Sumatra is an huge Indonesian island southwest of Southeast Asia and east of Java. Situated just a few miles across the important Straits of Malacca from Singapore and Malaysia, it is covered by mountains and plateaus in the west and wide, flat, swampy lowlands and brown meandering rivers in the east. Sumatra remains a wild place with some stunning scenery and beautiful places despite undergoing rapid development in recent decades. Even though vast tracts of lowland forest have been cleared, large areas of forests till remain in the highlands. Some of the highest concentrations of large animals in Asia are found in Sumatra's mountain parks. Offshore are islands with some of the world’s best surfing spots

Sumatra is the world’s fifth largest island, covering 473,605 square kilometers. Nearly bisected by the equator, it is 1,100 miles long and accounts for 24.7 percent of Indonesia's land area. A long chain of mountains—the Bukit Barisan—run northwest-southeast and parallel to the west coast of the island. There are around 100 volcanos on the island, with 15 or so of them active ones. Many are over 3000 meters. The highest mountain in Indonesia outside Papua is the 3805-meter-high Sumatran volcano Gunung Kerinci.

Sumatra island is rich in resources and has large oil and gas deposits and huge rubber and palm oil plantations. At one time it generated 70 percent of Indonesia’s export income. Three quarters of Indonesia’s oil is extracted from oil fields around the Sumatran towns of Jambi, Palembang, and Pekanbaru. Lhokseumawe on the east cast of Aceh is the center of Indonesia’s natural gas industry. Timber as also an important industry as the deforestation figures for the island attest. Pepper has traditionally been an important crop. Tea, coffee, cocoa beans and tobacco are also grown.

The rainy season and dry seasons are not very distinct in northern Sumatra. The wet season runs from September to December. The hot, dry season is from May to August. In Medan the wettest months are October, November and December. The driest months are February, March and April but there isn’t that much difference between the wet months and the dry months. In southern Sumatra the rains start in November and reach their peak in January and February. The west coast of Sumatra is very wet, some places get above 400 centimeters of rain a year. Straddling the equator, Sumatra is very hot throughout the year. Fortunately the places visited by tourist tend to be in the highlands, where the climate is noticeably cooler, or near the oceans, which is tempered by sea breezes.

Sumatra is Indonesia’s second most populous province. It is home to 50 million people, about 20 percent of Indonesia’s population, but is much less densely populated than Java or Bali. Although its is almost four times the size of Java it has less than a quarter of its population, The highest concentration of people are west of Medan on the northeast coast. Important ethnic groups include the Acehnese and Gayo-Alas, who live in the northern part of Sumatra; the Batak who live around Lake Toba; the Minangkabau, who live in western Sumatra; Malays, who dominate the east, across the Straits of Malacca from Malaysia. The Ogan-Besemah live in the south.

Places of note include Lake Toba, a beautiful volcanic lake in the north; Padang, central Sumatra's largest city and center of the Minangkabau people (a matriarchal society); Palembang, site of a refinery and large oil installations; and an elephant training center near Lampung in southern Sumatra. Most places are visited using minibuses or cars with a driver. Many roads are either dangerously congested or in poor conditions and traffic accidents are real danger. In the 1950s there was some discussion about making Sumatra a separate country but obviously not much came of it. Although nearly all of the approximately 20 ethnic groups of Sumatra are Muslim, their level of piety varies with the Acehnese arguably being the most devout and their cultures and customs, particularly their family structures, also vary greatly. About 90 percent of Sumatrans are Muslim. The rest are mostly Christians — Protestants and Catholics — and some Hindus and Buddhists. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a 2001 U.S. State Department report]

Early History of Sumatra

Much of Sumatra has traditionally been historically, culturally and economically linked to the Malay peninsula not Java. Sumatra was a source of cloves, camphor and sandalwood in ancient times. Sumatra is believed to have been the site Sinbad’s run in with cannibals. Marco Polo stopped in Belawan, Sumatra on his sea journey from China to Venice in 1291-95. The name Sumatra is derived from 12th century port of Sumudra. Sumudra means “ocean” in Sankrit

