Friday, February 21, 2014

Indonesia: What to see in Medan & North Sumatra

So I decided to fly to Medan to cross out Sumatra from my list of places to visit. Medan is the capital of North Sumatra (Sumatera Utara). The main attraction of North Sumatra is Lake Toba, a five-hour land trip from Medan. But the city has some interesting heritage buildings and is a melting pot of different cuisines making it a very popular food tourism destination.

Bus to Medan from Kualanamu International Airport (KNO)
The new Kualanamu International Airport is about 40 kilometers from Medan. There are many ways to get to Medan from the airport. The cheapest way is by taking the Damri Airport Bus which costs Rp10,000 to the Amplas Terminal (which is far from the city center) and Rp15,000 to the downtown area.

From Amplas, you can take an angkot (public minivan) to the downtown area, about Rp6,000. Angkots have route numbers on them. So make sure to ask your hotel what angkot number to take from Amplas and where to get off. Note though that it can get really tight and uncomfortable. So it's not a good idea if you have lots of luggage. Buses out of Medan also leave from Amplas. So if you are going to Lake Toba, you can take a bus to Parapat directly from Amplas.

If you take the Damri bus all the way to the downtown area, find out which stop is closest to your hotel. You can hire a becak (trishaw); but knowing you just came from the airport, they'll try to charge you as much as they can. But it shouldn't cost more than Rp15,000 to Rp20,000.

The fastest way from Kualanamu to Medan is by train. It will take about 45 minutes and costs Rp80,000. That will depend of course if there is a train leaving when you exit the airport (wait is between 1 to 2 hours between trips). The most convenient way is of course by taxi. But that will set you back by at least Rp150,000.

What to see in Medan
Unfortunately, most people you'll encounter in Medan don't speak English. So it's quite difficult to communicate. A Bahasa Indonesia phrasebook may come in handy. Since there are just a few attractions in the city, getting around can be easy if you know what angkut number passes by them. You can also haggle with a becak to take you to them (difficult to bargain with them though if you can't speak the language since they know you are a tourist) or take a Blue Bird taxi for comfort.

The major attractions are the Masjid Raya Al-Mashun and Istana Maimun (Maimun Palace). Masjid Raya Al-Mashun is definitely a landmark of Medan and the largest mosque in North Sumatra. It was built by Sultan Makmun Al Rasyid from 1906 to 1909. Designed by Dutch architects (initially by van Erp; but work was continued by A.J. Dingemans), many of the materials were imported including chandeliers from France, tiles from Italy and stained glass windows from China.

The main dome has an octagonal floor plan. There are four domed wings attached to the main building and four arched hallways connecting the wings. Architectural influences from both Europe and the Middle East are evident.

Outside the mosque is a cemetery where many members of the royal family are buried. A minaret stands proudly in one corner of the property, where calls to prayer echo from loud speakers attached to the top.

Note that shorts are not allowed inside the mosque. You will be asked to wear a sarong. Mandatory contributions for visitors are requested when you register at the gate, usually between Rp5,000 to Rp20,000. And you will also be asked to contribute to the shoe deposit when you take off your shoes or slippers as you enter the main building.

The Istana Maimun (Maimoon Palace) was the royal palace of the Sultanate of Deli and built by Sultan Makmun Al Rasyid (Tuangku Ma'moen Al Rasyid) in 1888. Just like the mosque, the mix of architectural styles (Malay, Dutch, Turkish, Spanish, etc.) is very evident.

Although the current sultan no longer wields political power, he still lives in the palace. But visitors are allowed to explore the throne room. There's a Rp5,000 fee to enter. Inside, you can also dress like the sultan and the royal family. Rental fee for the baju is Rp10,000.

Another attraction I got to visit is the Kuil Shri Mariamman (Shri Mariamman Temple), a Hindu temple built in 1884. One heritage landmark I missed was the Tjong A Fie Mansion which has many similarities to Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.

Now time to find out what to eat in Medan, Indonesia!
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