Unknown to many, Indonesia is home to over 17,508 – 18,306 islands, with only 900+ inhabited by humans. We spent over three months traveling all over Indonesia and when we left, we still feel like we barely scratched the surface.
We surfed out way through many of Bali’s epic waves, climbed our fair share of volcanos and mountains in Java, and was left utterly captivated by the beauty of Sumatra. Unlike Bali or Java, visiting Sumatra was like going back in time. Everything about it was real, raw, and idyllic. There weren’t many Western bars blasting music all day. There weren’t hoards of tourists. Instead, we were blown away by the beautiful islands, lush jungles, and steaming volcanos and mountains.
Listed below are a few of our tips on the best things to see in Sumatra.
Trek Through the Jungles of Bukit Lawang
Nestled in quite frankly, the middle of nowhere is a small town called Bukit Lawang. You could very easily stay here for days as you lay around in a hammock, go on nature treks, splash along their river or hang out with the incredibly friendly and awesome locals. During our time in Bukit Lawang, time seemed to stop. So much so that after we finished our five-day trek through the Ganung Leuser National Park, we ended up staying for even longer. The national park is one of the richest tropical forests in the world and is known to be the home of the famous Orangutans. However, aside from the Orangutans, there are almost seven other species of primates and wild animals including elephants, rhinos, tigers, and even leopards. Naturally, one of the best things to is to go jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang.
While you can easily do a day hike to see the Orangutans that live close to the entrance of the National Park, consider going on a full jungle expedition where you can interact with these animals naturally in the wild. To date, this has been one of the coolest experiences we’ve had and trust me, we’ve had loads! I remember a specific moment when I was waking up in our campsite, a makeshift tent pitched in the middle of the jungle. As soon as I opened my eyes, right across me in the tree was a huge Orangutan who was just watching us sleep. It was incredible! To be so close to these animals was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. It’s definitely something we recommend doing! We did out trek with a fantastic company called Sumatra Paradise and they went above and beyond to coordinate everything for us.
Resources: Where to Stay in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia
Must Not Miss:
- Jungle Trekking
- Whitewater Rafting (part of long jungle trekking tours)
- Jungle Camping
- Bat Cave
Wander Around Lake Toba
As soon as we got to Lake Toba, we immediately decided that it was a place that we would stay in for at least a week. While there is not much going on in the entire place, as soon as you get there, you’ll understand why we stayed. Danau Toba or Lake Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, spanning 1707 sq. km. Right in the middle of this lake which is found high up near Sumatra’s volcanic points is Pulau Samosir, an island the size of Singapore which was created through a massive eruption. Fun fact: Samosir Island is the 5th largest lake island in the world and it exists inside of the 6th largest island in the world (Sumatra). How’s that for a geological feature!
The town of Tuk- Tuk is the main tourist headquarters and is a very laid back town full of the nicest people imaginable. While in Danau Toba, chill out by the lake, unwind and read a book by the many lakeside resorts (which are incredibly affordable by the way!) However, the real highlight is renting a motorbike and driving through the entire island. When driving around, you will see stunning waterfalls, hot springs, hidden coves, and hilly mountains. Riding a motorbike here is absolutely beautiful and is one of the highlights of our trip to Indonesia (regardless if we were lost in the middle of the mountains for hours).
Check out places to stay in Lake Toba: Booking.com
Must Not Miss:
- Visit the Ancient Batak Villages
- Batak Museum
- Hot Springs
Explore the Town of Berastagi
The town of Berastagi is located about 70km away from Medan and is a spot that not a lot of travelers go to. Those that do make it here, will be rewarded with stunning views of the active Mount Sibayak volcano as well as Mount Sinabung. When we were there, we were unable to climb any of the mountains as one was quite literally erupting and billowing smoke. Now I know I am quite adventurous, but climbing an exploding volcano seems too extreme. Even for us. Instead, we spent our days exploring local hot springs, teaching English to some local high school kids, while getting to know the locals. When in the area, we definitely recommend visiting the Sipiso-piso waterfalls. It is out of this world!
Check out places to stay in Berastagi: Booking.com
What Not to Miss:
- Sipiso-piso Waterfall
- Gundaling viewpoint
- Lingga Traditional Village
- Lau Debuk-Debuk hot springs
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Surf Your Heart Out in Pulau Banyak
The Banyak Islands are truly one of the most beautiful places in Indonesia. Isolated, inhabited, and away from the busy hustle and bustle, the beaches in Sumatra are the complete opposite of Bali. Instead, you can see powdery white beaches, crystal clear waters, and pristine palm fringed islands. As the word Banyak means many, expect to see loads of uninhabited islands (99 to be precise) waiting to be explored. Apart from the picture perfect beaches, this part of Sumatra is also famous for Surfing. This is where surfers go when they want to get away from the busy line-ups in Bali. While most surfers come using liveaboard boats and surfing safaris, there are a few local towns where you can stay and do day trips from. Surfers from all over the world come to the remotest part of Sumatra just to catch a few epic barreling waves….and man are the waves beautiful!
Must Not Miss
- Snorkeling (the reefs are so pristine!)
- Lazing around on picture perfect beaches
Enjoy Traditional Sumatran Food
If you like traditional Indonesian food, you will love the food in Sumatra. The food is spicier, a lot more flavorful, and has a wide variety of flavors. Typical flavors of garlic, coriander, chili (lots of it), and lemongrass can be found in most of their meals. Beef Rendang, a famous Indonesian that is pretty common in fact originated in Padang, Sumatra. It’s seriously soooooo good. Apart from the food, the coffee in Sumatra is also pretty fantastic. None of the instant powdery nonsense.
Go Scuba Diving in Pulau Weh
Located on a tiny rock off the tip of Sumatra off the coast of Banda Aceh is Pulau Weh, an idyllic paradise which recently started growing in popularity. While some people head here just to experience the novelty of its remoteness, apart from the picture perfect beaches, people coming to Pulau Weh to experience the amazing diving. In Indonesia, other contenders for the best dive sites are that which can be reached from liveaboard diving in Raja Ampat and in liveaboard diving in the Komodo Islands, avid divers from all over the world flock to Pulau Weh for the chance to explore their reefs. Here, divers can expect to swim through deep trenches and canyons while surrounded with vibrant marine life like manta rays and whale sharks. Regardless if you’re a diver or not, you’re bound to fall in love and explore this beautiful island.
Must Not Miss
- Beach Hopping: Visit Iboih, Gapang, and our favorite, Pantai Samur Tiga.
- Snorkeling or scuba diving
- Enjoy the laid back vibe and atmosphere
Looking for more inspiration to travel Indonesia? Check out a few of our other articles!
- Guide to Planning Trip to Indonesia
- Best Places to Stay in Indonesia: Ultimate List of Hotels & Hostels
- Raja Ampat Photo Diary: Paradise Uncovered