Sunday, January 5, 2014

Some Sweet Spots of North Sumatra

Samosir. Lake Toba. I don't think those two are strange names nowadays. I'm sure that when people think of what to visit in North Sumatra, they will definitely recommend those.

But I'm not sure how much people know about Medan as the capital city of North Sumatra. I personally often visit this city on a job, and every time, I always make time to visit the old part of the city just to feel the ambience.

This time, I had more time to see more about it. Of course, apart from Lake Toba and Samosir, and passing through little towns from Medan to Prapat and the way back, and Bukit Lawang.

Medan - enjoying the beautiful old buildings

Although they are not all well-preserved, just like in any other city in Indonesia, but there are some which are worth visiting.

1. Tjong A Fie mansion at Jalan Kesawan

Tjong A Fie arrived in Medan from Manchu in 1880. He became not only a successful businessman, but also a person highly respected for his kindness to people from any background, any walks of life. With his wealth, he contributed to the development of various places of worship - for any religion, and to the development of many infrastructures in Medan. He died in 1921, burried in Pulo Brayan and his death was mourned by many people.

The family's mansion is very well cared for. One of Tjong A Fie's grandchildren and the family still live there, and the family has also set up a special fund not only to take care of the mansion, but also to continue helping those who need help - regardless of race and religion.

The entry. The building is a combination of China, Malay, and colonial architectural designs

The dining room - I love the details on the ceilings, and note this: all ceilings are made of painted wood

The detail under the stairs, just outside the central courtyard

The central courtyard. This whole building was really built with a tropical weather in mind, with lots of openings. But I just can't imagine how to clean up all those windows...

A door to a room where photographs of Tjong A Fie during his life in Medan are exhibited

One of the room to receive important guests

Catching the afternoon's sun

"There on earth where I stand, I hold the sky. Success and glory consist not in what I have gotten, but in what I have given" - written on the entry ticket

2. Maimoon Palace

Don't imagine that you will get the same experience that you'll get when you visit Yogyakarta's Sultan's Palace. There are still families living in this palace, so only a very limited space is open for public.

Nevertheless, you can still feel the grandeur of the past. And, if you have time, you can rent Malay's Prince's and Princess's outfits, and pose as one in front of the throne chair :)

You can only go as far as this reception hall

It is now better taken care of, I should say, compared to about 7 years ago when I first visited this Palace

It can become a nice backdrop for your photo :)

The intricate lamp and ceiling

Some furniture left to be seen, not touched

I love the details on the ceilings

Yup, that's the throne.. You cannot sit on it, but you can take pictures right in front of it

3. Masjid Raya Medan

A short walk from Maimoon Palace, you'll get to this grand mosque. It is not the oldest mosque in the city but certainly the most beautiful. Built by a French architect, there are touches of European designs in its details, intertwined with moorish's and some Asian's touches.

A very beautiful building indeed...
With details that somehow, at some parts, remind me of some cathedrals in Europe

The pulpit, still in use until now
One of the four corners of the mosque

One of the entrance

Again, look at the detailed painted wooden ceiling
A nice glass window which unfortunately has been broken at many places

This somehow reminded me of a cathedral's windows

The interior

The main entrance

The Sultan's tomb

4. The Post Office

Among some colonial buildings that are preserved in Medan, this is one of them. It is located near Lapangan Merdeka, right across Bank Indonesia. I was amused to see that it displays the pictures of pigeon post!.

The whole design itself is quite lovely

The main entrance

Such a lovely 'lobby'

The ceiling, still with the original lamp

Pigeon posts! I love these glasses

and I love these tiles too!

A lovely tribute to the pigeons!
So Medan is not only about food, and of course not only just about the noisy and dizzying traffic!.

Bukit Lawang - enjoying parts of Leuser Mountain National Park

We did not actually plan to go to Bukit Lawang. Our original plan was to stay overnight at Berastagi while making our way to Prapat. Unfortunately nearing the time of our departure, the news about Sinabung which is a volcano that has been showing signs of eruption, were quite disheartening. And Berastagi is one of the area which will be filled with people fleeing from nearby villages as it is within the affected area if Sinabung is to erupt.

So we made plan B - we thought of Bukit Lawang.

Bukit Lawang, as part of Leuser Mountain National Park, is one of the breeding centers of orang utan. About 45 minutes walk, plus a short crossing over the river, you'll get to this breeding center. I once went there about 12 years ago, so I thought it would be an experience for our children to see these orang utans.

Unfortunately when we arrived, we just found out that there were only two trips made each day: at 8, and another at 1430. We arrived at 11.

Since we were there  anyway, we decided to just try walking and see what we would find. As we were walking, we found a sign stated 'Bat Cave 2km'. So we continued to walk.

