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this review centers on Medan, the capital and Northern Sumatra, namely the national park located around bukit lawang.
On arrival in medan, the first hurdle to a novice traveller in south east asia are the taxi touts, who can be boistrous and rather daunting. they are however very useful if you know what you want, i.e. where you are going and that you want a meter taxi, any other option will rip you off.
if the mood takes you there is a little slice of the western world in the form of Dunkin Donuts just outside the departures terminal, otherwise there is a small cafe/resteraunt further along nearer the arrivals which will serve you a decent nasi/mee (rice/noodles). The later establishment did give me a mild dose of food poisoning, however i have always thought that in indonesia you WILL get food poisoning at some point, so it is better to get it over and done with early and then enjoy your trip!
Medan itself is not a marvelous city, and the main appeal of sumatra are the more rural areas, because of this i would recomend not hanging around in medan, but hoping on a bus ASAP. the main bus terminals is known by every taxi in the city, however there are two so be specific. A bus to Bukit Lawang is not expensive and takes about 4-6 hours. Expect to be latched onto by a guide at this point, this is nothing to be worried about however as they often offer a remarkabley good service.
the main attraction in Bukit Lawang are the orangutans. they are spectacular. treks can be organised either at your hotel or any number of places, ranging from trips to see feeding only (the start of all treks) to several days in the jungle with food provided. the terain is moderate, but let your guide know in advance what you can handle and the route can be tailored to suit. i did the day trek which was wonderful, with the feeding time in the morning being the highlight. the orangutans were close enough to touch (i should point out that these are rehabilitated animals rescued from captivity and human encroachment into their environment and should not under any circumstances be fed or touched by anyone except the park rangers).
When i was there i was lucky enough to see a mother and tiny baby, with the baby drinking out of a tea cup and storing bananas that its mother snatched from the keeper, a truly unforgetable experience that i would recomend to anyone.
the return to the village at the end of the trip is very fun, it involves floating down the river in inner tubes lashed together, all your valubles(cameras etc.) go into a waterproof bag. The whole experience is wonderful with animals ranging from peacocks to lots and lots of monkeys, and if you are especialy lucky, and i do mean really really lucky, sumatran rhinos and tigers!
all in all, the trip is a wonderful experience, the people are lovely and the scenary breathtaking. a special mention should be made about our guide, Eru who we met on the bus ride from medan, who was excelent with everything, from guiding us around the jungle, to helping us negotiate a discounted hotel rate, and if anyone does stumble upon him, i whole heartedly recommend him.
Sumatra is huge, really huge. It is the sixth largest island in the world or more than twice as large as the the British Isles. It is also a little explored island of rainforest, volcanoes and wildlife beyond imagining. Here it is still possible to get off the map and voyage in a tropical land.
Indonesia has had its problems in the past decade or so and in Aceh there had been a long-running insurrgency which has been settling down in the past few years with a peace agreement, greater autonomy for the area and both rebels and the government participating in regional elections. The FCO still advises caution in the area but provided the traveller is sensible and avoids political discussion or action then there is no need to avoid Aceh. This issue as well as problems in other areas of Indonesia has led to a serious downturn in the number of tourists visiting the area. Whilst the downfall in tourism has serious consequences for local people it has a positive side for the more intrepid traveller as this is one place left in South East Asia where you don't feel as if you are constantly surrounded by other western tourists.
I first arrived in Sumatra in the port of Medan via a boat across the water from Malaysia and it was far from the best of starts. After spending 4 hours on the ferry surrounded by locals throwing up whilst myself and the other foreigner looked on a little bemused as the sea was completely calm, we finally arrived into the port and were faced with a chaotic mess of people all vying for attention. Eventually extracting myself I managed to get on a bus into Medan which is a developed yet poor city with concrete buildings in the centre and collapsing shacks around the outside. The city feels like an Indian town (and I found out later that it does have a significant indian population) and is filled with noise, smells, people and then the odd bright and shiny shopping mall which hide freezing air conditioning and calm personal shopping assistents behind their gleaming automatic doors. It is a chaotic and busy place but actually quite typical of Indonesian cities so if on a first trip to the region then remember to be prepared.
