Thursday, February 27, 2014

Indonesia: Lake Toba, Samosir Island and the Batak people

I've heard so much about Lake Toba (Danau Toba) in North Sumatra, Indonesia, the largest volcanic lake in the world. To give you perspective, it's more than twice the size of Singapore. But I didn't realize finding out how to get to Lake Toba from Medan was not going to be easy.

I was expecting there would be frequent tours to Lake Toba leaving from Medan. Bus after asking around at many local travel agencies (they mainly sell flights and outbound tours), I found out there were no tours and the best you could get from them was to hire a private vehicle, cost starting at Rp600,000 if you are lucky. But at least one gave me advice on how to get there on my own.

Getting to Lake Toba by bus from Medan
Regular and frequent bus trips leave the Amplas Terminal for Parapat, a resort town on the shores of Lake Toba. There are scheduled VIP or deluxe buses, as well as vans trips that cost up to Rp150,000. But more frequent and much cheaper are the non-aircon buses that cost between Rp32,000 to 35,000 for the five-hour bus ride. Just tell your angkot driver you want to go to Parapat and they'd point you to the bus. I ended up taking the non-aircon bus for Parapat that left at about 6:30 a.m. and arrived at 11:30 a.m. just in time for lunch.

There are a lot of hotels, resort and budget accommodation in Parapat. I was easily able to find one that fit my budget, maybe because it was a weekday. After settling down and a late lunch, I walked to the Tigaraja Pier to catch a ferry to Samosir Island.

What to see in Lake Toba
One of the main attractions of Lake Toba is Samosir Island, which is home to the Batak people. From the Tigaraja Pier in Parapat, there are ferry services to Tuk-Tuk and Tomok on Samosir Island.

Trips from Tigaraja to Tuk-Tuk start at 8:30 a.m. with the last one leaving Tigaraja at 7:00 p.m. While trips from Tuk-Tuk to Tigaraja start at 7:00 a.m. with the last one leaving Tuk-Tuk at 5:30 p.m. Trips from Tigaraja to Tomok on the other hand start at 7:00 a.m. with the last one leaving Tigaraja at 7 p.m. While trips from Tomok to Tigaraja start at 6:30 a.m. with the last one leaving Tomok at 6:30 p.m. I spent Rp10,000 for the ferry ride from Tigaraja to Tuk-Tuk.

At Tuk-Tuk, I hired a motorcycle driver to take me around the different cultural attractions. We made two stops. The first one was the Tomb of King Sidabutar. King Sidabutar, Raja di Huta was ruler of the Batak village of Tomok. Legend also says he was the first settler on Samosir Island.

From Tomok, we proceeded to Huta Siallagan in Ambarita Village. Along the way were views of verdant green rice fields and hills behind the. Samosir is quite large, you forget that you are on an island within a lake.

In Huta Siallagan, there are several Batak houses in the compound plus stone chairs carved from volcanic rock which was where King Siallagan and his council governed the village and decided the fate of criminals.

Greeting us at the gate were figures carved from volcanic stone. Huta Siallagan is a fantastic example of a traditional Batak village, definitely among the places you have to see when visiting Samosir Island.

We arrived in Tuk-Tuk just in time for the 5:30 p.m. ferry back to Tigaraja. Samosir Island also has a lot of accommodation options for all budgets. Many visitors opt to stay here for a night or two and explore the rest of the island or proceed to other towns along the shores of Danau Toba. One of the resorts I particularly found charming was the Silintong Hotel in Tuk-Tuk (; 0625 451242) which I would have enjoyed staying at if I had the time.
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