The North Sumatra Triangle — a paradise for budget tourists. “Unity in Diversity” is the national motto of Indonesia. There are over 300 tribal-ethnic groups living on 6,000 islands. The remaining 11,000 islands are uninhabited. The larger islands are Java, Sumatra, Irian Jaya and Kalimantan. Kalimantan comprises two-thirds of the island of Borneo, the other one-third being East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) and the Sultanate of Brunei.
North Sumatera (formerly spelled as Sumatra) is one of the thirty-two Provinces of Indonesia, with Medan as its capital. The shortest international flight to Medan is from Penang. It takes 40 minutes and costs about US$137 return. There is a hydrofoil ferry service also across the Strait of Melaka (formerly spelled as Malacca), which takes five hours. I would have taken the ferry, but as Malaysia does not allow Bangladeshis to enter the country by surface route (due to illegal immigrant phobia), and as I had to come back to Penang to catch my return flight to Bangkok and Dhaka, I had to go by air.
MEDAN – a friendly welcome
The Tourist Officer at the airport was quite helpful and directed me to a comfortable hotel in the centre of the city, within walking distance of the distinctive black-domed Grand Mosque and a historic palace of the Sultans of Dili. He also gave me his private business card. The government pay is not sufficient, so he has to do some ‘professional consultancy’. The hotel offered a Superior room with attached toilet, a/c, hot water, TV and telephone for the equivalent of US$12. It was located on Sisinga Manga Raja Road (named after a National Hero, a powerful tribal king, killed by the Dutch in 1907). As I did not know anyone in Medan, I called the Grand Master of Medan HHH, a jogging-for-fun club, Rudy Lee, and introduced myself. He said he would meet me later in the afternoon.
At 4:30 Rudy was at my hotel and greeted me with “Its beer time, let’s go”. He is a Chinese businessman in the travel trade. He had in the meantime asked a few of his friends to join us at their regular ‘café’. An Englishman with a Chinese wife and a few other Chinese came over. One of them is nicknamed “K.K.N.” – Korrupsion, Komision and Nepotism – probably as much of a way of life with them as it is with us. These staid Chinese businessmen do have a sense of humour, and they can be friendly and fun loving too, as I discovered the following day. We chatted till late in the evening, while I tried juices of exotic local fruits – avocado, passion fruit and melon. Eddy Kusuma then took me to a wayside restaurant in Chinatown before dropping me back at the hotel. Medan is the fourth-largest city in Indonesia. It is a booming commercial centre for the region’s oil, gas, palm oil, rubber, cocoa and tea. Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of LNG.
Next day was a holiday for “Mother’s Day” and in the afternoon we went for a hike in the woods. Eddy and his wife picked me up and we also picked up Rudy from his mansion in a posh suburb. We drove for about 25 kms along the road to Berastagi, to the foothills of the Karo Highlands. Gleneagles, the Singaporean hospital people, sponsored the event of the day and provided a T-shirt and the food. A big toukay (boss) had come over for the occasion. Gleneagles own the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, a heart hospital in the West End of London, one in Penang, and had also set up a “state of the art” hospital in Medan. One of their problems is that the government does not allow foreign doctors to come in, and well-to-do Indonesians lacking confidence in their own doctors, prefer to go to Penang, KL and Singapore for treatment.
Well, 24 hours earlier I did not know a single Indonesian and here was I partying with a group of over one hundred like-minded, multi-racial nature-lovers. Small world!
Medan, Lake Toba and Berastagi are located in a triangle in the province of North Sumatera. Eight-seater minibuses with sufficient leg space, ply between Medan and a town called Parapat on the shore of Lake Toba. The fare is $5. I took Taxi Kita from S. M. Raja Road and the journey took five hours with stops for coffee, lunch and Juma prayer. Lake Toba was formed by the eruption of a volcano. It is the largest and deepest crater-lake in the world. At an altitude of 900 meters above sea level, it is 90 km long, 31 km across, and covers an area of 1,145 sq. km. The depth is yet to be accurately surveyed, and estimates vary from 450m to 800m. There is an island in the middle of the lake, called Samosir, ‘Island of the Dead’ – a sinister name for an awe-inspiring place. 530 sq km in size, the island is as large as Singapore. Tourists come to Lake Toba from around the world to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and the tranquility; and to cruise, swim, water-ski, climb, trek and just relax.
There are luxury hotels in Parapat on the lakeside. These were of course not there when the Dutch imprisoned Soekarno for a few months in Parapat in 1949. (Soekarno – popularly called Bung Karno – was earlier declared as the first President of independent Indonesia on August 17, 1945) Most of the budget hotels are romantically located on the lake, in the village of Tuk Tuk. Tuk Tuk is a peninsula jetting out of Samosir Island. It is connected to Parapat by hourly ferry, the trip taking about thirty minutes. The hotels are clean and well furnished. I took one of the better ones. I had a room with an attached shower-toilet for $5; a bathtub would have cost a dollar more. The restaurant serving both Indonesian and continental food was in a large patio. I had simple fare. A group of French guests were apparently enjoying the food, so it must have been good.
Most of the Batak tribe of North Sumatera – Christians, Muslims or unconverted – inhabit the highlands surrounding Lake Toba. They are a colourful and forthright people. The young manageress of the hotel belonged to Batak Toba, one of six sub-tribes. After welcoming me, she disappeared for a moment. She went to her room and came back with a bindi on her forehead, and two on the temples. “This is for you”, she said. “You are from India”. “Kuch, kuch hota hai…” she intoned.
The four-hour drive from Lake Toba to Berastagi, skirting the lake for a long way, is picturesque. It is a narrow, winding road through pine forest, terraced plantations and verdant meadows in the Karo hills, with hardly any people around. On the way, at the tip of the lake, is a waterfall named Sipiso Piso (Razor’s Edge). It is a tourist spot with food stalls and souvenir shops.
Berastagi is a hill resort, 66 km away from Medan, at an altitude of 4,600 feet. It lies between two volcanoes. The area is known for its cool climate, orchids, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Back-packers use it as a base for climbing the two volcanoes, jungle trekking and for visiting the nearby Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. Roberto, from The Netherlands, fit as a fiddle, became my friend, companion and guide. He had been living in Berastagi for months, eating only fruits and vegetable and soya curd for protein.
Package tours to the Triangle are available from Malaysia and Singapore, in another name, at another price. However, one can do the tour conveniently on one’s own, economically and leisurely. If you have missed Lake Toba for your honeymoon, it is never to late for a visit.
The writer, Juned Choudhury from Dhaka, is an eco-travel consultant. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Bjorn Grotting.