Sumatra, the island to the west of Java, is home to some of the most beautiful sights in all of Indonesia, it’s just a shame that so few people ever get to see them. Under visited, probably because it doesn’t have the same reputation or money for marketing campaigns as Bali, Sumatra is a mix of big cities, primary rainforests, and volcanic scenery, and if you are going to venture anywhere out of Bali then you would do well to skip the crowds in Java and come straight here.
Lake Toba, in the province of North Sumatra, is pretty special. A natural lake sitting in the crater of a long dormant volcano, Lake Toba was formed, depending on what you believe, either a massive volcanic eruption or by a magic fish, and it is known for being the largest volcanic lake in the world. Reason enough to visit put it on your bucket list. On a visit to Lake Toba the emphasis is more on relaxing and adjusting to the pace of the main island, Tuk Tuk, and you can swim, do water sports on the lake, or visit the traditional houses of the indigenous people, the Batak. If you want to delve into Sumatran culture even further then you can visit the carved graves of long dead Batak kings that are modeled on traditional houses or hop on a motorbike and head to a traditional Batak village and learn about Batak weaving techniques and other art and crafts.
Four hours overland from the capital city of North Sumatra, Medan, Bukit Lawang has the largest sanctuary of Sumatran orangutans in Indonesia, and sits on one side of Gunung Leuser National Park, which stretches all the way to Aceh Province in the north. Definitely off the grid, a lot of the guesthouses here run on a generator that they switch off at about 11pm, so if you want to live a life unplugged then this is definitely for you. Things to do in Bukit Lawang are trekking, lazy tubing on the river, or visiting the orangutan sanctuary to learn about the habitat and conservations projects of this protected species.
The Mentawai Islands
The Mentawai Islands or the Mentawais as they are also called are a group of seventy islands off the west coast of Sumatra. The people of the Mentawai lived in isolation until the 19th century, but those days are gone and the islands have now gained a following because of the gorgeous surfing conditions and many surfing aficionados move to the Mentawais after a trip to Bali, and it is said by those who know that this is some of the best surfing in the world, although it’s not recommended for beginners so if you are going to go out into the water here pace yourself. Accommodation of the Mentawais is basic but you will find guesthouses, cafes, and local places serving fresh fish for dinner, and there is all you need whether you wish to stay for a week or a month. The best way to get here is to fly to the city of Padang and then take a ferry across to the largest island called Siberut.
Sumatra makes for a more diverse visit than many places in Indonesia, stretching all the way from Aceh, out to islands like the Mentawais, with a trip to a national park in the process. It’s also far less crowded than other areas so you can explore in relative peace and Sumatra affords a far more authentic view of Indonesia than Bali, many of the eastern islands, or even Java.