Welcome back. I hope you have been enjoying our tales of adventure, tips and pics thus far. We move onto the next leg of our journey: Northern Sumatra.
After parting ways with our family and friends in Bali, we set off on our way with North Sumatra in our sights. First stop, Medan. We didn’t really choose Medan as a destination that we were interested in exploring, but more of a necessary port of entry into North Sumatra.
🛫 Tip: If you are flying from Bali to Medan and wanting to get there economically, fly AirAsia via Kuala Lumpur. We booked two separate flights: Bali -> KL & KL -> Medan/Kualanamu. It was far more cost effective.
😴 Tip: If you are looking for a economical hotel close to Kualanamu Airport, check out ZEN Rooms Basic. They offer free airport shuttles. Don’t expect much in terms of the location. Medan is about 30 minutes away from the airport as opposed to the hotel which is about 10 minutes away. It is meant purely as a transit hotel. It is clean, comfortable with TVs and aircon in the small box-sized private rooms.
Back to Medan. It’s hot. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. It’s chaotic. Our first thoughts were, ‘Oh god, where are we??’. We definitely found comfort in knowing that we were only in town for just 1 night.
We desperately searched Tripadvisor and travel blogs for something to do or some place to go that provided either good food or aircon, preferably both. A coffee shop seemed like a good idea. Those usually have aircon and wifi right? Our search revealed a coffee shop within walking distance; Macehat Coffee would surely be our escape from the oppressive heat.
After a 20 minute trek along streets continuously buzzing with the sound of little scooter engines, we found Macehat Coffee.
We stepped inside, eager to feel that gush of arctic air as the door opened but alas, we were greeted with a long queue of overheating people waiting to be seated. Not even a fan to keep the crowd cool. We had read about a drink – something too unique to miss out on trying. Hence, we grabbed a waiting number and joined the sweaty line off caffeine hungry, soon-to-be patrons.
After about 30 minutes of endless dripping, our number was finally called and we were quickly seated in the adjacent room. Our choice in beverage was a swift decision. 2 Avocado Coffee Floats please. The lady waiting our table scribbled down our order and I got the feeling that it wasn’t the first time she had written down that order that day. As I peered around the small room, in front of the majority of the seated customers was the drink we had quickly requested.
Not long after we had placed our order, our drinks arrived. Swirls of brown and green filled a tall glass with a perfectly sculpted scoop of chocolate icecream on top. To the side, a freshly brewed shot of dark and powerful espresso. We poured the espresso over the ice cream as directed. We took our first sip. Wow! I never thought I’d say avocado and chocolate is a thing, but trust me, it’s a thing! The avocado made the drink thick and creamy and the espresso and chocolate flavors complemented each other so gracefully. Needles to say, for whatever reason you find yourself in Medan, slot the Avocado Coffee Float at Macehat Coffee into your day itinerary.
The Avocado Coffee Float @ Macehat Coffee, Medan
🚩Side Note: The Avocado Coffee Float contains avocado puree, chocolate icecream, chocolate syrup, a light dusting of Milo and a shot of espresso on the side. Need I say more?
The following morning, we were up early and ready to start our long day of journeying to our first location in Northern Sumatra. Where were we going you ask? Lake Toba! More precisely, Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island.
Before I detail our day of travel, here is an interesting fact. Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world. It is believed that a super-eruption occurred around 75,000 years ago. It is said that this eruption caused a 6 to 10 year long global winter. Scientists also believe that this eruption left an ash blanket of 15cm/5.9in all over South Asia.
So how did we get to the largest volcanic lake in the world from Medan? In a high speed death trap piloted by a fearless, nicotine-sucking, red crazy-eyed mad man, that’s how. For us, the fear was real. We bought two seats on a shared taxi from Medan to Parapat. The appeal was the comfort of being in a smaller car with aircon as opposed to a slower and overloaded public bus with just the hot Sumatran air blowing through the windows. We had read stories of the F1/WRC aspirations of some of the shared taxi drivers. On the upside, we made great time.
🚕 Tip: Getting a shared taxi from Medan to Parapat should cost you around 80,000 Rupiah. The transport companies’ initial price will be high but don’t be scared to negotiate it down. Head down to this street to find a bunch a transport companies all offering shared transport rides to Parapat. Once they see your foreigner face they will be eager to shout at you and begin the negotiation.
After 5 hours of gut wrenching Colin McRae driving, we arrived, I won’t say safely but defnitely in one piece, at Parapat. From Parapat, we took the big ferry across to Tomok, Samosir. From Tomok, we took a tuk-tuk to Tuk Tuk.
⛴ Tip: You can take a car and passenger ferry from Ajibata Ferry Terminal to Tomok for just under 4,000 Rupiah. From there you can negotiate a price to your accommodation with a tuk-tuk driver. Alternatively, you can take a more expensive ferry from Tiga Raja Harbor. These tickets run from 15,000 Rupiah but the ferry will drop you at your accommodation in Tuk Tuk.
Samosir is home to the Batak people. They have their own language. They have their own food. The have their own style. The traditional houses with sweeping roofs are reminiscent of old wooden ships.
