Indonesia – Lake Toba & Bukit Lawang

One week in Sumatra (Indonesia) was barely enough time to scratch the surface, but we loved what we saw and experienced. We flew from Penang to Medan (Indonesia’s 3rd largest city, a bustling metropolis that we were only too eager to escape from). From Medan’s Amplas central bus station, we squeezed into a tiny van for the 160km (6 cramped hours) ride to Parapat. Lake Toba resides in the caldera of a volcano, and we were going to spend 3 nights on the island of Pulau Samosir, which is touted as being the largest island within an island in the world! Our accommodation for Lake Toba was at the wonderful Lekjon Cottage, complete with a view of the picturesque lake. Dinner at Rumba Pizzeria did not disappoint, with wonderful made to order personal pizzas (try the garlic…fantastic!). We had planned to laze about during our time at Lake Toba but a last minute change in plans saw us renting a motorbike for 2 days (180,000 Rupiah or about $14). A Batak dance show at the Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo (10:30 am for 50,000 Rupiah) was our first stop and we managed to catch the end of the show. Connie was busy performing dance steps with the Batak dancers so we happily stayed out of sight and took photos. Afterwards, Lars joined the two of us on a round the island ride which took the rest of the day. Highlights were dipping into the hot springs, high fiving excited school kids, mountain views overlooking Lake Toba from the southeast of the island, getting a flat tire, running out of gas and surviving a wipe out relatively unscathed – great fun and what an adventure! Day two of Lake Toba was more of the same…an early morning bike ride out to Parulubalangan to check out the stone carvings that Pulau Samosir is famous for and riding back out to Huta Bolon to catch the complete Batak dance performance. Back in the village of Ambarita we stopped at Huta Siallagan to see the stone throne of King Siallagan. After lunch, we stopped by another museum in Tomok where we visited the tomb of King Sidabutar. It was a full day of culture and by 3 pm, we were ready for a siesta so we returned the motorbike early and relaxed for the rest of our stay on Lake Toba. The next day was a long one as we journeyed from Lake Toba back to Medan and onward to Bukit Lawang. Tig had hired a spacious 12 passenger van to transport us from Parapat to Bukit Lawang…yay! Even though the journey was long, it was bearable in our luxurious van and everyone was able to snooze the day away in comfort. At Bukit Lawang, we checked into the Rain Forest Guesthouse and met up with our orangutan trekking guide (Jungle Eddie). He told us we had an 85% chance of viewing the semi-wild orangutans on our trek tomorrow so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. The next morning, all fears were set aside as we stumbled upon 2 mothers and 2 baby orangutans for the better part of 45 minutes. One of the mamas was a camera hog, pruning her hair for the camera and striking different poses for us….absolutely brilliant. We also ran into some Thomas’s Leaf monkeys which seemed more curious and excited about us as they stopped to check us out. Then it was onward to some river tubing back to the starting point of our hike. Denise was super brave (she can’t swim) but found to her delight that she loved it and wanted to do it all over again! Back at our guesthouse, cheeky monkeys decided to play with us on our balcony as they repeatedly tried to grab Robby’s electronics. Meanwhile, Becky decided to press her face up to our window and had a monkey mimic her every move on the other side…hilarious! At the lodge, we met up with a wonderful Slovenian family (Matic & Urska, who were traveling with their 2 boisterous sons. Lovely family and we enjoyed chatting with them for several hours. Our last full day had us leaving Bukit Lawang for the drive to Medan airport. We had budgeted 6 hours for the journey but our driver got us there in 5 so we had plenty of time to kill at the airport before the flight back to Malaysia. Even though our time in Indonesia flew by, we would LOVE to return for an in depth visit to Sumatra, Borneo, Lombok, etc. We’ll be back!

