So we went to Sumatra. We had heard mixed reviews, one from a backpacker (negative) and one from friends who had gone to Lake Toba on holiday. We figured we should still chance it and see as it was so close. Our plan was to fly to Medan then go to Bukit Lawang, Bergstagi and finally Lake Toba (which looked really cool).
The wildfires however were still raging and as we made our descent in Medan, the smell of burning once we dipped beneath the clouds was quite intense.
We had not heard good things about Medan, but chanced staying there a night anyway. Most travellers just go straight for their onward destination from the airport skipping Medan but we arrived a bit late for that.
On arrival into Kuala Namu (Medan) International Airport, we had our first taste of Indonesian hospitality- a security guard helped us fill up our water bottle! While I was off paying my $35 to enter the country (Gav gets in for free, second UK passport perk there). Another security guard helped him to fill out the customs declaration as the one given to us on the plane was in Indonesian and the English ones were not available at arrivals, so with the customs forms filled, Gav queued to get his stamp (visa free for 30 days as a tourist) and I got my visa stamp (also for 30 days). So far so good, bags collected, exit customs and then cash obtained and bus confirmed with Information. Then we had to run a short gauntlet of pushy touts wanting us to get a taxi for 150,000 Rp (not much in fairness $11/£7) but we had decided to get the bus for 20,000 Rp ($1.45/£0.95) each. A bit of a saving there.
It only took an hour to get into Medan and using Maps.me and the help of one of our fellow passengers we got dropped a short walk away from the hotel (The House of Zaza Zizi, it was alright, a bit damp..). We arrived after dark, so grabbed some food from an Indian around the corner.
We stupidly decided to take the long walk back around the block, it was 9 pm. It was not very pleasant, we got stared at. A lot. The following day we went for a walk, based on the recommendations I decided to cover up- long sleeves and long skirt (also recommended for Malaysia but not always necessary in tourist areas), got stared at and leered at. Even Gav was feeling uncomfortable- I was ignoring it until he mentioned it. In the end we found a massive western style shopping centre/mall round the corner (Sun Plaza) and, I’m sad to say, we basically hid in there for the day.
The following morning we were due to leave for Bukit Lawang and had opted for the local bus. Due to this whole trip being a bit last minute we had done limited research on it, however one thing we did know was that there were touts at the local bus. As the local bus was significantly cheaper than the tourist bus (5 times cheaper) and we have handled touts in the past we still opted for the local bus. A quick taxi from out hotel (50,000 Rp) to Penang Baris bus station. The recommendation was not to go to the bus station but round the corner. So as we drove past we saw the bus and the taxi driver pulled up alongside and confirmed with a guy we assumed was the bus driver. Gav’s bag was whisked away, with us in pursuit and the next thing both of our bags were on the roof and we were on the back seat of the bus, smugly thinking to ourselves that we got away lightly. But no. The next thing, the guy who took us to the bus climbed in and sat infront of us and demanded we pay 200,000 Rp each, to him, immediately.
The conversation went as follows:
Us: The price is 20,000 each and we pay the driver.
Him: No it is 200,000 Rp for tourists, you do not get the local price. You must pay me now or get off.
Us: No the price is 20,000 Rp and we pay the driver. Can we talk to the driver?
Him: The driver does not speak English, he told me to tell you to pay now or get off.
Us: Our friend Hass (from the Jungle Inn) speaks Indonesian we can call him and he can speak to the driver.
Him: You must pay now or get off.
Us: Ok we will get off.
We stood up and motioned as if we were getting off, he got off and we sat down again.
His friend poked at Gav through the open window.
Him (2): Pay 200,000 Rp or get off.
Him (now back on): Ok the driver says you can pay 50,000 Rp each, or get off.
Us: We want to speak to the driver.
Him: He does not speak English
Us: We can call our friend.
(It went on like this for another few minutes, him getting more and more agitated, as we were polite but firm with him and then he got off and the bus started to pull away. He swung himself back on.)
Him: Pay or get off.
Us: We will pay the driver when we get off in Bukit Lawang.
