May 2, 2017

Travel tips - Medan, Lake Toba, Berastagi, Mt. Gundaling

Spent the long May day holiday weekend in Medan & surrounding areas. Here are some tips for travelers.


I traveled solo and during such trips I generally rough it out. I take public transport, never join package tours and generally explore without any pre-set plans or agendas or tick off lists. Other than some basic precautions I also generally don't tend to be paranoid, whether it is about eating local street food or going into quiet streets etc. I generally find the journey is as much the destination, as the saying goes. I mention this, because if you are a "typical" traveler you may find my ways & suggestions completely useless! Read on, you have been warned!

Medan Airport, city

1. Medan airport is the only one in Indonesia to have railway line to city.  I did not use that since my hotel provided free transport. If you are taking a taxi, try out the "scenic" route - not the highway to town. Not that the highway is a real expressway, but the narrow streets of rural Medan through which the shorter (distance-wise) route passes to reach the city center is interesting. You will also get a preview of the sort of traffic you can expect all over Medan and everywhere.

2. Speaking of traffic, it is just amazing the amount of traffic you will come across, not just in Medan but even during drives to Lake Toba and other places. You might think everyone owns a Toyota Kijang or Avanza 7-9 seaters unless they are going around in becaks and mini buses. Normal sedans and mini cars that clog the streets of India are almost rare. Almost every street is packed with cars, at all times, even well into the night. Same goes for the "highways" which are actually normal roads. But then this is Indonesia's third largest city and Sumatra's biggest.

3. You will come across so many friendly, polite and helpful locals that you will never be angry or upset even when you (inevitably) run into touts, brokers, fixers and others who are there to mislead you and scam you. Just take it in your stride, move on! That's my motto. More specific instances in posts below.

4. The city itself is not really a tourist destination so better to stay in your final destination (Lake Toba or wherever). But as in any South East Asian city, there are massive malls (visited the Centerpoint which is worth a visit) and a museum or two which I did not bother visiting. BTW the Centerpoint mall solved the problem of finding the hammer when you have the nail ready! (see picture)
Hammer & Nail

5. For Indians: There is a nice South Indian temple (Mariamman Koil) since Medan has a small Tamil speaking community. In fact, Tamil connection to Sumatra go very far back. The Karo Hill tribes have sub-sects that use typical Indian caste / community names! I ran into one guy with surname of "Brahmana" and he even proudly told me that is a "upper caste" in India! Practically every Indonesian you run into will fondly speak of Bollywood. In fact many local language songs that you hear played on buses and elsewhere will sound familiar - because the tunes have been lifted from old as well as new Hindi songs. This goodwill rubs off and you will always be treated well.

6. Popular local transport options are "becak" - side carriages attached to Honda 100cc motorbikes. Or mini buses. State run public transport is practically non existent. Mini bus fares are supposedly fixed, at least for locals. I see them usually handing out 2 or 3,000 Rp after the journey.  But if you ask for the price (at the end of journey, not while you board) you will invariably be quoted higher though it never exceeds 5,000Rp. So just pay, don't complain!. Becaks are a different proposition, you have to fix fare in advance and bargain a bit. They start from Rp.10,000. Many roads in Medan are one-way so it is a bit confusing to figure out where you need to alight or board. But the effort is worth it. There are of course, air conditioned taxis (BlueBird etc). But I am not here to talk about the luxury options!

6. For non alcoholic local food try out the Merdeka Food court near the Aston Hotel - a row of fast food and other restaurants and the Ayam Penyet Ria chain serves good food. The boys serving there are super polite and nice. Yet another nice place to try out is the "The Coffee Crowd" - one outlet (at least) at the Brastagi supermarket. They place nice Malay style Kueh (sweets made of rice or other starch, stuffed with coconut etc) on the table and you can eat whatever and just pay for what you eat. The coffee too was superb - not the "local" style or Starbucks style but a cross that is pretty good. It is also popular with locals.

Mariamman Koil
Mariamman Koil

Trip to Lake Toba


I took a bus and yes it is possible if you are ready to be patient and adventurous. First get to a bus terminus known as "Amplas". This is just a run down shed with zero facilities and even rural Indian bus stations should look like Changi airport once you see this!

