North Sumatra is rich wildlife and scenery and is the primary destination of travelers visiting Sumatra. The Bukit Barisan mountains are a string of volcanos. In between the peaks are several lakes, the most famous of which is Lake Toba, the biggest lake in Southeast Asia formed around 75,000 years ago in most catastrophic volcanic eruptions known. Volcanoes like still smouldering Mt Sibayak dominate the landscape

There are many waterfalls, streams, rivers and superb surfing waves. In the lush rain forests if one looks hard enough one can find giant butterflies, enormous stinking flowers, orangutans, elephants and elusive tigers and rhinoceros and maybe even a Big-Foot-like creature (the Orang Pendek). Animals like deer, flying foxes and wild pigs are more common. The jungle of Bukit Lawang is a famous orangutan viewing area.

The province is rich in oil and natural gas and also produce large amounts of palm oil, rubber and tea, The Medan area is known for it fine tobaccos. Among the ancient cultural sites which can be seen are the tombs of the Batak Toba kings, located on Samosir island, and famous stone tables of the Siallagan chiefs.

Sumatran food is known for being spicy and North Sumatra conforms to this norm. In Medan and other places try local dishes like Chicken Rice, and Medan Kweetiaow. Most of these dishes are influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian culture. Unusual dishes have ingredients like dog, congealed blood and pig and marijuana. You can easily find those in certain restaurants, just ask around. At markets like Berastagi, sample the exotic fruits. A glass of marquisa syrup will quench your thirst, and it can be consumed hot or cold.

People of North Sumatra

About 13 million people live in North Sumatra. The people of North Sumatra have a reputation for being warm and hospitable. The people of North Sumatra are be divided into five main ethnic groups and languages: 1) The Malays, 2) the Bataks, 3) the Angkola, 4) Mandailing and 5) the Nias Islanders, These groups each have their own dialects, religious beliefs, arts, custom and cultures. Several other ethnic groups also live in Medan and other towns of North Sumatra, the largest of these being Chinese and Indian. In the capital city of Medan there are ethnic groups from all over Sumatra and Indonesia who’ve come to the city to do business. The city is also home to a sizeable Chinese and Indian population.

Malays live along the east coast, along the Strait of Malacca. In the highlands around Lake Toba the Batak, Pak Pak, Toba and Kaonese people make their home. The Nias tribe lives on the island of Nias off the western coast of the province and the Angkolas and Mandailings live in Tapanuli and the southern part of the province. To the north in North Sumatra Province is province of Aceh are the Acehnese, a fiercely independent people that formed one of Indonesia’s early states, survived a long civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami, and now live under Sharia (Islamic law).

One of the most interesting ethnic groups is the Batak. Living in a spectacularly beautiful part of North Sumatra around Lake Toba, they are divided into six cultures, each with their own language-dialect, ceremonies and traditions. Although geographically isolated, the Bataks have a history of regular contact with the outside world. Trade between the highlands and other regions saw the exchange of goods such as salt, cloth and iron which were imported into the region for gold, rice and cassia (a type of cinnamon).

Anthropologist RW Liddle has argued that prior to the 20th century there were no ethnic groups as coherent social units in northern Sumatra and social interaction in the area was limited to relationships between individuals, between groups of kin, or between villages. He argued there was almost no consciousness to be part of the larger social or political units. Others have suggested that the emergence of the Batak identity emerged in colonial times. In his dissertation J. Pardede argued that the term "Batak Land" and "people of Batak" was created by outsiders. Siti Omas Manurung, the wife of the son of a Toba Batak priest said that before the arrival of the Dutch, all good people Karo and Simalungun recognize him as Batak. There is a myth that Pusuk Buhit, one of the peaks in the west of Lake Toba, was the "birthplace" of the Batak people. [Source:]

Traveling in North Sumatra

The main airport in this region is Polonia Airport, Medan. There are daily flights between Medan and most major cities in Indonesia as well as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and a few other cities in Southeast Asia. Air Asia connects it with numerous places in the region. Other airlines that fly to Medan, most of them Indonesia based, are: Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, Batavia Air, Sriwijaya Air. Riau Airlines, Mandala Airlines, Merpati, Kartika Airlines

International flights also go directly to Medan. 1) Air Asia has flights from Thailand and Malaysia to Medan. 2) Lion Air has flights from Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam to Medan. 3) Garuda has flights from Thailand to Medan.

