When it comes to backpacking Indonesia, I believe, it’s not about Bali, it’s not about Jakarta, it’s not about these highly tourist-targeted places, where there are more Western civilization things than in some Western countries itself. No, Indonesia is vast and beautiful and it is one of the few countries in South East Asia that still offers authentic culture and almost unspoiled landscapes. There are still places where real travellers would love to backpack.
Sumatra is one of them. Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world. The destinations take long, fewer people know the English language than on the other islands. It is a more difficult place to backpack in general. But what you can see there is definitely worth the challenge. Backpacking Indonesia gives you the opportunity to experience South East Asia, but Sumatra still preserves the real authentic feel of the Asian culture.
Danau Toba – the place to escape to
When I started backpacking Indonesia, Danau Toba was my first destination to go to. I can’t say for sure what attracted me to it mostly. The stories of fellow backpackers, the pictures I have seen on the internet or maybe the fact that it is so isolated from the rest of the world. Danau Toba is a magnificent place in Sumatra. It is a lake that surrounds an island which has a few villages thriving on it. One of them was the village of Tuk Tuk, where I spent my days planning the rest of my trip.
The stressful arrival
I chose to go the cheapest way there was – I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Medan and took a shuttle to a public bus station. As soon as I was out of the shuttle, I noticed that I was the only non-native person in there. Dozens of drivers surrounded me and started asking where I was heading, guessing my destination, trying to take my bag into their car and yelling out prices.
I knew that Indonesia is more stressful compared to Malaysia, where I was before, but the intensiveness of everyone trying to sell me something, the noise, and the zero tolerance to your personal space was a bit shocking to me, at first. I asked them as politely as I could to give me some time to figure out where I was going and took out my guide book to see how I was supposed to go to Danau Toba. One of the people noticed the page I was reading and shouted that there’s a bus going to Lake Toba in 5 minutes for something around 35.000 rupiahs (~2.60 USD). I said I will take his offer but asked for 5 minutes to be able to smoke a cigarette. He took me by my hand, gently pushed me into the bus and said right before the bus left “Smoke on bus! Is okay!”.
The bus started moving, I was relieved to be out of that commotion, but a bit irritated that I could not smoke a cigarette before I sat on the bus which normally takes around 6-8 hours to get to my destination… Then, suddenly I understood the ticket vendor – everyone was literally smoking on the bus. Which, when I was still a smoker, I found to be quite convenient!
The journey by bus through serpentines and cliffs took around 8 hours, which was longer than expected. When the bus was arriving at Parapat village, it was already dark outside. As no one was speaking English, it was pretty hard to find out which stop to jump off at to be in Parapat. Eventually, one of the drivers told me to jump off. I did, but it was not the right place. I asked some locals if there was a ferry to Tuk Tuk village, my final destination, and someone nodded and directed me to one. I paid the ticket, jumped on the ferry and waited to finally be on the island. As soon as the ferry started moving, I asked a lady sitting next to me “Tuk Tuk?”. When the lady responded with “no, Tuk Tuk other ferry”, I was not even surprised anymore as the day felt already like a disaster.
There were no taxis or public transport after I left the ferry. I saw a bar next to the port and some locals having some beers. I had two options: walking at night to an unknown direction or asking for help. I was relieved when one of the locals offered to take me to Tuk Tuk for 25.000 rupiahs. I knew it was a big price for a ride, but then again, he knew that I had no other way of getting there, so the bargain was short. I paid him the money and followed him to his motorbike. As soon as he started walking I noticed that he quite drunk. But somehow I decided that this is the only way to get where I need. We started driving, I was sitting on the back of the motorbike, he was trying to see objects in the dark. The bike was shaking a lot and it was definitely not a steady ride, but eventually we made it. I jumped off as soon as I saw the sign of Liberta Homestay, a guest house that was mentioned in my Lonely Planet. I went to negotiate for a room, the woozy driver was kind enough to wait until I got one. I paid 35.000 rupiahs for a night, thanked my kind driver and went straight to bed.
The whole night I was just thinking where the hell am I and why did I come here… I was thinking if backpacking Indonesia was the right choice for me. But as soon as I woke up and went out for a walk, I was the happiest person in the world – the view was amazing, the air was magical and I finally felt calm and at peace!
The place I never wanted to leave
Backpacking Indonesia showed me that all the stress and obstacles before reaching your destination might mean that you are going somewhere that it worth it. From day one I have enjoyed every moment on the island. Every morning I had new stuff to do. I would start my day with a quick swim in the lake, after that, I would walk around the island, which is pretty big and can take you hours. In the evening, I would join other backpackers at Liberta Homestay and enjoy the food made by the manager Mr. Moon and his sons. The atmosphere was great and the people were very friendly and helpful.
On the island, you can see a lot of old Batak architecture and you can experience their history. There are a few museums worth visiting. Although for me the biggest highlight of the location was the landscape – the island was surrounded by mountains on the mainland. Sometimes you could see some steam coming from the lake, there were a number of waterfalls and the further you go from the village the wilder nature would seem. Lots of space and lots of sights to see.
The problem I had – walking does not get you anywhere and hiring a driver for a day seemed too expensive. So the only option I had was to learn to drive a motorbike. The only thing with two wheels I have ridden before that was a bicycle, but I thought that there would not be a better time to learn than being in Danau Toba. I was pushed to a point where I had to learn to drive a motorbike, which was something I had to do a lot afterwards when backpacking Indonesia and the rest of South-East Asia.
The first ride with the motorbike was exciting. The fear of driving it for the first time disappeared after a while. This allowed me to finally be able to see the beauty of the land surrounding me. My friends that I met in the guest house and I stopped at one scenic place after the other. It was something remarkable.
All that beauty aside, Danau Toba is also a great spot for food enthusiasts. Because of a lot of influence by western civilizations in the past, Danau Toba offers you a big selection of world cuisines. Together with the local Asian cuisine you can also find pizzas, schnitzels, chips (potato fries), goulash and many more things you would get in Europe. Some were even better than I had anywhere back home. One of the best perks for me was that it is one of a few Christian places in the mostly Muslim Indonesia. This means that they have pork. And for a guy who enjoys meat, it was something I craved for a long time since I got to South-East Asia. I had no other opportunities to get some pork while backpacking Indonesia.
The handicraft of the villagers on the island is astonishing as well. I was tempted to buy a lot of things, as they were cheap but of great quality. Old knives, wristbands, statues, chest figures… All carved by hand, all made of local wood. Sadly (and good for my budget), I had a long journey ahead of me, so I could not let myself buy anything, as I would have had to carry everything with me and it would increase the amount of my backpack’s weight limit (check why it was so important for me here). But if you’re backpacking Indonesia and decide to visit this place last, have a look at the great stuff they create. They also offer to send the bought stuff to your home, but I do not know if it’s recommended!
I planned to stay 3-4 days in Danau Toba. Needless to say, I was charmed by the place, I felt like home and I have forgotten all the problems in life. I stayed for 8 days and I wanted to stay even more, but I had to continue my journey as I knew that there’s even more to backpacking Indonesia. I hope I will have a chance to return to this remote magical paradise.