Mini buses go to Amplas from various points in the city and most will have Amplas as destination boards on their windshield so it is easy to spot. Charge about 5000Rp. for the trip from city. I took one of them.
Just remember - the mini buses don't drop you right in front of the bus terminus - rather the main street from where you have to walk about 200m to your left to find it. Becak drivers will feign ignorance if you ask for directions and offer to bring you there. Just ask anyone else. Unless you are happy to pay the poor guy.

Buses going to Parapat  (the town from where you take ferry across Lake Toba) are the usual normal size ones, not mini buses. They are not air-conditioned. I was asked to pay Rp. 40,000 though I suspect a local would pay less. Anyway that's only S$4 for a distance of 160+km and a five hour ride, so I am not complaining. The ride is fairly long on the bus which tends to get crowded in some sections of the route. Thankfully it had no music. But you do have people smoking all over the bus even with windows shut.

Trick is to figure out where to alight since Parapat has several stops and ferry terminals. Best is you download offline Google maps and mark off spots in advance to minimise trouble. I didn't bother and anyway my battery was down. I was fortunate to be guided by two very friendly young girls (who it turned out, were going for some Church related charity work). I asked the conductor and he plus two or three other guys in the bus all pointed to various places en route as the spot to alight for the ferry! But the girls (using few English words but mostly sign language) asked me to wait for them since they were also taking same ferry.  I guess the other places are private terminals where you get fleeced or worse. Or may be they are genuine alternative boarding points, you never know.

The moral of the story is, be skeptical, alert and ask whoever you think is not in the "tourist trade". That practically eliminates 99.99% of folks you run into in Parapat and Toba. Go with your instincts and be prepared to ignore unsolicited advise with a polite smile.

Anyway the ferry itself is the best way to spend Rp.8,000 (not even S$1) in your life. The journey to Tomok (a terminal across the lake, in the Samosir island) takes about an hour and you can sit on the deck and click away to glory! The weather is nice and cool too. You can also ride to Tuk Tuk another spot on the same island a bit further away. That's where many of the hotels and accommodation is. I am not sure if the same ferry goes there or you need to take a different one, so please check in advance. To me it didn't matter.

Aboard the ferry!

In Tomok a local tour guide in a motorbike magically appeared to be waiting for us to alight (arranged by the girls thru SMS perhaps) and offered to bring me around for Rp.100k. He declared himself to be a Catholic as if that would magically erase all my concerns about being scammed. Since I was short of time I agreed and within about 90 minutes he brought me to a few places riding pillion - the King's tomb, Batak houses, a couple of photo-opp spots etc. It was drizzling throughout. These are standard tourist spots so you can check them out on the net.
Batak house

One of my fellow travelers in the ferry back to Parapat was a broker. He chatted me up, claimed to be working for a tour agency and told me all buses to Medan stop after 6pm and my only choice is to take a car (Rp. 550k as a special favor) or stay overnight (he passed me the card of a hotel).  Here again, I let my instinct guide me and quickly alighted from the ferry and walked to the main street.

The ferry had dropped me off at a different spot on the Parapat side where buses don't halt. Luckily I asked someone and he suggested I take a mini bus. I did and this brought me there, another 20 minute ride away on the narrow streets of the lakeside city.

It was late in the evening (7.30pm+) and the spot where this mini bus dropped me was actually a shop (one of those Rumah Makans or restaurants) not a proper bus stop. But that's how things work here. I got a bit suspicious and walked away. I asked a roadside fruit seller and it turned out he too is a broker. Instead of guiding me to the terminus, he asked me to wait right there and said he will stop one for me! By then I had run out of any options. But then he did deliver! A few minutes later one mini bus (which you'd never have guessed in a thousand years as the one you need) was waved to a stop and I boarded. My fruit seller never expected any money  (I could see him telling something to the driver, presumably has a small cut) but I anyway tipped him. So not all brokers are bad. Just have to let them earn their living as long as you are not getting ripped off there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The ride back cost me same - Rp.40k

The return journey also took about 6 hours and the entire route (160+ kms) was about as busy as a city street in peak hour, even well past midnight! Even to overtake a slow tanker or truck, the mini bus had to patiently wait for several kilometers since the road is two lane and the constant flow of traffic from the other side makes overtaking almost impossible. The usual smoking crowd was there too and added to this was the most horrendous music you can imagine, at super high volumes! But then this is where the kindness and friendliness of the locals come to your rescue too. Guided by a fellow passenger, the mini bus dropped me right in front of my hotel with a considerable de-tour even though it was well past 1am! Had he dropped me at Amplas I would had much tougher time getting back to the Hotel.

