If you’re considering visiting Sumatra, or planning a northern Sumatra road trip from Medan to Lake Toba this blog post is for you. (We also throw in a few brief hotel reviews from the places we stayed along the way).
At the time we originally wrote this, we were enjoying life in Penang, Malaysia. But with the end of another 90-day Malaysian visa fast approaching, it was time for another South East Asia visa run. And still wanting something that was adventurous, but not too far away, we decided a Sumatra road trip was ideal! (Having already enjoyed a pre-kids trip to Bali, we were confident we’d enjoy some more time in Indonesia. This time with our daughter).
For this trip we decided Medan was the easiest place to get to as it’s only about a 1-hour flight from Penang. From there we reckoned a duration of 10-days would let us get from Medan to Lake Toba via Berastagi. And then back from Lake Toba to Medan. Here’s how it played out in real-time!
How to get to Lake Toba from Medan
- How to get to Lake Toba from Medan
- Day 1: Penang-Medan
- Day 2: Medan to Lake Toba (Part 1)
- Days 3-4: Berastagi
- Day 5: Medan to Lake Toba (Part 2)
- Days 6-8: Lake Toba (Samosir Island)
- What to do in Lake Toba
- Day 9: Lake Toba to Medan
- Day 10: Medan-Penang
Before we begin talking about the trip from Medan to Lake Toba, let’s quickly cover the real start of our journey. (As travel days always bring the unexpected!)
Day 1: Penang-Medan
Our adventure begins! The first challenge is upon us at the airport check-in when we realize that Air Asia charges extra for checked in baggage. Hmmm, somehow I missed this while booking the ticket. Apparently it would have cost us 60RM (Malayisan Ringgit) (about US$15) for our 2 checked bags if I had have spotted and paid for them online at the time of booking. But instead it set us back 230RM (US$57). This is about the price of paying for an additional return ticket! Perhaps this is an incentive to get down to carry-on baggage only? Anyway, we live and learn!
I wonder whether this covers the return trip as well? (Turns out it doesn’t! We had to pay extra again on the way back too).
However, a bit of relief came next when we sailed through immigration within about five minutes. On our previous trip we’d waited for over an hour when it was jam-packed and full of a stressed, angry and upset group of people. We were grateful to get through with plenty of time to spare for coffee and snacks! And I say that we sailed through this time but of course there was the usual incident of unsuccessfully trying to stop our (then) 3-year-old from sprinting through security. And we mustn’t forget the mini tantrum when it came time to have her photo taken (she wanted a ‘family photo’!)
Completing our trip to Medan…
Somehow we always seem to manage to take a really long time to get out of airports between toilet trips, snack or meal stops, etc. This time we added another hour or two to the wait by purchasing local SIM cards, and getting the run around from Uber. This was the first clear indication to tell us that we really weren’t in Penang anymore!
A different experience with Uber
We ride everywhere with Uber in Penang. It’s very straight forward and transparent and the company has excellent customer service. But it’s a different story in Sumatra. We marked our pick up point but soon found ourselves in back and forth conversations with our driver. We couldn’t find each other and I was getting more confused as time went on. I even saw our car drive very near to us but it wouldn’t stop.
After cancelling the car and going through the same rigmarole with a second driver I realized there was some reason the drivers wouldn’t come to the pick-up point. We eventually managed to locate our second driver and discovered that the security guards would intercept them, should they come to the pick-up point. The second realization was that our drivers weren’t going to accept credit card payment. This is the way we normally pay (directly through the app). They explained that they need the money now, not a week later. This is fair enough so I agreed to pay cash.
Watch your Uber changes in Sumatra!
With the stress of it all I forgot to check that we would be charged the uber stated rate of Rp82 000 (Indonesian Rupiah/US$6.07). Not so much. The driver said we needed to pay Rp200 000 (US$14.80). I questioned this and he was trying to say he had to pay his ‘leader’ (?!) Rp100 000. We settled on RP150 000 (US$11.10) in the end. Not a biggie, I know, but it was an early indication that things are done differently here and we might need to expect to pay more than we initially think for things. Anyway, it’s clear that the Uber drivers we have come across aren’t allowing the rides to be logged in the app. This creates a cancellation fee for the user. It could also bring up safety issues as there’s no record of who you’re riding with.
