Indonesia Travel Information - Sumatra

Sumatra: Big, Wild, Diverse & Beautiful

The huge island of Sumatra is Indonesia's westernmost region.
Back in the good old days of overland travel it used to be the major gateway to the country for all the backpackers arriving overland from Malaysia. Nowadays, with budget airlines ready to fly visitors straight to Java, Bali and even Sulawesi, the island is bypassed by most visitors and tourism in Sumatra has been reduced to a trickle.
Nevertheless, those who make the effort to head out here will be richly rewarded. Sumatra offers a huge variety of attractions: the most diverse collection of striking traditional architecture in Indonesia, the greatest range of wildlife, including big names like orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants, plenty of active volcanoes and beautiful crater lakes, plus the inevitable beaches and off-shore islands.
While the distances may first seem daunting, and you may still hear horror stories of Sumatra's awful roads, in reality the most popular attractions are concentrated up in the island's north between Medan and Padang, and are accessible on roads that are no worse than elsewhere in Indonesia.

Attractions Off the Track Tourist Traps Getting There
Main Attractions
Gunung Leuser National Park

This huge park in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra is the only place in the world where Sumatran orangutans occur. It is also home to various other primate species, plus rhinos, elephants and tigers, though the latter are difficult to spot.
The best area to visit is at Gurah/Ketambe in Aceh, though most visitors only get to touristy Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra.

This highland town in North Sumatra is a popular first stop for travellers heading south from Medan.
Its main attractions are two nearby volcanoes, and the traditional Karo Batak villages in the surrounding countryside.
Karo Batak villages

Several villages near Berastagi have preserved traditional Karo Batak architecture. The most famous and best maintained one is Lingga, but there are others which are less touristy.
Lake Toba

The top scenic attraction of North Sumatra, this enormous crater lake is a popular place to kick back and relax for a few days.
Most tourists head for the Tuktuk peninsula on Samosir Island in the middle of the lake, but there are quieter options both on Samosir and in lakeside villages like Haranggaol.
Toba Batak villages on Samosir

The perfectly preserved traditional architecture of the Toba Batak villages on Samosir is among the most impressive in all Indonesia.
There are plenty of these throughout the island, with only a few having become tourist attractions. At those few, traditional dance performances and souvenir sales await visitors.

Though mostly visited by keen surfers, this island off the west coast of North Sumatra is also famous for its extraordinary tribal culture.
There are very impressive traditional villages, ancient megalithic carvings and perhaps the finest "primitive" woodcarvings made in all Indonesia.

This highland town is the main tourist spot in the province of West Sumatra, home to the matrilineal Minangkabau people, who are perhaps the friendliest and most hospitable on the island.
The town itself is pleasant enough, but mostly serves as a base to the surrounding beautiful countryside.
Minangkabau villages

The traditional Minangkabau "Rumah Gadang" houses with their curving buffalo-horn shaped roofs are the most striking features of this region. Several villages are also known for their crafts (especially weaving and silverwork) or megalithic relics.
Lake Maninjau

Scenic Maninjau is a popular alternative to Bukittingi for a longer stay in the West Sumatran highlands. Many travellers even prefer it to Lake Toba: it is more lush and more relaxed, with a good range of accommodation.
Off the Beaten Track
Banda Aceh

The capital of Aceh province was a pleasant city with a number of historical sights, the beautiful Baiturrahman Mosque being the most impressive.
However this city was very badly damaged by the huge tsunami in Dec 2004 which has also resulted in huge loss of life. It has since been mostly rebuilt, and is once again a popuar stopover on the way to Pulau Weh.
Pulau Weh

This small island off Sumata's norther tip is Aceh's main drawing card.
Its beaches are forgettable but the diving and snorkelling is excellent, as are the forest walks in the small Ibioh Nature Reserve on the island's north-western tip.
Simalungun Batak Villages

Unlike the traditional villages of the Karo and Toba Batak in North Sumatra, those of the neighbouring Simalungun Batak see almost no visitors.
There is a rather sanitized, open air museum of traditional Simalungun buildings at Pematangpurba which is visited by tour-groups on the way between Berastagi and Lake Toba, however the real thing can be found in villages off the main road just half an hour or so away.
Toba Batak villages near Porsea

