Lake Toba in North Sumatra is stunningly beautiful and ranks as one of the world’s great natural wonders. But it comes with a bonus as the heartland of Indonesia’s uniquely different Batak people – you will get to see and appreciate their fascinating traditions and culture.
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TOWNSHIPS AROUND THE LAKE have excellent visitor facilities, but if you want to get to the essence of Toba then you need to cross by ferry to Samosir Island in the middle of the Lake.
You might get the wrong impression of Samosir Island if looking at a map. You need to remember that the Lake is 100km long and around 30km wide, in fact the biggest lake in Southeast Asia.
Samosir Island is almost the size of Singapore. You probably won’t appreciate the scale of it all until you are there.
The Island is home to around 140,000 and has plenty of good visitor accommodation, plus local cafes and restaurants to go with it.
The visitor facilities are mainly clustered around or within an area known as the Tut Tut Peninsular.
Give yourself enough time and hire a guide
Toba is a delightful place for a quiet holiday in beautiful, relaxing surroundings. But for the curious and energetic it is also full of fascinating places and experiences.
You need to allocate several days to do it justice. And you will learn much more about the interesting culture and traditions of the Batak people if you engage a driver/guide.
You will be missing out if you set out randomly on your own.
Once you have spent some time looking around, and meeting the Batak locals you may well find it hard to drag yourself away.
Distinctive traditional Batak houses in the village of Tomok
Distinctive traditional houses of Toba Batak people in the village of Tomok on Samosir Island – pic www.michellefranclee.com
Your ferry to Samosir will dock in the Tomok/Tuk Tuk area and exploring the Tomok living traditional Batak village in is a must. It is a popular visitor attraction, and you will be welcomed.
There is a museum displaying Batak arts and culture and the locals have established a marketplace of souvenir stalls selling craft items. You can explore or ignore – it’s up to you.
One of the most striking features you will see is a row of tall wooden multi-family houses.
Their high, steeply pitched and saddle-shaped roofs are curved like the upsweeping shape of buffalo horns and rise to projecting carved and decorated eaves and gables.
Originally all the roofs were made of sugar palm fibre (called ijuk), but now the thatching on many has been replaced by corrugated iron – a sacrifice of character in favour of durability. Multiple families still live in these big and different houses.
Separate large buildings in the same traditional style are rice barns (called sopos). They are also used as overflow dormitories.
No nails, no bolts, no screws – just joinery and fiber bindings
Traditionally these large buildings were constructed without the use of nails or screws – just wooden pegs and fiber bindings. Studies have shown that the design and construction methods made the buildings earthquake resistant.
The houses are raised and supported on wooden piles or stilts one to two meters high with the space below used as a work area or to pen animals. The next level is the living area for the extended family (or families).
The highest level, or ‘attic’, is where family heirlooms and ancestral shrines are placed. Culturally, it is perhaps the most important part of the building.
The interior is a long, dimly lit hall with no divisions. At night, curtains are lowered to separate the sleeping areas of each family..
This excellent video by DesignersAtelia is a little long at just over 24 minutes but will provide you with good information about traditional Batak houses. It is delivered with charm and humor by a gracious local guide.
Tomok, and other remaining traditional villages, provide an opportunity to see, understand and appreciate a traditional but fading way of life, and the architectural skills employed in customary Batak building methods.
Tombs of the honored Sidabutar kings of the Batak people
Close to the Tomok houses are the historic carved tombs of the Sidabutar Kings. They include the sarcophagus of the king said to have founded the Batak settlement on Samosir and another who led the Toba Bataks to convert to Christianity.
You must wear an ulo (a traditional sash) to enter the burial ground. These are provided by attendants at the entrance.
Carved tombs of the Sidabutar kings at Tomok Village
Deliberations, decisions, judgments and (gruesome) punishments
About 20 minutes up the road from Tomok is the small village of Ambarita, another cluster of traditional housing and more historic relics to see.
Until about 200 years ago Batak clans are said to have cooked and eaten the flesh and organs of enemies vanquished in battle, or people judged to have broken clan laws.
At Ambarita you can see relics of that not-so-ancient and bloody era of Batak history when you visit King Siallagan’s stone chairs.
Here in a courtyard, shaded by a magnificent Hariara tree, is where clan elders deliberated and made decisions on community issues, and where wrongdoers were judged, and justice meted out.
The famous stone chairs in the Lake Toba village of Ambarita – just out of picture is the cradle where criminals faced execution
Guides will relate sometimes gruesome stories of how miscreants were tried, punished, and often summarily executed … and eaten.
There is a small museum at nearby Simanindo displaying traditional Batak weapons, tools, and wares.
Also at Simanindo, villagers present daily traditional Batak dance shows, usually commencing at 10.30am. The performances and music are not wildly exciting but are culturally interesting.
Visitors are often given some instruction and invited to join in.
The YouTube video below by Sheila Simkin has some excellent footage from Simanindo. The audio may be a little off but it will give you an idea of what to expect.