Transferring to our hotel
We soon discovered that Medan’s Kuala Namu airport is quite some distance from Medan’s city center. So our first experience of Medan transport meant we had a nice scenic drive down some gorgeous and rustic little village roads. There was plenty of greenery, lots of motorbikes with sidecars, and we even saw someone carrying a huge pane of glass on a motorbike!
Hotel di Medan: Gandhi Inn!
We arrived at Gandhi Inn, in central Medan, and were warmly welcomed at reception. We stepped inside and appreciated the cleanliness after driving through dirty streets full of run-down buildings. The staff members at reception were friendly and helpful and our room was clean.
Gandhi Inn hotel in Medan aims to create a ‘homey atmosphere’ and they do a pretty good job. It’s a well-kept hotel. The rooms have air conditioning, (sketchy) wi-fi and there are water filters on every floor, so it covers the basics well.
Gandhi Inn food
The food is really good. We ordered a vegetarian goreng, chicken goreng, and a plate of fries, chicken wings and chicken nuggets for the little one. Along with two fresh juices the total was Rp188 000 (US$13.91). The café offers a great feed, and you can either sit inside or out on the balcony.
By the way: breakfast is a buffet and is ok…better if you’re prepared to eat the local food. The western selection is highly processed and sugar focused (think white bread and processed cereals). There was fresh watermelon and coffee and tea so we were set. It’s included in the very reasonable room prices between Rp384 000 (Indonesian Rupiah) and Rp699 000 (about US$28-$52). Note that ours was a studio room at the higher end of the price range).
We got a really warm welcome from the owner and a bit of atmosphere to boot when we found ourselves in the midst of a 36-year high school reunion. Our daughter thought it was especially fun when the party-goers revved up the karaoke on the floor above us right on bedtime (about 9:30pm… on a Wednesday night!).
If you do visit Medan, and just need a bed for a night or two, you will be made comfortable here. Additionally, if you want a Medan tour guide, just ask the owner or reception.
Medan was only really on our itinerary to break up the trip of getting to Lake Toba. As there’s a limited amount of travel we’re willing to do in one day. This means we can’t really comment on the best time to visit Medan, where to go in Medan or suggest any Medan places of interest.
So with limited knowledge and a lack of any rave reviews about the best Medan places to visit we looked for at least one thing of interest we might be able to do.
We started to get excited when we discovered the city has a wildlife museum which has pretty decent reviews. But the excitement was premature and short-lived! We arrived in Medan too late. Maybe another time.
But at least we did find the most comfortable chairs in a market I’ve ever come across! And a colorful line of drink options.
Other than that, although our Medan trip was very short, we found the city to be pretty grey, and very dusty. My sinuses pretty much blocked up on arrival and I understand why lots of people wear masks out on the street.
Day 2: Medan to Lake Toba (Part 1)
Medan to Berastagi
We also felt that to get to Lake Toba from Medan in one day was more than what we wanted to do as a family travel day. So we decided some time in Berastagi would make an ideal layover.
The hotel kindly organized a shared taxi to pick us up and take us to Berastagi. I quite like how there is no schedule for the Medan to Berastagi taxi service so there is no rush to be organized at a certain time.
Apparently, we are going to be picked up at 12pm. I’ve had one report that it will cost Rp100 000 per person (Indonesian Rupiah) and another for Rp150 000 for all three of us (so somewhere between $7 and $11USD). A private car would cost Rp600 000 (about $45USD). The ride is expected to take 2.5-3 hours, while a direct trip would be about 1.5 hours.
The trip to Berastagi
So much for that Medan to Berastagi shared taxi service. We ended up getting a private car in the end!
I guess the shared taxi driver wanted to fill the taxi before leaving, and there was no guarantee that was going to happen at all. As we had booked accommodation in the next place and wanted to get out of Medan we decided to ‘bust a move’!
The trip took just under three hours with a good driver. (Note a decent portion of that time was gridlocked in Medan city). We didn’t specifically employ our driver as a travel guide, but invariably he acted like one. Sharing his knowledge and wisdom of local life as best as he could with his broken English in response to any questions we might throw at him!