Little did we know that we would have our first caving experience!. Not one to be repeated though - not with kids below 5 or those with a physical challenge because there were steep ascend and descend. If you've experienced caving before I don't think you'll say that it is a difficult one. Even I wouldn't say that it was tough, if we didn't have our kids with us!.

walking through the palm tree plantation...

then rubber tree plantation...

after about almost an hour of walking, we finally saw another sign to the Bat Cave!

ah but apparently we still had to walk some more...more palm trees...

....still palm trees...

...till we got to another sign! - we all hoped it was not that far anymore. Cip and I were not at all too thrilled thinking about having to carry our youngest interchangeably....

a little climb!

...and more rubber this time we were beginning to wonder if there was ever an end to this...

Oh yaaayyy!!!! We've arrived!!!. But we had to wait for a guide...

And what a delight! - while we were waiting, we heard noises on the trees above us. We looked up and voila - there she was!. A female WILD orang utan!!!

She didn't seem to be bothered. And the guide told us that the females are the ones often come down from their nests far up the hills. Males tend to be more solitary. there is a similarity amongst females, no matter what the species is! We females are all friendlier! :D

Finally we started making our ascend to the cave... Yup, don't expect anything fancy or really 'safe' - traditionally made wooden stairs would do

Tara had a bit of difficulty, but she persisted without complaining! so proud of her cause I knew she was scared. Oh and noticed those little circles in the back pocket of this guy - who is our guide?, yup, those were flashlights. I thought we would use a big flashlight...

and all those efforts took us to the main entrance of the cave

I'm sure there are other caves with more beautiful views, but to us, this was nice enough!

Just to be in this opening inside the cave, gave me goosebumps..

There were bats on the ceilings, but they are the small species. This cave actually has three openings. We only went to two of them because the last one was more difficult with narrower spaces to pass as our guide said, so we wouldn't want to risk it with our kids

The guard and guides...simple hut, traditional tools, no medical supplies if anything happens. I think it's OK if you don't take kids. I think we were a bit crazy taking our kids here, considering some of those steep steps we had to take :)

The view on our way back

After that long and tiring walk, 4km to and fro, kids were rewarded with this clean, shallow waters. This is Bahorok river, which in 2003 experienced a terrible flood, killing around 239 people (5 of them were tourists), and causing 1400 people to lose their homes. After a year this whole place was rebuilt. And I was here before the flood, I have to say that it is now a lot cleaner than it was

So if you are in North Sumatra, do experience a little bit of Leuser Mountain National Park. In Bukit Lawang you can also do forest trekking. It took around 3 hours, I think. I did that 12 years ago, quite an experience. If you're lucky you can meet the wild orang utans too.

Samosir - where time stands still 

I think everybody will love the beauty of nature that Lake Toba offers. But there is also something that is worth to explore in Samosir: the history.

And different from West Sumatra where it is rather easier to find the traditional Rumah Gadang not that far from Padang, it is not so in North Sumatra. Only when we were already at Samosir that we could see so many of them. And there are 'clusters' of houses, which represent different clans, which always consist of a monument like which is actually a tomb of their ancestors, and their houses are arranged on the right and left sides of the monument.

And again unlike in West Sumatra where there is no different styles of houses across all West Sumatra, you'll find different ones in North Sumatra.

There are actually 6 different architectural designs of Batak house. And you can see the significant difference just by comparing those in Samosir which is the main area for Batak Toba hence their housing style is called Rumah Batak Toba, and in Berastagi which is the main center for Batak Karo with their Rumah Batak Karo. Of course if you've got more time, you can explore the other 4.

There are several things that you can do in Samosir: (1) visit King Sidabutar's tomb - which has a megalithic style tomb made of a big rock. This is located not far from the ferry port at Tomok soonest you arrive from Prapat, (2) visit Batak Museum in Simanindo. They have Tor Tor dance at certain hours too, (3) visit Siallagan King's Chair at Ambarita where you'll get to hear the story of the punishment given by the kings, (4) rent a boat to take you across the lake to get a different view, (5) just ride around Samosir, immerse with the daily life, see the churches with lovely hills as their backdrops, look at the clusters of Batak houses, look at the interesting tombs which are often located alone in the middle of padi fields or up the hills. You can rent a motor bike at Samosir at a very cheap rate.

If you rent a boat that will take you around the lake, you can see that the landscape portrays Toba as a giant crater. And it will feel amazing that you are actually on a boat INSIDE a huge supervolcano's crater, that some 70,000 years ago has caused the earth's temperature to drop and causing the start of the ice age, after its largest known eruption on earth in the last 25 million years.

on the way to Prapat, we saw so many cows being let loose. at some parts it made us thought of India!