26 Sep – The flight from Penang (Malaysia) to Medan (Indonesia) took only 45 minutes. Time went back an hour once we landed in Indonesia, so we essentially arrived a few minutes before our scheduled departure time! After getting our bags and enough local currency, we took taxis to the Grand Lubuk Raya Hotel. The drive took well over an hour and we realized how far the Medan airport is from the city. When we finally arrived and checked into our room, it was disgusting. Our bed had ants crawling all around it and the sheets were stained with dirt. The pillow cases looked as though someone had stepped on them with dirty shoes and our mattresses were sagging. And there were mosquitoes galore! We are not high maintenance when it comes to travel but this room was completely unacceptable. We quickly checked out everyone else’s room situation and found that we were all in the same boat. Tig to the rescue. She gave us keys to another room and while this one had its issues, it was much better than the first option so we quickly accepted it. She then spent the next 30 minutes swapping out saggy mattresses for firmer ones with the hotel staff who probably thought we were off our rockers. Wonder if the locals have ever complained about the room condition before? Doubtful from the perplexed look of the staff!

27 Sep – Disgusting free breakfast provided by the hotel. We were too scared to eat any of the food provided because the cauldrons of soup looked like prime receptacles for E. coli! There were some prawn crackers that looked OK so we managed to have some food ahead of our long day today. At 9 am, we hopped into taxis for the drive out to the Amplas Central Bus Station. Our taxi driver didn’t speak much English, but he proudly managed to inform us that he was a Christian and really loved Jesus! The Amplas bus station looked really run down. There was a bus headed towards Parapat waiting in the parking lot already and the staff was super eager to load our bags. But Tig mentioned that we could hire a minivan since it would be quicker than the bus (which allows smoking). The minivan option sounded like a winner. Too bad it was false advertising. A tiny SUV pulled up and the 7 of us stared in disbelief. No freaking way 7 large westerners were going to squeeze in there with all of our luggage! Right about then, the bus pulled away so that was no longer an option. So we sat and waited, and waited, and waited. Our handler called for another SUV and this one was even smaller than the first so we immediately refused. Tempers flared because we had now been sitting and waiting at Amplas for almost 2 hours. How we wished we had simply agreed to the smoke-filled bus! At least there would have been plenty of leg room even if the going was slow! Finally just after 11 am, a larger minivan showed up and we were finally on our way. Lars crammed into the back seats with us and we instantly knew we’d have to implement a rotation system because it was way too cramped back there to sit for too long. Lunch was our first stop and we happily got out to stretch our legs and fill our bellies. After lunch, Tig, Denise and Connie squeezed into the back (Gill was feeling off today and wanted to sit up in front) and we happily got into the middle row of seats but honestly, it wasn’t that much better. The minivan really was too small for our group but we all had to suck it up. We made another stop in a town called Pematangsiantar, and our driver kept raving about the pastries so Robby bought a whole chocolate cake to share with the group (OK but not worth the special stop). Finally, 6 tortuous hours after we started, we arrived at the Parapat ferry terminal. Hallelujah! Our super friendly driver offered to wait for us in Parapat for the next few days since he was trying to get our business for the onward journey to Bukit Lawang. Rather than burst his bubble and tell him than none of us were willing to endure such tight quarters again, Tig gave him false hope with a “maybe, we’ll see” response. Poor guy! Meanwhile, we loaded onto a boat to take us across Lake Toba to Pulau Samosir. This lake is actually inside a volcanic crater! We were pretty excited to spend 3 nights here. It only took about 30 minutes for the ferry crossing and we noticed that the ferry captain was dropping guests off as close to their guesthouses as possible…how nice! We were taken to Lekjon Cottage, our home for the next few days on Tuk Tuk Peninsula. Our first room was pretty dingy with a broken window (hard to keep the mosquitoes out), but once we pointed that out, we were quickly given a nicer room. The only downside was we were now outside of the WiFi zone! After settling in, we linked up for dinner which Tig covered with local payment. Rumba Pizzeria was our restaurant of choice and we did not leave disappointed. The pizzas were super tasty (garlic won hands down as the best ingredient!). Drinks and dessert were on us. Denise splurged on her cocktail (alcohol on this island is prohibitively expensive), so beer was the better bet.

