Thursday, 31 May 2012

SUMATRA, THE LAST BIT- Sidikalang, Berastagi, Medan and Bukit Lawang

We’d past through Sidikalang briefly on the way to Toba, and thought it looked like it warranted a second look. So, on leaving Tuk Tuk and the lake, we bussed it to Sidikalang, found a flea pit hotel (not much else on offer), and spent a fantastic afternoon- firstly at the incredible and vibrant Saturday market, and then a stroll through the friendly outskirts of town.

Goldfish seller, market, Sidikalang

Chopped up gold fish for sale, Sidikalang

Sidikalang market

Mosque dome store, Sidikalang

Next stop- Berastagi. We had ummed and ahhed about whether to visit this Karo Highland town (we have to admit, it was very tempting to stay in Lake Toba a bit longer!), but we set aside a few nights to explore a couple of surrounding traditional villages, shop in the markets with the astonishing array of perfect local produce, laze in the nearby hot springs, and finally, climb our first volcano (and maybe the last!)- Gunung Sibayak (2094 metres). Unfortunately, we didn’t feel much of a connection with the town, and it was the first place in Sumatra where we were asked for money/bon bons/pens- no doubt a remainder of stupid tour groups handing presents out willy nilly. We grabbed the last two seats on an extremely squishy bus heading for Medan, and the one and a half hour trip turned into a hot and uncomfortable five due to a road accident.

Funeral (Christian) at Dokan village
Dokan village, near Berastagi

Dokan village, near Berastagi

Dokan village, near Berastagi

The steaming Gunung Sibayak, Berastagi

Yes, we climbed a volcano in Crocs!

Gunung Sibayak, steam vents

Yay! We made it!

Short video of the crater:

We’ve yet to meet anyone who has liked Medan, but to us, all the stories about pollution/crowds/traffic/noise are greatly exaggerated. We enjoyed three days here, visiting some cultural sights (the imposing Mesjid Raya, the slightly disappointing Maimoon Palace (only one room open), and the art deco section of town), and some not so cultural sights (malls and cinema). The young people wanting to practice their English in Medan were out in force. Always very polite and sweet, they approached us in the street several times a day to ask questions. It ranged from a five minute conversation, to going to cafes and chatting for an hour or two. We always make time for these students- it obviously means a lot to them, and we enjoy hearing their views about various issues too. It is one of the advantages, for us, in have a lot of spare time!

Extra padding anyone?

The sights are a bit thin on the ground in Medan!

Cool art deco buildings in Medan

English practice, Medan


Bukit Lawang, probably the second most touristy place in Sumatra after Lake Toba, was a lovely surprise. For a village that exists primarily to accommodate, feed and water tourists, it is pleasant- even charming in spots. The setting for the guesthouse strip is very picturesque, with bungalows in gardens on one side and thick jungle on the other side of the river, and the people working and living in the area are still welcoming and happy for a casual chat, mostly without pressure. There are a lot of guides around hoping for trekking business, but we made it clear straight away we weren’t interested, and they were OK with that. People come here to see the orang-utans (an Indonesian word which means “jungle person”), and one of the main things we wanted to see in Sumatra. They are severely endangered in Sumatra, with only around 6,000 left in the wild here, and only in the Gunung Leuser National Park, which stretches over much of North Sumatra and southern Aceh. Bukit Lawang is one of the cheapest and easiest places to see wild and semi-wild orang-utans in the world. Apart from trekking into the extremely humid, wet and muddy jungle (not our thing!), there is a feeding platform set up, a half hour slog into the jungle, where certain “semi-wild” orang-utans come for auxiliary feeding after being introduced into the wild. We were so lucky on the morning we went, to see three moms with babies, and a huge male who hung around after feeding to observe us all observing him with a bemused expression! We did wonder where our AU $2.50 plus AU$5.50 for a camera fee was going when we saw the state of the canoe to take us to the national park side of the river. Very dodgy! We spent the rest of our time in Bukit Lawang, enjoying the gushing river view from our verandah, being woken early in the morning by the sweet Thomas’ leaf monkeys followed by the aggressive macaques, visiting the “bat cave”, and strolling along the riverside and canal.

