For something so beautiful as Lake Toba, so near to home, it’s really a wonder how I’ve waited 28 years to visit. Or rather, visit again, as my parents apparently came here while my mum was pregnant with me. Finally made the trip this year, so here’s a 3 day trip to the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world, Lake Toba!
Getting from Kualamanu International Airport (Medan) to Lake Toba
We were barely up in the air from Changi Airport in Singapore when landing procedures started. Soon, we were out of the gates and ready to begin our adventure. The sign for public transport led us out of the terminal onto the onslaught of touts. We initially turned left and found a taxi stand quoting us 800,000 IDR for a private cab to Parapat (for the ferry to Lake Toba) and thought that was ridiculous. Turning back and heading in the other direction (turn right after exiting the terminal) Nice Trans staff (touting too) knew exactly what we wanted, and were waiting just before the bus berths.
We were ushered to a queue waiting to form a group of 6 to fill a shared taxi, at 80,000 IDR per person. We had 3 in our group and there were 2 French guys waiting too. After waiting for awhile, the Nice Trans staff quoted us 100,000 IDR to be able to leave immediately with 5 pax. A little dodgy but we decided to go ahead.
On the road to Parapat
The first hour went well, on decent roads in the city to the outskirts, where we stopped for lunch. The road after lunch was rather different though, as we headed into the mountains, winding along narrow pothole ridden roads through rubber plantations. Too many close shaves and 3 hours later the massive lake appeared out of a clearing in the trees. The entire car literally went ‘wow’. Except the driver, of course.
The driver made a stop in Parapat at the Nice Trans office and requested for payment then. There was a little confusion as the driver could not speak English, but our barely usable Bahasa allowed us to make a guess of what was going on. The driver disappeared into the office after we handed over the cash, and we were worried for a couple of moments. He reappeared, and minutes later we were at the pier.
Crossing from Parapat to Tuk Tuk by ferry
We stumbled out of the car in a daze, after 3 hours straight of being tumbled around like in a dryer. The ferry was loading up so there was some chaos as we picked up our bags and got shoved up the ferry by the boatmen who were getting a little impatient with these confused tourists.
All that adrenaline was replaced by a sudden sense of calm as the ferry floated out of the dock and started towards Samosir. Like in a fairy tale we drifted through low clouds and the massive island in the middle of the lake, along with its green hills, slowly came into view.
There are 2 kinds of ferries (might be hard to tell when which was running). One stops at each of the hotels on the edge of the lake, costs 20,000 IDR and takes slightly longer. The one we took went directly to Sosorgalung at Tuk Tuk where most tourists get off. This one takes 30 minutes and costs 15,000 IDR. Staff for the various guesthouses and hotels will be waiting, for guests with bookings and for those without.
We had booked a room at Sony Hotel Samosir, slightly beyond Tuk Tuk, and the manager and his staff got us on their bikes to their hotel over 2 trips.
Lake Toba – First Impressions
It was getting late after we had settled down, and the clear blue skies were slowly giving way to an overcast evening. Not to allow the weather to dampen our moods, we set off to explore the surroundings, in search of dinner.
Cute houses and rice fields line the quiet roads.
We eventually decided on Bamboo Restaurant. Or it was the next restaurant in sight when our stomachs called out. From a quick look TripAdvisor reviews looked decent. Deco was welcoming too. After placing our orders we went back to reading the reviews in detail. Turned out to be a bad idea as people were warning of severe food poisoning from their curry. Fortunately we did not order curry and innocently decided to just sit (or eat) it out. Food turned out fine, though. We had an anxious night expecting the diarrhoea that never came.
When the rain finally started, it looked like it was never going to end. Not a heavy downpour but at a constant, moderate pace. At the risk of looking really foolish, we got plastic bags from the restaurant and started the walk back with the bags over our heads. Just a tiny wit dryer than we would have been without the bags. An experience to remember with friends, but I never forgot my raincoat after that.
We had an easy day relaxing at the guesthouse then taking a stroll to Ambarita not too far away, before finishing the day with a traditional massage.