Regular buses which run to destinations throughout North Sumatra are available via Trans Sumatra. Bus station Jl. Sisingamangaraja Medan. Belawan seaport is the sea link to Penang, Malaysia. PELNI Lines, Jl. Krakatau 17A Phone. (061) 6622526 Train station PERUMKA, Jl. Stasiun 1 Medan Phone. (061) 514114

Further information about Sumatra tourism is available from the Sumatra Tourism Board. Tourism Office: Jl. Jend. A. Yani No.107, Medan. 20111, Tel. (061) 4538101, 4520559, 4524908 Fax. (061) 4528436 www.northsumatratourism


Medan is Indonesia’s third largest city, the largest city in Sumatra and the capital of North Sumatra Province. Home to 2.5 million people, it is a major port city across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia and as well as an important harbor and trading center. Boat service is available to Penang, and there are international flights from Medan to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore and Amsterdam as well as domestic flights to destinations inside Indonesia.

Medan is very noisy and dirty and has bad air pollution. It has some old Dutch buildings, sprawling slums and a relatively large Chinese population. The population of Medan is diverse. Citizens here represent virtually every ethnicity in Indonesia including Batak, Malay, Javanese, Minang, Acehnese, Indians and Chinese. By one estimate there are about 250,000 Chinese, 15,000 Indians, 200 Europeans, and 60 Americans living in Medan

Medan city is situated on a lush green plain, surrounded by rice paddies and palm trees. The Bukit Barisan mountain range, which runs the length of Sumatra, can be seen to the south. Only 82 feet above sea level, just north of the equator, Medan has a climate which is generally hot and humid. The heaviest rains fall from September through December most years.. The Western community recently has been decreasing in size due to Indonesianization of expatriate positions in the petroleum industry and a relocation of some of the remaining workers outside Medan.

According to “Cities of the World”: Medan is a sprawling city of kampungs (native Indonesian villages), with a crowded Chinese sector and an Indian (Tamil) district. Some areas with elegant old government office buildings, parks, and peaked tile-roofed houses reflect the early Dutch colonial heritage. A few tall buildings and new houses with modern curved roofs are springing up. Traffic is chaotic, with swarms of fume-spewing motorized becaks (pedicabs), motorcycles, bicycles, cars, buses, trucks, and jaywalking pedestrians. A one-way street system has helped traffic, but it makes the city a puzzle for the newcomer. Medan today is the largest banking and commercial community in Indonesia, next to Jakarta.”

History of Medan

Medan means battlefield. or arena. It was just a small village in the 16th century and slowly increased in population. By the beginning of the 20th century was an important trade center. Medan grew from around 77,000 people in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000. Today the population of Medan and the region is estimated at over 10 million.

In it’s earliest days, the area which is now Medan was home to a community of traders and seafarers, under the rule of Islamic Malay leaders. This was until the Acehnese finally conquered the area after years of battling in the early 17th century. During the period of conflict, the plains were used as a battlefield between the two kingdoms which is why Medan translates literally as field or battlefield.

The modern history of the area begins in the 1860s when entrepreneurs recognized the potential of the rich volcanic soil here and began plantation agriculture. In 1863 an adventurous Dutch entrepreneur Jacob Nienhuis introduced tobacco to the area and set up the first tobacco plantation, ushering in a new era of prosperity. This led to an influx of foreign investment and a steady stream of European capitalists. Crops of tobacco, rubber, oil palms, sisal and tea were all planted here. Thus from a small village, Medan grew into a prosperous colonial city.

In 1886 the Dutch made Medan capital of all of Sumatra. In 1910, this relatively new city moved to its present location, a few kilometers inland from the city of Belawan-Deli. By the end of Dutch rule the population had swelled to about 80,000. After independence in 1948, the population of Medan exploded and it is now the third largest city in Indonesia. Today the influence of Medan’s colonial plantation past is reflected in the European architecture of many of the cities biggest buildings. The Medan municipality still includes the port of Belawan, where rubber, palm oil, coffee, and tea are exported, and consumer and industrial goods are imported. It is Indonesia's largest port in value of exports.

