Two weeks in North Sumatra

Two weeks in North Sumatra

North Sumatra is an ideal first step into one of Indonesia’s most beautiful large islands. At a relatively languid pace, this two week itinerary takes in four highlights of the region.

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Medan wraps the great (and not so) of Indonesian cities—food, coffee, architecture and people. See orangutan in a tract of Indonesia’s rapidly declining wilds at Bukit Lawang. Climb a volcano or slurp up ice cream at a dairy farm in Berastagi. Finish off at the magnificent Lake Toba—no better place in the country for a lazy slow spell with your lover.

Hanging with the locals. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Hanging with the locals. Photo: Stuart McDonald

North Sumatra is fantastic, but Bali this is not. The travel is harder (and slower). You’ll struggle to find smashed avocado smoothie bowls. You will use that phrasebook. But the rewards likewise are greater. You earn North Sumatra.

Getting around

Sumatra is famous for its transportation and generally not in a good way. Public buses can be slow, unreliable, uncomfortable (especially if you’re tall) and quite crowded. Take schedules with a dash of salt—consider them as a general indicator of when the bus may leave. Smaller minibuses can be uncomfortable and cramped. Schedules are erratic and delays frequent.

Berastagi is famous for these brightly coloured buses. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Berastagi is famous for these brightly coloured buses. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Private car hire with a driver and share taxis are often a better choice. The costs are not unreasonable if there are a few of you to share the bill. An added advantage is they should drop you off at the hotel of your choice. Most accommodation options should be able to arrange these.

Motorbike hire is available, sometimes on an adhoc basis. If you do not have a valid licence there are travel insurance implications if you have an accident. Always wear a helmet.

The boats are just as bright as the buses. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
The boats are just as bright as the buses. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Ferries on Lake Toba do not operate to safety standards that would be acceptable in many countries. If the boat is overloaded or the weather bad, wait for another boat. A tragic accident in 2018 resulted in the deaths of almost 200 people.

The train network is limited. Most travellers will only use the airport train into Medan and perhaps the spur to Binjai (for Bukit Lawang).

If you’ve got a date with a long haul flight, be sure to allow enough wiggle room to make sure you don’t miss it.

When to go

Peak foreign tourist season in North Sumatra ties in with European summer, so July and August. Expect blue skies and limited rain across this period.

Sunset from Reggae on Tuk-Tuk. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Sunset from Reggae on Tuk-Tuk. Photo: Stuart McDonald

In September until the rains get going, the region can be bathed in heavy smoke. This is thanks to often illegal burning of forests to facilitate more palm plantations. While often worse elsewhere in Sumatra, consider avoiding North Sumatra at this time.

The wet season runs roughly late October to late February. Expect flooding and perhaps transport delays during the wet. If you’re planning on trekking in Bukit Lawang in wet season, pack leech-proof everything. Yes, everything.

Our kind of swimming hole, on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Our kind of swimming hole, on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Photo: Stuart McDonald

From the end of wet season to the start of high season is North Sumatra’s sweet spot. Crowds can be sparse (not that is ever gets truly busy foreign tourism wise) and the weather terrific.

Year round, coastal areas are warm during the day and cooler at night. In the highlands, temperatures drop a notch, especially in the evening. If you’re planning on climbing volcanoes, bring protective cold weather gear—even in dry season.

Day by day

Day 1: Arrival in Medan
Medan will be first stop for many, thanks to Kualanuma International Airport (KNO). The airport has plenty of regional flight connections and a comfortable train into town. Once off the train, bus or taxi, if you’ve never been to Indonesia before, the city can be confronting. In burning season you could even describe it as a baptism of fire.

Medan needs to work to save what is left of the past. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Medan needs to work to save what is left of the past. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We’re actually big fans though—Medan is one of our favourite large cities in Indonesia. So take a breath, ignore what the guidebooks and other travellers say, and give it a chance.

Our advice is to stay in town, close to Merdeka Square and what’s left of the old part of town. Depending on your time of arrival, grab a late lunch (or early dinner) at leafy Merdeka Walk. This is a tourist friendly strip of restaurants and cafes backing onto Merdeka Park. ease yourself into the town and if you have time, take a bit of a wander around to acclimatise.

Day 2: Medan
Few would say Medan is awash in must see sights and attractions, but there is enough to keep you busy for one solid day. Start with Tjong A Fie Mansion, just a short walk from the train station. The mansion, while somewhat rundown, attracts with glimpses into past grandeur. It was built by a business partner of Cheong Fatt Tze, whose house in Penang is more famous and more grandiose. Afterwards pop into Soto Kesawan for an early lunch.

A flash from the past. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
A flash from the past. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Next stop is the State Museum of North Sumatra—a must visit while in Medan. The excellent collection here is a great primer for travel in the region. From the mansion, it is a long walk to here, so use a GoJek for the ride.

Once you’re done, Medan’s grandest mosque, Raya Al-Mashun Mosque is within walking distance. Outside of prayer times, non-Muslims are allowed inside for a looksee. The overhead walkway on nearby Jl SM Raja is a great vantage point for photos of the exterior. Also in the area, Istana Maimoon is worth a look. It’s just a short walk from the mosque, though the exterior is more impressive than what lies within.