Waiting for the ferry at Ajibata. Yup, not asphalt, not properly developed, still...

We were the 125th car to be on board the ferry...little did we know we had to wait for so many hours before we could go. So your best option if you are coming in peak season is to drop your car in Prapat, cross without a car, and rent a car at Tomok or Tuk Tuk

we were there 2 days before Christmas and the queue was horrendous!

Lucky we had Lake Toba to entertain us in the twilight sky

And once you are in Samosir, drive or ride a bike around. You'll find spectacular views at almost every point!

Road at Tuk Tuk is not smooth, so just be careful. In fact not every part of the road in Samosir is good so just drive or ride carefully, especially, at night

breathtaking view...simply gorgeous

Oh and this you can expect to see: eagles!. We perhaps saw about 6 of them flying above us at different parts of the day, at different parts of the island

An eagle flying alone

If you don't have time nor money to go to Switzerland, but have enough to come to North Sumatra, then this may come close to it, and more! :)

At King Siallagan's cluster

At Batak Museum which is actually also a place of a King. These are the tombs

Unfortunately the condition is rather sorry to see, not so well preserved. These are the guard's quarters, also a place to receive guests, and place for the family to sit around when outside

A sample of a clan's cluster, this belongs to the Sitio's clan. That 'monument' like in the middle is the symbol of their ancestors

We accidentally found this by the road from Simanindo.. a very ancient tomb, or so we suspect

Another sample of a Batak Toba house

Those up the hills, are tombs. There are so many of those scattered around Samosir

A water fall from far away

Hanging Stone (not too clear on this picture actually, quite hard to get a clear picture with the boat being rocked by the waves). So the story was there was a lady being forced to marry a guy. She did not like the guy, so she committed suicide by jumping off the cliff. Unfortunately, her long hair got stuck in the rocks, so she was hung there, turned into a rock as the time went by. So as always, there are always stories to hear :)

A village by the water 
At Samosir, we stayed at Tabo Cottages ( A nice place owned by a German lady who's lived in North Sumatra for 20 years. She'll be more than happy to give you hints and tips about traveling in Samosir.

If you've got kids and they're not yet able to swim by themselves, Tabo has a nice swimming pool. And you can relax at that 'stage house' there in the afternoon, bring your coffee and enjoy the day goes by

Another place is Carolina Cottages (Phone: +62 625 451210 / +62 625 451100; Fax: +62 625 451250; Email: I came to this hotel 5 years ago just to have a look and fell in love with it instantly. Unfortunately, when I tried to make a booking in this cottage for our trip, which was in December and I made a call in October, they were already fully booked!. So just make sure you make your bookings quite early as this is quite a popular one, also on TripAdvisor!.

Prapat to Medan, or the other way around - bits and pieces of interesting stuff whichever route you take

Berastagi is an interesting place to stop. There is also an ancient Batak Karo village about 5km from Berastagi. But in Berastagi itself, you must stop and see the Church of St. Franciscus Asisi at Jalan Jamin Ginting.

I find it as a very interesting church as it has adapted so much of local signs and symbols, and of course Batak Karo's architectural design.

And if you are passing Pematang Siantar, worth to stop by for a while and search for 'Becak Motor' that has a British Military Service as its motorcycle. There are only a limited number of BMS cycles in the world, and some hundreds of them are in Pematang Siantar.

Passing through Tebing Tinggi, look at the old style shops along the roads. Maybe to some people they look like ready to collapse buildings. And maybe I am a hopeless romantic. But I still see some simple beauty in them - as years gone by, they still stand to fulfill their purpose.

Route and car rental 

We took different routes from Medan to Prapat, and from Prapat to Medan. Each offers you a different view, and is safe to pass.

From Medan to Prapat - we took the RED line, we went through Lubuk Pakam, Tebingtinggi, Pematangsiantar to Prapat. This route is relatively busier than the route we took going back to Medan, but I like it as it offers a different feel of these little towns that we passed. From Prapat to Medan we took the PURPLE line: Pematang siantar, Kabanjahe, Berastagi, Medan. A friend suggested us to go through the BLUE line to Kabanjahe because the view to Lake Toba is stunning from there. But we learned that the road is not good, very narrow. Since we have kids with us, we opted for the safer route

To rent a car, you can contact: Hutkeri Malau 081388573443 or 08159042582. A nice guy who will give you the best price - and you can rent the car with or without a driver.

And with those I must say I truly learned a lot.

Surely we can't say we know that much about North Sumatra now. What we did was taking 'samplers' of the land. Still, we were awed by what we saw. We were entertained by the stories we heard. And best, we again found out that there is more to learn under the surface.

And as always, this is just a beginning to explore more later... 

(R I R I)

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