The remains of the first people in Sumatra date back to 13,000 years ago. The remains appear to have come from hunter-gatherers who lived along the north coast of Sumatra on the Melaka Straight across from now a day Malaysia. There has not been any significant discovery of human remains in the rest of Sumatra up until 2000 years ago when people settled in the Western Sumatra highlands. The first Kingdom to control all of Sumatra was in the 7th Century when the Kingdom of Sriwijaya took power. The Kingdom was based close to current day Palembang. The Kingdom took control of the Straits of Melaka, which at the time, was a major trade route between India and China. [Source:]

Recorded accounts of Sumatra date back to the period of trade by Baghdad merchants with India and China, by way of Southeast Asia. Suleyman (A.D. 851) first wrote about the island and described it as containing “an abundance of gold. The inhabitants live off the fruit of the coconut tree, from which they make palm wine, and cover their bodies with coconut oil. When someone wants to get married, he must bring the head of an enemy. If he has killed two enemies, he may take two wives. If he has killed fifty enemies, he may take fifty wives.” Other early accounts of Sumatra include “The Book of Indian Wonders” (“Kitab adaib al-Hind”), dated to the year 950; the writings of the famous geographer Edrisi (1154); a description of cannibals inhabiting the island by Kazwini (1203 — 1283); accounts by Rasid Ad-Din (1310); and descriptions of a large island city by Ibn Al-Wardi (1340). [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia”, Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171]

During the 11th Century, Sriwijaya controlled a large part of South East Asia including the Malay Peninsula, Southern Thailand and Cambodia. In 1025 the Sriwijayan were conquered by King Ravendra Choladewa from Southern India. The power of Sriwijaya soon becom in control of the Kingdown of Malayu. In 1278 Sumatra was taken control by the Javanese. The Sumatran power houses relocated their positions to the northern most point of Sumatra - current day Aceh. At this time a lot of Sumatrans were animist. They began trading with the Muslim traders of West India (Gujarat) and soon adopted their religion. These traders were the first to give Sumatra it's name. Soon Islamic Sultanates were setup around the northern region and given control of the sea ports servicing the Straits of Melaka. [Source:]

After the Portuguese occupied Melaka, Aceh became the primary power base in Sumatra. The Aceh sultanate eventually claimed most of northern Sumatra and some regions of the Malay peninsula too. The Aceh remained the dominant power n the region until the 17th century when the Dutch began making its first moves into the region. The Dutch based themselves in the western port of Padang and didn’t venture far from there until the 19th century when they launched a serious effort to take over the whole island and were able to claim most of Sumatra with the exception of the Aceh region in the 1860s.

Later History of Sumatra

The Dutch turned parts of Sumatra into rich agricultural areas with tobacco being one of the important cash crops. There was resistance against the Dutch. It wasn't uncommon for a Sumatran villagers to burn their own village the ground and move somewhere else to prevent the Dutch from taking their village. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Indonesia, including Sumatra, from 1942 to 1945. There are caves close to Bukkittinggi that were built by the occupying Japanese army as well as some remains of Japanese bunkers on Pulah Weh off the coast of Banda Aceh in the north.

Indonesia gained independence after Japan's surrender to the United States., but it required four years of intermittent negotiations, recurring hostilities, and UN mediation before the Netherlands agreed to relinquish its colony. Sumatra experienced it share of violence during the struggle for independence and afterwards.The capital of Sumatra, Medan means battlefield. Large numbers of people from Java and China were brought in to work on this plantation as well as others that sprung up after it was discovered that tobacco grew so well here. Over 300,000 Chinese were brought to Medan between 1870 and 1930.

