Last summer, after staying in lovely Bukit Lawang for three weeks, I took four days to visit some other parts of Sumatra: Berastagi/Brastagi, on the slopes of the volcanic Mt. Sibayak, where I planned to spend two nights and hike up the volcano, and gorgeous Lake Toba and the island Samosir in the middle of it. Then I would loop back through Siantar and Medan to return to Bukit Lawang. I planned mostly to take public buses, except for two parts: the first leg from Bukit Lawang to Brastagi, and the part from Siantar to Medan, which I was excited to travel by rail. Things didn’t quite happen according to plan.
The tourist bus from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi/Brastagi leaves around 8:30 a.m. I paid 170,000 IDR for the ticket (as opposed to taking a much cheaper public bus) – mainly because selling these tickets is one way the folks in Bukit Lawang make a living, and I wanted to support them.
The tourist bus was a full minivan, with a few people going to Brastagi and others headed to the Medan airport. The van went via Medan, and the airport folks transferred at a stop there.
The way to Brastagi is lovely, through lush countryside. The area surrounding Brastagi is beautiful, with vegetable gardens and orchards everywhere. The soil – fertilized by volcanic ash – is super fertile and said to produce the best-tasting fruit in the world. It is good.
We stopped on the way at a restaurant for lunch. (There were no vegetarian options as far as I could tell, but the cook made a plate of chopped fruit for me.) As we came within maybe a half hour of Brastagi, heavy ash was drifting through the air and the driver said something about the volcano erupting. Someone asked was it dangerous? The driver said yes but kept on driving. We sorta shrugged and prayed. According to Wikipedia Mt. Sinabung has been erupting pretty much since 2013.
The city itself is unbeauteous. I stayed at the Wisma Sibayak guesthouse, at the south end of town near the cabbage, and paid 80,000 IDR for a decent twin room. The bathrooms (in the courtyard) are old, and the shower was minimal and cold, but it’s a friendly place with a good restaurant and central location.
The huge, bustling market is just a block away, and I spent an hour getting lost in the labyrinth of booths and shops, where you can buy pretty much anything from betel leaves to bicycles, get a haircut, and even get your dog washed if you have a dog.
In the evening, using the map that the sweet people at Wisma Sibayak gave me, I sauntered over to the fruit market, maybe a half mile walk. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fruit lover. Have you ever been to Harrod’s in London? This was like the Harrod’s of fruit. It was a sight to see. And smell! (If you just want to buy some fruit, the regular market close to the guest house has plenty. But the fruit market is an experience.)
But the walk just was no fun at all because of the ash. It felt like sleet hitting my face, got in my eyes, and collected in my ears. I was starting to cough and sneeze. I decided it wouldn’t be fun to climb the volcano, and it probably wasn’t healthful to be there at all, so I spent just one night in Berastagi and went on to Lake Toba.
To get to Lake Toba, in Brastagi there’s a bus stop right next to the market, where you first catch a yellow bus to Kabanjahe, 5,000 IDR. It’s the kind of bus with benches set around the sides (kind of like the songthaews in Chiang Mai). It was supposed to take 20 minutes to get to Kabanjahe but took 30 because of major construction on the road. You go to the terminal in Kabanjahe. The bus I took to Kabanjahe departed at 1040 and arrived at 1110.
There, I waited only 6 minutes for the bus to Siantar – it hit the road at 1116. This was a blue minibus with seats for probably 12 passengers, but for a while there were 21 people inside – and God knows how many riding on top. Plus the token live (for the moment) chicken. It cost 25,000 IDR and arrived at 1348.
It’s so easy to make these transfers, sometimes. When I arrived in Kabanjahe someone snagged me as soon as I got off the bus and asked where I was going and pointed me to the bus I needed. You have to keep your wits about you when this happens, because sometimes these are touts. In Surat Thani a “nice man” helped me find the bus to Khanom and even carried my backpack for me, but he took me to an agent who charged me 3X the going rate. I didn’t know any better then.
In Siantar I was dropped off at a place in the outskirts and told to cross the road, where there was another stop. The photo is a view from the stop. That blue and white building with the decorative barrier around it is distinctive and makes the stop easy to find. It’s at the Y where Jalan Saribu Dolok and Jalan Raya Lintas Sumatera meet, southwest of town. Pretty easy to spot on a map. On the side where I’m standing, you pick up the bus to Parapat. I’d been dropped off on the other side of the Y, i.e. behind the blue and white building.
There was a guy there manning the table who told me to wait. It was an hour’s wait, so I had a chance to pee and buy a bottle of water. Then a minibus for Parapat came along, and the guy loaded me onto it. It departed Siantar at 1450 and cost 30,000 IDR. The ride took about an hour – we arrived around 1600 – and much of it is was on a very windy road climbing through the hills east of the lake. Spectacular views of the lake, coming down the hill into Parapat. The bus takes you directly to the jeti. When I arrived, a market was going on (it was Saturday), so the scene was lively. I could have got on a ferry leaving at 1630, but was super hungry so went to find food. The last ferry leaves at 1800.
