Lake Toba.The largest lake in South East Asia, home to the Batak people and their customs. A place many have heard of but few have actually seen. Should you go? Whether you are interested in the water activities on the lake, the interesting customs of its Christian / Animist people, the sceneries or the magic mushrooms, there is something for you in Lake Toba.
Now… the place is far from pretty much everything so you need quite some time to get there, and to be honest, although you can find a little bit of everything at Lake Toba, we did not find the place as stunning as some other places in the region. But Lake Toba is a good all-in-one destination a bit off the beaten track (well at least the western one, as the destination is quite popular with Indonesians). But there is something special on Samosir island… an atmosphere (even if you don’t eat mushrooms).
You need a 3 days at the very minimum to go there as the journey takes a good 6 hours from Changi combining flight, drive and boat transfers. 4 days (or more) is probably a more relaxing option.
To reach Lake Toba you will need to take a plane + a car + a boat.
Fly direct to Medan Kualanamu airport (that’s the new airport). Silkair, Jetstar, Tigerair have daily flights offering wide range of schedules and fares.
Getting there: SIN to KNO : Silkair : 7:30 AM – 7:55 AM (1h25 flight) Coming back: KNO to SIN: Silkair 8:40 PM – 11.05 PM
Return tickets from SGD 250.
Get your ticket NOW to enjoy the best fares. Use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flight or check directly on the airlines websites (as some flights may not be visible on Skyscanner).
If you can, take an extra half day as you will need a 6 hours in each direction
Getting from Medan airport to Lake Toba
Food, money change, souvenir shops, car rental are available at the airport. The airport is brand new (it opened in 2013). It’s actually quite popular with Indonesians who come spend some time at the airport to do some shopping or watch the planes.
The airport is very far from the city center. Reaching Medan will take you 1 hour or so. So the stay over in Medan is not really a good option. You can find creepy hotels closer to the aiport in some industrial zones if you want to spend the night and take a car early the next morning but there is no point doing so if you take an early flight, it’s not worth the pain).
OK, now, take a deep breath.
From Medan Kualanamu airport to Parapat (or Prapat) – small port facing Tuk Tuk peninsula, main access to Samosir island-, you have a few options:
Private car (3 to 4 hours): drivers will approach you at the arrival lobby. Most of them are somehow related to guest houses in Tuk Tuk. As usual, negotiate and confirm a few points (see our transport page). It’s also a good idea to pick a driver who knows Medan well and know the shortcuts to get you to the airport on time on your way back. Prices are around IDR 650,000 for the car, driver, petrol, tolls.
Taxis (3 to 4 hours) : Kualanamu airport has an organized taxi counter with official taxis waiting. Using the meter should result in a similar budget with a private car, but for the same price, you should better take a private car (usually a Toyota Kijan) as you will have less space in a taxi car.
Public transportation (4-5 hours, depending on traffic in Medan): frequent buses link Medan to Parapat. Take a taxi to the bus station and jump in the next departing bus. Around IDR 25,000.
The road from Medan to Parapat is long and, at times, a bit scary. Bikes, cars, buses and trucks overtake anywhere with or without visibility. Well, nothing unusual in Indonesia. If you’re not scared, chances are you will be sick anyway (the road is a bit sloppy). Overall the road is in good condition.
If you have time and are looking for a few stops on the way there, you can always try one of these:
Stop next to the main road at Dodol Donny in Desa Sei Buluh: eat authentic local food and go to the backyard where they prepare the dodol, a toffee-like confection.
Stop at any local town market it you pass by a the right time. Ask your driver to show you round.
Visit a rubber tree plantation.
Explore Pematangsiantar: 2nd largest city of Sumatra, rich of history, nice colonial buildings.
Once in Parapat, you have to take a ferry to Tuk Tuk peninsula where all the homestays and hotels are found. Regular daily services with the public boat (45min): IDR 10,000 per person. Here is the schedule as of January 2014
Alternatively, you can check with your resorts if they can arrange a private boat transfer (but may not be worth it as the boats run every hour and are very cheap).
An alternative route
One last thing…There is another way. We would recommend this one only to people who have plenty of time or who are… CRAZY. If you Google the itinerary from Samosir to Medan, you will notice that there is a way to link the 2 by car, without having to take a boat. That’s the Berastagi road.
The journey is a long 8 to 9 hours drive on small roads. If you go for it, take it from Medan to Lake Toba as you will not have to worry about catching a flight. And… only do it one way. Take the shorter way (via Parapat and ferry) for the return.