One of Sumtara’s greatest achievements within Indonesia is the naming of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language not Javanese. Eric Musa Pilaing wrote in the Jakarta Post, “We Sumatrans won the language war back in 1928 when the Javanese, the largest cultural group in what is now Indonesia, agreed to use Malay as the root for Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. That's a huge concession on their part that no amount of "Javanization" of our local cultures can ever match...“My sorry excuse for not wearing batik is that to me it is just another form of Javanese cultural domination that we other ethnic groups in Indonesia have had to endure. They already dominate the nation through the sheer size of their numbers, especially among the ruling elite. Their culture permeates our lives, and batik is just another part of this.” [Source: Eric Musa Pilaing, Jakarta Post, November 23, 2008]

Travel in Sumatra

Most foreign visitors arrive by in Medan by plan from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Penang r by high speed catamaran from, Penang. Most of northern Sumatra’s attractions are accessible form Medan. Another strategy is tale a boat from Singapore to Batam in the Riau Islands and then fly from Batam on a cheap flight to Medan. Medan and the other cities. Sumatra are well connected to the rest of Indonesia by Indonesia’s legion of upstart airlines.

Travelers to Sumatra usually spend the bulk of their time in northern Sumatra and speed through southern Sumatra or skip it all together on their way to Java or do the same thing in reverse. Most travelers to Sumatra follow the same route, generally starting in Medan and stopping in Bukit Lawang, Berastagi, Danai Toba, Nias, Bukittinggi, Penang and then Java.

These days travelers generally traverse the short distanced by bus and the long distance by plane. There are cheap flights between most of Sumatra’s cities and travel is much easier than the old days when some people took buses that took three weeks to traverse Sumatra in the wet season when travel was slowed by flooded rivers and massive potholes and ruts.. Bus travel is better than it sed yo be but there are sill some bone-rattingly-nasty sections of road. The main higwaus os the Trans-Sumatran Highway which traverse the lenth of Sumatra from orth to south

Strait of Malacca

The Strait of Malacca is a narrow strait of water that divides the Indonesian island of Sumatra from Malaysia and Singapore. It is also one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The 890-kilometer-long waterway carries one third of the world’s trade and one half of the world’s oil supply. Carrying more ships everyday than the Panama and Suez Canals combined, its strategic importance can not be underestimated. The strait doesn't lie in international waters but is located in the territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore and these countries are responsible for patrolling it.

More than 60,000 ships — equal to half the world's merchant fleet — carrying half the world's oil and 40 percent of its commerce pass through the Malacca Strait. The ship range from mammoth supertankers as large as city skyscrapers to tugs and barges. Lots of tankers going between the Persian Gulf and East Asia pass through the strait. As parts of the strait are only one kilometer wide ships have to sail at low speed.

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: For centuries, this sliver of ocean has captivated seamen, offering the most direct route between India and China, along with a bounty of resources, including spices, rubber, mahogany, and tin. But it is a watery kingdom unto itself, harboring hundreds of rivers that feed into the channel, miles of swampy shoreline, and a vast constellation of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals. Its early inhabitants learned to lead amphibian lives, building their villages over water and devising specialized boats for fishing, trading, and warfare. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

Patrick Winn wrote in Global Post, “The Strait of Malacca is a natural paradise for seafaring bandits. Imagine an aquatic highway flowing between two marshy coasts. One shoreline belongs to Malaysia, the other to Indonesia. Each offers a maze of jungly hideaways: inlets and coves that favor pirates’ stealth vessels over slow, hulking ships. It's a narrow route running 550 miles, roughly the distance between Miami and Jamaica. This bottleneck is plied by one-third of the world's shipping trade. That's 50,000 ships per year — ferrying everything from iPads to Reeboks to half the planet's oil exports. Avoiding pirates by traveling fast is “practically impossible in the Strait of Malacca. The channel is simply too crowded and too shallow. Gigantic vessels are instead forced to churn through at slow speeds that invite pirates in fast-moving skiffs. (To save fuel, today's cargo ships often travel at about 14 miles per hour. That's slower than 19th-century sail boats.) [Source: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, March 27, 2014]

History of the Strait of Malacca

At least since the A.D. 1st century, islands in the straits of Malacca, were used as holding area for Indian and Chinese trading ships to find shelter and wait out typhoons that raged in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Marco Polo briefly described his passage through the strait and a stop at what is thought to be present-day Bintan island. Beginning in the 16th century, Europeans — first the Portuguese, then Dutch and the British — arrived in the area and, realizing the strait’s importance, fought each other and the local sultanates as well as the Malay and Bugis mariners in these waters for control over the strategic shipping channel.