Sights and Accommodation in Medan

There is generally little of interest to tourists. The Grand Mosque and the Palace of the Sultan of Deli are the most impressive buildings in the city. Most places of interest are around Jl Ahmad Yani, which runs north and south and changes its name several times. Perhaps the best thing that can be said for Medan is that it has a wide variety of cuisines to choose from. Live fruit bats are sold on the streets. Presumably to eat.

Many heritage buildings such as the city hall, post office, water tower (the icon of Medan), the Titi Gantung — a bridge above a railway, and the London Sumatera Building still maintain their original colonial Dutch architecture. Medan also offers various other attractions such as the palaces of Maimun and the Sultan of Deli, and Kampung Keling, the Sri Mariamman Temple, Medan’s Grand Mosque and many craft centers. Merdeka Walk is the first Tensile Structure (Alfresco Outdoor Concept) in Indonesia and the hottest place to hang out in Medan city with many choices of cafes and restaurants.

Medan is perhaps best known among travelers as the gateway to North Sumatra, with many flying into the city and then setting off for the cool highlands of Lake Toba, nearby volcanos, the Sumatran rain forests in search of orangutans, or to the surf havens of Nias Island. Flights to Aceh generally transit Medan. There are also buses to Aceh.

There is a selection of mid-range hotels and backpacker guest houses in Medan. In recent years, Medan has been adding some 700 rooms hotels of five-star standard. These include JW Marriott Medan, the Aryaduta and Aston City Hall Hotel & ResidencesFurther information about visiting Medan is available at the Medanku website.

Shopping, Restaurants and Entertainment in Medan

Medan has the shopping facilities of any big city including many malls. If you’re after more specialist items then Jl Yani has a collection of antique shops which sell all kinds of Batak, Acehneses, Minang and Javanese antiquities. For clothes try Monginsidi Plaza or ‘Monza’ as the locals say. This collection of vendors has mostly Indonesian sized garments but even if you’re larger you can still enjoy browsing at how the local people keep themselves well dressed. If you do purchase something remember to haggle. Also, keep a close eye on your belongings. Medan is known for it’s experienced pickpockets.

In Medan’s Chinatown around Jl Sutomo you will find everything from heavy machinery to toiletries. Make sure you keep an eye on your things though as pickpockets are common. Medan is famous for producing some of the best bika ambon in Indonesia. This is a delicious cake made of rice flour. Visit Jalan Majapahit for the best selection bika ambon and marquisa syrup. These make great gifts for family back home.

Food in Medan, like most of the food found throughout Sumatra, is hot and spicy. But this city is so big that even if you don’t like spicy food you should still be able to find something to satisfy your appetite. From cheap warrungs on the side of the road serving local Indonesian fare, to Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants, Medan has a wide variety of cuisine. Chinese restaurants are the most popular with foreigners. International class hotels offer reasonably good European food.

On the colonial main street Jalan Jenderal Ahmad Yani, the famous Café Tip Top in an original building is a lovely spot to sit and nibble on some Dutch style cookies and watch the world go by. Check out Merdeka Walk. This the first Tensile Structure (Alfresco Outdoor Concept) in Indonesia and the hottest place to hang out in Medan city with many choices of cafes and restaurants

Medan is filled with street vendors offering a great variety of traditional cuisine. While these places may not look fancy, they serve cheap and tasty local food that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. Check out the popular food street of Jalan Selat Panjang which comes alive at night with vendors cooking up a storm for the hungry crowds.

Durian is popular all over Indonesia and nowhere more so than in Medan. This thorny fruit, with it’s very distinctive taste and smell, is available cheaply all over the city. Sit with the locals at a street stall and munch on some durian. If the taste is too strong for you, you might want to try a durian pancake instead. Snack on dried fruits with sugar which you’ll find in Pasar Rame, a famous market that lasts from morning till afternoon, located beside Thamrin Plaza.

Entertainment is limited in the Medan area. The city's movie theaters rarely offer English-language films but few Americans patronize them. Chinese, Kung Fu movies and Indian films are standard local fare. Medan has a cultural center complex, but presentations are infrequent. Several nightclubs are open, but Americans and Europeans rarely patronize them.