The little visited traditional Toba Batak villages near Porsea, south-east of Lake Toba have houses that are very different from those on Samosir.
The houses here are covered with colorful paintings, some looking very old-style, others featuring scenes of modern life.
Gunungtua Temples

These ancient Hindu temples in North Sumatra are well off the beaten track.
OK, Borobudur or Prambanan they aren't, but they are the second most impressive such site in Sumatra.
Muara Takus Temples

This similarly little-visited site is probably the most interesting sight in mainland Riau province.


Home to Tanjung Pinang, the capital of the Riau Islands, a sprawling archipelagic province off the east coast of Sumatra, the island of Bintan lies just south of Singapore. Its fine beaches on the north coast are home to numerous expensive resorts catering to Singaporeans while Tanjung Pinang and its neighboring villages are probably most interesting for their distinctly Chinese flavour.

Pulau Penyengat

This tiny island off Tanjung Pinang was the historic seat of a great sultanate. It is peppered with relics of its past, is very quiet and friendly, and probably one of the best spots to visit in the Riau Islands.

Anambas Islands

Way off any tourist routes, and indeed closer to the Malay Peninsula than to Sumatra itself, the Anambas archipelago is made up by hundreds of beautiful, hilly islands waiting to be discovered. Be prepared for minimal facilities and rather high prices if planning to explore Anambas!

Natuna Islands

Even more remote than Anambas, the Natuna Islands are the northernmost part of Riau Islands province. They are noted for the large granite boulders gracing many of their mostly yellowish beaches.


This island off the coast of West Sumatra is home to the Mentawaiian people who have preserved a strikingly archaic traditional culture, as well as to unique fauna that includes 4 endemic species of primate.
Unfortunately (?) most tourists will see very little of this, as they visit the island on a short tour which is a major tourist trap.
Muara Jambi

The largest and most impressive ancient site in Sumatra, the extensive ruins of the Hindu city of Muara Jambi are in a very atmospheric "lost in the jungle" setting.
Getting there by riverboat from the provincial capital of Jambi can be half the fun .
The Kubu

The Kubu are the aboriginal forest dwellers of southern Sumatra. Since they are less photogenic than the more famous Mentawaiian tribes and are less ready to serve as a tourist attraction, they see few visitors.
Kerinci-Seblat National Park

The largest national park in Sumatra includes Indonesia's highest volcano: active Mount Kerinci. Climbing it is very worthwhile, as is the climb to the nearby crater lake of Gunung Tujuh. Base yourself in the highland village of Kersik Tua among sprawling tea plantations.
The park's unique wildlife is elusive, with the best base for seeing it being the tiny hamlet of Muara Sako in the lowland parts.

This former British colonial town is still quiet and pleasant, with an impressive fort.
The west coast province of Bengkulu also has beautiful scenery and a great spot to see the giant Rafflesia flower.

The main attraction around this highland town in South Sumatra province are mysterious ancient megalithic carvings, and painted stone tombs.

Bangka & Belitung

Another offshore islands province off the east coast of South Sumatra, Bangka-Belitung boasts superb beaches characterized by large granite boulders similar to those in the Natunas. They are far less remote though, connected by direct flights even to Jakarta, which makes Belitung in particular a popular weekend getaway.

Pulau Pisang

This idyllic little island off the west coast of Lampung province in the very south of Sumatra has gorgeous beaches, and a quiant village where Lampung's distinctive tapis weaving is still practiced.
Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park

This is the best park for seeing the wildlife of southern Sumatra. The most interesting part of it occupies Sumatra's very south-western tip, and is acccessed from Kota Agung in Lampung.
Way Kambas National Park

Though most famous for its "elephant-training centre", this is another good park to see wildlife, especially by paddling on the main river.

