Travelling in Sumatra (Indonesia) – Tips

My plan was to drive from Jakarta, I read that it only takes 3 days and 2 night, and I have a week to do this in, I’d be fine. But some people were saying that the roads are pretty dangerous, potential landslides and some risk of robbery. Mainly those people was just my mum.😀 I didn’t really want her worrying about me so, I flew to each place. I took my backpack and pack as light as I can, so I can bring it in the cabin.

I haven’t really traveled in Indonesia after the rise of budget airline such as Air Asia, Lion Air and  Sriwijaya in the Country. After some negotiation with the travel agent and my mum. (I am not sure whether every Asian mum is this controlling, but I heard that this kind of behaviour is not solely her trademark, I am just used to it). Anyway back to the traveling, most of the time I traveled using Lion Air which was fine and rather cheap, although there were a few delayed arrival, they are pretty straight forward.

Here was my itinerary : Medan – Padang – Palembang – Batam – Bangka Island

Traveling in land – by car

When I agreed to the flying, I thought, easy I can just hire a car when I am there. NO- it is not easy, there is no such thing in Indonesia as hiring a car like in Europe. There is no Avis or Hertz. But I wanted to do it in my own time and want to go to places that maybe usual people would not go to, cover a lot of grounds with really little time, therefore I can’t join a tour or do the backpack thing of just take local transportation.

The thing about local transportation in Indonesia outside Jakarta, they are quite unreliable, there is no such thing as timetable or clear route. Even those with clear route can sometime stop in the middle of the route and say ” sorry we are tired so we want to turn around to just have coffee in our terminal”. It is funny and I would recommend for you to experience the true Indonesia,  that is if you do have lots of time (oh and if you are foreign, only if you good a command Indonesian or not mind if other misfortune happens to you), otherwise no.Road in Sumatra

So the next best thing I hire a car with a chauffeur, I know it sounds grand, but not really, in Indonesia it is pretty common to have a driver. Got my first one in Medan from the internet. In Indonesia you have to be clear about everything, when they show you a price you have to ask “Is this all in?” There are places where they say an amount and later on, you have to pay for the gas/petrol, pay for the driver accommodation if you are staying overnight etc etc. The good thing about the service  I found online was everything was all in, including the food and accommodation. The bad thing about it is that it is almost a tour, they decide what you are going to eat and where you are going to stay.

Being used to eat whenever and whatever I want, also use to traveling to places to discover things rather than follow a route, I would really not do that again. The first night food was quite disappointing when Medan is so famous for its nice food, we got to eat in this random place where I think the agency had a deal with. The hotels were alright but again they are not to my standard of good, when you can stay in a place of your choice for the same amount of money. So if you are like me, I would suggest to hire a car with a driver and to ask the agent to only include petrol, drivers meal, tips and accommodation. But you have to be ready with a generic itinerary and hotels. Remember: Be sure to ask what exactly the price includes

Hotels

My first priority is clean. I don’t mind the size or whether it has swimming pool or not etc but cleanliness is numero Uno. Most of the ones I stayed in are clean. Although if you are not use to the climate quite a few of the hotels near Toba does not have air conditioning so be sure to ask whether they at least have a fan in the room.  And if you are not used to the standard of “well used hotel” or somethings are just falling a part, choose newly build hotels. Indonesian are not normally good at maintenance.

Food

I didn’t have any stomach problem this time around. If you are not used to spicy food, say “jangan pedas” which means “not spicy”. If you are not by the sea/lake don’t eat seafood/fish/crustacean. Fried things are usually safest, really hot (hot from heat not from spice) are also quite safe.

Food at Toba

Money

Be sure you always have some cash with you at least Rp.300,000 ($30) that is enough to buy bottled drink and meal, but not enough that when you loose it you would be in big trouble. Some out of town places would not have ATM, lots of places would not take card.

Entry to places

Are so cheap, don’t believe them if they ask for more than Rp.50,000 per person. Rp. 50,000 is already quite a lot. Most the places I have been cost mostly around Rp. 2,000 to Rp. 5,000; The most expensive ones cost around Rp 15,000. Don’t be as surprise as I am though when they charge you for an entry to a beach, this is quite common in Sumatra. I got charge going to a beach near Padang and Bangka.

Batak Museum

Maps

No chance of getting a free one, I am afraid. I would recommend buying a lonely planet or rough guide, for these. Although I do use a bit of my GPS on my phone which was quite good, if you have a specific place you want to go to. I did find this map on the wall of a museum in Padang, which is pretty useless for foreign traveler, as they would already have to be there. (o.O’).

map of West Sumatra

I found this book of map – Indonesia Travel Atlas, just before I went back to Europe, that looks pretty good but have not been tried and tested.

But remember, although Indonesia seems small on most maps because how it is portrayed, it is pretty huge compared to some countries. I kept forgetting that as I ask the driver ” can we not go there now” the driver would say “that would take the whole day to reach”. To illustrate: Samosir Island which is in the middle of a lake in the middle of an Island is 630 km2 (243 sq mi) and Singapore which is an Island and a country is 710 km2 (274 sq miles).

Mobile/ Cell Phones

Indonesian calls it Handphone. You can buy a SIM card in the airports or anywhere, there is a lot of choices and pretty cheap, I think some of them even starts at Rp. 15,000 with Rp 5,000 credit. I’d recommend buying a package of the provider for unlimited internet for your stay. I bought around Rp.300,000 credits before I left the country I still had Rp.100,000 considering I used it lots to contact my friends. So decide. If you want more advice you are welcome to tweet me or ask me.

Sorry this has became a visit to Indonesia guide. (^o^) Just because Sumatra is such a different landscape to travel in. So different from Jakarta/Java and Bali where things are so much more concentrated, more services are available and more English speaking people.

It is far from a complete tips/guides, but if you have any more questions or any details you want to find out or just want to share your own experiences you want to share, do put your comment below or tweet me.

By the way please don’t think that it seems difficult to travel in Indonesia, with everything, Indonesia will be worth your visit. Amazing landscape, views, rich in cultural  and environment diversity, full of smiley happy and mostly kind people.

Rocks of Bangka