The city has little to recommend itself aside from a few mosques which are intricately decorated but don't stand above any of the others in the country and fed up with the hectic hustle and extreme city heat I left to start exploring the rest of the island.
First stop was in a small village called Bukit Lawang around 4 hours travel from Medan and nestled into the rolling hills covered with virgin rainforest. The setting is idyllic but the reason that people come to this village is because it has an orangutan rehabilitation centre allowing foreigners to get up close with these amazing creatures. I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the centre as I have been to places claiming to care for animals before in Asia and have been put off by appalling conditions or found that it is impossible to get anywhere near the animal that you are trying to see. However, Bukit lawang is an exception and seemed to be a genuine place to care for orangutans. There are two options for viewing orangutans, one just by the centre itself where tame (relatively) orangutans are fed daily and visitors can watch or on a trek into the jungle to try and see them in the wild-which can't, of course, be guaranteed.
I took the first option and went to watch one of the daily feeding sessions in the rainforest. From the village itself there is an hour long walk including a river crossing in a canoe pulled across on a rope and by the time I arrived where the feeding ground was I felt like I had intrepidly trekked deep into uncharted territory (although it is along a path!) and hoped these big monekys were worth it. I can say unreservedly that they were worth it. the small group of visiters watch from the path as these huge creatures swing through the trees with babies clinging to them and grab proffered bananas and other goodies from the keepers. Usually they would back off and sit in the trees but once or twice one sat down with the keepers. I was awed by them-they are so dextorous with their hands and the care they show for the young really does seem to mimic humans. After being unsure about the whole thing this came to be one of my favourite memories of Sumatra.
This small village was also my first experience in Indonesia really interacting with the local people and I found them helpful, friendly and missing the view of westerners simply as a huge money bag. I wouldn't say that you will never be ripped off but I didn't have any negative experiences and didn't feel like people were using me. At first, and disliking myself for feeling that way, I was suspicious of people trying to help me out but I soon realised that they were genuine. men carried my bags, gave me directions and offered advice without wanting anything in return. Once when I did offer a man a tip he refused it. Not Thailand but Sumatra should be known as the land of smiles as every person you speak to gives a huge beaming grin and it appears with no hypocrisy or malice behind it. All I got was unending help from locals regardless of what community they came from or religion they followed.
After the orangutans next stop was lake Toba or Danau Toba, the world's largest volcanic lake set 900metres above sea level caused by an eruption large enough to affect life worldwide. The road to reach the lake winds crazily back and forth up the hillside but arrives into fantastic scenery. The lake is a bright but deep blue and the island called Samosir rises from the centre. I stayed on the island which has a lot of guesthouses at one end and then it is possible to explore the rest of the island on moto or bike from there. Toba is a great place to either relax and swim in the lake or undertake some excercise around the island.
The people of the region are called Bataks and are a fascinating group that resisted colonisation for a long time with fierce warrior tribes. However, on eventually being conquered they converted to the protestant religion and now have a mixed culture of old customs and rites mixed in with strict Lutheran Christianity. The result of this means that there are numerous things to see on the island ranging from strange ceremonies with dancing and singing to somber churches. If like me you have an interest in colonisation and its affect on people or the mixing of cultures then this is the ideal place to come.
The town of Bukittinggi was my next and final destination in Sumatra. Similar to lake Toba the twon is around 900 metres above sea level and so the climate is cooler and more bearable compared to the intense heat of the lower regions. This is pretty much on the equator so normally the heat is intense and the tropical humidity makes it worse. Like everywhere in Sumatra it would seem, the scenery is fantastic with greenery surrounding the town, bright flowers and hills heading off into the distance. I didn't find the town itself had a lot of particular interest but I love markets and so browsing round the ones here passed a good few hours. The markets have a good mix of tourist crafts and souvenirs with local fruit, vegetable and clothes sellers.