Lazy morning at Sony Hotel Samosir
It’s not often that I get to stay in some waterside accommodation, so I attempted to wake up to catch sunrise … and missed it. The overcast skies were some consolation, but the morning view (post sunrise) down by the lake was nonetheless beautiful.
We had a simple breakfast at the hotel’s little cafe overlooking the lake, and got back to lazing by the waterside. Perfect remedy for any overworked office rat (all of us).
Sony Hotel Samosir is a little old and out of the way but fortunately for that, we had plenty of peace compared to the hotels with boisterous crowds right in Tuk Tuk.
Walking to Ambarita
After a couple of hours we got restless and set off for Ambarita, less than 2 km (1.2 miles) from Sony Hotel Samosir. Walking along the single lane road following the coastline and hugging the mountains reminded me of my trip to another paradise-like place in Southeast Asia, Batanes. The waters here were much gentler though, but both reminded of how powerful nature is and makes everything feel small and insignificant.
Lake Toba is huge, and it is hard to imagine that the entire crater lake used to be part of an even larger volcano. Apparently the eruption that created Lake Toba, which happened approximately 74,000 years ago, was the largest known eruption in the last 25 million years on Earth. It had likely caused global climate change and wiped out large portions of human life. Feeling tiny standing on the ‘tiny’ island in the middle of the resulting crater lake with depths of 500m, it is difficult to grasp at the same time the magnificence and terror that nature conjures.
Wealthy Batak people on Samosir island are remembered with huge and fancy tombs of every shape and colour. According to a local, the sizes and elaborateness of these tombs are a sign of their status. These tombs can be seen along roads throughout Samosir.
Huta Siallangan/ King Siallangan’s Stone Chairs/ Ambarita Stone Chairs
Huta Siallangan is an ancient Batak village at the edge of Ambarita. There are a few preserved traditional Batak houses in the village, but the main attraction here is the 200 year old stone chairs within the compound of the village.
There are 2 sets of stone chairs in the village. This first set was used for official meetings between royalty and important members of the nearby communities.
At the further end of the village, there are another set of stone chairs, these ones apparently used for more morbid purposes. The longer stone table at the end was where enemies and criminals were supposedly tortured and executed.
And then there are stories of how those killed were subsequently cooked and eaten. Too much for kids but I assure you Batak people today are nowhere that vicious. Everywhere other than the usual tourist touts, local people were warm and welcoming.
More scenes from tropical paradise without the crowds as we continued towards the center of Ambarita. Towards ‘downtown’ Ambarita we saw our first convenience stores and ATMs on Samosir. Most of the modern amenities on the northern part of the island are at Ambarita and Tomok, though you should be able to get toiletries and other supplies at little shops along the roads.
Weekly Market at Ambarita (Pasar Tradisional Ambarita/ Ambarita Traditional Market)
We were about to turn back to head back to the guesthouse when we caught sight of a market. Later we found out that this market opens only once a week (Thursday). Lucky day for us! Local markets are always fun, and food at a local market can seldom go wrong.
First bite, martabak, which can be found throughout Indonesia. There is something similar in Singapore named differently, and also filled differently.
There were lots of wares on sale from clothes to shoes to household gadgets in the ‘dry’ part of the market. Not that many traditional stuff though. And so, next stop, mee goreng!
No 2 mee goreng are the same. This one was slightly wetter, but no less delicious. It started to rain so we took our time with the food and got some coffee to pass time.
When the rain lightened we crossed over to the other building at the back, the ‘wet’ side where fresh produce is sold.
Really interesting to see all the local ingredients and people just going about doing their stuff. And for us, playing the part of unusual tourist specimen for the locals’ examination.
On the way back we stopped by Mas Cottages for lunch. The hotel looked really attractive so we had to check it out. They had cottages by the lake, and a large restaurant overlooking the lake. Mas Cottages also offers other tourist services. Food was decent, a safe choice if you’re less adventurous with food. Other than Indonesian fare, they also have some Dutch dishes.
