make sure you get there somehow!
The ferry from Parapat costs 15k and you buy the ticket on the boat – the last boat is at 6pm so make sure you leave the waterfall by about 2pm to be on the safe side.
Read: Conquering Mount Rinjani
Seeing a lake in an island in a lake in an island… just because
Unfortunately Lake Aek Natonang is a peculiarly un-picturesque place, unlike pretty much the entire rest of Sumatra. So we mainly visited for the novelty value.
Lake Toba is a mainstay of the Sumatran tourist trail, and most spend a couple of nights staying on Samosir island in the middle of it. And then just the mad few will go to the extra effort of hiring a scooter pretty much just to go to this ugly lake in the middle of the island. Obviously us included.
But really, how many places in the world have a lake in an island in a lake in an island?
And this trip was made all the more exciting by the near-constant threat of pregnant looking grey clouds on the horizon. We like to live life on the wild side, y’know.
As mentioned above, the ferry over to Samosir island costs 15k. From here we travelled on to Bukittingi, which was a long old journey – about 14 hours. We booked through our guest house and it cost 320k for a pretty darn luxurious ALS bus.
I’m sure you could get it cheaper by booking from Parapat directly, but you have to work out a way of getting from the ferry port to the bus terminal, and figure out what time the buses leave, which is easier said than done. Some other people told us would be a nightmare journey, too, so it might be worth giving up the extra $5 or so to have a reasonably easy ride!
Revelling in glorious scenery in the Harau Valley
I mean, just look at it.
The Harau Valley was not a place that I’d even heard of before we decided to go there, but ended up being one of my favourite places in Sumatra. Luckily the magic of Facebook groups had tipped us off that this was a fantastic place to spend a chilled couple of days, and we were not disappointed.
Arriving to the Harau Valley is kind of like stepping into a painting. Everything is bright and shiny and beautiful. The whole place looks like it’s had the saturation turned up. And the place we stayed had hammocks, so…
Harau Valley is reached from Bukittingi (and I would recommend not spending too long there). Hello Guesthouse in Bukittingi will give you detailed directions on getting to the valley, though of course it’s easier said than done.
Get to the Bukittingi bus terminal by hopping on one of the red buses that regularly patrol the city (for about 2k), then from the bus terminal find a bus going to Tanjung Pati. Look for buses with Sarah Group or Ayak written on the front. Many many people will tell you to get on random other buses: they are trying to help but usually they aren’t the buses you want! This trip should cost about 15k.
If you don’t manage to get on the right bus (we didn’t), and get deposited at a random roadside, then you can still easily get to the Valley, it just might involve a few more buses. We ended up chartering an angkot (minibus) for like 50k each because it was much less hassle!
If you do manage to make it to Tanjung Pati you need to find a becak (motorbike taxi) to get to Harau Valley, for about 10k – and just tell them the place you are planning to stay, they will know it! I would thoroughly recommend Abdi Homestay.
Driving round Lake Maninjau and its crazy hairpin bends
Lake Toba wasn’t a patch on Lake Maninjau for scenic drives and natural beauty.
Just an hour away from Bukittingi, Maninjau is generally quiet and unassuming, but with epic views and friendly people. You can easily scoot round the whole lake in under two hours – and it only takes that long because you will want to stop and take pictures every few hundred metres.
And the best part? The journey to get there and away: no fewer than 44 butt-clenchingly tight hairpin bends, with a new view round every corner. Hilariously, this is also the number one Maninjau attraction on TripAdvisor. It’s a pretty quiet place…
Getting to Maninjau from Bukittingi is a straightforward minibus ride from the terminal, costing 25k.
(Begrudgingly) going to see the Rafflesia flower near Bukittingi
It is only with reluctance that I recommend doing this, because when we went the blasted thing decided to flower in a particularly hard-to-reach place. And we saw it in monsoon season, so imagine clambering up achingly steep slopes that have been churned into mud by many overenthusiastic (and clumsy) tourists.
It was possibly the most frustrating, sweaty, slippery two hours of my life. And for once it wasn’t just because I am the clumsiest human ever to have lived.
Still, you’ve got to see it. The rafflesia is the largest single flower in the world. It’s pretty rare, and it has an annoying habit of only being in bloom for a few days at a time – and then dying. There’ll be signs up everywhere when one is blooming, so you have to get organised and jump at the chance when you have it.
You can easily do a tour to see the flower for about 200k per person, which will include transport to and from Bukittingi and a guide. We chose to do it ourselves, however, and hopped on a hilarious ‘family bus’ (think blaring music, stools for seats to fill up the empty space, and lots of weird cartoons painted everywhere) to Palupuh from Bukittingi, which cost about 8k. We then got a guide for 75k per person (we had heard it was 50k, but he wouldn’t budge on this price – and in fairness the flower was a real hike away so it was fair enough!).
You 100% need a guide or you would never find it in a million years.
And that’s it for Sumatra! It was an incredible two weeks, and even after spending a month and a half travelling round the rest of Indonesia, I wasn’t prepared for just how great Sumatra would be. It was quiet when we were there because of the monsoon, but still well worth it – although definitely a good place to have a travel partner, as there are way more guesthouses than hostels.
If you want to be inundated with endless panoramas of beautiful views and interesting attractions, head over to my Instagram where I post pretty pictures of awesome places.
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