What it is:
Few places in the world conjure images of raw, untapped nature more adeptly than Sumatra. It’s a place where primordial rainforests teeming with life envelop steaming volcanos. These are not just any rainforests, either. Within the shadows of their misty interiors, tigers, rhinos and elephants abound in story-book fashion as orangutans and other rare and exotic primates swing from tree to tree.
The mystical allure of Sumatra doesn’t stop with its nature. The ethnically diverse people of the island possess varied cultures as spicy as the food they create. From devout Muslims to Batak Christians and the matrilineal Minangkabau, Sumatra is a hive of cultural intrigue drawing visitors from around the world.
If that isn’t enough, Sumatra also lays claim to having some of Indonesia’s wildest and most pristine beaches. It also has some of Southeast Asia’s most famous swells, making it an intrepid surfer’s dream destination.
Many of Sumatra’s biggest draws are located in the north of the island, which also happens to be the most accessible area of the island. Most visitors to Sumatra arrive in its capital city, Medan.
Located on the northeast coast of Sumatra, Medan is Indonesia’s fourth largest city, and the largest outside of Java. The city offers a unique cultural vibe with its blend of Batak Christian, Chinese and other Sumatran cultures. It is said that there is no majority population within the city. Lending to this unique cultural blend is a famous food culture, offering some of Indonesia’s best (and spiciest) cuisine. So much so, in fact, that even Indonesians consider Medan to be a food-tourism destination.
The city itself offers a unique blend of old and new architectural influences too. In addition to the modern developments that have recently risen throughout the city, there is also a multitude of old Dutch-colonial buildings peppering the skyline.
Some of the must-see destinations while in Medan are the Maimoon Palace, where you can actually dress up as an Indonesian king or queen; Vihara Maha Maitreya, said to be one of Southeast Asia’s biggest temple and Mesjid Raya Mosque, one of the most ornate Muslim temples on the island.
One of the best places in Southeast Asia for getting up close and personal with orangutans is Bukit Lawang. About 90km from Medan, it’s one of the few places in the region where you are virtually guaranteed to witness our lanky distant relatives in their natural habitat. Many of the orangutans here are actually rehabilitated captive orangutans or orangutans who have been displaced by deforestation elsewhere and are semi-wild.
In addition to being a fantastic place to witness orangutans in their natural habitat, Bukit Lawang is also a gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park. This is the place to go for a truly wild orangutan sighting. While your chances of spotting a orangutan here are much lower than in the Bukit Lawang,the jungle trekking is fantastic. Gunung Leuser is also home to populations of tigers, rhinos and elephants- so if you’re lucky, you just may spot one of these elusive creatures.
About 100km south of Medan is Sumatra’s next biggest attraction: Lake Toba. The lake is located within the caldera of one of earth’s largest and most historically fearsome volcanos. For perspective on just how large the volcano is, Lake Toba is more than 100km long, 30km wide and 500km deep- big enough to qualify it as the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The island in its centre, Samosir, is roughly the size of Singapore. The waters surrounding it are a deep ocean-blue. Those wishing to visit this unique place can stay on the island of Samosir in three charming towns, Parapat, Tuk Tuk and Berastagi. In addition to being excellent launching points for exploration of Lake Toba and its stunning scenery, these areas are also home to the famously friendly and laid-back Batak Simalungun people.
Another popular stopping point for visitors to North Sumatra is Gunung Sibayak. At 2094m tall the volcano here is considered to be one of the more accessible for trekking. Within the space of about five hours, it’s possible to trek from the trail’s starting point, in the town of Berastagi, to the caldera rim and back.
For beach and island goers, North Sumatra also hosts some perfect beach holiday locations. Topping the list is Palau Weh, a relatively small horse-shoe shaped island just off the northwest coast of Sumatra. What the island lacks in size it more than makes up for in dramatic scenery, crystal-clear water and fantastic dive opportunities. The most popular beaches here are Gapang and Iboih, although the best is, arguably, Pantai Sumur Tiga.
South and West Sumatra
The south of Sumatra is home to some of the islands most beautiful and pristine beach paradises. One of the most jaw-droopingly beautiful of these are the Bangka-Belitung islands. The famous granite beaches lined with white sand and clear-blue water are the stuff of postcards. These islands are also famous for their delectable, and affordable, seafood.
The Nias and Mentawai Islands are renowned for being rather difficult and expensive to get to- so they are the perfect reward for intrepid travellers willing to go an extra mile to encounter places that are truly special. The Mentawai Islands in particular are world-renowned for having some of the best surfing waves on earth, with crystal- clear waters and untouched beaches that are dangerously close to perfection. The local Mentawai people are equally alluring. Their tribal way of life is deeply rooted in a connection with nature that is contagious.
The mountain town of Bukkittinggi, in West Sumatra was once a popular stopping point on the overland route between Sumatra, Java and Bali. In addition to being a convenient resting point, the area also hosts some spectacular attractions. Trekkers will delight in Gunung Merapi and Gunung Singgalang. The former is Sumatra’s tallest and most active volcano. The latter is also nearly 3,000m tall and has two stunning lakes at its summit.
How to get there:
By Plane: Most visitors to Sumatra arrive at Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, the major hub of North Sumatra and Sumatra in general. There are also international flights serving Sultan Minangkabau International Airport in the city of Ketapang as the major hub of West Sumatra.
By Boat: There are numerous ferry services connecting Sumatra with Malaysia and other parts of Indonesia. The main port is Dumai in Riau, with direct links to Port Klang, Port Dickson and Malacca in Malaysia. All ferry transports take less than 3 hours.
From Singapore it’s also possible to reach Sumatra by first taking a ferry to Batam Island (a nearby island belonging to Indonesia), then taking a ferry over to Pekan Baru or Dumai.
From the island of Java, take the ferry over from Merak in the north of the island to Bakahueni in southern Sumatra. The ferries not only operate daily, but run every hour.