Getting To and Around Medan

In Medan you can choose from public bus, taxi or becak to get around. The local minibuses or sudako are basic and cheap. Only use these if you have a bit of bahasa Indonesian up your sleeve as they can be difficult to navigate otherwise. The noisy becak is a tiny two stroke engine vehicle which is a cheap, though often nerve racking way to get around. Decide on a price with the driver before you get in. Taxi’s are a cheap and convenient way to get around. Make sure you use a metered cab or if not, agree on your destination and price before getting in.

Taxi companies operating in Medan include:
Bengawan Taxi, Jl. Bandung 49-50, Tel. (061) 456 5527
Cantik Taxi, Jl. Semarang 44, Tel. (061) 414 4632
Delta Taxi, Jl. Bahagia By Pass 6, Tel. (061) 787 8444
Eka Taxi, Jl. Eka Prasetyo 5, Tel. (061) 844 6666; 846 8900
Inda Taxi, Jl. Brigjen katamso 60 B, Tel. (061) 451 8815; 451 6615
Karsa Taxi, Jl. Alfalah 7, Tel. (061) 787 4848
Limo Express, Jl. Graha Niaga Blok A/3, Tel. (061) 451 4603; 455 2211

Polonia International Airport in Medan has daily flights to all major cities in Indonesia as well as international destinations including Singapore and Malaysia. Airlines that fly to Medan are: Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, Air Asia, Batavia Air, Sriwijaya Air, Riau Airlines, Mandala Airlines, Merpati, Kartika Airlines. Foreign travelers can get a visa for Indonesia when they fly into Medan.

You can get to Medan by boat from Penang (Malaysia). Cruise ships also operate cruises between Medan and Jakarta For those with time on their hands and don’t mind adventurous travel, there is a bus which travels overland from Jakarta to Medan. Buses and minibuses service destinations all over Sumatra. It is possible to make arrangements for a car driver right at the airport, with a brief trip into Medan.

Near Medan

Near Medan is the largest crocodile Farm in Indonesia where you can see crocodile eggs hatched for crocodiles grown elsewhere. There are 2000 crocodiles here Many are piled on top each other in a single depressing small concrete enclosures. The place is called Asam Kumbang Crocodile Farm.

90-kilometer-long Lake Toba is about 180 kilometers from Medan in the mountains to southwest. It is lovely place is dominated by the Island of Samosir. The elevation at the water's edge is about 1000 meters. Mountain peaks rise along the shore. Sight-seeing tours to Samosir Island and the Batak villages can be made by boat. There are several hotels in the tiny town of Prapat that offer reasonable food and lodging. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a 2001 U.S. State Department report]

About one-and-a-half hours southwest of Medan, through tropical forests and up a series of hairpin curves, is the highland area of Berastagi. At an altitude of 5,000 feet, the weather is even cooler than at Lake Toba. Live volcanos afford striking scenery. Golf, horseback riding, and hiking are possible.Roads are slowly improving in northern Sumatra, but travel to more remote areas usually requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Moera Takoes is an abandoned ruined temple in northern Sumatra built to honor the Hindu elephant-headed god Gannesh. According to legend on some summer full moon elephants come to the temple to congregate and get drunk on fermented fruit handing from durian trees there,

Pamatang Siantar (130 kilometers south of Medan) is the second largest city in North Sumatra. This city, which is surrounded by rubber, cocoa, palm oil and tea plantations, is the richest part of the province. The route from here to Lake Toba is covered with thick forests, terraced rice fields and blue and green mountains.

Karo Highlands

Karo Highlands (95 kilometers from Medan) is a beautiful area with a relatively cool climate and many trekking opportunities. The two primary destinations are the two volcanos: smoking 2094-meter-high Gunung Sibayak to the north and Gunung Sinabung to the west. The hike up Gunung Sibayak is very popular. There are three main routes up. The easiest and s hortest way takes about three hours to traverse the 7 kilometer distance. The climb up Gunung Sinabung takes six hours up and six hours back. Guides are recommended because it is easy to get lost. One traveler died in a fall after getting lost in bad weather,

The Karo region is home to the Karo group of the Batak people. Research on Karo traditions by JH Neumann, based on transcriptions of oral literature and a history written in local script on the origin of the clan Kembaren Pagaruyung in Minangkabau suggests that the Karo existed as far back as the 14th century based on the number of Karo surnames derived from Tamil language. Tamil people were major traders on Sumatra until the 14th century when they were driven out by the Minangkabau. [Source:]

Other sights in the the Karo Highlands area include Air Terjun Sipiso-Piso, a 120-meter-high waterfall; and the traditional Karo Batak villages of Linga, Dokkan and Cinges, with traditional horned-roof houses. The Karo highlands town of Tongkeh has a zoological museum decorated with Karo ornaments.

