We had just become proud owners of “Lonely Planet Indonesia” and couldn’t wait to use it. As luck would have it there was a long weekend coming up. With just one week left it was tough deciding where to go, too short a time to read up the whole book to plan a “planned trip”! So the easiest thing to do was to start from one end!
And Medan it was…
On the day we were to finalise we chanced upon two people who tipped our minds finally in favour of North Sumatra. One was a colleague who was just back from a holiday there and the other a friend who lives in Medan who promised to make all the bookings including car rentals – a bonus!
Bookings were made in Samosir Island and in Bukit Lawang – two places most popular in this circuit – and also in Medan. Lake Toba is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, with 100 km by 30 km dimensions. Parapat is a towns on the lake with easy access to Samosir Island.
The two major monuments in Medan, the Istana Maimun, the Sultans palace and the Great Mosque are just walking distance from the hotel we were booked into. Sight seeing of both were finished in about 15 minutes. There was not much else to be done so the rest of the evening was spent in a mall which had a game arcade, bumper cars, a trampoline and even a small roller coaster ride. We realised that it would have been better to drive straight to Parapat and try to catch the last ferry to Samosir island or at least stay in Parapat.
We planned an early start the next morning so as get most out of the day. The hotel we stayed in served a fantastic breakfast buffet starting at 6am. So we started our day with Nasi Goreng, juicy chicken roast, bubur etc. filling our poor stomachs not used to rice and meat so early in the morning and hoping that it would not retaliate – and it did not – Tummy also on holiday!
We are out at 7, roads are smooth with sparing traffic, a welcome change for those from Jakarta. On the way one sees acres and acres of palm plantations and mountains on the horizon. A lot of mountains you see in this country seem to have flat tops so one is always wondering if it is yet another volcano.
As we near Parapat after a 4 hour drive we are steadily climbing, the road winds through lush green hills. And suddenly we see below us the most breathtaking sight, clear blue expanse of still water and green hills beyond. That was Lake Toba in all its splendour. The weather gods were in generous spirits giving us a day so brilliant that we could see the silver streaks of waterfalls miles away on Samosir.
There is regular boat and ferry service to the Island. We got there a little too late for the 10:30 ferry as we stopped a few times to capture in mind and in camera the beauty of the place. We also stopped for local, early season mangoes which were being sold by basket loads.
Undeterred by missing the ferry we went on to explore the town of Parapat and of course to find lunch. Indonesiais a fish lover’s paradise; few warungs opposite the Jetty showcases various preparations of the local fish Nila. There are many private boat services to the Island, with speedboats and large launches but it would be best to take the government-run ferry as prices are fixed and it runs dot on time.
Samosir is a quiet, almost sleepy place with mostly Christian population, the island is dotted with churches, a few too many one tends to think given the meagre population.
The most happening place on the island is called Tuk tuk where most of the resorts and restaurants are. Of the popular resorts is Carolina hotel tucked in a corner of Tuk tuk, built in Batak architecture with its simple but clean rooms. The lake around the resort is cordoned and is cleared of weeds making it ideal for swimming, for those with kids it would be a great idea to travel with tubes or arm bands as the water is deep. The temperature is just right and the water is crisp, just float on your back and for the ultimate relaxation.
The Island deserves to be granted at least 36 hours from ones holiday. There are trekking trails for the more active tourist, numerous Batak handicraft stores for those who want a souvenir to take back home and great food for the gastronomically inclined like us.
We head back to Medan by a different route through Berastagi as our book that is well used by now shows us that this way we get to drive by the Lake till its northern tip, It is much longer and is sparingly used but well worth every extra second you are spending on this road.
The placid lake plays peek-a-boo from behind thick forests and rich coffee plantations. Almost till one hits Medan you drive by agricultural land and every few kilometers you find farmers in little stalls selling their produce to passers-by. Stop for oranges, pineapple, passion fruit, guavas and juicy carrots.
Bukit Lawang with its orangutan rehabilitation center is another tourist hotspot near Medan, the place was devastated in a 2003 flash flood which washed away many of the houses and hotels. But now the tourist village is on a full path to recovery.
It is only 96 km from Medan but will take 2 ½ to 3 hours to reach there owing to bad roads. You again find yourself driving through palm plantations but on a much larger scale. The mountains stand guard far away while you drive on the road crossing rivers, giving you a hint of what is in store.
The rehabilitation center is a 20 minute walk up the river from the village and a crossover in a dugout canoe. To reach the orangutan feeding platform there is a 10 minute climb up a small hill. Tourists are allowed entry only during the feeding time which takes place twice a day. We happened to spot one female with its baby clinging on to it out in the wild, but were not lucky to see more at the feeding platform.
The River, the main attraction in Bukit lawang after the orangutans is clean, swift and fun! Large tubes are available for the daring to tumble down the river. There are local boys who will also give you a crash course in kayaking. For the less adventurous just splashing about in the river gives almost as much pleasure.
All in all I can say that the last-minute, almost unplanned trip turned out to be among the most wonderful holidays we have taken.
For those first time visitors to Medan, try out the two popular cakes from that area the Bika Ambon and Bolu Meranti and whether you like them or not bring a few kilos of it with you on the plane so as not to feel singled out at the airport. The plane we came back in would have been carrying at least 100 kilos of these delicacies back to Jakarta!