In a world where we travel more and more, off-the-beaten-path experiences are becoming harder and harder to come by. Until you visit Sumatra.
It starts just as you board your connecting flight. You suddenly realise that you are one of perhaps two travellers there. It’s a humbling experience, that is, of course, always met with the Indonesian hospitable smile. Then you get off the plane and you realise that other traveller is actually married into an Indonesian family and suddenly, just like that, it’s only you.
As exciting as it is, off-the-beaten-path also means difficult to navigate. Here, I’ll share my experiences, my tips and tricks for travelling in Sumatra from my time in Medan and Bukit Lawang.
Do Your Research – Lots of it
While more frequently visited places like Bukit Lawang are well-facilitated and ready for travellers, even the most seasoned traveller will have to be prepared to do a little research before arriving in Sumatra’s capital, Medan.
Navigating the country is not easy; to enjoy your trip to its fullest, you’re going to have to spend hours trawling websites to work out how to get to A-to-B and where to go from there. Sumatra is the sort of place where, unless you have months to play with, you will need to plan exactly where you go and what you want to do before you land.
Transport in Sumatra
There are two options for travelling in Suamtra;
Private transfer in Sumatra
If you have a good budget, organising a driver to take you to your destination is easy. There are numerous private transfer services available across the country. From Medan to Padang and Lampung, you can rent services to escort you everywhere, taking the stress out of travelling, but not without an impressive price tag.
To really get stuck into Sumatran life, if you are on a budget, it is possible to use the local buses that will get you to multiple destinations for much less.
Taking the bus from Medan to Bukit Lawang does not come highly recommended, however, as my travel time was a little out of season, I believe I got lucky. The bus takes around 5 hours, break downs aside.
The local bus journeys leaving from Medan are known for its aggressive touts who take the form of drug addicts looking for a fix. I was stern and knew how much I was willing to give them, which was 50 IDK as opposed to 20; the actual price. He knew he was not going to win, and promptly left. One of the ticket men reluctantly remembered me on my journey back and gave the ticket to me for 50 IDK without question.
Local buses in Sumatra can be very crowded, you’ll quickly be knee to knee with locals and meet some people who want to laugh with you.
Accommodation in Sumatra
Booking hostels and guesthouses is about the only thing I plan in advance on my trip.
Depending on where you are staying, you may find that accommodation options are limited. I stayed in a capsule inn in Medan that was not quite as cool as I thought it would be. The accommodation was very basic, and an interesting experience that did not appear to be very Sumatran but it was one of the few options I found.
In more popular areas, there are endless options of beautiful, locally-run guesthouses with basic private rooms that offer everything you could ask for. In Bukit Lawang I stayed in the Rainforest Guesthouse, where the family were more than accommodating, and even picked me up from the bus station.
Booking Tours in Sumatra
I will be honest and say I made a mistake with this one, but I’m here to help you not do the same!
Tourism in Sumatra is very much a local economy, however, with the slow growing popularity of places, such as Bukit Lawang, comes better marketing strategies and the money to put into it. I was made aware of this, as I had booked my tour beforehand and fell into that marketing pool.
While I really enjoyed my trekking tour, there are more local experiences to be had from booking when you are there. I actually felt bed, despite knowing that I did not know any better.
With this in mind, I think it reasonable and democratic to book the tours on the ground and make this decision for yourself.
Take All of This Research with a Pinch of Salt
The biggest takeaway I got from my research for my trip and my actual experience, is that Sumatra is not a scary place to travel. There are many stories of bad experiences, however, throughout my travels, there was rarely a time when I did not feel safe or unwelcome. Again, perhaps I was lucky.
Sumatran people are warm, friendly and helpful. As long as you dressed appropriately in local areas, you will be treated with respect.
In more tourist-orientated areas, you will find that you can tone down the conservative dress a little and you will still be welcomed by people who are eager to make new friends, and play music together.
How to Be Respectful in Sumatra
Sumatra is a predominantly Muslim country, and you are expected to dress appropriately, this means shoulders and knees covered, and women should not wear low-cut tops.
In Sumatra, a smile goes a long way, in fact, it is the main way of communicating your respect in the country. As a naturally smiley person who was excited to be in nature, this part of the culture suited me very well.
In local parts of the country, people eat with their right hand, and right hand only. The left hand is only used for wiping your bum. Being seen touching your face, or anything for that matter, with your left hand is considered dirty. As a left-handed person, this was difficult one!
Take Your Time and Be Prepared to Take Lots
The best way to explain Sumatran time is a little anecdote I have from Bukit Lawang.
I was looking to go into the village to print my visa to return to Vietnam. I asked around, and everyone told me to go to the bicak (tuk-tuk) station. Some people offered me a lift, we laughed, joked and they said they were going soon. I said okay, dubious but I knew they were being genuine.
I was invited to sit on the couch; they all kick back, 10 minutes later, 20 minutes later, we are still not going. I had to politely decline as I needed to work. One hour later, I walk past, they still have not left. This is Indonesian (we can generalise and go as far as Southeast Asian) time, whenever you estimate how long something will take, double it. Life is too short to go so fast all the time. This is life in Sumatra.
Try All the Food in Sumatra, and Have Medication to Do So
Indonesian food is rich, flavoursome, fresh and spicy – you try as much of it as you can when travelling around the country.
While the more popular tourist areas have put less spice, and arguably, less flavour in their dishes, you can still find authentic Indonesian food around.
I was very shocked to find many good vegetarian restaurants around my hostel in Medan, and I tried all of them. The food was so food! However, I quickly felt my stomach turning after the first day – Bali belly is not just in Bali!
This can be for many reasons. I am lucky to have developed an iron stomach while living in Asia, so a charcoal tablet a day will keep my stomach at bay!
Basic travel essentials I carry when I travel to eat all the food:
- Charcoal tablets
- Vitamin C
There is also a magical elixir called “Flying White Rabbit” from Thailand which has cured most of my stomach problems very quickly, to have an enjoyable trip in Sumatra, I highly recommend sourcing this.
This is just the beginning of Travelling in Sumatra
Having hung out with locals who had travelled around Sumatra and spoken to long-term travellers making their way through the island, I left Sumatra dying to return to the simpler jungle life and to see what else is store.
Sumatra is home to some of the oldest tattooing culture in the world, paradise islands, volcanoes, lakes and amazing surfing spots that make all adventure-lovers eyes light up.
If you have any questions about Sumatra, please get in touch!
Where do you want to travel to in Sumatra? Let me know in the comments!