Berastagi: Center of the Karo Highlands

Berastagi (70 kilometers and 2½ hours by bus from Medan on the way to Lake Toba) is the main the Karo highlands town. It is a dirty, unpleasant place but is surrounded by plantations for flowers and different kinds of fruit, the most famous of which is the 'Marquisa " passion fruit. Located at an elevation of 1,450 meters (4,500 feet), this town has a wonderful, cool climate. It is the primary base for trekking in the area. The volcano treks are good. Thee treks through Gunung Leuser to Bukit Lawang are largely through deforested and secondary growth areas. Kampung Peceen is a village near Berastagi with traditional Karo houses.

In Berastagi (also spelled Brastagi) the temperatures average between 17 and 20 degrees Centigrade. Days are pleasant but nights can be quite cool so Since the weather is quite cool, it is advisable to bring a sweater or jacket.. The town was developed in the 1920s as Dutch hill station and today has become a popular weekend destination for Medan residents. Mt. Sinabung and Mt.Sibayak are visible from the town. On the western edge of the town, Gunaling Hill rises above the surrounding plateau to provide some spectacular views of these two towering volcanoes.

Berastagi is famous for its flowers, vegetables and fruits and its markets are filled with them Sweet oranges are another delicious specialty. Among the Berastagi's produce exported to Singapore and Malaysia are cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, red chili, and eggplant. At the markets you will catch glimpses of traditional Karo life and everything from jungle miracle cures to second hand shoes on sale.

There are pleasant colonial-style hotels with golf courses in this area, especially at Gundaling Hills. There are also several inns nearby in Berastagi. The wide main street of the town is filled with restaurants and hotels, souvenir shops, and the central market attracts farmers from all over the area. You can buy souvenirs here such as Batak Ulos-hand woven cloth from Medan, rattan plaitwork, hand-printed batik, paintings, carvings as well as some delicious Marquisa fruits to bring home with you. It’s best to avoid here coming on a Sunday as many day trippers from Medan come to Berastagi to climb Mt. Sibayak

Berastagi is a small town with one main street so you can explore it easily on foot or using public transport. Opelet — local public mini van buses — operate to the surrounding villages and are run from the bus terminal. For more flexibility, you can rent a motorbike from Villa Flores Restaurant or other rentals you can find around the town. Try getting around the traditional way by taking a leisurely ride in a horse carriage called a "sado".

Just like in any other region in Sumatra, Berastagi restaurants serve spicy food. Popular local dishes include Chicken Rice and Medan KweTyaow. If you're not interested in something quite so spicy, Berastagi also has many restaurants offering Western cuisine, As this is an agricultural town, the produce here is fresh and delicious. Along Jl Veteran there are a variety of food stalls. Some of the local fruits are made into tasy drinks, desserts, candies and snacks. There are three markets: the picturesque general market, which takes place five times a week (not Wed or Sun) behind the bus station; the daily fruit market, which also sells souvenirs, to the west of the roundabout; and the Sunday market, which takes place every other week on top of Gundaling Hill and attracts such novelty acts as the teeth-pulling man (Rp200 per tooth) and the snake charmer.

From Polonia-Medan International Airport, you can hail a cab or take a bus to Berastagi. You can also catch minibus, bus or hire a car with a driver in Medan. From Medan the journey will take around two hours. Outside Berastagi you can find thick pine forests, soothing hot springs and traditional villages. You will find some fine examples of traditional Karo Batak architecture in the villages around Berastagi. The best known is Lingga Village, 15 kilometers from Berastagi. In Lingga you will find about a dozen traditional Karo houses with their distinctive horned roofs. There are regular opelet to Lingga from Kabanjahe. From Berastagi you can get an opelet from the bus terminal to Kabanjahe. At Berastagi ask at a guesthouse for advice on arranging a guide who will be able to give a cultural overview of the Karo people.

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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