Rough prices of tourist services at Lake Toba:
(approximated from prices at Mas Cottages as of April 2018)
- One day tour – Stone Chairs (Ambarita), Simanindo, Tomok, View Point (Tele)
- By car: 750,000 IDR
- By motorbike: 120,000 IDR
- Traditional Oil Massage: 120,000 IDR per hor
- Laundry: 20,000 IDR per kg
- Shared taxi from Parapat to –
- Medan: 120,000 IDR per person
- Kualamanu International Airport (KNO): 120,000 IDR per person
- Silangit Airport: 500,000 IDR per car
- Berastagi: 160,000 IDR per person
- Bukit Lawang: 220,000 IDR per person
- Bukt Tinggi: 380,000 IDR per person
- Ketambe: Upon request
- Singkil: Upon request
- Other activities –
- Speedboat tour to waterfall and local village
- Banana boat and jetski
In the afternoon we had a 2 hour massage in our room, perfect in rainy weather after a long day walk. With that earlier late lunch we had a later dinner too, deciding to have it at Joe’s Restaurant nearby, which had great reviews on TripAdvisor.
We were the only guests that night and ordered the recommended Chicken Ala Batak, alongside couple of other dishes. I guess because it was cooked from scratch, the chicken took very long to arrive and we were famished. The chicken wasn’t famous for nothing though, it was really tasty and well cooked with a myriad of ingredients. Nice hearty meal to end off a cold rainy day!
Day 2: One day tour of Lake Toba by car
We decided to hire a driver to bring us to the sights around Lake Toba. It is possible to rent a motorbike for that too, but as road conditions at some parts are very bad it is inadvisable to do that without substantial experience on a bike.
Along the coastal road on Samosir Island
Our driver first headed east towards Tomok, to see the majestic waterfall emerging from the foilage and plunging straight down the face of the mountains. The view of that waterfall from a distance, being able to see all of it, with fields in the foreground, was amazing. We could only guess as to how the rest of the day’s scenery was to be.
Museum Huta Balon Simanindo
Our first stop was at Simanindo, at the Huta Balon Batak Museum. The museum used to be the home of a king, and has a small collection of Batak artefacts. The main draw though, is the traditional dance at 10.30 am and 11.45 am daily. However, we did not manage to catch the dance, as it was Good Friday on the day we visited (Batak people are predominantly Christian), and the timings were changed.
From Simanindo, it is a long drive around the island to cross over to the mainland at Pangururan, another hub in Samosir. There are interesting sights and scenic spots along the way, such as more elaborate tombs of rich people, and panoramas of rice fields and mountains.
Tele Tower View Point (Menara Pandang Tele)
Our next stop was on the mainland at the edge of the caldera, for a view over the caldera and surroundings. After crossing over from Samosir Island to the mainland the road climbed into the mountains, and through breaks in the foliage we could see the rolling green hills and turquoise blue waters.
Definitely not a view I’d expect in Southeast Asia, with so much green and blue all around. At such altitudes, the climate is slightly different from the city just a few hours away, and the difference in climate can be observed by the difference in plants and trees here.
We were so mesmerised by the views around that we didn’t notice storm clouds starting to roll in. We barely made it back to the car when it started to pour heavily. Predictable, going by the weather on the past few days, but unpredictably quick in the change.
Air Terjun Efrata
Next, we checked out the waterfall that was visible from the tower, Air Terjun Efrata. Fortunately, the rain lightened slightly when we arrived.
Actually I think it is a better view of the waterfall from the parking lot rather than right by the waterfall, though the little drinks stall is in the way
What better way to pass a cold raining afternoon than with hot coffee and cup noodles. And so we had both. Seemed that coffee around Lake Toba is often prepared by allowing the grounds and coffee to overflow from the cup, much like lava from a volcano. It can get very sweet though, so you might want to let the stall owner know to put less/no sugar with your coffee if you’re not used to it.
When the rain stopped, we continued on the road winding around the mountains, which occasionally opened up to huge rice fields spreading from end to end of the valley. I couldn’t get a good shot but the experiences was spectacular.