We eventually wound up through the hills and there would have been some chances for beautiful views if it hadn’t been so hazy. The weather has been grey since we arrived, which is probably very normal for the rainy season. As our trips are determined by our visa run needs we don’t necessarily travel during peak season. With that comes the upside of less people and the downside of less predictable weather.
As it turns out, we were grateful that we weren’t in a shared taxi! We saw many en route; doors wide open, people riding on the roof, and music blaring! Hmm, I think we will fund the private taxi bill for the rest of the trip!
By the way, if you are planning a road trip in North Sumatra yourself and want a Medan driver recommendation, please ask!
Hotel di Berastagi!
We stayed at Hotel Sibayak Internasional, which is an old-ish, mid-range type resort. The staff members were exceptionally friendly and helpful, the buffet breakfasts were good, and the regular food menu was perfectly acceptable. One particularly memorable piece of Sibayak hotel Berastagi is the delicious hot ginger tea on offer in the foyer – simply delicious!
One thing to note about Berastagi is that it’s set in the hills and is a fair bit colder than what we’ve been used to in the rest of Asia! Our room didn’t have heating, air conditioning or fans. We could have done with some heating or at least an extra blanket! Colin didn’t bring anything more than a long-sleeved tee-shirt but he’s a bit tougher than me. I was in a hoody, long pants and shoes and socks most of the time, and still feeling the cold. Needless to say, we didn’t make use of the pool facilities at the resort!
Days 3-4: Berastagi
Mount Sibayak volcano climb
Our first full day in Berastagi also marked our little girl’s 4th birthday. Having left it a little late to organize a private taxi, we managed to get a private driver, but in one of the vans with the bench seats that are usually shared vehicles. For around US$30 the van and driver were ours for the day.
Riding in this was adventurous for sure, but it definitely confirmed that we’ll be using private taxi cars for the remainder of this trip (at least for any decent distances). The taxi van ride was very bumpy and uncomfortable, and we’re not fussy people!
We headed along a narrow, pot-hole filled road to Sibayak volcano, which we planned to climb. We were proud of our strong newly 4 year-old and with a combination of slow walking, carrying, and frequent stops, we made it to the top two hours later. An average grown-up could probably walk to the top in one hour.
It was nice not to be boiling hot on the hike, and we were lucky that it wasn’t too cold. Once we reached the top we realized that the volcano wasn’t exactly ‘dead’. There were geysers spurting up around the place and an abundant smell of sulphur. We got to look right into the crater, which was filled with green water, and people had written their names in stones along the crater floor.
Although we’ve spoiled the title question a little, you can see the full adventure of our Mount Sibayak volcano climb day in the video below.
Mount Sibayak hot springs
By this stage in the trip we were really starting to appreciate how developed things are in Penang. The options and facilities we have access to here are very basic compared to what we are used to.
The next day we chose to visit Mikie Funland (pronounced ‘Mickey’ by the locals). We knew Ayla would absolutely love it, plus Colin and I both have a ‘little kid’ inside of us!
Unlimited play on over 30 rides was available to us for around $10 entry per person. It was a Saturday, a holiday, and yet there were still very few people around. This meant no waiting in line, so we really made the most of it and had a really great day!
There were heaps of rides to cater for little people, big people, and the family as a whole. Being just over 100cm Ayla had plenty of options and she really went for it! We stayed right to the day’s end and Colin got to finish with a very wet flume type ride!
Day 5: Medan to Lake Toba (Part 2)
Berastagi to Lake Toba
Our private car driver and pseudo travel guide drove us to Parapat, on the edge of Lake Toba today. We paid around $50 USD for the ride plus a couple of tourist detours/stops to see the sites on the way.
First we detoured to Mount Sinabung, a very active volcano that apparently erupts pretty much every day. We went within a safe viewing distance but unfortunately couldn’t see much due to the thick cloud cover. All around us the plants and ground were completely covered with ash. I believe it’s probably like that all the time so there’s no chance of staying clean!