Life on Samosir is slow and simple. The mornings are quiet and relaxing. Waters laps on the lake shores as fishermen in small boats pound the water with a hammer-like club scaring their catch into strategically placed nets in the water.
We rented a scooter for the duration of our stay as our accommodation, Mas Cottages, was a little outside of the town. Most of our time on Lake Toba was spent eating. We ate a lot. Most of the little restaurants in Tuk Tuk serve really good food. We have to recommend the fried fish and avocado salad at Maruba and the grilled fish at Jenny’s.
🛵 Tip: Most scooter rental shops fix their prices at around IDR 100,000 a day. Head over to Robinhot in Tuk Tuk. After some haggling, we got our trusty steed for IDR 200,000 for 3 days /IDR 66,666 per day.
Besides filling our faces, we spent one day scooting around to the west side of Samosir and found panoramic views of Mt. Pudik Buhit. On another day, we hired a canoe at Carolinas and spent an hour out paddling on the lake.
🚩Tip: There are other sights to visit within driving distance from Samosir such as Sipisopiso waterfalls and hot springs. I say driving distance because it will take at least a few hours to get to each. It will not be a fun ride on the back of a scooter. Make sure to plan your day trips accordingly. We did not and found the hot springs and Sipisopiso waterfalls to be too far away by scooter. Other blogs led us to believe that they were easily accessible from Tuk Tuk but realistically, they are not. If you would like to do see those things or hike the volcanoes it will be best for you to base yourself in the small town- Berastagi.
After Lake Toba, it was time for a scenery change. We had spent time on many Indonesian beaches, one volcanic fresh-water lake and it was time for an Indo-style jungle adventure. Braving our lives once again, we purchased seats in a shared taxi ride. We were pleasantly suprised, after setting off on our journey, that the F1/WRC ambitions of our driver had long passed. The journey to Bukit Lawang was pleasantly comfortable and scenic. We stopped in Berastagi to collect two more passengers and then proceeded to Bukit Lawang. Besides one flat tire, we arrived safely and in good time.
🚕 Tip: Book your shared taxi tickets at Anju Karaoke in Tuk Tuk. They had the best prices. Anju Karaoke is between Jenny’s and Leo’s.
As we disembarked from our Toyota-produced silver chariot, we were greeted by our host and were quickly escorted to our accommodation that we would call home for the next few nights. We were welcomed with a complementary drink and then it happened. Tour after tour option shoved in our faces and down our throats. As we gasped for air, we quickly noticed the prices of the tours and then our jaws dropped. Euros. Euros. Euros. And lots of them! We were flabbergasted by the tour prices. And to make things more frustrating, we later realised, after exploring the town and other establisments, that there is a clear case of collusion happening in the town of Bukit Lawang. During some dark stormy night, the tour and accommodation owners met in a dark and dank room. Hustled around a small flickering candle, prices were whispered, heads were shook, promises made, Euro signs glistened in all their eyeballs and greed snarled its snarky smile. Once the pact was made and one last gaze of agreement filled the room, their silhouettes quickly left and dissapeared into the shadows of the dark alleyways. The price was set.
We decided that we would sign up for the 1 day jungle trek knowing that this would inflict a near mortal wound on our thus-far well preserved budget. The Ruphiah equivalent of 90 Euros, in a swift exchange of hands, was gone.
We had one day before our jungle trek to do with what we pleased. There are a few other activities options in Bukit Lawang besides jungle trekking. The popular two are tubing down the river and visiting the Bat Cave. We opted for the latter.
The Bat Cave is about 20 minutes walk from the Eco Lodge. Start at the Eco Lodge and ask for directions. Follow the path until you see the Bat Cave sign. It costs IDR 25,000 per person. You can go with or without a guide. We went without. It’s impossible to get lost in the cave so you really don’t need a guide. You will exit the same way you enter and more exciting and rewarding doing it on your own. You will be provided with a small dim flashlight. We would recommend bringing your own headlamp.
The next day we went on our jungle trek. We met our guide in the morning at our accommodation. After a quick breakfast and coffee, we set off on our trek. It was hot. It was humid. It was sweaty. But, it was beautiful. We ascended the jungle along a well-trodden path. We took a break about every 30 minutes to gulp in the thick humid air in hope of catching our breath. Aparently we were “lucky” that day as we saw about 9 orangutans. I would’ve said wild orangutans but they seemed far too content with humans stomping in and out out their territory snapping a millions pictures from every possible angle. I would say semi-wild at most. One of the baby orangutans even climbed into our guides arms as a child would in their father’s after being apart for sometime. Wild, not so much. Tame, yes.
There was one orangutan that definitely carried a chip on her shoulder, Mina. Apparently she was rescued after being someone’s pet and was integrated back into the wild. That being said, she has bitten about 70 people. While we were eating our jungle nasi-goreng lunch, she came down the path with her infant and robbed Celeste of her lunch. Our guide told us to hand over our food if she tries to take it otherwise be prepared for an orangutan bite.
Besides the orangutans, we saw 1 Thomas Leaf monkey, 1 White and 1 Black Gibbon monkey. After the day of jungle trekking, we still felt angry about the exorbitant price but somewhat better after seeing all the amazing wildlife.
