Sumatra at the far western end of the Indonesian archipelago is home to over 50 million people and is the second most populous island in all of Indonesia, second only to the relatively crowded Java. Ranked number 6 in the world in terms of size, Sumatra stretches 1,790 km from the northwestern tip to the southeast and is over 400 km wide in parts, making it an immense island to travel through on aging buses and roads.
Prior to Dutch colonial rule, Sumatra had a fairly colourful history comprising a number of kingdoms and religions over a 1,500 year period. The Sriwijaya kingdom was a Buddhist kingdom established in the 7th century and centred in the South Sumatran city of Palembang. From here, Buddhism spread throughout the archipelago and had close contact with modern day Thailand, Cambodia and China with remnants of this empire still evident today.
The Sriwijaya kingdom waned as a combination of military defeats and the introduction of Islam impacted the ability of the kingdom to govern. And it was several hundred years before a number of other kingdoms and sultanates rose with the Acehnese sultanate being particularly resilient to the Dutch influence that was to come from the 17th century onwards.
The Dutch began colonising many parts of Sumatra in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the later half of the 19th century that most of the interior and Aceh was opened up due to strong resistance by the inhabitants. This resistance culminated in the 30-year-long Aceh War, a war of attrition which eventually saw the Dutch prevail, but has long been seen as what differentiates Aceh from the rest of Indonesia.
The main ethnic groups of Sumatra are the Acehnese, Batak in their numerous sub-ethnicities and the Minangkabau of West Sumatra. Across the island 52 languages are spoken, although the single common language is, as with all of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia.
Land transportation has a reputation of being long and bumpy with multi-day journeys being common if you want to travel long distances. As the years go by, however, a more comprehensive network of flights is beginning to take shape with most of the major centres connecting with Jakarta and some of them connecting directly to Kuala Lumpur. This means that it’s easy to stop a journey half way along the island if you don’t have enough time or have simply had enough. Otherwise, expect at least one nightmare journey on your trip across Sumatra with the leg from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi being particularly brutal.
Most people enter Sumatra through the largest city of Medan, but we think this is a mistake as Banda Aceh at the very northern tip of the island has a lot to offer and is also the jumping off point for the spectacular Pulau Weh. That said, Medan is in close proximity to a number of wonderful destinations such as Bukit Lawang, Ketambe, Berastagi and Lake Toba.
Along the west coast of Sumatra and on some of the islands off the west coast are some of the world’s best surf breaks. Islands such as Nias and the Mentawais have for years been favoured spots for adventurous surfers and the west coast of Aceh is remote and just waiting to be explored by those keen to seek out sun, sand and surf.
Cities of Sumatra are generally small compared to some of the cities found in Java with Medan being the only city with comparable size, ranking number three in Indonesia in terms of population. Other cities popular among foreign tourists are Banda Aceh, which saw 70,000 of its inhabitants killed in the 2004 Asian tsunami, Padang which is home of the famous Indonesian cuisine, Masakan Padang, and Bukittinggi, a hill town which is famed for its Minangkabau culture.
South Sumatra is rarely visited by foreign tourists and is ripe for off the beaten track exploration, especially given that some of the world’s last great jungles are located there.
Perhaps the greatest attractions in the island are Bukit Lawang, where orangutans swing freely through the surrounding forest, Lake Toba, a whopping great lake with an incredible island in the centre of it and Pulau Weh, a small island surrounded by incredible coral reefs and home to great budget accommodation overlooking crystal clear turquoise waters.
Given the distances between many of the attractions of Sumatra, many people spend two weeks or more on the island before hopping across to Java and then on to Bali. Those in a hurry are well-advised to simply fly in and out of Sumatra and to take in only those attractions that are within a day’s drive of that city such as Bukit Lawang, Lake Toba, Berastagi and Ketambe.