Glorious garments created by hand in the traditional way
About an hour’s drive from Ambarita around the foreshore of Samosir, is the village of Lumban Suhi-suhi.
It’s famous for its colorful hand-woven traditional fabrics, particularly the beautiful ulos or shawls that are an integral part of Batak traditional costume and ceremonies.
Starching the yarn (LEFT) and (BELOW) a weaver at work hand-creating colorful Ulos at Lumbun Suhi-suhi village – Pics edededan.com
The yarn is spun and dyed by hand and women weave the fabric on hand looms in front of traditional houses. A single shawl can take up to a week to complete.
You can watch the weavers creating their intricate pieces. You can also purchase a shawl as a souvenir for yourself or to take home as a gift. These are beautiful, genuine hand-crafted and practical pieces well worth considering.
You can view an excellent article about ulos and weaving at Lumban Suhi-suhi village at https://edededan.com/2015/01/23/visiting-the-home-for-indonesian-bataks-ulos/
Seeing some breath-taking Lake Toba panoramas
The views of the lake and the mountains beyond from Lumban Suhi-suhi are stunning, but they are even better a few kilometres on at Manara Tandang Tele.
The popular Tut Tut Peninsular area of Samosir Island, Lake Toba
This viepoint as been created near an elevated communications tower. The panorama is breath-taking and is worth the time and the journey up the winding road to get there. You will need video, an ultra-wide lens, or a stitching function on your camera to capture it.
There are other superb viewpoints around Samosir and at locations around the lake shore. The video below by Jordan Simons provides some insights and feel for what you can expect to see.
Below is the spectacular access roadway to the Bukit Sibea Sibea viewpoint overlooking Lake Toba. It’s the site of a Christian monument with a massive Jesus statue under construction.
Pic – harianproperty.com
The weather – if you are at 3,000ft it can get cool, even near the Equator
The weather at Lake Toba and across the Karo Highlands is beautifully mild and can sometimes briefly turn cool to cold. It’s a good idea to pack some warmer clothing just in case.
Though close to the equator, temperatures are mitigated by the elevation and range through a pleasant 18 to 28C (65 to 82F).
Average annual rainfall is around 1,950mm (77ins) with November through April usually the wettest months. However, rains typically come as passing storms in the late afternoon or early evening.
Wandering the eateries of Tut Tut Peninsular
Lake Toba is by no means a tourist nightlife hot spot. However, there is enjoyment to be had from a wander around the Tut Tut Peninsular area to try one of the eating places or bars for lunch or dinner.
The area is safe, the people are welcoming and usually there is someone who can speak English. Some establishments are lively at night with excellent live music, especially at weekends.
Indonesian gado-gado salad at a Tuk Tuk eatery (ABOVE) and (RIGHT) the Rumba restaurant and pizzeria.
Read more about the Tut Tut scene in my related article Introducing the fascinating Batak people of North Sumatra and Lake Toba
You will find good accommodation choices at Lake Toba
Lake Toba, and especially Samosir Island, has accommodation ranging from backpacker rooms and home stays to four-star resorts and hotels.
By Western standards, room rates are cheap.
You can view extensive listings on the Internet at sites like booking.com and the Indonesian booking site traveloka.com.
The 4-star Tabo Cottages Resort on the foreshore of Samosir Island is a good example of an excellent base for exploring Lake Toba and its surrounds.
It is set in extensive gardens with pools and pavilions and has good facilities, excellent German expatriate management and a pleasant, helpful staff.
A short video look at Tabo Cottages by Harry Mateman and fish from the lake prepared in the Tabo Cottages resort’s Omlandia Restaurant.
Batak people love to sin and play music and are known for their musical virtuosity and close harmony. Groups like this provide entertainment at Tabo Cottages and other Lake Toba venues.
The Tabo Cottages restaurant/bar roasts its own Sumatran coffee beans, and has a German bakery to produce delicious breads and pastries. Its menu includes Indonesian, Chinese and Western dishes.
A recommended house specialty is Bratkartoffein met Fisch – roast potatoes with salad and a hefty slice of delicious fresh-water fish taken from the lake.
The location is close to the bars and eateries of the Tuk Tuk Peninsular area.
THE BIG PICTURE
The stunning views and mild climate alone make Lake Toba a place worth visiting, even without knowing the history of its creation or exploring its cultural sites and Batak traditions. It is a calm and relaxing place for a short break.
But once you are rested and recovered there is much to explore, and it is easily accessible.
This is the home of one of the major Batak clans. The Batak are one of Indonesia’s intriguing ethnic minorities – their story is fascinating; their traditions are strong, and they will make you welcome.
A reminder that you can read more about these people in my related article Introducing the fascinating Batak people of North Sumatra and Lake Toba.
In visiting Lake Toba, you will be exploring one of the world’s natural wonders – one that relatively few Western visitors have seen.
Toba is much more than just a big lake – you can read its back story in my related article The amazing story of Lake Toba – Sumatra’s great natural wonder.