Would Sumatra’s Lake Toba, the largest lake in Indonesia, live up to the hype? I set out – first on a bike, then on a scooter – to find out for myself.
My adventure began before I even arrived. I came from the city of Langsa, which is north of Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. I left at 8am and by the time I arrived in the village of Tuktuk Siadong, it was dark and all I saw of Lake Toba were misty shapes and navy blue shadows. It took me 12 hours to get there, to Samosir Island – an island within an island, Sumatra – and I felt shrivelled like a prune from the nonstop journey.
Luckily, the eclectic transportation that got me there kept things interesting: two long collective cab rides, one from Langsa to Medan and the other to Parapat, both chauffeured by men who thought nothing of lighting up in the car while we were stuck in Medan’s congested traffic. (Smoking is very common in Sumatra and you’ll find it’s the same on buses, despite having designated smoking rooms at the back of them.)
Next, I took a rickety minivan from Parapat to Ajibata, followed by a boat from Ajibata to Tomok that throbbed with disco lights and music fit only for drunken karaoke. Finally, from Tomok to the Bagus Bay Homestay in Tuktuk (which is what everyone here calls it), I found myself on the breezy back seat of someone’s motorbike.
I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The journey is the destination, after all. Still, I knew there were better things to come.
Go Easy in Tuktuk
To be honest, my first impression of Lake Toba when I woke the next morning was that it was a little underwhelming. My expectations had been high. Toba had been described to me in superlative terms: it’s the largest crater lake in the world, created by the largest volcanic eruption of the last 25 million years, which reportedly spewed enough lava to create two Mount Everests. It had a reputation for being the mecca of backpacker meccas. Anyway, I’d expected to be jazzed at first sight.
What I discovered is that you need to get out and about to really see Lake Toba in all its glory. Now that its full-moon-party days are over, it’s a great place to just while away some time on a deckchair by the water, take a dip when it gets too hot, read a book or unwind with some ‘magic omelette’, which Sumatrans sell as ubiquitously as ikan bakar (charcoal-grilled fish or other seafood). (Do relax, but keep in mind that Mount Toba is still reportedly capable of eruptions.)
I rented a bicycle for the day and toured the villages of Tuktuk and Tomok. Tuktuk is where you’ll find all the tourists, whereas Tomok is more of a workaday place, where Batak locals live.
There aren’t too many kilometres to cover, but with the uphill climbs and stops for the main tourist attractions, the excursion can take three to four hours. Fall into the rhythm and take your time. Among the attractions are the grave of King Sidabutar and the Stone Chairs, more than 200 years old and which look like something out of the Game of Thrones.
If you stop for food, try saksang, a type of pork curry. (Batak Christians make up the main population of Lake Toba and pork is always on the menu. Note, though, that the locals do sometimes substitute dog meat.)
Go Big or Go Home
A bicycle affords you some grand views of Lake Toba, but to really put it in perspective, you’re better off hopping on a scooter. That way, you can get around all of Samosir Island and not just stay in Tuktuk, which is but a slight outcrop on the island’s upper northeastern flank. Also, a bike would be unlikely to get you up and down some of the slopes and back before dark unless you’re Bear Grylls and get a really early start. (In other words, this is just not advisable.)
Never ridden a scooter before? In my opinion, if you can ride a bicycle and you’re able to practise on the scooter for a little bit in a safe compound before riding out, then you’ll be all right. I’ll admit I was apprehensive at first, as I was travelling on my own and didn’t know what the terrain was going to be like. (As it turns out, you can follow the asphalt almost all the way.)
The scooter ride was a true highlight for me. The route takes you along laid-back country roads; I passed families with children running around with newborn piglets, received invitations to try tuak (a palm wine or ‘jungle juice’, as they tell tourists), saw buffaloes grazing in golden pastures and caught glimpses of the distinctive rooftops of Batak houses and tombs peeking out from rice fields.
During the first half of the journey, after an uphill stretch, you’ll come to a church. Stop and follow the path to the grassy plateau behind it, which overlooks the expanse of blue lake and green mountains. On the day I was there, I had it all to myself. From this height, you can really appreciate how large and beautiful Lake Toba is.
Best Time to Visit
You can pretty much visit Lake Toba any time of the year, but try to avoid public holidays, as Tuktuk Siadong gets really crowded then.
Where to Stay
Liberta Homestay is a friendly place for the budget traveller and offers rooms in traditional Batak houses. Bagus Bay Homestay has rooms for a range of budgets and a bamboo bar and restaurant with a pleasant ambience. The Pandu Lakeside Hotel Tuktuk is affordable accommodation with a boutique feel. Or, for more Western-style comfort, try Carolina Cottages.
Fly with AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur to Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport (KNO). Then take a bus or collective taxi to Parapat, followed by a boat to Tuktuk Siadong. If you arrive late in the evening, when no more boats are going directly to Tuktuk Siadong, cross over to Tomok instead, and then hitch a tuktuk ride from the jetty to Tuktuk Siadong. The journey takes about five to six hours, depending on the traffic in Medan.
Feature Image: Photo by Jason and Linds
Photo Credits: Various photographs licensed under CC by 2.0