Sipiso-Piso waterfall was the main site we wanted to visit en route. It was quite spectacular and gave us our first glimpse of Lake Toba, where we were headed next. Steep steps wind down so you can get close up to the waterfall. We didn’t get right to the bottom as we weren’t willing to force Ayla to walk down, or to carry her! But the first viewing platform offers a great, full-length view of the lake.
Moving on we still had a couple of hours to reach Parapat. Stopping once for a lakeside photo opportunity I found myself wondering what the appeal was with the tacky decorative features lining the cliff sides. I quite like appreciating nature on its own. Clearly many people enjoy being able to take selfies with both nature and man-made paraphernalia in the background!
Are we there yet?
Continuing on, we seemed to be on a never-ending road winding downhill. But then again, we were traveling with a 4 year-old! She did really well considering, and eventually, we arrived at the lakeside town of Parapat. We managed to communicate with the hosts of Thyesza guest house, where we would be staying on Samosir island. They told us to get the ferry to Tomok, and to get off at the first stop.
Tuk tuk is the main tourist area of Samosir island. Prior to arriving, we didn’t know whether our accommodation was located here, or elsewhere. There was limited information available on the internet and we just decided to go with the flow! Turns out we’re away from the tourist area, and about 10 minutes on from the village of Tomok.
Following our instructions to get off at the first stop, we momentarily freaked out when the boat stopped for all of two seconds and we missed getting off. With our minimal ability to communicate with the locals we somehow managed to get the boat to turn around and drop us back off!
However the challenges continued when we realized we had gotten off at a private resort stop, not a public stop. Too late to do anything about that now!
Hotel di Samosir / Lake Toba Accommodation (Take One!):
Thyesza Guest House
Eventually our hosts came to pick us up and it was about 15 minutes to reach Thyesza hotel Samosir, where we would be staying. This particular Lake Toba accommodation is right on the lake so offers easy access and views to the water. The food is delicious and the hosts are accommodating.
We’re feeling a bit ‘fed up’ with the challenges at the moment though. The sink in our room was blocked with water and filled with ants, and even the rubbish bin was full of water. Our first night’s sleep was noisy, and the bed was rock hard. I’m ok with that, but added to the fact that we’ve all shared the same bed each night and Ayla’s legs like to karate chop us continuously through the night, our reserves are wearing thin! Ayla is as energetic as usual, but I’m feeling very headachy and Colin’s sinuses are very stuffed up. We haven’t quite adjusted to the different environment.
Missing our ‘home’ comforts a little!
As I mentioned, the food is really good, but we are just possibly missing our ‘home’ comforts a bit! The credit card facility is broken, the WiFi doesn’t work and we’re having a lot of trouble communicating that we don’t want sugar in any of our drinks!
Colin and Ayla went out for a walk a couple of hours ago and locked me out of the room. So right now I’m just trying not to get hung up on things. Really, we are safe and well-fed, and our problems could be much bigger!
The pool is filling up now (apparently it gets cleaned and emptied weekly). Perhaps a swim in the lake or pool will freshen us all up later! The hosts have been helpful and have moved us to another room where there are no ants and the sink drains properly. We will see how things pan out over the next few days!
Days 6-8: Lake Toba (Samosir Island)
Hotel di Samosir / Lake Toba Accommodation (Take Two!)
Zoe’s Paradise Waterfront Hotel
We moved on from Thyesza hotel Samosir, primarily because we needed credit card facilities and ideally WiFi. There is only one ATM on Samosir island, and we’re not located anywhere near it. There is also no guarantee it will be working!
So this morning we shifted to Zoe’s Paradise Waterfront Hotel (and restaurant). Small comforts add up to a lot! We have bathroom towels, beach towels, pool loungers, and for the first time since we left Penang – hot water! It’s clean and the food and service is superb, so we’ll spend the next couple of days relaxing here.
(When we were there in December 2017), Zoe’s had only been open for five months. But if you’re looking for a hotel near Lake Toba that’s right on the water, we would thoroughly recommend Zoe’s. (Named after the owner’s daughter).
(Search for ‘Zoe’s Paradise Waterfront Hotel, Indonesia’).