🚨Tip: Don’t let your accommodation bully you into buying a 2 or 3 day trek. Which they will! They will tell you it’s better and that you will see more. These are falsehoods and I will tell you why. Before arriving in Bukit Lawang we met a lovely couple at a rest stop. Low and behold, halfway through our jungle trek, there they were! So naturally we stopped and chatted. Only to find out that they were on the second day of their three day trek. They had been circling around the same jungle area that we had for our one day. They had also apparently asked their guide several times when they would leave the area and head deeper into the jungle. Apparently he just kept saying they will. So! In conclusion, a one day trek will save you money and you will see the exact same area as a 2 or 3 day.
We had originally booked 4 nights in Bukit Lawang but on the 3rd day, decided that we had seen all there was to be seen so we packed our bags and departed for Pulau Weh a day early.
Pulau Weh, an untouched paradise with the most pristine of beaches and water. I hope it remains untouched and retains all its authenticity. I hope the footprints of tourism tread lightly here.
Getting from Bukit Lawang was a journey in itself. We took a public bus from Bukit Lawang bus station to Binjai. How would I describe the public bus you ask? A death-trap. A rusty, bumpy, over-packed, cigarette-smoldering, hot death-trap. It is not for the faint hearted. It was a long and uncomfortable ride to Binjai but it sure was cost effective. As they say, you get what you pay for.
We were dropped off at the Binjai Sempati Star offices. When I say offices, I mean a desk under a tarp on the side of the road. It didn’t seem promising and our next leg of the journey was a 13 hour bus ride from Binjai to Banda Aceh. We purchased two bus tickets and hoped for the best while we waited for the bus to arrive. After a short time, the bus arrived and it was nothing short of luxurious to say the least. We were so happy. The difference between the public bus and the Sempati Star bus was night and day. We were seated on the top deck of a double decker bus. The chairs were big, comfortable and reclined back far enough to cradle our public-bus-beaten bodies. We had tv screens with a decent list of Hollywood movies. The air-con was crisp and we were provided with a pillow and a blanket to keep us warm during the night as we slept.
🚍Bukit Lawang to Pulau Weh: Firstly, many people said this route is not possible. We say hogwash! We did it. To get to Binjai from Bukit Lawang, take a tuk tuk (negotiate a small fee) from Bukit Lawang town to the bus stop located 1 km away. From the bus stop, take the public bus to Binjai and ask to be dropped off at Sempati Star. We paid IDR 25,000 but we definitely paid too much. I think you should be paying a maximum of IDR 15,000 for this trip. From Sempati Star offices, book a bus for around IDR 200,000 – 250,000 (depending on the bus and seat type) to Banda Aceh. When you arrive in Banda Aceh the following morning, take a taxi or tuk tuk to the ferry terminal (IDR 40,000 for the taxi). From the ferry terminal, take the fast boat (45min IDR 80,000) or slow boat (1h30m) to Pulau Weh. We stayed at Iboih beach and a seat in a shared taxi cost IDR 50,000 and takes about 1 hour to get there.
Now, very important to note. Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh follow Sharia law. You need to be very mindful of what attire is appropriate, especially in Banda Aceh.
🚹Men should wear long pants or shorts that cover the knees and a t-shirt or shirt. No tanktops and short shorts.
🚺Women should wear attire covering down to their wrists and ankles and up to their necks. No bikinis or hot pants.
On Pulau Weh, the rules for foreigners are relaxed. I wore tanktops and swimming shorts and Celeste usually wore a sarong and a tanktop. Be mindful of the signage at the beaches and public places. Most public beaches forbid swimwear.
🏢 Tip: We stayed at Pele’s Place for the duration of our stay. The bungalows all have aircon and are very comfortable and affordable. It is about a 5 to 10 minute walk from the bungalows down to Iboih beach. You can also rent scooters at the accommodation.
We didn’t have much free time to ourselves to explore during our stay on the island as we had signed ourselves up for our PADI Open Waters course. The course took 4 days to complete and included theory and practical (4 dives).
If you are planning on doing your diving course abroad, we highly recommend doing it through the Iboih Dive Centre. The instructors are great and the cost of the course is the best we have seen. It was much cheaper than doing it on the Thai islands.
On our last day on Pulau Weh, we had some free time to explore and relax. We were both aching for some beach time. We had heard rumors of a secret beach and decided to set off and find it. A short scooter ride through the island, we found what we believed to be the start of the pathway that would lead us down to the beach. As we descended down the jungle-seranaded path, we saw it. White sands. Crystal clear blue waters shimmering in our eyes. Not one other soul on the beach. We had just arrived on our own private paradise beach. The sand was as soft as powder and the water was warm yet still refreshing. The beach was lined with tall jungle flora. We both agreed that this was by far the most beautiful tropical beach we had ever been on.
After a month and 1 week of travelling through Indonesia, it was finally time to pack our bags and say goodbye. Pulau Weh was definitely the perfect place to end our Indonesia chapter. We came, we saw, we conquered. Thanks Indonesia. We hope our paths cross again.
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