Lake Toba memories by an English men

Orang-Utang at Gungung Leuser National Park
“Hi, my name is Stuart. I am from England.”

I found myself in front of yet another group of high school kids introducing myself. I had been recruited yet again by a local teacher in order to give her students practice in speaking English with a native speaker. It’s one of the few dangers of a visit to Sumatra.

It’s quite a high risk, because the local tourism industry is almost dead. The hordes of backpackers that used to visit Sumatra now go elsewhere. Instead of partying at Lake Toba (which the Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek called ‘the most beautiful place on earth’);they howl at the moon, full of drink and drugs on some Thai beach.

Sumatra is an example of the problem with placing too much reliance on tourism to develop an economy. Sadly, there are now too many would be guides chasing too few tourists.

My last destination was in Sabah, Borneo (see my last blog); just part of my multi year trip around the world.

I flew out of Borneo to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Flights within SE Asia are dirt cheap. I stayed a few days
Rumah rajah (Kings house), Lingga village
Gunung Sinabung can be seen in the KL in order to upload the photos of the Sabah blog. I then flew from KL to Medan in Northern Sumatra.


Medan is the largest city in Sumatra. It is hot, humid and dirty. It’s full of ugly concrete blocks. It’s difficult to walk anywhere. The pavements (sidewalks) are full of holes big enough to swallow a man. Cars and motorbikes park on any available piece of pavement that isn’t a moon crater. So, I always walked in the middle of the road, dodging the busy traffic.

I spent a couple of days in Medan before starting on the tourist trail.


On Weds 21st I took the bus to Bukit Lawang which is a village just outside the Gunung Leusser National Park. It is only 85km from the city of Medan but it took nearly 4 hours to make that journey. The road was in a pitiful state, as was the bus. The bus broke down twice!

Gunung Leusser is an UNESCO Bio-sphere Reserve. The rain forest harbours some of the most endangered species on earth, including the Sumatran
Ambushed by kids again!
Samosir Island, Lake TobaRhino and Orang-Utangs.

The village near the park suffered a devastating flash flood in 2003 in which hundreds of people were killed. Much of the riverfront is still in ruins. The Government has built new houses further back from the river.

Danu Toba

After a few nights I caught a bus back to Medan, where I stayed one night before continuing to Lake Toba.

Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in SE Asia. Samosir, an island in the lake is the size of Singapore. It is a beautiful place that used to be part of the backpackers standard Asian itinerary. But, tourism is now nearly dead on Samosir. They don’t know what they’re missing.

I was there on a Sunday, so it was busier than usual. There weren’t many foreign tourists. Most of the visitors were Indonesians, who were on the island for a week-end break from Medan.

There were also a large number of Indonesian school trips on the island. I lost count of the number of times I was ambushed by school children. They all had some standard questions they had learned in school, which they
Lake Toba
wanted to practise.

Lake Toba is also important as the ancestral home of the Toba Batak people. The Bataks were fearless warriors. They had a high culture although they practiced ritual cannibalism. Ritual cannibalism didn’t end among the Toba Batak until 1816. Many Christian missionaries met their deaths at the end of Batak spears. Finally in the 19th century a German missionary converted King Sidabatur. Despite the conversion the people do retain some animist beliefs.


On Monday 26th I then made my way to Berastagi, which is an agricultural community below the slopes of 2 volcanoes. Berastagi is in the Karo highlands which has a cool, pleasant climate. Whilst in the the village I climbed one of the volcanoes and visited nearby villages, including Lingga. Many of the villages retain traditional houses which are still used.

It was while I was staying in Berastagi that I was persuaded by a local school teacher to stand up in front of groups of high school kids. All the kids were polite and very keen. These were kids that were doing after school lessons to
improve their English. They were obviously ambitious.

Waterside, Bukit Lawang
Hundreds of people were killed in a flood in 2003. Many of the buildings were destroyed and not replaced. New houses are being built further back from the river.
I spent a pleasant few days in Berastagi before returning to Medan. I needed to return to the city of hell in order to upload the photos for this blog. The speed and reliability of the Internet connection in Berastagi was appalling.

Medan is also a major transport hub. I’ve just booked my ticket to Aceh, the epicentre of the Dec 2004 tsunami…

Fumarole,Gunung Sibayak

Gungung Leuser National Park, Bukit Lawang

Gungung Leuser National Park, Bukit Lawang

Orang-Utang at Gungung Leuser National Park

Orang-Utang at Gungung Leuser National Park

Lake Toba
The Hotel where I stayed.

Typical grave on Samosir Island, Lake Toba

King Sidabutar’s Grave on Samosir Island, Lake Toba.
King Sidabutar was the Batak king who adopted Christianity. On the left of this picture is the grave of the missionary who converted the tribe.

Samosir Island, Lake Toba

Stone Chairs, Samosir Island, Lake Toba
This is where people were tried and beheaded.

Lake Toba
Lake Toba with the village of Tomok, Samosir Island in the background.

Gunung Sibayak

Gunung Sinabung


Detail on the side of a traditional house in the village of Lingga

Sapo ganjang (house for young men). Lingga village.

Inside the rumah rajah (Kings house).

Istana Maimon, Medan

Lapangan Merdeka, Medan

Mesjid Paya, Medan




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