The rewards for this long journey include nice road trip views: deep jungle, steaming volcano (Sinabung), highlands farming, Sipiso-Piso waterfall, Tele viewpoint, Batak villages. Now, to be honest, we took it and did not think it was worth it. Yes, some sceneries are nice but adding an additional 4 hours to the transfer for that is probably too much. You can see most of this stuff from Samosir (more on that on our To See & Do section). So, take this route only if you want to feel that “so this is what deep Indonesia looks like” moment. Some portions of the road are pretty bad (you’ll be happy if you see the speedometer at 20 km/h and don’t bump your head on the top every 2 minutes) but bear with it and don’t panic, the road is overall OK.
There are many options in TukTuk, on Samosir island. Most are cheap guesthouses or homestays. Most have (very) low quality and services standards. There are a few higher end places (well, relatively speaking) with swimming pool, comfortable beds and decent bathrooms. We stayed at Samosir Villa resort (probably the highest end option available there). It is OK and it’s not like there are better options around but forget about a 5 star boutique retreat though. Lake Toba is very popular with Chinese Indonesian families for Chinese New Year. Book early.
There are few sites to visit on Samosir island. The road is in poor condition on Tuk Tuk but is better on Samosir island (but some parts are bad).
The best is to rent a motorbike. You can rent a motorbike in any of the shops or guest houses for IDR 70,000 to 90,000 a day.
Another option is to rent a car with a driver for the day, IDR 650,000 for the day (yes, we know, it’s a bit of rip off). There is no formal car rental agency, just ask your guesthouse.
Finally, you can try to hire a betjak (motorbike with a side car and a driver) about IDR 150,000 for a half day but they are quite hard to find in Tuk Tuk as most of them are used by locals to go to the market.
Stone chairs in Ambarita
Nice little site with a few houses and the famous stone chairs. Lots of souvenir shops around. You will have to pay a IDR 2,000 entrance fee. 5 km from Tuk Tuk
King Sidabutar grave in Tomok
The graves are not mind blowing. They are up a little street full of souvenir shops. 5 km from Tuk Tuk. If you have little time, prefer the stone chairs in Ambarita and skip the grave.
House of King Simalungun & Batak museum in Simanindo
The museum is 19 km from Tuk Tuk. It’s an old traditional house that has been restored into a museum. Open from 10AM to 5PM. Admission fee IDR. 30,000
Batak villages on the northern part of Samosir
Drive North and follow the main road to Tele. On the way, you will see many small traditional villages with nice houses. Most of them are very simple but nice to see.
If you continue and cross the canal between Samosir and the ‘mainland’, you will go up a sloppy road that will take you to Tele. From there (and before from the road), you will have a nice view of the lake. The panoramic tower is in bad condition and seems almost abandoned (but you will have to pay IDR 2,000 to enter -at least if the guard is not sleeping). The view from there is good but it’s probably better to stop before you reach the tower to get even better views in a more natural environment.
You can do plenty of treks. Anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days treks (overstaying in some villages – in rustic conditions) are available. Ask your guesthouse for more information.
Discovering local cuisine
Lake Toba is very famous for its magic mushrooms and you will see advertising for mushrooms along the road in Tuk Tuk. At your own risk of course. These mushrooms cause hallucinations so your trip to Toba may take you even further. “Eat” responsibly.
Batak music & dancing
Some guesthouses arrange Batak music and dance performances (ask around to know when they play). It’s not as bad as you may think. It’s a folk music with interesting instruments (including -at least for our show -a simple but efficient beer bottle but also some nice traditional instruments).
Internet access is available in most guesthouses and hotels.
What to pack for Lake Toba
Nights can be cool on Samosir island. If you plan to go for a trek, check out our trekking pack
Your main bag
That’s the one you leave at the hotel. Ideally you want to avoid checking in your luggage when flying. So check the weight and dimensions for hand carry luggage with your airlines (some airlines will allow only 7kg, some will allow up to 10kg). From head to toes.
Short sleeves tops: your main outfit. Everybody will see them on all your pictures. You really want to take that old Mickey Mouse T-shirt? Be mindful that you will be in a different environment so it might be a good idea to adjust your wardrobe.
Long sleeves tops: to protect yourself from the sun (if you’ve stayed for 5 hours on a motorbike with short sleeves you know what I mean) or to enter religious buildings or to protect yourself from mosquitoes in the evening.
Pullover. Yes I know, you’re going to a country where the temperature never goes down below 25 degrees and you need to pack a pullover? You will thank us when you’re back. Remember that flight during which you were freezing? Or this museum where the aircon is set to the “polar bear” temperature?