28 Sep – We had planned to have a lazy day of just chilling at the hotel and maybe wandering around Tuktuk. The only thing we were keen on was seeing the traditional dance ceremony at the Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo. But at breakfast, we found out there were very limited options to get to the museum. Option A was to walk approximately 4 km to the ring road where we could hail a shared taxi. Option B was to hire a shuttle van and option C was to rent a motorbike. Since the quote we were given for the shuttle van was the same as renting our own bike, it was a no-brainer. Motorbike rental it was, and Robby managed to bargain down the price for a 2 day rental. We had to rush to finish breakfast to get to the museum by 10 am since our helpful hotel staff told us that during off season, the museum only performs one dance ceremony daily (vice two performances during high season). Tig and Lars decided to join us and we managed to catch the tail end of the dance ceremony. Connie had zipped over there immediately after breakfast so she was able to catch the entire show. By the time we showed up, Connie was actually performing in the show itself! Since we missed the majority of the performance, Becky asked the staff if we could revisit tomorrow on the same ticket and they happily obliged. Tig had work to do so she made her way back into Tuk Tuk but Lars joined us on an around the island journey. The happy school children wanting to high five us as we drove around will always be etched in our memory. As will the traditional Batak style houses that are strewn throughout the entire island. After zipping around the northwest side of the island, we had a quick visit at a local hot spring. No one was around so we took a cheeky dip in the hot and cold springs for a while before deciding on lunch at a restaurant nearby. Information on the road conditions around the south side of the island was pretty scarce but we decided to go for it, not having a clue how long it would take us to complete our journey. GPS on our map indicated the road would deteriorate after 40 km but we didn’t know what state it would be in…dirt path or rubble? To our surprise, we made excellent time on a well paved tarmac road. Smooth sailing until we got a flat tire. But as luck would have it, we were only 50 meters from a repair shop! 15 minutes and $1 later, we were on our way. We made it around the southern point with ease and were still making great time so we knew we’d be able to easily circle the island before sunset. However, as we started up the mountainous road on the southeastern section of the island, our bike started stalling out. It slowly dawned on us that our fuel gauge had led us astray. We thought we still had a full tank of gas when in reality, we had long since run out of gas. Luckily, Lars was still with us at this point so he gave Becky a ride to the closest gas station. A 2 liter bottle of gas later and we were good to go. By this point we were at the highest part of our ride with amazing views across the lake towards the cliffs on the other side. After a few photo stops, we started making our way further north towards Tuk Tuk. However, the mountainous road became a series of steep switchbacks. We should have known that bad things come in threes. First we had a flat, then ran out of gas. What else could possibly go wrong? Yup, we didn’t make it around the tightest turn of the entire ring road and ended up skidding off the road into the gravel. We laid the bike down and ended up with a few scrapes and scratches and one dead android phone which took the brunt of the impact. Luckily there was no serious damage so after dusting ourselves off, we zipped back towards Tuk Tuk. When we arrived at 6 pm, Tig had the good news that we could switch rooms again for a lake view if we wanted (hell yes). We were back just in time for sunset which was quite colorful. Dinner was at Jenny’s Restaurant with Tig and Lars which we enjoyed despite the slow service. Wiped after our day’s adventures, we left Tig and Lars to their drinks while we crashed hard. Despite our misadventures today, we both love this island! Lake Toba and Pulau Samosir are amazing…two thumbs way up.

