Tangkahan

Tangkahan

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This is the place for a truly wild and off-the-map adventure. Having ticked off seeing the orangutans in Bukit Lawang, in-the-know ecotourists are now trickling north to experience the jungle aboard elephants in this undiscovered retreat.

Towards the end of the 1990s a few foreign ecologists and conscientious locals decided to take a stand against the palm-oil loggers working in this wild part of northern Sumatra. Armed with a few rifles and machetes, and using elephants to patrol the jungle against loggers and poachers, the locals have gradually lobbied the government into declaring the region a protected area. Fast-forward 15 years and the once-doomed region is still home to all manner of apes, monkeys and, of course, elephants. Not so much a village as a bus stop, a park entrance and a handful of basic riverside bungalows on the wild banks of the Kualsa Buluh River, Tangkahan has a tiny community of amiable loggers-turned-guides selling an experience as close as you’ll get to Tarzan living on this untamed isle.

Parapat

Parapat

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The mainland departure point for Danau Toba, Parapat has everything a transiting tourist needs: transport, lodging and supplies.

The commercial sector of the town is clumped along the Trans-Sumatran Hwy (Jl SM Raja) and has banks, ATMs and other services. The bus terminal is 2km east of town, but most buses pick up and drop off passengers at ticket agents along the highway or at the pier.

Sibolga

Sibolga

Sibolga

The departure point for boats to Nias, Sibolga is a west-coast port town renowned for its touts. As tourist numbers decline, the hassles have diminished to a fish boil of touts when you step off the bus or boat.

Most boats like to get in and out of Sibolga as soon as possible, so it’s best to arrive as early in the day as possible to ensure a place on a boat departing that day.

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang

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Lost in the depths of the Sumatran jungle is this sweet little tourist town built around the popularity of its orangutan-viewing centre. But Bukit Lawang has much more to offer beyond our red-haired cousins. It’s very easy to while away a few days lounging in the many riverside hammocks, splashing about in the gushing river and watching the jungle life swing and sing around you. The forests surrounding Bukit Lawang are part of the vast Gunung Leuser National Park, which is one of the richest tropical-forest ecosystems in the word. The park as a whole is home to eight species of primate plus tigers, rhinos, elephants and leopards. However, aside from orangutans and various other primates, you are very unlikely to see any other large mammals here (or elsewhere in the park for that matter). The forests immediately surrounding Bukit Lawang are absolutely not pristine jungle – palm-oil plantations extend right up to the edge of the village and at weekends, when foreign tourists are joined by masses of domestic visitors, Bukit Lawang can feel as much like Tarzan country as a busy afternoon in a supermarket.

But don’t let this put you off, because when you first come face to face with a tree-swinging gentle giant or spend the night under a tarp in the forest you’ll quickly forget the tourist circus that accompanies a visit here.

The village is only 96km northwest of Medan.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/sumatra/bukit-lawang

Berastagi

Berastagi

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To escape from the infernal heat of sea-level Medan, the colonial Dutch traders climbed high into the lush, cool, volcanic hills. They took one look at the stunningly verdant, undulating landscape and decided to build a rural retreat where Berastagi (also called Brastagi) now stands.

Today weekending Medan folk and foreign visitors alike sigh a crisp, clear breath of relief when they arrive in this quaint agricultural escape situated high among Sumatra’s steaming volcanoes. The town itself, a concrete jungle set amid beautiful surrounds, is not overly pretty, but it’s an agricultural trade centre and its markets are always humming with activity. On Sundays, the largely Christian community takes the babies and Bibles out for worship.

Beyond the town are the green fields of the Karo Highlands, dominated by two volcanoes: Gunung Sinabung to the west and the smoking Gunung Sibayak to the north. You won’t find lava in either Sibayak or Sinabung, but each still has the feel of everything you hoped to experience from an active volcano, with steamy gases gushing from the fumaroles like a mad scientist’s laboratory. These volcanoes are a day hike apiece, making them two of Sumatra’s most accessible volcanoes, and the primary reason why tourists get off the bus here.

Berastagi is at an altitude of 1300m, and the climate is deliciously cool, sometimes even cold.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/sumatra/berastagi

Danau Toba

Danau Toba

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Danau Toba has been part of traveller folklore for decades. This grand ocean-blue lake, found high up among Sumatra’s volcanic peaks, is where the amiable Christian Batak people reside. The secret of this almost-mythical place was opened up to travellers by the intrepid, and Tuk Tuk – the village on the lake’s inner island – became as much a highlight for Southeast Asian shoestringers as Haad Rin and Kuta. It was almost overrun with tourism: wild full-moon parties would kick off, and travellers in beach-bum mode would get ‘stuck’ on the island for months on end. Whilst the travelling world has hardly forgotten about Toba, those heady party days are certainly a thing of the past. Nowadays the Batak people continue to warmly open their arms to travellers after a lazy, low-key lakeside sojourn.

Expect a chorus of ‘horas’ (‘welcome’) to greet you at every turn, as the locals quietly strum away the afternoon on their guitars while passing around a flagon of jungle juice.

Danau Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, covering a massive 1707 sq km. In the middle of this huge expanse is Pulau Samosir, a wedge-shaped island almost as big as Singapore that was created by an eruption between 30,000 and 75,000 years ago. Well, Bahasa Indonesia calls it an island, but those visiting the west of Toba will discover that Samosir isn’t actually an island at all. It’s linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus at the town of Pangururan – and then cut again by a canal.

Directly facing Parapat is another peninsula occupied by the village of Tuk Tuk, which has Samosir’s greatest concentration of tourist facilities. Tomok, a few kilometres south of Tuk Tuk, is the main village on the east coast of the island. Pangururan is the largest town on the west coast.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/sumatra/danau-toba

Medan

Medan

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Sumatra’s major metropolis, and Indonesia’s third-largest city, has a bad rep in Southeast Asia backpacker circles and it frequently pops up in ‘What’s the worst place you’ve ever visited?’ conversations. Question the city’s detractors a little further though and you’ll find that most have merely rushed straight through without giving the city any time. It’s true that physical tourist attractions are somewhat lacking, and that, compared to squeaky-clean Malaysia, the pollution, poverty and persistent catcalls of ‘Hello mister!’ could be an unnerving jolt of dirt-under-your-fingernails Asia. But it would also be fair to say that this is a city with real Indonesian character, something that can be lacking in many of the more popular North Sumatran tourist towns. So get over the culture shock, give Medan a bit of time and discover an amenity-filled, leafy and modern town with more than a hint of crumbling Dutch-colonial charm.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/sumatra/medan

– North Sumatra

North Sumatra

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For most visitors, this is the sole slice of Sumatra they’ll taste. And with good reason: ogle the orangutans in Bukit Lawang, veer over the volcanoes of Berastagi and laze away on the shores of Danau Toba. Overall, North Sumatra is a well-trodden and worthy circuit that centres on gateway metropolis Medan.

North Sumatra stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Melaka. From sea to shining sea, it is anything but homogeneous. The rolling landscape varies from sweaty plains to cool highlands, while the houses of worship switch between the metal domes of mosques to the arrow-straight steeples of Christian churches. The coastal Malays, relatives of peoples from mainland Southeast Asia, live along the Strait of Melaka and are the largest ethnic group. In the highlands around Danau Toba are the delightful Batak, and then there’s the megalithic culture of Pulau Nias.

North Sumatra has a population of almost 12 million and is an economically robust province, producing more than 30% of Indonesia’s exports. Oil, palm oil, tea and rubber are produced in large quantities, and fine tobacco is grown in the rich soil around Medan.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/north-sumatra