Around the town there is a lot more to do with seemingly endless walks and treks for any ability. I found walking in this region can make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere very quickly or are an explorer off to contact undiscovered peoples. The huge spaces between towns and even villages mean that you can walk without ever coming across human 'civilisation'. the cahnces of observing wildlife is quite high if you have someone who knows what to look for and where to go. My guide walked us not far out of town and we saw lots of small mammals, birds and the fruit bats when they came out at night.
Transport in Sumatra is easy enough to organise but tends to be a little rough. Buses are the way to get around and run between most major places-although for smaler villags it is sometimes necessary to head into the nearest town and then back out to the next place which extends journey time. The buses usually got from A to B without any major problems but can be bare-boned with hard and uncomfortable seats. Unless flying is an option (which even if you have the money it may not be) then it is simply a matter of coping with it. Also smoking isn't just common in Sumatra, it is all-pervasive. Everyone smokes and there is no place in which it is banned or even frowned on or considered bad manners to light up-and this includes bus trips. It can be absolutely guaranteed that you will be passive smoking a lot when traelling and there is very little that can be done about it-it isn't rude to blow smoke over people or to ask before lighting up. On overnight bus trips the bus may well become a smoke box and so the best I can suggest is trying to ensure a window seat so at least you can open the window a little.
As I said at the start, Sumatra is huge and so the places I have covered are only a fraction of what is available on the island. Unfortunately most westerners can only get a 60 day visa in advance or 30 days if they turn up on the border for Indonesia and so time restraints may be an important part of planning a trip around the place. However, the areas I visited give an idea of the types of things available and the feel of the island. I would definitely return, I still think that Sumatra had some of the most interesting, friendly and varied people that I have come across and the country is beautiful, exciting and adventurous.
A trip to Sumatra in Indonesia for many is not complete without a trip to Lake Toba. Danau Toba is the local name for this lake which is the biggest in Indonesia. The lake itself is three times larger than Singapore and is about 450 metres deep. Lake Toba is accessible from a small town called Parapat on the north eastern side of the lake. The lake itself is very stunning and reminds me somewhat of Lake Windemere. There is a huge island in the middle of the lake called Samosir island which was originally inhabited by the Batak people of Indonesia. The Bataks are an indigenous tribe of cannibalistic people who came from the northern regions of Cambodia and Vietnam and settled in the highlands of Sumatra. There are three settlements on the island still and if you go to Tomok village on Samosir you will be able to see a few tombs of the Batak King and his fore fathers. This aside, there is not much else except row after row of souvenir stalls. Beware! these are manned by extremely persistent stall owners who will stop at nothing to get you to buy something. A word of advice is if you do not want to buy do not even look or ask the price of anything. I had to practically 'buy' my way out of the island. The journey to Lake Toba takes aproximately 5 hours from Medan and you can opt for a different route on the way back which will pass Brastagi, a higland village famous for fruit cultivation. The best hotel in Parapat is Niagara Hotel, perched at the peak of a hill overlooking the lake. prices are reasonable if you book in advance and more so if it is an organised tour.