Him: PAY OR GET OFF!
Us: We will pay the driver, not you.
At this stage the bus had pulled in again, he got off and climbed onto the roof and started taking our bags off. Gav climbed out and told him to leave the bags where they were. He refused and passed them down. I was still in the back of the minibus. The window was open with a bar halfway across it.
Me: Gav, quick pass the bag through the window
Gav: It won’t fit.
Me: Just try it!
It did fit and by the time the guy climbed back, both the bags and Gav were in the bus again. The guy, sensing defeat, stormed off leaving the door open and then we were on our way. Finally.
The lady in front of us praised Gav in broken English and Indonesian for not giving in. It was quite an experience and as you can tell not a pleasant one and we felt quite threatened. I’m glad it was the two of us and that I was not travelling alone or with another girl as it could have turned nasty quite quickly.
So we were on our way! Four hours on some of the worst roads we have seen, sometimes dirt tracks, mostly cratersized potholes, broken trees, hidden holes and gravel surfaces, passing palm plantation after palm plantation. The only wildlife in the plantations were goats, cows and a array of ferns as the palms block out almost all light. All the while being trapped by our bags. The pollution was also really bad. In Medan especially but also the vehicles on the road were in dire need of an MOT so I had a facemask on the whole way, combined with the haze from the forest fires it was not the most pleasant of journeys. However in in the end we paid the local price of 20,000 Rp each.
So Bukit Lawang! We were met by Dickie, the hotel rep, bundled onto a tuk tuk (side cart/motorbike thing) and zoomed up to the village. From the bottom of the village it was a 15 min walk up the path to the Jungle Inn, you could really tell it was the start of low season, we had only seen one other westerner since we arrived and this tally was brought to seven westerners by the time we arrived at the reception of the Inn. Four of which left as we were checking in.
On check-in we were told what to pack for our hike (I managed not to hear packing flip flops though) and brought to our lovely room.
The following morning after a good night’s sleep despite the indoor water features, we were up early, with no electricity and dawn breaking we had our ice cold showers (there was no hot water), grabbed breakfast and brought our stuff down to reception, met our guide Ajar and then waited for the rest of the group, 40 minutes later we were all assembled and ready to go into the Gunung Leuser National Park. We were with a family who were on a day trek, so our group initially consisted of five tourists, our guide and two helpers. Unfortunately, poor Ajar was a bit ill so we were left briefly with the two helpers. While with them we came across our first group of orangutans, the semi wild group of about six. Two mothers, two infants and two teenagers. The had also attracted the attention of some other day trippers one of which ended up feeding them which wasn’t cool. Although nice to see, I didn’t really enjoy this first encounter, there were two many people and it was all a bit false really. Early on, Ajar warned us to stick to the paths and be careful what we touch unfortunately the other guides were not quite so concerned with their guests and one of the girls did get badly bitten by a centipede so Ajar came to the rescue and treated her with some remedies from the rainforest and soon after she could walk again.
Shortly after we stopped for lunch and then we were on our own with Ajar. This is when it got properly fun. (Note basically everything was in the high canopy and the camera had a complete panic attack at such high moisture but I think Gav did very well with the photos he did take).
The following morning after tea, biscuits and the largest sandwich I’ve ever had (there was an omelette in there and everything). We headed back into the jungle…
When we arrived back at the Jungle Inn we were put back in the same room (or bags were already there). Same issues again, the staff we really nice though but this was a bit annoying. The jungle trek though with them was amazing, we would definitely recommend them, the food quality was top notch and Ajar was great.
So after the jungle we went tubing back to Bukit Lawang. Now this was no Vang Vieng tubing, we had Ajar and another guy as drivers with sticks and me and Gav were in a massive inner tube in the middle. What followed was 20 minutes of extreme tubing over rapids and were almost flipped over. Good fun.