29 Sep – Another full day on Lake Toba! We woke early for breakfast as we wanted to have an earlier start than yesterday. Robby was keen on switching bikes since our motorbike yesterday had a faulty fuel gauge, an inoperable speedometer, and suspect brakes. Not a problem for our hotel staff who swapped it out with a smile. First stop was Parulubalangan to see its stone carvings. Very impressive volcanic statues that could just have easily have been spotted on some island in the Pacific. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in Indonesia, not Yap or Palau. Next up was another visit to the Huta Bolon Simanindo Museum. This time we were able to catch the entire Batak dance performance which kicked off promptly at 10 am. A quick visit to some nearby old king tombs before backtracking to Tuk Tuk to visit Huta Siallagan, where there were even more traditional Batak houses, stone carvings, and the stone throne of King Siallagan. Robby befriended a wood carver there who regaled him with stories of visiting North and South America back in 1975. By this point, it was lunch time so we swung through Tuk Tuk and settled on Chinese food. The afternoon was spent at Tomok where we visited the Tomb of King Sidabutar. By mid-afternoon, we were satisfied that we had seen everything the island had to offer so we decided to return the motorbike early. Another fabulous sunset followed by a quick chat with the rest of the gang. They were keen on drinks tonight but we weren’t in the mood so the two of us went back to Jenny’s Restaurant for another fine meal. What a great couple of days on Lake Toba! This island is a gem and we were happy that it was included on our overland adventure.

30 Sep – We woke up early and were just able to catch sunrise before breakfast. We were prepared mentally for a long day as we were headed to Bukit Lawang and our journey to get here had been so long and uncomfortable. Bukit Lawang was supposed to take 9 hours and we prayed our ride would be better than the one we used to get here! Catching the early morning ferry was a breeze and Becky met another couple who had already visited Bukit Lawang for orangutan trekking. They raved about their guide (Jungle Eddie), stating he was the best. Tig overheard and was happy to announce that she had already been in contact with Jungle Eddie so it looked like we would be in good hands. As soon as we stepped off the ferry and were led to our ride, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. This van was pure luxury compared to what we had been riding in. The 7 of us could sprawl comfortably around the 12-pax van, with plenty of space to lounge back and relax. Awesome! The day was looking up already. Lunch was at a stop just before Medan at a roadside restaurant. Gill and Lars ordered curry but what they got was laughable. One scoop of rice and a bit of brown sauce. One of the smallest portions of food on the trip for sure so they sent it back, thinking there must be some kind of mistake. No mistake according to the waiter who told them to order more food if it wasn’t enough! Connie got up and left her food on the table after hearing that…she wanted none of it. The rest of us ate our meals (mediocre) and were ready to hit the road after our brief stop. An hour later, we had a quick pit stop for gas and Dunkin’ Donuts a little past Medan. The donuts rocked…we should have taken advantage of the get 12, pay for 9 promo they had going on. It was a little after 6 pm when we finally arrived to Bukit Lawang. Despite the long journey, we had been traveling in style so it wasn’t a rough day. A guide was on hand to lead us to the Rain Forest Guesthouse, our home for the next 2 nights. After getting settled into our rooms, we went for a walk with Denise and Lars and got caught out in the rain. So we stopped for a beer to wait it out. Meanwhile, Tig was sorting out our trekking plans for tomorrow. The plan was to have a group meeting at 7:30 pm to decide what to do, but it was still pouring down rain. In the end, we had to suck it up since the rain was not easing up. Wonder how trekking conditions will be tomorrow with all this heavy rain? Back at the guesthouse, Tig introduced us to Jungle Eddie who went over the plan for tomorrow. Tig told us that the guesthouse staff was really pissed off that our group opted to book with Jungle Eddie instead of them. The owner made a crude sexual harassment remark to Tig and that was the end of that. Tig refused to have anything else to do with him and that solidified her decision to go with Jungle Eddie. How bizarre! Since it was still raining, we decided to have dinner at the guesthouse. Our milkshakes and food were quite good so good decision to eat here. Poor Gill didn’t have the same luck though. She ordered a guacamole taco and it took well over an hour. And when it did arrive, the taco ended up being a massive portion of hard, week old pita bread. No bueno! Gill tried to take a bite but the bread felt like a brick so in the end, she had to ask for regular sliced bread since the pita bread was inedible. Poor thing!