There are a few restaurants near the jeti. If you walk uphill and turn left at the street, you’ll quickly find a cafe on the left that has wifi. I had fried tempeh for 12,000 and waited there till the 6 p.m. ferry. I’d read the ferry costs 10,000 but it was actually 15,000. There were lots of local people on the ferry, as well as tourists, and we were all paying 15,000, so I don’t think this was a tourist premium.
Word to the wise: There is a guy who has a shop near the jeti, who will try to get you to come to his guest house in Tuktuk. I fell for his line, which was that the place is cheap (50,000 IDR) and nice. He told me it had a hot shower and wifi, but in reality the shower is cold, there is no wifi, the place is a fairly long walk outside town, and there’s only one room being rented there, which felt isolated and creepy. It’s attached to a restaurant called Hot Chili. I wolfed down a dish of fantastic gado gado there – good food, but the same guy apparently runs the restaurant and he tried to overcharge me for my meal. I mean. So I went out after supper and found another place to stay, where I paid 100,000 per night for a gigantic en suite double in a new building.
Lake Toba really is totally gorgeous and well worth a visit. Being alone there, though, I felt at loose ends … it seemed like the things to do were mostly around water recreation, and I just wasn’t into splashing around by myself. I’d have loved to take a motorbike tour around the island, but that’s an all-day proposition, and I needed to do some work. So I spent the day mostly in my room, went for a walk around Tuktuk, had a massage from the same lady who owns the guesthouse, and went to bed early.
The next morning I packed up, got on the ferry at 0930 and went back to Parapat. (Want to ride the ferry for a few minutes?) There’s a ticket office close to the jeti, and I waited there about 45 minutes for a van to Siantar. Which gave me time to buy some oranges at the market across the street. I’ve read horror stories about that particular agency, but I had no trouble. The fact that there were some locals taking the van as well, who had made the trip before, reassured me. The bus to Siantar cost 30,000 IDR.
Very few tourists go to Siantar. Accommodations are scanty, not many people speak English, and it’s very crowded and dusty and hectic, like Medan. I hadn’t intended to stay overnight there at all, and it was only because Brastagi and Lake Toba hadn’t floated my boat that I spent any time there. Based on a bit of info I found online, I stayed at the Humanitas guesthouse. (The van driver from Siantar dropped me off within a block.) The room – which cost 131,000 IDR – was pretty horrific, but from what I’d read it seemed that a decent room would have been expensive, so I settled for it.
And I actually had a pretty good time in Siantar. There’s a zoo. Now, I’m sorry – it’s not a particularly nice zoo, it’s the bad old kind full of cages and fences and sad animals sleeping on concrete. But I had a surprisingly good time visiting the animals. Sun bears, a king cobra, a giant crocodile, lots of pretty birds, even an otter, yes a sea otter in Sumatra. (Photos here.) To get there from Humanitas, you walk back toward the center of town (i.e., go right out of the hotel entrance), turn right at the intersection, and continue a few blocks. You’ll find yourself walking alongside a fence painted with happy wild animals who are not living in a zoo, so you know you’re on the right track. Follow the signs to the zoo entrance. It costs 25,000, and there are places to buy water and snacks just outside the gate.
On my way home after leaving the zoo, I passed an Indonesian couple who were selling sugar cane juice on the sidewalk and they said hello – they were so excited to meet an American and wanted to chat. So I sat down on a little plastic chair and visited with them for a while. They gave me a cup of sugar cane juice (yum) and absolutely wouldn’t hear of my paying for it. We talked about our families, and about Trump and how Americans feel about Muslims and what Muslims are really like. Sometimes I want to cry.
Now, I’m a train fiend and was really excited to take the choo-choo from Siantar to Medan – which I’d read bits about online without being able to find a lot of specifics. All I knew was that it was supposed to depart Siantar at 7 a.m. So I got up at 5 a.m. and walked over to the station, about a half hour walk. I found it, yep, right were it was supposed to be. With the door locked and a sign that it opened at 8 a.m. There was no way to access the platform except through the station building.
I worked off my pique by walking all the way back to the bus stop on the outskirts of town, where I figured I could probably get the public bus to Medan. (Wrong!) It was two/three miles, hot, dusty, but that walk was one of the highlights of the trip – mostly because I passed a street market where lots of women were sitting along the sidewalk, and I stopped to buy a couple of cucumbers for breakfast, and they were SO excited to see me and so happy I bought something. I think they were a bit bowled over by the fact that I was (a) female, (b) American and/or (c) traveling alone. They just stared and smiled and said hello hello hello. Another time I dearly wished I could speak the language.
Arriving at the bus stop I was told I was in the wrong place and needed to go back into town. Heh. So I got a tuktuk and for 5,000 IDR the nice man dropped me off at the stop. From here the bus to Medan cost 25,000 – sorry, I was losing steam by now and didn’t write down any other specifics. This bus took me to a stop in Medan from which I had to get a cepak to Pinang Baris. I paid 20,000 for that. I was tired.