I am on the top of a hill. The hill is on top of an island. The island is in a lake. The lake is in the crater of an ancient sunken volcano. The volcano is in the middle of an even bigger island. The island is at the end of a 5000-km long archipelago. Man-hill-island-lake-volcano-island-archipelago - a set of geomorphologic Russian dolls on top of the Island of the Dead - in lake Toba - in Sumatra - in Indonesia. Sumatra - within its half a million odd square kilometres, offers the intrepid traveller a treasure trove of 'far-out' experiences and some unique encounters. It lies on a massive geological fault line and is bisected by the equator. This combination of factors, as in the Rift Valley in East Africa, is the perfect recipe for the production of stunning landscapes and awesome wildlife. I found myself in Sumatra 7 years ago before the recent violence shattered the tranquillity of the island. In spite of the troubles, for the low-key traveller who keeps his head down, keeps his ears open, and avoids trouble spots, I am sure Sumatra still has much to offer. If Sumatra is an engagement ring, then Lake Toba for many is the big fat sparkling diamond in the middle. It is the biggest freshwater lake in SE Asia, both in terms of size and depth. It was formed in the crater of a collapsed volcano that erupted 100 000 years ago, which geologists say was the biggest explosion that the world has ever known. A few tens of thousands of years later, a plug of volcanic magma shot out like a monstrous tongue from the depths of the crater and formed an island in the middle of the lake. The island is called Samosir (the island of the Dead) and is where most travellers end up who visit Toba. Samosir has an eerie magical feel about it. Its inhabitants the Bataks were until very recently belligerent head-hunters and it is not difficult to stumble across evidence of this. Apart from the discovery of odd human skull, Batak men y
ou meet have this barely contained aggression simmering just below the surface, which you feel could explode with the slightest provocation. The views are stunning - craggy ridges define the edge of crater, jungles and forest cascade down the steep ridges onto paddy fields and villages that dot the lake edge. At night lightning strikes the top of the crater with such regularity, that you can set your camera on long exposure and photograph the forks. Days are wiled away on the pine surrounded sandy beaches that are scattered around the lake edge, or perhaps by renting a bicycle or motorbike and attempt to circumvent the 100-km island perimeter. It is possible also to walk across the island, with an overnight stop at the lodge on the island's peak, which opens up the whole island vista and allows you to see the true context of your geographical location. For the space cadets out there, the whole experience is available in 3D Technicolor starburst, by the judicious consumption of the local fungi. Moving south my next stop was the highland town of Bukitingii just south of the equator. This fine looking town, at 1000m of altitude is surrounded by three huge volcanoes and is a welcome stop after your 17-hour back-breaker from Toba. Immediately outside of town is Sianouk Canyon, through which we were lucky enough to be guided by a recent biology graduate. The jungle can be a most inhospitable and unfriendly place if you are a pansy footed ignoramus. If you have are a little better acquainted with the diversity of goodies that the jungle has to offer, then it can be an exotic and well stocked larder-cum-medicine cabinet all in one. Our guide fell into the second category and we were treated to a dazzling array of herbs, fruit and balms. An innocuous looking weed is pulled up and its wrinkled roots smell of lemony ginger. An aggressive looking fist of red black thorns, when delicately parted yields a succulent creamy tasting yellow fruit. A stem was ni
cked and bled producing a soothing eucalyptus balm. The highlight of the trek was being led down a section of the gorge, which was incredibly narrow. Fifty metres above us, the overhanging trees are thick with flying foxes, so abundant that they darken the skies. Bukitingii is a good place for arranging a trip to the Mentawai Archipelago a chain of islands parallel to the West Coast of Sumatra. It takes two hours to get to the smoky port of Padang and from there you take a battered old steam ferry to Siberut. Most of this fascinating island is a national park that has been listed as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve, a designation of planetary significance. Due to its isolation by the sea for half a million years, it has been a cradle to its unique flora, fauna and human culture. The indigenous tribes who live on the island were living what essentially amounted to a Stone Age existence until first contact days in the 17th Century. The word in the jungle while I was there was that there were still warlike tribes on the outlying islands who still had not been contacted. Most people who visit the island arrange their trip on the mainland, and come in a group. The number of permits issued for visitors to the park is limited, as it has been recognised that is a very fragile situation which could have catastrophic consequences if developed unsustainable. The family groups that are visited on each trip are rotated so each family sees westerners only once a year, which make it as exciting for them as it is for us. They are located deep in the jungle, which necessitates a long river journey into the heart of darkness, followed by a trek through forest and swamp. The Mentawai live much like they have always done in long houses which often contain several generations of one family. The head is the Bajak, who is like a father-cum-medicine man-cum-shaman type figure and is adored by all the family. My strongest memory of my time amongst these people was
their affection and warmth. Unlike the rest of Asia that avoids tactility and body contact at all times, these people loved nothing more than a big hug whenever possible - blissful. In my time amongst the Mentawai, I stayed with three families, I got leeched four times (twice on my warm sack), my girlfriend got healed by the medicine man when she was bitten by a toxic fish (a napot). I made curare out of tree roots, and loincloths out of tree bark. I hunted monkeys half naked with a bow and arrow, and communicated my success on a number of different sized tree trunks to another family 4 kms away, who arrived after a couple of hours. Although I didn?t have one drink or one spliff for two weeks, I laughed an average of five and a half hours a day, at least a quarter of which was health threatening belly laughter. It was a deeply profound and moving experience, to strike a common chord of friendship and share laughter with people from a different time. After my two and a half weeks in the jungle, I returned to the mainland and made my way to Lake Maninjau, another super scenic volcanic lake very near to Bukitingii. It is a smaller more intensely coloured version of Toba with a cast of inhabitants that look so perfect that they look like film extras. Its ambience is not conducive to any kind of strenuous activity, and days are best spent eating vast amounts of food, observing insects (Praying Mantises and colourful spiders) and falling in love with a waitress called Merry Christmas. Evenings are spent lying in a hammock trying to discern the individual sounds of the evening whilst observing shooting stars and drinking the local moonshine (banana whiskey) I left Sumatra on the slow boat from Pekanbaru, which languidly threads its way to Singapore. I was sad that I was unable to see any more of this beautiful island as I felt that I had barely scratched its surface. Other travellers have told me that amongst the other delights are that Sumatra
has to offer are the Orang Utang rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang, an ascent of Mount Merapi, surfing on the Nias Islands and the crystal clear aquatic idyll of Banda Aceh. For the David Attenborough in you, Sumatra is home to the rarest mammal in the world - the one horned Sumatran rhinoceros as well as the sheep sized Sumatran tiger. Its plant life offers thousand year old forest giants, huge carnivorous plants and the biggest flower in the world - the rotten-meat-odour-emitting Rafflesia. Sumatra - it's the Eden Project in the flesh!
I lived in Sumatra in Indonesia for 18 months, and although i was young there is still a fair amount i remember and can recommend it as a holiday destination. The best place to visit on the island of Sumatra is Lake Toba, this enormous lake is actually a crater lake, the remnents of what is thought to be the largest volcanic eruption for the last millenium. One popular beauty spot is the waterfall called Pisi Pisi, and another popular activity is a visit to the rainforest to see Orangutangs in the wild. As Indonesia is built up of thousands of islands it is also possible to visit small islands, for instance monkey island, one of our favourite destinations, and have the entire place to your self. It is also near by Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore which are all worth a visit. The main cities in Indonesia are becoming more Westernised and are full of bright neon coca-cola and kodak adverts, heading out of the cities opens up an entire new world however, rice paddies surrounded by houses on stilts, geckos running up and down rubber trees. Markets are also great to visit, you'll be surrounded by the brights colours of fresh bannanas, coconuts, chillis and cocoa beans - all tasting very different by the time they arrive in Britain. One fruit to avoid however is the durian, the smelliest fruit in existence. I would also recommend the freshly cooked corn on the cob - which seem to be sold everyehere, even up the side of mountain in the middle of knowhere. There are some reasons you may wish to avoid Indonesia however. For example, spiders the size of your hand, posionous snakes and scorpions. I don't ever remember seeing any of these, however I do remember the cockroaches, these are huge, and climb up through sink holes - so always put a brick or a plug on any sinks at night, and equip yourself with piff paff - a highly effective insect repellent. A mosquito net around the bed is also useful, as Indonesia is a malarious country.
Using public transport is also an adventure, the buses are loaded up to the max, people hang off them and the drivers fly around cliff top roads. And finally the government is decidedly dodgy, with a dubious human rights record, especially where East Timor is concerned.
Sumatra (also spelled Sumatera) is the sixth largest island in the world (approximately 470,000 km²) and is the largest island entirely in Indonesia (two larger islands, Borneo and New Guinea, are partially in Indonesia).