Oh Padang food. At Sederhana. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Oh Padang food. At Sederhana. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Time to eat. For dinner consider Selat Panjang food street (on, you guessed it, Jl Selat Panjang). If you’d prefer something more sit down, consider the chain outlets of Restoran Sederhana for Padang fare. Many say Medan has the best Padang food in Indonesia. Both are winners.

Day 3: Bukit Lawang
Minivans leave from Medan’s Pinang Baris bus station to the east of town for Bukit Lawang. Note overcharging touts can be a real problem here. Some opt for private transfers or catching the train to Binjai, from where you can then get a van to Bukit Lawang. Whichever route you choose, allow three to five hours depending on Medan’s traffic.

A little upriver from Jungle Inn. The water is as cool as it looks. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
A little upriver from Jungle Inn. The water is as cool as it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

An important thing about arrival into Bukit Lawang is to ignore all trekking touts. If you’re planning on trekking with a particular outfit, ignore all solicitations from freelancers. This is because a freelancer may “lay claim to you”, impeding the organisation you planned to use. A good approach is to ask the outfit you want to use to meet you at the bus station.

Spend the afternoon by the river, sort out your trek, and gaze into the jungle—you’ll be in it tomorrow!

Day 4 and 5: Bukit Lawang
We’re basing this itinerary on a two day trek into the jungle, with a night camping. Those with less time could do a one day (or even half day) trek from Bukit Lawang. There is also scope for longer treks—those with time (and money) can trek all the way to Berastagi.

Don’t mind me. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Don’t mind me. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Note there are no guarantees when it comes to what wildlife you will see. All reputable outfits will forbid feeding any animals, nor let you get too close to them. We used Green Hill Bukit Lawang and were delighted with the result.

Day 6: Medan
It is possible to get a tourist bus service from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi, but this may not operate year round. We suggest instead having a late morning departure from Bukit Lawang to Medan. Why? So you can a second bite at the city’s rich food and coffee scene.

A quick breakfast at Rumah Makan Soto Medan. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
A quick breakfast at Rumah Makan Soto Medan. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Day 7: Berastagi
Buses to Berastagi mostly leave from Medan’s Pinang Baris bus station, and take two to three hours. Depending on your time of arrival, drop by the Museum Pasaka Karo for insight into the Karo people. Sunset from Gundaling Viewpoint is worth a look too. With more time, consider spectacular Gunung Sinabung and the ghost villages around it. If heading to Sinabung, be sure to keep abreast of safety concerns—it can be a nasty volcano.

Day 8: Berastagi
Start early for the climb of Gunung Sibayak, the spectacular volcano Berastagi backs onto. Many climb unguided and the trail is pretty clear, but we recommend using a guide. Smiley (of Smiley’s Guesthouse) is a solid guide. Allow half the day for the ascent and descent. Afterwards, sooth your limbs in one of the hot spring stations near the base. Fill your belly with a hit of Soto Medan back in town.

Gunung Sibayak is quite spectacular. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Gunung Sibayak is quite spectacular. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Day 9: Travel day to Lake Toba
Between Berastagi and Lake Toba lie Sipiso-piso waterfall and Dokan village. These are both worth visiting, but time consuming if travelling by public transportation. We hired a car to take us to Dokan village and the waterfall then leaving us at the van stop for the onwards trip to Toba. This worked well, but still took a full day.

If you don’t want to do this, you could hire a scooter in Berastagi and ride to both. Then you’d need to return to Berastagi for another night. Then repeat the route by public transport to Parapat (for Lake Toba) the next day. Consider the value of your time if taking this approach. Better to try and rustle up a group for a tour to take these in before pressing on to Toba.

No cliff jumping permitted. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
No cliff jumping permitted. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Regardless you want to be in Parapat by late afternoon for the ferry across the lake to Samosir Island. Spend whatever time you have left of the day dangling your feet in the water.

Day 10-13: Lake Toba
Lake Toba is the kind of destination you can spend two days or two weeks in. Some will get bored, but for others, it is the perfect destination. Our advice is to begin by exploring the island by hired scooter or car. There are many loops you can do. Around the north, around the south, all the way around, and over the top. You can also go to the mainland to the west via a causeway. From there, visit hot springs and viewpoints to the north, or waterfalls to the south.

Cool off at Efrata Waterfall. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Cool off at Efrata Waterfall. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We did the north loop, then the mainland and then returned to Tuk Tuk by going over the top and it make for a long day. With more time, two days would have been better.

The island also has plenty of “beaches” and small museums, of varying quality and value. Pace yourself. Much of the beauty of Toba is all around you—not crammed into some dusty museum (of which Toba has many).

The interior is just as stunning as the lake itself. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
The interior is just as stunning as the lake itself. Photo: Sally Arnold

Day 14: Medan or onwards travel
Once you have had your fill of Lake Toba, catch the ferry back to Parapat from where you can get a bus (or car) back to Medan. There is also Silangit Airport to the south of the lake offering a further option. If you’re planning on heading south, buses to Bukittinggi (from Medan) pass through Parapat.

Reviewed by

Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

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