In the 18th century the Strait of Malacca was part of the Malay Peninsula and ruled by the Johor-Riau Sultanate, whose seat alternated between Johor — in present day Malaysia - and Bintan Island, in present day Indonesia. In 1884 the British and the Dutch closed their differences over the strait, its islands and land on either side of it with the signing of the Treaty of London, by which all territories north of Singapore were given suzerainity to the British, while territories south of Singapore were ceded to Dutch powers.

After that Singapore grew and prospered, while the areas the control of the Dutch, who concentrated their efforts in present-day Jakarta and Java, neglected the area. In recent decades, cordial relations between Indonesia and Singapore have led to development on the Indonesian side of the strait, particularlyin the Riau islands, where a Free Trade Zone was set up on the Batam, Bintan and Karimun islands.

Piracy in the Strait of Malacca

The Malacca Strait has a long history of piracy. Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “Armadas of these skilled sea raiders in light, maneuverable craft regularly plundered passing ships and retreated upriver to fortified villages. Their raids yielded troves of gold, gems, gunpowder, opium, and slaves, which they used to build powerful sultanates that dominated much of the Sumatran and Malaysian coastlines. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“Sailors chronicled the horrors they faced in the strait and nearby waters. One 19th-century episode involved the capture of British Captain James Ross. Believing his ship held a stash of silver coins, lanun forced him to watch as his young son was lashed to an anchor and drowned. Then they cut off Ross's fingers joint by joint. [Ibid]

“European colonizers and their navies brought the sultanates under control in the late 1800s, but the lanun were never eradicated. The 21st-century inheritors of their tradition continue to hunt these waters, mainly in three incarnations: gangs that board vessels to rob the crews; multinational syndicates that steal entire ships; and guerrilla groups that kidnap seamen for ransom. [Ibid]

Today, The Strait of Malacca is known as one of the world's piracy hotspots. Between 2001 and 2007, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has recorded 258 pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, including more than 200 sailors held hostage and 8 killed. More than $1 million in ransom was paid in 2005 by owners of ships transiting the passageway, statistics show. According to the International Maritime Bureau, of 325 pirate attacks that took place in 2004, 37 were in the Malacca Strait. Indonesia was a victim of the largest number of pirate attacks, with 93 occurring in its territorial waters. Because ships travel at low speeds they are easy targets for pirates.

By 2005, pirate attacks in the Straits were happening almost weekly and Lloyds of London began classifying the waters as a war zone. In 2005, the insurer Lloyds of London included the Malacca Strait on the list of the world's 20 most dangerous waterways. It also raised its rates for insuring ships that traveled through the strait, and said that piracy attacks will be classifdied as a war risk rather than a maritime risk, citing its "war, strikes, terrorism and related perils." The advisory was lifted this year after Singapore and Indonesia began coordinated air and sea patrols. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “The strait's geography makes it nearly unsecurable. It passes between Malaysia and Indonesia, known for thorny relations, further complicating the security picture. Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide at its northern mouth, the strait funnels down to about ten miles (16 kilometers) across near its southern end and is dotted with hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands, offering endless hideouts to all manner of criminals. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

For a while the waters around Somalia were the biggest piracy hot spot but as piracy has slacked off there in recent years it has picked up again in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea. There are also worries that a terrorist attack might occur there. Reuters reported: “The strait is only 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point, which creates a natural bottleneck and makes it vulnerable to terrorist attack. Middle East crude accounts for 90 percent of Japan's imports, while up to 80 percent of China's oil imports and 30 percent of its iron ore imports pass through the Strait of Malacca.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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