Unless you are a surfer chasing classic Indian Ocean breaks, or a trader, or an inveterate wanderer, or someone based just across the water in Malaysia, you probably will know very little about North Sumatra. Unlike Bali or Java, it is likely to be no more than a vague blip on your personal radar.
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IF, BY CHANCE, you have heard anything about Northern Sumatra it was most likely to do with the terrible tsunami of Christmas 2004, or an erupting volcano, or Sharia Law public floggings in the semi-autonomous province of Aceh.
It is a shame Western people know so little about this beautiful, historic, and interesting region.
A big island with a big population
Sumatra is the second largest of Indonesia’s islands and the fourth biggest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. With an area of 474 sq km it is 10 times the size of the Netherlands.
It is home to more than 58.5 million people (2020), among them some of the most interesting and significant ethnic groups of Indonesia’s intriguing cultural mix.
The capital, Medan, and the provinces of Aceh, West Sumatra and South Sumatra have played major historical roles in the development of Indonesia.
The magnificent Grand Mosque in Medan has a fascinating back story, and, yes, visitors are welcome. Pic Daniel Berthold – Wiki Commons.
Lowlands, highlands, mountains, lakes, and volcanoes
Sumatra consists of extended areas of lowlands bordering the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, flanked to the west by a mountain spine and richly productive highlands, crowned by a long line of volcanoes. The Equator slices the island through the middle
There are sweeping areas of natural jungle forest together with substantial rivers and large and beautiful volcanic lakes.
Magnificent Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Pic Jonistravelling.com
Surfers travel from around the world to ride the breaks off Nias. Pic outsider.ie and surfaid.org
Until recently Sumatra has ranked as an also-ran as a tourist destination, mainly due to a lack of infrastructure and lackluster promotion.
Fanous destination for international surfers
Surfers come from around the world to experience the fabulous Indian Ocean breaks around the Mentawai Islands and off the island of Nias.
These locations are well known within the world-wide surfing fraternity, but unknown to non-surfers.
You need to be plugged into the surfing network for good information and be somewhat determined to travel there.
Likewise for magnificent Lake Toba. It is the world’s largest volcanic lake, rated by most who see it as also one of the world’s most beautiful.
Toba is an extraordinary natural wonder, but not nearly as widely known as it ought to be. Until the opening of a US$28 million upgrade of the nearby Silangit airport in late 2017, it also was not easily accessible.
Toba is more than just an intriguing and beautiful place. It also is the cultural and spiritual home of the Batak people with their fascinating ethnic traditions.
Batak dancers perform Tortor dance for opening of Danau Toba Festival on Samosir Island
Sumatra has Southeast Asia’s largest National Park
North Sumatra is also the location of Gunung Leuser national park – Southeast Asia’s biggest reserve and a haven for rare wildlife.
Villages and forest guest lodges overlook rushing streams around its edges. One of them, the village of Bukit Lawang, is one of the BEST places to see orangutans close-up and living in the wild.
The village of Bukit Lawang is on the edge of the Mt Leuser National Park, which provides a haven for rare wildlife including Sumatran tigers and orangutans. You will see orangutans in the wild but you are unlikely to meet a tiger close up. But then, would you want to? Pics Madeleine Holland (Wiki Commons), oranguatan-sos.org, and Mikhail Nilov – pexels.com
Special because it’s real and natural
North Sumatra ranks as special because so much continues to be so REAL. it is not just about theme parks, monuments, faux native villages, entertainment troupes and souvenir shops.
Rather, it is about nature at its most spectacular with rich flora and fauna and living history, diverse cultures, and retained traditions.
It is the home of the Sumatran tiger, elephants, rhinoceros, and orangutans still living in the wild though in most cases seen as critically endangered. Organizations in Indonesia and around the world are fighting to ensure their survival.
Plantations of palm oil and superb arabica coffee
Palm oil has become a major crop in North Sumatra with vast swathes cleared and planted. It has been estimated that more than 4 million hectares of palm have been planted in Sumatra as a whole.
That’s an area equivalent to the size of Switzerland – and it has helped to make Indonesia the world’s biggest palm oil exporter.
The growth of palm oil plantings and associated destruction of animal habitat has become a matter of controversy with the economic benefits for local people being weighed against the impact on endangered species.
Young palm oil plantings stretch into the distance – Pic indonesianexpat.id, and (BELOW) coffee cherries ripening in a Karo Highlands plantation – Pic Y T Haryono – Xinhuanet.com
Governments and the industry are reacting, if slowly, to calls from within Indonesia and around the world for sustainability. But ongoing growth of the industry and continuing plantings remains a live issue.
Sumatra is notable too as the region producing some of the world’s finest coffees. Rich volcanic soils and highland climates are ideal for growing the red cherries that become the roasted brown beans that in turn create the irresistable aromas and beverages enjoyed in so many Western coffee shops.
THE BIG PICTURE
There is so much to see and experience in Sumatra. But in these pages, I am looking mainly at North Sumatra where you can readily explore some fascinating and easily accessible places and cultures.
You may run into bumps in the road when exploring this region – metaphorically and literally (sometimes lots of them).
In some remote locations you msy find facilities and services are still basic.
But it’s worth any momentary discomfort for its unique experiences you will enjoy and the memories you will take home.
Especially of the warmth, good humor, cheerful helpfulness, patience and smiles of your guides and the people you meet.
If only those smiles could be bottled!
Tourist information services for foreign visitors still have a long way to go throughout much of Indonesia, and North Sumatra is no exception.
For an informed and memorable experience, it is wise to seek out experienced and knowledgeable guides or drivers who are reasonably fluent in your language, or, alternatively, to travel with an organized tour group.
Do NOT stint on guide services – by Western standards the cost will be minimal, and they will be worth every cent!