Short/skirt (you should be able to chose the appropriate one by yourself).
Trousers for the same reasons you need to take long sleeves tops. Jeans are usually not a good option. They are heavy and keep you too warm.
Underwear: well, you know. If you plan to walk or ride motorbikes for long hours, take something comfortable as the combination heat + friction can make you regret this sophisticated silk underwear. Cotton is good.
Shoes: one pair of flip flap and one pair of confortable shoes. Remember that you are going to spend most of the time on your feet. Forget about high heels and leave your Westons at home.
Swimsuit: even if you don’t plan to go to the beach, you never know. A nice river, a swimming pool, a heavy rain? Always have one with you.
Raincoat and protection for your bag. Even if you are visiting the country during the “best season”, you never know what the sky will be like.
Torch: take a pocket torch with you if you visit countries where the power is not reliable… Can come very handy when stuck in the dark in your room.
Toilet bag: Shampoo, soap, toothbrush & toothpath, deodorant, sun screen, tiger balm. Ideally, all these in miniature formats.
Sleeping bag liner (if you plan to stay in very cheap or dirty places, not required if you are staying in a 5-star hotel…)
Your ITstuff: iPad, eBook, laptop, chargers, memory card, batteries, etc.
Dryer sheets: they will help keep a fresh smell in your bag.
Your small bag
That’s the one you keep with you, all the time. Hence, a backpack is the best option.
Your passport, cash, credit cards and other life saving items like your insurance card with emergency contact details. Not a bad idea to put them in a zip-lock bag in case it rains. It will keep your documents dry.
Your driver’s licence if you plan to rent a car or a motorbike (some countries are quite particular about this so take it with you in case you are not sure, even for a motorbike rental).
Your emergency medical kit: painkillers, mosquitoes repellent, dressing/plaster, disinfectant, anti diarrhea, eyewash
Tissues and toilet paper (you will thank me later). Remember that in a lot of countries, you will not be provided napkins when having a meal.
Water – plastic bottles are a good option as they are lighter than a gourd/flask.
Biscuits (always buy some before you go when you are not sure what you will find. Always have “emergency” biscuit and water in case you cannot find food around and need to recharge batteries)
Sunglasses: you’ll need them. Take them even if it’s raining. Weather can change very fast in the region.
Scarf (krama, or any kind of fabric that you can use to put around your neck, put on your head to protect it from the sun, cover your shoulders in temples, dry your sweat, etc). Can come very handy in some situation. It will not stay clean for long so it’s wise to pick a dark color…
Camera and its protection.
Remember that this one comes on top of the Regular pack (above)
Beach towel or equivalent (pareos / sarongs are lighter)
Snorkelingequipment: mask, scuba, (fins?)
Shoes you can wear on the beach or in the water (to protect your feet from being cut by corals)
Dry bag if you plan to go on a boat and want to keep your stuff dry.
Well, you will probably adjust your bag after a few trips. Remove the stuff that you have not used and add the one that you missed. Post a comment to share your tips!
Happy packing (it’s the worse part of the trip but it’s worth it…) and travelling!
Time zone: Jakarta, Sulawesi: GMT + 7, 1h ahead of Singapore;
Bali has no time difference with Singapore
Currency: Indonesian Rupiah (IDR)
Phone: + 62
Electricity: 220V 50 Hz
Immigration and airport taxes on arrival
If you are eligible you will need to pay for a visa on arrival. The price is USD 25 or the equivalent in other currencies. It is valid for 30 days. Check as it may vary (some airports charge 22 EUR, some others 25 EUR).
If you travel to Bintan, Batam, or Karimun, you can get a 7 day Visa on Arrival for USD 10.
On busy weekends, expect to wait for quite a while at the immigration counter.
Make sure your notes are perfectly clean and without any note or stain. USD bills must be from 2003 or more recent. Coins are not accepted. Change (if any) is given in Ruppiah.
On departure, you will need to pay the airport fees. These fees are not included in your tickets when you book your trip (hence the price difference between the inbound and outbound flights to Indonesia). They vary from one airport to the other. They are usually around IDR 150,000 per person. You need to pay these in Rupiah
National Public Holidays in Indonesia
New Years Day
Chinese New Year
Hari Raya Nyepi
Hari Raya Puasa
Hari Raya Puasa
* check the exact date as it varies from one year to another, check this website for other years.When Public Holidays falls on a Sunday, the following day will be Public Holiday.
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