Practically every house in Tuk Tuk is a boarding house, guest house with a "Ada Kamar" sign unless it is a laundry shop or eating place or some such tourist related facility. I saw several foreign tourists walking around presumably staying there for days.

Samosir has a slight European touch to it, primarily because of the prominent Church spire that you can see from the ferry and because it is not (yet) overrun with ugly constructions. Most houses look clean, neatly built and freshly painted. Streets were spotless too unlike Berastagi/Gundaling. The sheer cliffs that form the backdrop of the island with huge waterfalls and thick forests are a great sight to see. I am pretty sure there's lot to trek, see and relax. Pity I had to rush back. Next time I would rather stay here and not Medan.

So the entire trip cost me less than Rp.150k or about S$15!

Berastagi & Mt. Gundaling


Next day I took a bus to Berastagi a hill town that is base camp for visiting two famous volcanoes - Mt. Sinabung and Sibayak.
The first one is still spewing lava so trekking has been banned. The other one, I was told, is a 20-30 minute ride from Berastagi to the base and is an hour + trek up.

If you are going there, get dropped off at a spot known as "Tugu" which is easy to spot since there is a huge statue in the middle of a circle in the road.  (see picture). Again, I was dropped off at the wrong spot by the bus driver from Medan and with the help of a super friendly local guy that spoke excellent English, a rare bit of luck, I took another mini bus to the right spot - Tugu. This local even offered his phone number to call in case I get into any trouble. Amazing. I declined since I don't have local SIM and calling overseas on roaming would be the biggest corporate, legalised rip-off that puts all other mini rip-offs by these poor folks trying to feed their families to shame. I am not complaining again because to be fair to the bus guy, he did ask me something in Bahasa (about where I am heading, perhaps) but since I didn't understand and couldn't anyway reply, it is not his fault.

The mini bus to Berastagi departs from another spot in Medan - known as Padang Bulan abbrv as P.Bulan in the mini bus sign boards. Again, this no terminus as such, just a spot on the road where buses going up start from. I was lucky to ask my mini bus driver at the 'right' time - he had just passed that spot and I simply had to walk back 100m or so. The bus departed almost immediately and it was a 2 hour ride (Rp.15k).

Anyway, from Tugu, you can take a hike, ride horse or take another mini bus (Rp.3000, which I took. The same bus returns in a loop back to Tugu) to the top of the little hill known as Gundaling. Frankly this is not a great place to visit and resembles Madikeri in India - overcrowded, strewn with litter, lots of ugly construction, souvenir shops and so son. The saving grace is the weather, given the altitude. The place was overflowing with local tourists from Medan who come in cars, motorbikes etc with their families simply to enjoy the weather, take selfies and picnic. You simply can't find a 10sqft spot that is free!

From top of this hill, on a clear day you can see both volcanoes but then it was drizzling and cloudy that day.

Back at Tugu, there is a Tourist Information office of sorts right at the junction of the roads that heads off to Gundaling. I spoke to a guy there and he offered me some friendly advise. Instead of going up to Gundaling, I could have gone in another direction to the base of Mt. Sibayak. That's about 5-6km away. But going up needs a guide & it was too late in the day. There is a warning sign posted in the walls of the office listing about a dozen names of western tourists that disappeared without trace or turned up dead going all alone!.

He even added ominously that there are two more names, recent additions to the casualty list they haven't updated! The sunrise from the top of Sibayak is supposedly great and the view across to the bright flow of the other live volcano - Sinabung is also good I was told.

That's for another day. I just took the same overcrowded smoky, blaring loud bus back to Medan. Because it was the long holiday weekend, about a dozen guys (and even one lady) were riding on the roof of the bus! Cost - Rp.10k. guess I was given a discount because by then I was acting more local, paying only at the end and not asking how much.

Total cost of trip - Rp.40k!