For some people, Sumatra can be a scary place to travel. No major rail network, poor roads, and a harsh tropical climate that can make travel here all the more difficult during wet season. However, the pros should outweigh the cons if you plan your itinerary correctly, and Sumatra – particularly the north – will become a true highlight of your backpacking adventures!
Most people will arrive in North Sumatra at the largest city on the island, Medan. This city is, in fact, one of the largest and most important in all of Indonesia, and the airport here has just opened, having relocated from a smaller airport elsewhere. One of the reasons for this newer, larger Kuala Namu Airport is for the increasing influx of visitors – many of them tourists – that arrive here looking for an adventure. Does this sound like you?!
First thing you must do is hop on the Airport Train into the city centre. This is a nice, clean, and easy experience and should take no more than 35 minutes. From here on in, your orientation of North Sumatra will begin. I would wholly recommend finding yourself a cheap hotel for the night – and luckily accommodation in Sumatra is dirt cheap! The next morning, hopefully you will have decided what you’re going to do. If you’re not part of an organised tour, and prefer to travel independently (like I do) then you will need to find some travel agents who will sell you the tickets. Your hotel may help you with this organisation, although outside of touristy areas like Bali and the nation’s capital of Jakarta, you will find little English spoken by the locals, so brush up on your basic Bahasa Indonesia phrases before you arrive – it will help you a lot!
Apart from wanting to know what to eat on the streets, the next thing you will probably want to ask is how to get around Sumatra. Well, for short journeys around Medan and the smaller towns like Berastagi you have what is known as an ojek (like a tuktuk). The ojek drivers are friendly and know their stuff. The journeys are cheap, and the drivers are more than willing to wait for you while you visit an attraction; they can also even offer their service for the whole day should you choose a longer guided tour of the city! For longer journeys, minibuses are the norm. However, please be advised that bus travel in North Sumatra is hardly luxurious, despite being very cheap. You get what you pay for here in Indonesia! Expect the journey to be very bumpy, with the bus having poor suspension. I have also been on minibuses with loud music blaring out from the radio, which seemingly only the driver enjoys! Then again, it’s his bus, so it’s his rules!
When you get your bearings of Medan, and when you are acquainted with being in Sumatra, you can begin your journey around the area. There are 3 main are places to visit for the average backpacker: Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang, and Berastagi. Unless you’re planning to head across Sumatra down to Bandar Lampung and cross by ferry to Java, then I would recommend travelling to Lake Toba first, as it is farthest away from Medan. Then you can begin the journey back to Medan, via Berastagi and finally the jungle of Bukit Lawang. Some people do it in the opposite direction, and I guess it doesn’t make much difference, but camping overnight at Bukit Lawang in the rainforest of Gunung Leuser National Park should ideally be done once you have had more time to acclimatise to the island.
Lake Toba is possibly the most popular tourist attraction in the whole of Sumatra and it is the largest volcanic lake in the world. In fact, the lake is so large that it actually contains and island within the island! There are plenty of budget accommodations here beside the lakeside, and they are all really scenic. The friendly villages of Samosir and Tuktuk (yes, the village is really called that!) are close by and are a great way not only to immerse yourself in Sumatran cultures, but also to check out some local food (no McDonald’s around here btw!).
Bukit Lawang is a mysterious township situated on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, in the midst of tropical rainforest heritage. It is a place where backpackers spend a lot of time enjoying everything there is to offer, such as good food, tubing, exotic wildlife, and even magic mushrooms! It is said that Sumatran tigers still roam these parts, though thankfully sightings are extremely rare. The main attraction, though, is the orangutans, and you can see them (with a guide) in the semi-wild and watch them being fed. Entry to the national park is only possible with a guide, and expect accommodation around here to be very basic (you are in the middle of the jungle, after all!). Aside from the orangutans, there is a local community at Bukit Lawang who will encourage you to partake in river rafting – and the kids love a game of football!
Compared to the other major places in North Sumatra, Berastagi often gets overlooked, as it doesn’t have – on first glance at least – the same kind of natural attractions (i.e. no animals, no jungle, no lake). However, what Berastagi does have, apart from being the largest town listed in this article, is a scalable active volcano that continues to draw in the tourists! Berastagi is conveniently located between Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang, so if it’s on the way in your journey, then it’s got to be good to stopover for a night or two and take in the sights and sounds. The locals here in Berastagi are fascinated by tourists (in a friendly way) and will be honoured that you’ve come to check out their town!
Whichever parts of North Sumatra you decide to explore, be sure to remember that the whole island is a Malaria Zone, so medication before you arrive is essential. Dengue Fever is also a problem in these parts, and as there is no prevention for this disease, the best bet would be to take usual precautions against mosquitoes – especially prevalent in the jungle – by covering up neck to toe (this also protects you against the leeches)!