Oh. By the way. En route to Medan, the bus crossed the railroad tracks and had to stop … while a passenger train coming from Medan went through. Next time, I’m going to take the train from Medan, get the skinny when I arrive in Siantar, and then take it back to Medan. I’m going to win this thing. Will report.
From Pinang Baris I walked over to the Mawar Bakery, whence the public bus to Bukit Lawang leaves. The bakery is north of Pinang Baris on the same street, Jalan Tahi Bonar Simatupang, about a half mile walk. Note, there appear to be two Mawar bakeries, across the street from each other, but it’s pretty easy to see where the buses are.
The gangster/tout tried to tell me the fare was 200,000. I said no, it’s 20,000. He said do you know how bad that road is bla bla bla. I said I sure do it’s terrible and I also know the fare is 20,000. He said okay 100,000. I said 20,000. He said 50,000 I said 20,000. He said 30,000 I said 20,000. By now not only he but some of the other guys hanging around were getting angry. One of them said, “Indonesians twenty thousand, tourists one hundred thousand. You’re rich, you pay more.” If I were rich I would take the tourist bus. The tout said, disgustedly, “25,000 and you will pay the driver in Bukit Lawang.” Fine. I got on, keeping my bags with me. Do not let them take your bags away from you! In Bukit Lawang I gave the driver 30,000 (I didn’t have the exact amount – I’d had my 20,000 bill all ready to go but not a fiver), and he took it without a word and drove off without giving me change.
Sumatra is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve read you should allow a month to see the whole island, and I totally believe it. Bukit Lawang is in my opinion a must, as is Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Siantar: I don’t know why I’d go back there, except the train goes to it – but the zoo provided a pleasant afternoon. I’m looking forward to revisiting Brastagi when there’s not a volcanic eruption going on.
A few extra notes
Info I’ve read about getting to Brastagi via the public bus from Bukit Lawang: You take the orange bus to Medan that’s going to P. BARIS – i.e., it’s aimed at the Pinang Baris stop. But ask to be dropped off at the Berastagi changeover point. The bus to Pinang Baris is 20,000 IDR and I’ve read the bus to Berastagi is another 20,000 IDR. So 40,000 versus 170,000 for the tourist bus. I have not verified this info firsthand! Caveat lector!
And about the train between Medan and Siantar in case anybody else is investigating this: The Medan station is near the Merdeka Walk and Hotel Aston. A minivan from Amplas station to the train station is supposed to cost 4,000 IDR, and it stops a block away. The train to Siantar is called the Siantar Express, goes to the Permatang Siantar station, and is reported to cost 40,000 IDR. It is reported to leave at 1336 and arrive at 1648, but this could be outdated. I’ve read it’s cheapest to buy tickets at the train station rather than from agents, which is natural. As mentioned, I’ve read the train returning from Siantar to Medan leaves at 7 a.m. but am not really sure about that. Please note I haven’t confirmed any of this info – just passing on what I’ve found online. Caveat.
About buses from Medan to Parapat: I’ve read there’s a bus from Amplas that takes five hours. It’s reported to be either 32,000 or 40,000 IDR for a bus without air con and 70,000 for one with.
Now about the Indonesian public buses: I am fine with paying more than Indonesians. Compared to a lot of them (but probably not the ones who drive yank tanks), I am rich, and I’m happy to leave as much money as I can in Indonesia. I just don’t want to give it to gangsters. Henceforth I take the tourist bus and am truly grateful I can now afford to do that. The public buses in Sumatra are hot, dusty and exhausting, but they’re great fun because you get to meet Indonesians. I just won’t take the public buses anymore because, for me, the gangsters spoil the fun. My advice to travelers who do take the public bus: know the correct fare. From Medan to Bukit Lawang it’s 20,000. Decide in advance if you’re willing to pay more than that and how much. If you don’t pay more, you’re likely going to get seriously, unpleasantly hassled by the touts. I’ve even heard of physical assaults and I can imagine it escalating to that. Above all, keep your luggage with you.
Here’s the story behind why I say that: Last time I took the public bus (which I hope is the last time I take the public bus), I was sitting near the front with my rucksack cuddled safely on my lap, and there was a couple in the back talking to a tout. He was telling them the bus cost 200,000 IDR. Each. They were saying, Hm, that seems like a lot, isn’t it 200,000 for both of us? I looked back in shock and shook my head – they could see me but the tout had his back to me. I held up two fingers, trying to tell them twenty thousand, but they were like, What? What? I didn’t really want the tout to see me cluing them in, because those guys kind of scare me, but now they’re all three looking at me. So I stared that nasty gangster right dead in the eye and said, “Twenty thousand. Duabuluh riba.” At this point things went sideways: the tout shouted to his guy outside, and the couple’s backpacks came tumbling off the top of the bus. Note, the bus was moving and we were at least a few blocks away from the stop. The bus stopped when the backpacks came off. I said, “Oh shit, they’re throwing your stuff off.” So they had to scramble to get up and get off the bus and grab their packs. And now I’m a little leery of taking the bus again lest that tout recognize me.