We love Bali, and, to be honest, we always will. There’s nothing like the volcanic mountains, iconic rice paddies and gorgeous beaches…
But there’s a new Indonesian destination on our radars, and we’re incredibly excited about it.
Even better, it’s barely on any travellers’ radars YET. So, unlike in Bali, you can experience the country’s bountiful beauty without the crowds.
So, let’s stop talking in abstract about this untouched paradise and give it a name. Sumatra. Despite being the sixth largest island in the world, it’s wild and rugged and majestic in equal measures. Here, you’ll find more adventure than you’ll know what to do with, wildlife in abundance, and the opportunity to take it all in on Intrepid Travel’s new 9-day Sumatra Adventure trip.
Oh, and did we mention the orangutans? Sumatra is one of the only places in Indonesia where you can see wild orangutans. There’s also tigers, elephant and rhinos all over. And landscapes that range from deserted beaches to active volcanoes to dense jungle. Pure magic.
Tempted? You will be after reading this guide. Here are some of our favourite spots, some essential trip information and everything you need to know before you go.
5 of our favourite destinations in Sumatra
Gunung Leuser National Park
You don’t want to visit Sumatra without exploring Gunung Leuser National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed park is home to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems yet has blissfully slipped under the radars of travellers. There’s a variety of monkeys, a whole load of bird species, and, most importantly, orangutans. (It’s actually one of the last places on Earth where the endangered orangutan lives freely).
The site is also one of the richest tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, meaning it’s very lush and home to meadows, swamps, forests, mineral pools and more.
On our trip, we go in search of the orangutan with the help of experienced local guides who are experts in finding these creatures in the wild. A dream for intrepid travellers, the trip then lets you camp the night in a remote spot in the jungle (where guides kindly cook dinner for the group). Facilities are basic but the unspoiled nature of this spot – and the entire experience – is one you surely won’t forget.
Because who doesn’t want to hike up a volcano at least once in their life? Mount Sibayak, in northern Sumatra, offers exactly this unique experience. And although its last eruption was over a century ago, the geothermal activity here (think steam vents and hot springs) remains pretty impressive.
The hike itself is not too strenuous but the trails are neither clearly marked nor well maintained. This is why we recommend booking with a small group tour! The crater lake at the top really is well worth the climb, though.
Indonesia Destination Manager Andrea explains how Intrepid makes this volcano visit even more special:
We celebrate the arrival at the top of the volcano with a picnic lunch to reward our wearily legs and enjoy the view. At the bottom we get to swim in the pool at the base of the mountain – it’s naturally heated by the local volcano, and is a great experience!
This lake is really quite extraordinary. Not only is it a huge crater lake with an island the size of Singapore in its center (!), it’s also known as the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest in the world.
Formed by two huge volcanic eruptions, it’s as as picture perfect as can be. Our new 9-day Sumatra Adventure lets you enjoy lakeside accommodation there, featuring views of the surrounding water, mountains and rice fields. It’ll be a day and night you’ll remember forever.
We couldn’t not mention the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province: Medan. Partly because this city is the start and end point for our new tour, but mostly because the blend of Islamic and European architecture, great street food, and its underrated (read: not touristy) nature means it’s worth a day or two’s exploration.
One of the largest cities in Indonesia, it offers an insight into real Indonesian life and urbanity, as well as Dutch-colonial-era charm aplenty. Be sure to visit Tjong A Fie Mansion, a museum in a former Chinese merchant’s home, the dramatic Indo-Moghul Catholic church, and the ornate Maimun Palace.
Indonesia’s highest waterfall, Sipiso-piso is another otherworldly natural wonder. The water drops 120 meters (390 feet) from a cave in the side of the Lake Toba Caldera. You have to see it to believe it!
The long, narrow stream of water falling into the gorge below and pine forest surroundings mean it’s perfect for a laid-back afternoon visit.
The food scene in Sumatra
Like in the rest of Indonesia, Sumatra has a lot of Padang food. This is the cuisine of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, and heavily features coconut milk, spicy chili and steamed rice – all of which are viewed as vital for a traditional meal.
Padang restaurants have a buffet-type setup where you can pick out preferred dishes from dozens of small plates. These usually range from curried fish and fried chicken to stewed greens and chili eggplant. Two things you’ll likely also find: sambal, a hot sauce that’s ubiquitous at Indonesian tables, and locals eating with their right hand (though cutlery will also be on offer).
Dishes you have to try
The must-try dish at Padang restaurants such as these? Hard to say, but Spicy Beef Rendang is pretty unbeatable. Like a drier version of a beef curry, it includes coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind paste and blended spices. We especially love rendang with the combination of “sambal ijo” (green spicy chili) and steamed tempeh (fermented soya bean).
Another must-try dish according to Nova, one of Intrepid’s top tour guides in Indonesia:
In North Sumatra you have to try Arsik. It’s basically a stewed freshwater fish (usually carp) dish that is spiced with torch ginger fruit. You can find it in most restaurants around Lake Toba, but also from local warung (food stalls) around the lake.
Because most Sumatrans are Muslims, halal dietary laws are followed rigorously here. Protein is usually taken from beef, goat, water buffalo and fish (note: offal is pretty big). Seafood is particularly popular in coastal west Sumatran cities. Think shrimp or cuttlefish, grilled or fried, with spicy chili sauce or in curry gravy.
Fruit, veg and desserts
Need some greens? The vegetables you can mostly expect in Sumatra range from boiled cassava leaf to cabbage or jackfruit served as a side dish to curry. And if you’re looking for fruit, there’s truly nothing sweeter than the north Sumatra pineapple! Indonesian local leader Nova calls it “the best pineapple in the world!!”
Insider foodie tip from Intrepid’s Indonesia Ops Manager, Andy:
Sumatra locals make a lot of sweets and desserts from local fruits. If you visit the island with Intrepid then you’ll have the opportunity to see plenty of them and try them along the way!
Weather, packing tips and other Sumatra intel
We’ve done all the hard work – you’re welcome. Here’s everything else you need to know about this island paradise.
What time of year is best to visit Sumatra?
May to September is when the days are sunny and there is less rain. However the north of Sumatra does have a tropical climate – it can rain at any time of the year but usually the showers are short.
What should you pack for a trip to Sumatra?
First off, check the detailed ‘what to pack’ section of the trip notes. You definitely need lightweight, quick-drying long pants and long sleeve tops. Visitors will also need a day pack for the overnight camp. Plus breathable hiking boots or shoes with a good grip for trekking. And trekking sandals are a handy extra.
Packing tips from Indonesian local and Intrepid tour guide, Nova:
Insect repellent and sunscreen are both musts, and I recommend walking poles for trekking (it’s hard to rent in Bukit Lawang, as they’re very limited). A raincoat and a torch are also important to bring.
It’s also worth noting that Gunung Leuser National Park is located in Aceh province, which is governed by Sharia Law (meaning there’s certain laws to abide by). Your local leader will explain more, but conservative dress is required for these days. It’s also recommended for the rest of this trip, out of respect for locals.
Ready to explore this island paradise? Check out Intrepid’s new 9-day Sumatra Adventure.
Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, iStock/laughingmango, iStock/ElenaMirage, iStock/Joseph_Fotografie, iStock/davidsuarez82.