One of the most famous volcanoes in the world, Krakatau actually lies in the strait separating Sumatra and Java.
It is cheapest to reach from Kalianda in Lampung, but most visitors go by speedboat from Carita in Java.
Tourist Traps
Bukit Lawang

This former "orangutan rehabilitation centre" in North Sumatra attracts lots of camera-happy tourists to take easy snapshots of tamed orangutans being fed in a forested setting on the fringes of Gunung Leuser National Park.
The tourists are awaited by hordes of aggressive guides who pester everyone to go on their "jungle-treks", for which they charge about 10 times more than is usual elsewhere in Indonesia.
You can do yourself a favour if you visit the Gurah/Ketambe area of Gunung Leuser National Park for more serious nature explorations and to see wild orangutans instead of this circus.

Siberut Tours

Tours to this culturally singular island off the coast of West Sumatra are heavily promoted in Bukittingi.
However they are aimed at the average crowd who can only handle 3 hours of snail-paced walking per day, and lead to accessible communities that have adapted their way of life to tourist needs, with their culture for sale to the camera-happy groups.
Dressing up as a native is a "highlight" of these tours...

Go to Siberut on your own, not with a tour, and hire a Menatwaiian guide once there!

This island in the Riau archipelago just opposite Singapore is home to a large number of expensive resorts catering for visitors from the wealthy city-state.
Outside the resorts, Batam is a filthy, crime-ridden construction site which is best stayed away from.
The best thing to do on Batam is to use it only as a transit point, and move on as soon as possible.
Watch your valuables!
Neighbouring Bintan and Karimun are both nicer islands than Batam.
Getting There and Around

By Air

Several cities in Sumatra receive flights from neighbouring Malaysia or Singapore.
Air Asia offers the most connections, serving the 5 Sumatran cities of Medan, Banda Aceh, Padang, Pekanbaru and Palembang from Kuala Lumpur, with additional Medan-Penang and Pekanbaru-Singapore links. It also has a Medan-Bangkok flight!

By Sea

Various Sumatran ports have connections to neighbouring Malaysia and/or Singapore.
With the advance of budget airlines, far fewer travellers take advantage of these, but they are still an interesting option.
The most popular routes are between Dumai and Melaka, and the short hop between Batam and Singapore. In addition to the latter, other Riau Islands like Bintan and Karimun also have links with Singapore and Malaysia. The once most popular link from Penang to Belawan (near Medan) is sadly no more.


By Air

Connections with the rest of Indonesia are somewhat limited.
In fact, options are pretty much limited to flying from Sumatra to Jakarta, then picking up a connecting service from there. Two exceptions I know of are Air Asia's flights from Medan to Bandung and Surabaya in Java and Garuda from Batam to Makassar in South Sulawesi.

By Sea

Sumatra is the end of the line on Pelni's national shipping network, and though most ships actually finish their westwards journeys in Java, some come all the way to the Bangka and the Riau Islands from Maluku and even Papua!
Taking a ship from northern Sumatra to Java can also save some long, hard overland travel by bus. Some ships connect Bangka-Belitung or Riau Islands provinces with Kalimantan, too.
Down south, frequent ferries cross the narrow strait separating Sumatra from Java.

By Bus

You can catch direct buses from various Sumatran cities to Java, notably Jakarta.
They go on the ferry connecting the two islands, and your bus fare covers that crossing, too.


By Air

There are flights between certain Sumatran cities, but only a few of these, such as those from Medan to Aceh, Nias or Padang are of interest to tourists.

By Sea

Various ships and boats remain an important form of transport between the Sumatran mainland and its off-shore islands such as Pulau Weh, Nias, Siberut, Bangka-Belitung or the Riau Islands. In the latter two provinces, boats remain the main way of getting from one island to another.

By Rail

Sumatra has a very limited rail network in a small part of the north and the south.
It doesn't really go anywhere of interest, so unless you are a real train-freak, forget it!

By Bus

Within the mainland of Sumatra, buses are the most important form of transport.
Along the main roads, which are mostly in good condition these days, buses are frequent and comfortable enough.
Smaller roads can still be more painful, and you may find yourself taking a ride in some kind of minibus instead of a real bus.


For some reason, renting a car with or without a driver seems less popular in Sumatra than in Java or Bali, but could certainly be done out of bigger cities like Medan.
The same goes for renting motorbikes.