If Bali is the pearl of the orient, then the island of Sumatra is the opal. Complex, diverse and undeniably robust. An island borne out of fire and brimstone, and a region not without its controversies, Sumatra is one of the most geographically and culturally diverse places I have ever visited. Sadly, its reputation has been marred not only by mother nature’s forcefulness (earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions), the human footprint has not been without strife. However, none of this should be a deterrent. If you do venture here, a cultural and natural blend of ethnic groups, populations of highly endangered animal and plant species, pristine deserted beaches and frothing volcanoes await, so here are 7 ways to experience the island of Sumatra:
While the population of Sumatra hovers somewhere around the 50 million mark, once you travel away from the crowded coastal towns and into the countryside, it’s easy to find anonymity. There is a rich rural tradition here, and it is here you will find villages brimming with ethnic diversity, lingual diversity (over 52 languages are spoken on the island of Sumatra), and of course, religious diversity. From proud matrilineal clans, to modern islamic groups, it’s an anthropologist’s dream and a travelers wonderland.
Learn a Language
Those of you who’ve spent any time in Bali have probably picked up some Bahasa – Sumatra is a great place to build on that foundation and add a few more phrases to your repertoire. In Bukittinggi (Sumatra’s second largest city) school children would exchange a few English lessons for lessons in Minangkabau (the local language) – Pretty fair if you ask me! Language is the foundation of travel, and something we often take for granted. Learn a local language, gain entrance to the local way of being.
Take a Roadtrip…If You Dare!
Not everyone is willing to brave the trans-Sumatran highway. It is a circus of heavy duty transports, motorbikes, passenger buses, donkey carts and whatever else has wheels. Snaking its way from Banda Aceh in the north, down to Bandar Lampung in the south, if you’ve got a stomach of steel, it’s a beautiful bus ride. Just a tip – Make sure you book a bus with windows that open, Sumatrans love to smoke their clove cigarettes, and with no ventilation, it can make for an excruciating 15 hour journey.
Visit Your Family
The island of Sumatra is home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the Sumatran orangutan, a very close cousin of ours. The word orangutan actually translates into “person of the forest”, deriving from the Malay language. There are only a few places to hope to encounter these hauntingly human creatures and Bukit Tigapuluh National Park is one of them. Use Bukit Lawang, a quaint little jungle village to base yourself out of. Tour groups are small in size to minimize any health risks to the orangutans and their delicate ecosystem.
Have a Sleep Over in the Jungle
The Jungle Book must have been inspired by the Jungles of Sumatra because everything seems to walk, talk, crawl and slither here! From 5 foot long monitor lizards to lunch plate sized tarantulas, tigers, bears, gibbons and flying foxes, bring your binoculars, hiking boots, telephoto lens and some nerves of steel – everything is alive!
Head to Samosir Island
Not everyone makes it to Samosir Island, but if you ask me, it’s one of the main highlights of the entire island. Samosir is an island within an island, in the middle of Lake Danau Toba (the world’s largest volcanic lake). Here you’ll find the Batak People, their language, culture and truly unique architecture.
Travelers from around the world descend upon the island of Sumatra, specifically Samosir Island, to photograph classical batak architecture. These ornate, multi-dimensional spaces housed (and still to this day in many places around the island) multi-generational families, their livestock and members of the community.
Rent a Motorbike
Like most places in rural Asia, for travelers, backpacking and motorbiking is the preferred mode of transportation, and there is no where more perfect to do that than on the island of Sumatra. You can rent motorbikes practically anywhere on the island, and it’s an inexpensive way of seeing the sights. My advice would be to steer clear of busier city centres like Medan, Bukittinggi and Padang if possible and hit the road for endless rice terraces, fiery sunsets, mountainous landscapes and smiling faces.
Airlines that Fly There:
Best time to Go!
Apr–Oct Fantastic for surfing!
Mid–Jun The best time to head to Samosir for the annual Toba Festival.
Feb–Aug The dry season – Much easier to spot local wildlife on a jungle safari