Most travelers are familiar with the rice terraces, sprawling beaches and gentle vibe of Bali, however before we had our kids, we went a little more off the beaten track and spent almost a month on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
After spending time there, it’s hard to believe that Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world. I suppose that with over 14,000 islands it’s still easy to find a quiet place to yourself.
Sumatra, the largest of Indonesia’s islands, is home to critically endangered animals like the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. It’s also home to delicious Sumatran coffee.
During that month, we developed a keen appreciation for Bintang Beer and fried eggs. Fried eggs were served on top of almost every dish we ordered. While the crazy traffic in Medan definitely wasn’t one of our favorites, we spent most of our time in quieter areas of Sumatra and that’s where we found so many of the things we love about Sumatra.
Jungle trekking through Bukittinggi
Despite being a city with over 110,000 people, we found Bukittinggi felt like a much quieter place. That is, except for mosques blasting the call to prayer through loudspeakers at 5:00 am.
Surrounded by mountains and valleys, the city has a relaxed vibe and some gorgeous views.
We met up with a local guide on his day off in the rice fields, and spent the afternoon on an impromptu jungle trek. He showed us where cinnamon and coffee grew wild in the jungle, watched flying foxes along the riverbanks, and even led us to a remote village with a local silversmith where we bought a silver band that became my engagement ring.
Swimming in Lake Toba
Lake Toba is the result of a massive supervolcanic explosion around 70,000 years ago. Today, the waters are still warmed by underground volcanic activity, keeping the 500 meter (approx. 1,600 foot) deep lake at a comfortable swimming temperature.
Samosir is an island in the middle of Lake Toba, making it an island within the island of Sumatra. We spent a week and a half here, enjoying dips in the clear water, and cruising around the little island by motorbike.
Getting up close with wildlife
Despite the urban chaos of Jakarta, most of Indonesia is wild and home to a diversity of flora and fauna. This cuddly little guy is a Rhinoceros beetle.
In our time in Sumatra, we saw countless frogs, beetles, stick insects and even an Atlas Moth (which can be up to 12 inches wide) which came to visit us one evening. It doesn’t surprise me one whit that scientists continually seem to discover new species in the Indonesia jungle, like this long nosed frog and hog nosed rat.
This photo was taken in the rafters of our little hut. We had several Thomas leaping monkeys visit us every sunset. At about 3 am, our neighbor’s screams alerted us to the fact that there was a forest rat climbing through their rafters for a visit as well.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about us: we were once chased through a jungle in Indonesia by a water buffalo.
A water buffalo is big enough to be pretty intimidating, so when the local guide we were following started to run in a quiet panic, we didn’t ask questions. We just ran as fast as we could, and luckily the irritated water buffalo didn’t follow us very far.
Watching orangutans in Bukit Lawang
Orangutans are currently endangered, and only found wild in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. They’re critically endangered in Sumatra, where there are only about 7,300 remaining.
We were fortunate enough to see orangutans in Bukit Lawang at the Bohorok Orangutan Centre, one of the only places in the world where you can see orangutans in the wild. The Orangutan sanctuary is located inside Gunung Leuser National Park across the river from Bukit Lawang.
We spent an hour or two sitting in the jungle, as orangutans swung around us in the trees while the rangers fed some of the rehabilitated orangutans on a feeding platform a few feet away. The intelligence in these animal’s eyes is almost palpable and watching them descend the 100 foot long vines to get to the jungle floor was a treat I’ll remember always.
Our first glimpse of Sumatra was the small port city of Dumai. It was chaotic, crowded and home to the craziest bunch of tourist louts we’ve ever encountered anywhere. After the coldest ferry ride ever coming in from Malaca, Malaysia, we high tailed it out of the city and had the most insane rally road driving experience one could ever experience in a crowded minivan.
As such, we found life in nature near mountainous Bukittinggi and the jungles around Bukit Lawang to be a lot more relaxing.
With tons to see and do Sumatra was also very cheap to travel in and the population were also some of the friendliest, most relaxed people we’ve ever met.
What’s on our bucket list?
There’s a lot more to see in Indonesia.
So far we’ve only visited Sumatra, but there’s world class SCUBA diving in Raja Ampat or the Togian islands. We’re also itching to see Komodo dragons, but we may wait until the kids are a little less snack-size to take that trip.
Note: If you’re serious about seeing the Komodos, check out Adventurous Kate, who wrote about safety after her experience in a shipwreck when visiting.
We’re also keen to finally visit Bali. We have numerous friends that all rave about the island (and a few that live there) so it’s only a matter of time before we visit it as well.
I’ve also been checking out some less well known destinations like Bandung on Jakarta. It’s a busy city full of shopping and culture, while nearby areas of Cibodas and Situ Gunung, Sukabumi are some of the greenest in Indonesia. It doesn’t hurt that there are some beautiful places to stay like Villa Istana Bunga.
We've been traveling around the world since 2003, first as a couple and now as a family of four. We love sharing our adventures and the lessons we've picked up on the road. Contact us or check our About page for more info.