Aek Rangat Hot Spring
There are a couple of establishments in the area offering hot springs/ accommodation in the area of Aek Rangat, where hot sulphur water flows from deep underground. The one we went to is located in a small complex behind Edys Dayanto Restaurant and Accommodation. There is a public one (split into male/female sections) which can be accessed for ‘free’ just by buying some food and drinks at the restaurant, and a private pool which can be rented for 100,000 IDR an hour. 100,000 IDR for an hour for 3 persons didn’t sound too bad so we went with that option.
The private one was much cleaner, though changing facilities/ toilet was very basic with a small tap and pail for you to wash up after you’re done. Hot spring water constantly flowed into the pool, keeping it quite hot. An hour was just about right to enjoy the soothing warm sulphur water. Definitely worth 100,000 IDR for that experience.
Pantai Pasir Putih Parbaba (Parbaba White Sand Beach)
Back on Samosir Island, we had a late lunch of Ayam Penyet at Pangururan before continuing to our final stop of the day, at Parbaba White Sand Beach (Pantai Pasir Putih Parbaba). As incredible as it sounds, there is actually a sandy beach on Samosir, in the middle of a volcanic crater lake!
Parbaba White Sand beach concluded our one day tour of the further sights around Samosir. With all that rainy weather in the afternoon we were compensated with a double rainbow when we arrived back at the guesthouse. What a way to end an awesome day!
After 3 nights on Samosir it was time to go. We thought we were leaving Lake Toba for good, but soon found out that with Lake Toba so incredibly huge, we would still be spending many hours driving alongside it in in order to get to our next stop, Sipisopiso. Couldn’t complain though, with the views along the way.
One more sunrise
Finally more successful in getting up for sunrise, and the skies were less overcast too. Glad to be able to catch a beautiful sunrise before leaving Samosir.
Back to Parapat by ferry
This time, the ferry stopped by all the guesthouses/hotels by the lake. We boarded around 10.20am and the trip took slightly over an hour as the ferry made its way around Tuk Tuk. The guesthouses were supposed to have informed the boatmen beforehand which stops to make and most went smoothly, other than a couple of U turns possibly due to miscommunication. The trip costs 20,000 IDR.
Having seen much of Lake Toba from Samosir Island and from the mainland the previous day, it was a nice change of perspective to see the lake and island from the lake itself. Lake Toba did not disappoint, with stunning views all around, all again.
Our crowd free days on Lake Toba came to an abrupt end at the port of Parapat. Lots of shoving and pushing around as people moved in different directions along narrow, crowded streets. Locals seem to refer to Tigaraja and Parapat interchangeably so don’t be too alarmed if they refer to one of these terms. Somehow we managed to find our driver in the crowd. Our guesthouse in Berastagi had arranged for our transport from Parapat to Sipisopiso then to Berastagi for around 700,000 IDR for the trip. It should be possible to bargain for a little less if you’re on a tight budget.
While the street from the dock was shared among pedestrians and stalls, further out along the main road we had another contender, the cars and other vehicles squeezing through. Somehow despite all that apparent chaos everyone was pretty calm. I’d imagine temperatures rising and tempers flaring if something like that happened in Singapore.
Bukit Lihi Star
Traffic got a lot smoother once we were out of Parapat and driving along the road that follows the coastline of Lake Toba. Views of Samosir were all around, yet it is hard to get tired of it. We first stopped for a break at Bukit Lihi Star for food and coffee, and some time to enjoy the view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island.
Teko Sima/ Simarjarunjung
I thought that it was quite incredible how we had been on the road for a few hours, yet still remained alongside the lake. Enterprising locals saw that as opportunities to open tourism facilities, from coffee stalls to photo booths to parks and accommodation, all the way along the route. We made one more photo stop at Teko Sima, around the Simarjarunjung area, where there were photo booths with various Instagram worthy props every few steps of the way. Most of these are labelled with prices per photograph but there didn’t seem to be anyone around enforcing it. Here’s one of them:
That was one of last few shots along Lake Toba before the road to Sipisopiso waterfall turned inland. Our adventures in North Sumatra continued at Sipisopiso waterfall, a stunning sight to behold, before a memorable home stay followed by a hike up a slightly more active volcano. For all those and more, come back soon for my next post!