The following morning we headed back towards the bus station. There had been a landslide while we were in the jungle which had cut off the path up. Luckily they had managed to partially clear it once we were leaving, still ended up ankle deep in muck being helped across with our bags over it and we were off. We had once again opted for the local bus. This time the charge was 30,000 Rp each (as our bags were now on the roof), slight rip off but not enough to argue over it and we were off. Our next stop was the mountain town of Berastagi, an old Dutch hill station. Famous for its two volcanos, Mt. Sibayak and Mt.Sinabung. Both still active and Sinabung had recently erupted so was off limits (It would also have been an 8 hour “torturous climb”), the other was much easier and basically THE thing to do in Berastagi. I hadn’t realised we had to go back to Medan again to switch buses. So on arrival back a Pinang Baris, we were once again met by touts, wanting 50,000 each for the journey. Now I thought the price was 20,000 Rp so we tried to argue them down to this, they did not give us the change from 50,000 Rp. The actual price was 12,000 Rp for locals. Our bags were up on the roof too and we had to pay as the bus pulled out, we were the only ones on it and the reason soon became apparent as we had to wait over an hour for our bus to depart from the other terminus. An hour. It was hot, smelly and dirty. Once we were finally on our way, a journey of 55 km, we figured we would arrive at our destination before it got dark. We didn’t. It also rained heavily on the way so when we arrived into Berastagi, our bags were soaked through, it was dark and cold (17oC). A “5 hour” journey had actually been 7 hours. Uggh! Like two drowned rats we headed for the guesthouse we planned to stay at Wisma Guesthouse. The rooms were a good size, ensuite but with a cold shower. Hot showers were 10,000 Rp extra (per shower). It was so cold, so so cold. When we arrived everything had to be unpacked and dried out. Luckily most of our stuff was in plastic bags (or freezer bags) so for the most part things were still dry. My bag was drenched though. We also had no clothes. Our jungle ones needed washing and these were also our hiking clothes. So we spent three nights here, one day relaxing while we had the clothes washed and the following day going up the volcano which was a great day.
When we had arrived in Berastagi, we were both miserable and ready to leave Sumatra. The weather seemed to be getting worse (the joys of rainy season) and Air Asia had changed our flight time back to KL so we had the option of moving it. So we brought it forward, which meant skipping Lake Toba, but in all honesty we couldn’t wait to get back to Malaysia. Getting constantly leered at and ripped off (even though it was peanuts, it was the way it was done) was wearing us down and we just wanted out.
After our lovely day at the volcano, we briefly regretted this decision but after paying 1/3 more for our “tourist” bus back to Medan than all the other passengers, we knew we had made the right decision. The last hotel in Medan was the Carolina Transit. A veritable palace in comparison to Zaza Zizi (at 55,000 Rp more a night), lovely staff, nice big room, comfortable mattress and hot shower. Only issue was the three nearby mosques having a competition as to who had the loudest speaker but over all a good place. We also treated ourselves to a taxi back to the airport which was 175,000 Rp. Massive cost compared to the bus which would have been 40,000 Rp for the pair of us, but worth every penny in avoided hassle.
So Sumatra- is it worth it? If you are not a backpacker and can afford to get private cars everywhere you will probably have a very positive experience as the countryside- what’s left after all the palm plantations- is very beautiful and the wildlife-again what is left after all the palm plantations have gobbled up their habitat- is amazing. Who knows how long it will be left though as the plantations get bigger and bigger and the forests shrivel away to nothing.
If you are a western female though, blonde/pale or blue eyed you will get unwanted attention and what I experienced here was worse than anywhere else we had been on our travels. I’m not sure if I want to come back.
(The wildfires in Sumatra are largely as a result of the increase in Palm oil due to global demand. It is almost ubiquitous in cakes, cosmetics, biscuits, cooking oil and biofuels. There is some sustainable palm production which is a step in somewhat positive direction but it is not clear what countries it operates in and how they audit. Before we left I had been avoiding it where I could when I was in the UK but unfortunately it is used on a larger scale by restaurants. This will be something I will be checking once I get back and will be avoiding places that use it (even if it claims to be sustainable). There have been a number of articles in recent weeks about the fires such as these: 1, 2, 3. Its one thing to read about it, but to visit the countries and see really brings home what is being lost at an eye watering rate. )