Leaky boat on dodgy river crossing, Bukit Lawang

He's gorgeous!

What a poser

A tube procession

School holidays, Bukit Lawang

Bat cave, Bukit Lawang

Bat cave, Bukit Lawang

Guesthouse, Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang riverside

A video of the gorgeous male orangutan we saw :

Since Bukit Lawang is only a few hours from Medan (unless you come on the painfully stop/start bus we took), the Medanese flock here on the weekends, so to avoid a peaceful place becoming noisy, we left, and spent the weekend in Medan (already noisy to start with!), before our flight back to Penang, Malaysia. We truly had a wonderful two months in Sumatra, with this trip confirming Indonesian as being the friendliest nation we have visited (and there is some serious competition there!!) We were sad to leave, but we know we will be back in the country in September..... and can't wait!!

Wood carver, Bukit Lawang

Just a last general note about this and that

Throughout Sumatra, the faithful old L300 style minibuses were a reliable, inexpensive and usually comfortable ride. As previously stated, we loved that they would pick us up from our hotel, and drop us off to the door at the other end- even if it meant asking around to find the location of our chosen guesthouse when the driver didn’t know. The becak (motorized rickshaws) were equally great- we used them often due to their extremely cheap price. Labi labi or opelet (minibuses) were also a handy and economical way of traveling longer distances.

Old, but good L300 bus

Tight squeeze, becak

We stayed at a mixture of hotels, guesthouse and bungalows in Sumatra. We found accommodation to be very cheap- usually we paid about 60,000 to 70,000 rupiah (AU$6 or AU$7) per night, generally without breakfast, and sometimes with a shared bathroom. (We compared this to Sulawesi last year, where we were typically paying 100,000 rupiah (AU$11), with breakfast for the same type of room.) In touristy areas such as Pulau Weh, Lake Toba, Berastagi and Bukit Lawang, the standard of the rooms was reasonably high, and elsewhere was basic, but usually clean.  

Room Takengon

Lake Toba room

Room Banda Aceh

Bukit Lawang room
Smallest bathroom ever

We admit to not being big fans of Indonesian warung (street stalls) food, but on this trip to Sumatra the food started to grow on us (not literally). We looked forward to the nasi campur meals of rice with one of many choices of veggies, chicken/fish dishes and curries from the rumah makan (small restaurants). Gado gado (steamed vegetables, rice and peanut sauce) and satay chicken, goat and beef were also nice now and again, but the Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles, usually the 2-minute variety) still left us bored. We also got into tempe- a fermented soy bean cake, which is chopped up, fried and delicious, although I still can’t quite believe Richard enjoyed it! The Sumatran coffee lived up to its good reputation, and we even tried kopi luwak for the first time- coffee beans are eaten by a civet cat, shat out, cleaned and ground up. Bandrek tea became a favourite of Sal’s- peppery and gingery, and great for the cold nights in the highlands! Of course, in the touristy areas, there was a lot more “western” food on offer, and we made the most of the banana pancakes, cheese on toast and avocado shakes when they were available.

Typical breakfast in tourist place

Typical breakfast elsewhere

All Australians will agree this is WRONG!!!

Typical warung stall

Unlike Sulawesi, there is often someone around in Sumatra who speaks a bit of English -even in slightly more of the beaten track places. Of course, in touristy areas, many people do, and we rarely practiced our limited Indonesian language skills. As a result, we became lazy and forgot much of what we had previously learnt.

  • One final interesting observation.....Over our 15 years of travelling in Asia, and a few other places, we have noticed two games that are universally played by children. One is the old “Running Along Pushing A Tyre With A Stick” game, and the other we call “The Shoe Game”. It consists of any number of kids setting up a small target of some sort, taking off one of their thongs (that’s flip flops to you Europeans and Americans!), and trying to aim and hit the target from a designated distance. Whoever is closest, wins. It’s amazing how widespread this game is. 

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