What to do in Lake Toba
We weren’t in the area long enough to compile an extensive list of what to do in Lake Toba, but I’d say the main one is swim in the lake! It’s so nice to be able to swim in a natural environment and the water is more than accommodating enough! Yes, even though we had (potential) access to swimming pools in both our guest houses, we couldn’t resist taking advantage of being truly lakeside and taking a dip in the lake.
Scooters and taxis
One thing that you should know about Samosir island is that there are only shared taxis along the main road, and they are not that frequent. Taxis don’t come into Tuk Tuk because most accommodation providers here rent scooters so they don’t want the taxis coming in. So getting around can be challenging if you’re not prepared to ride a scooter or motorbike.
So…that’s how we found ourselves on the back of a couple of scooters with our luggage and four year old in tow! Not ideal but we didn’t have any other option to move on. Little Miss was pretty happy for the adventure and our scooter drivers went slowly. Colin must have felt safe because he decided to film most of the journey!
We don’t make it a rule to follow the tourist trail, but in this case we’re glad we’ve spent our last couple of days in Tuk tuk. There are lots of delicious food options, both local and western, and the lakefront location is superb. A couple of the places we ate that we would recommend highly are Tabo Lakeside Cottages and Bagus Bay Cottages.
Day 9: Lake Toba to Medan
Leaving Tuk tuk
If you can get some waterfront Lake Toba accommodation like we did in Tuk Tuk, it’s super easy to get back to Parapat on the mainland. You simply walk out to your jetty and wave your arms, and the boat will come pick you up – love it! At our jetty the boats arrived at 20 minutes to every hour.
We had a calm, gorgeous and sunny boat ride back to Parapat where our driver was waiting for us.
We were told that the trip back to Medan was about five hours. I believe it took us around 7.5 hours, with about an hour for lunch. We didn’t really stop other than that. We took a more direct route than the one we took on the way, passing through Pematangsiantar and Tebing Tinggi. The city traffic in those places, as well as the traffic jams as we entered into Medan, added to our trip.
Gandhi Inn Hotel Medan
We spent our final night at Gandhi Inn hotel Medan where we experienced some ‘above and beyond’ hospitality. Half an hour after our arrival, Colin realized he’d left his glasses in our driver’s car. Dickie and the team at Gandhi Inn showed an exceptional level of service in order to help us out. They spoke with the driver and sorted out a plan for one of their team to meet the driver and collect the glasses!
We of course offered compensation for their time and efforts, but they declined. What incredible generosity! We then had a delicious meal at Ghandhi Inn, and a comfortable night’s sleep. I noticed that the water in the bathroom was warmed than our first night’s stay too. If you are looking at reasonably priced centrally located hotels in Medan, we’d definitely recommend Gandhi Inn as a good value option.
Day 10: Medan-Penang
Gandhi Inn arranged a driver to take us to the airport for around $15 and we were off! Sadly, we did get stung with the Air Asia baggage fees again. This time we managed to only check in one bag, but overall we still paid three quarters of our total flight price for the checked in bags.
We’ll avoid booking with Air Asia in the future if possible but it’s sometimes going to be hard because they offer so many flights around Asia. I don’t like the routine insecticide spraying on the plane – in fact I find it quite shocking. The combination of that and the checked in baggage prices are certainly cause for consideration. Anyway, we’ll be much more careful to pay for the baggage online if we do book with them in future.
The adventure takes an unexpected turn
We were a little shocked to have a major problem with immigration when we returned to Malaysia. After waiting at the back of a massive line in immigration, they wouldn’t let us through!
We didn’t do anything illegal, but this was our third visa run on the three-month tourist visa. We’ve been back and forth to Penang for a total of nine months. Immigration stated that we appeared to be doing ‘u-turns’ and that this was not ok.
So…onward to a new adventure for us! It doesn’t mean that we can never return to Malaysia but it does mean that it’s the last time for now. We probably wouldn’t want to risk trying to come back in the next 6-12 months. We’ve seen a lot of Penang and have enjoyed the lifestyle here. Next time we’d like to return and be able to see more of the rest of Malaysia, which we didn’t get to do this time round.
Next stop… Bali in the new year!
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