01 Oct – We were woken around 6 am to the sound of monkeys running across our rooftop. Noisy little critters! It was impossible to sleep in so we got up for breakfast. By 9 am, our group was ready to go spot some orangutans! Jungle Eddie sent a representative to pick us up and lead us to his guesthouse where we set off. It was an easy morning stroll and our fears for muddy terrain due to all the rain last night were for naught…the trail wasn’t too slippery and our shoes gripped just fine. Luckily, we ran into 4 orangutans (2 mothers and their babies) straight away. They lingered above in the tree tops for nearly an hour before moving on. Even though lots of other trekkers gathered around taking photos, it was pretty cool spotting these semi-wild orangutans. Onward we hiked before taking a quick break to enjoy some fresh fruit that Jungle Eddie brought along. We trekked for another hour and didn’t manage to spot anymore orangutans but we did come across a bunch of Thomas Leaf monkeys. They were pretty adorable with their spunky mohawks. After spending some time checking them out, we hiked down toward the river where Jungle Eddie’s crew had tied some rubber tubes together to form a makeshift raft. We were going river rafting! Lots of fun, we all got soaked but all of our gear was in dry bags so no big deal. A monitor lizard ducked into the river while we zoomed by…unfortunately no other wildlife spotting (we were hoping to catch a glimpse of orangutans from the vantage point of the river but no such luck). Our half day excursion was complete just before lunch, so we thanked Jungle Eddie and found a place to eat. The afternoon was fairly relaxed until some monkeys invaded our balcony. They kept eyeballing Robby’s electronic gear so he decided to make a hasty retreat. That emboldened a couple of the monkeys who came right up to our window and started to bang on it. So Becky played “monkey see, monkey do” with one of them…too cute! Our late afternoon plan was to walk into town but we started chatting up a Slovenian family (professional photographers Matic and Urska along with their 2 young sons) and spent several hours enjoying their company. Matic showed us a couple of the photos he had taken of the orangutans today…wow! He had some really nice shots. Since it was raining out, we decided to have dinner at the hotel again tonight. Our Bukit Lawang hotel has certainly lived up to its name (rain forest)!

02 Oct – Another early morning wake up again. This time it was not the pitter patter of the monkeys on our rooftop but the incessant sound of water trickling down heavily. We initially thought it was rain but figured out that a water tank was overflowing and spilling onto the tin roof next door! After breakfast, we strolled into town to exchange some money and pick up a souvenir (Bukit Lawang tank top). Then we packed up, checked out and loaded into a van for our ride to Medan airport. Tig had estimated 5 – 6 hours to reach the airport which is an hour beyond Medan itself but we made excellent time. Such good time that we decided to stop for lunch since we now had time to kill. We came across a local restaurant which had a decent selection of food. The owner’s little girl was smitten with our group and she kept coming by to take sneaky photos of us with her tablet. Before we left, we had our driver take a bunch of group photos of us with the girl and her family much to their delight. Then it was onward to the airport, and we arrived just after 3 pm. Our flight from Medan to Penang was scheduled for 7:15 pm, so while we could do self check-in, we were a bit too early to drop off our bags. No matter…the airport kept us amused until we were able to drop off our check in bags. Our week stay in Indonesia only whetted our appetite to spend more time exploring this amazing country. Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang were two great introductory stops of what will certainly be more to come in the future!

2 thoughts on “Indonesia – Lake Toba & Bukit Lawang

    1. Hi Vasanth, sorry for the late reply as we are currently traveling. We rented our motorbike from our guesthouse (Lekjon Cottage) for 90,000 Rupiah per day for 2 days. If you ask at your guest house, you could probably get a similar deal. It is a great way to explore the island and cheaper than taking a taxi. Just be sure to check the motorbike out, especially the brakes. Enjoy your trip!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *