Indonesia

Indonesia, Travel

Lake Toba: Into The Caldera Of A Supervolcano


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With only 2 weeks left to the end of 2016, we decided to squeeze in one more itinerary from our bucket list. Just like how the magnificent Taj Mahal is to India and the indestructible Great Wall is to China, Medan is famously known for the largest volcanic lake in the world, Lake Toba. It is a MUST in Eudaimoniacs’s bucket list.

“Mejuah-juah”

That’s how a local ethnic Batak Karo will greet you; wishing you abundance of good health, prosperity.

Famous for causing one of the largest explosive reactions on earth, it caused the entire human population to bottleneck into central Africa and India, the only regions not affected by the volcanic ash and drastic weather changes which eliminated all flora and fauna. Toba has now evolved into a peaceful touristic town with breathtaking scenes and lovely weather.

Lake Toba In A Nutshell

  1. Largest volcanic lake in the world
  2. 100 kilometres long
  3. 500 metre in depth
  4. 1,000 km² bigger than Singapore
  5. Has an island in its center called, Samosir.
  6. Formed around 77,000 years ago when a supervolcano erupted causing a massive climate-changing event
  7. 95% of the population in Samosir Island are Batak Christians
  8. 4 hours away from Medan city

Getting to Lake Toba

The easiest way would be to fly to Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport and then travel by car to the town of Parapat. Parapat is located along the the lake and will take 4 hr by car from Medan or 4-6 hr by public bus. There are actually lots of ways to get to Lake Toba, but we are just going to guide you with the obvious and most efficient method.

Traveller tip: If you’re from Singapore, you’re in luck! The flights from Batam to Medan is half price. Just take a ferry to Batam and then fly to Medan.

By private car  – The fastest way but abit more expensive

Medan Airport -> Lake Toba or wherever you’re staying at

Since we only had a small window of opportunity to explore Lake Toba, we decided not to waste any time and rent a car for the entire trip. We requested for rental of car from our hotel (Taman Simalem Resort) to pick us up at the airport and then directly to Lake Toba, with stops in between.

Rental of car from Medan city to Lake Toba: IDR1 million – IDR1.2 million (depending on your bargaining skills) for a 10 hour rental with driver, wich includes petrol.

By bus – The budget way

Medan Airport -> Amplas Terminal -> Parapat ->Samosir Island

From Medan’s Kualanamu Airport, take a public bus to Amplas bus terminal. When you walk out of the airport ask any airport official for the bus to Amplas.

Ticket cost: IDR15,000
Duration: 30 minutes

From Amplas terminal, get on a public bus that heads to Parapat for Rp 40,000. Once at Parapat, take a ferry to Samosir Island which is that small island in the middle of Lake Toba.

Ticket cost for bus to Parapat: IDR40,000
Ticket cost for ferry to Samosir Island: IDR15,000

By train – For people who have alot of time in their hands

If you’re backpacking, there’s a train that connects the airport to Medan city. You won’t miss it. It’s located just outside the arrival terminal. 

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Duration time: 30mins
Ticket price: IDR 100,000.

Step 1: Take the airport railway to Medan city.

Step 2: Once at Medan city, get a taxi or becak, and tell them Lapangan Merdeka and Setasiun Kereta Api Medan. Duration: 9 minutes

Step 3: From the station, take the train to Permatang Siantar (or Siantar) at 13:30.
Ticket price: Rp 40,000 per person
Duration: About 4 hrs

Step 4: Take a Becak or walk to the bus/taxi hub to travel to Parapat.

Here’s a summary of our 3D2N itinerary of Medan and Lake Toba:

Day 1: Arrival and pick up from Kualanamu International Airport directly to Lake Toba. Check in at Taman Simalem Resort and explore Merek Hill.

Day 2: Explore Lake Toba vistas, jungle trekking and back to Medan.

Day 3: Explore Medan and return to Singapore

Traveller tip: You need at least a week to explore the place fully.

Stops along the way to Lake Toba…

1.The Raya Al-Mashun Mosque (Largest and one of the oldest mosques in Medan)

Here’s a sneak peek of the mosque interiors during Friday prayers:

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One of the oldest mosque in Medan which predates back to the Dutch Occupation

2. Cinde Lara’s Nasi Ayam Penyet (Medan)

“Go where the locals go, eat where the locals eat.” This is one of the mantras you should heed when you travel. Cinde Laras is a local secret. Though unlisted in Tripdavisor, it is well-known for its tasty Nasi Ayam Penyet, lunch cost us a cool SGD17 for 5 pax meal. Brace yourself. Your taste buds will be spoilt by deliciously fried chicken coupled with fiery chilli and broth-marinated rice.

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Address: Ayam Penyet Cinde Laras, Teladan Medan | Tel: 08153350774
Facebook Page: Cinde Laras

3. Durians Galore at Berastagi + Gundaling Hill – Viewpoint of the active volcano Mount Sinabung and the extinct Mount Sibayak

There will be loads of durian stalls along the way to Gundaling Hill in Berastagi. It’s not as sweet at the ones we tried in Thailand and Malaysia but the taste is light on the senses. Give it a try!

Somehow, it’s common here in Medan that the stall owner will keep on stuffing you with durians after durians. Kind of like a durian buffet. But an old school one by the side of the road. Cheaper too.

Traveller tip: We found out the durians in Berastagi and other local villages around here, are collected and distributed to Medan city. Which means, it will cost you alot lesser to buy the durians in Berastagi.

If you like some peace and a nice view, Gundaling Hill is the best lookout point to see the sunset in between the two volcanoes, Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see eruptions over at Mount Sinabung. Unfortunately for us, it was a cloudy day but we were blessed with an amazing landscape of the sun setting over Berastagi.

There’s not alot of people at Gundaling Hill which what makes it a perfect vantage point to see Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak.

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Gundaling Hill Viewpoint
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Karo Regency, North Sumatra

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4. Sipiso-piso waterfall

Known as the highest plunge waterfall in Indonesia, Sipiso-piso stands tall at 120m. The waterfall is actually formed from a river that curls into a cave at the side of the Lake Toba caldera. If you’ve got time in your hands, do trek down to the waterfall and have a go in its cooling water. Better yet, try drinking the water from the falls. So refreshing!

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The Taman Simalem Resort Hospitality

A 4-hour car ride from Medan International Airport brought us to Taman Simalem Resort, a humungous area with plenty of activities to participate in, other than admiring the lake from one of the best vantage points in Lake Toba.

Day 1

If there is one perfect word to describe this resort it would be ‘Holistic’. There are loads of Batak-themed resorts, guesthouses, and hotels along Parapat which is the town by Lake Toba. Yes, it will be a nice experience to swim in the world’s largest volcanic lake. However, we were there to be mesmerised by the gigantic size of Lake Toba. In order to do that, we want a bird’s eye view of the WHOLE caldera. Plus, knowing me, I love to take timelapse videos of spectacular sunrises/sunsets around the world. The only place I can do that at the comfort of my own room while I gawk at the beauty of Lake Toba, is at Taman Simalem Resort.

At 1,200 metres above sea level, the 206-hectare Taman Simalem Resort has the bird’s eye view of the entire caldera. A few minutes further up from the resort lies the One Tree Hill. The view from Taman Simalem Resort is already magnificent. The view from the One Tree Hill, however, will take your breathe away. You will get to see the perfect landscape consisting of the mountains surrounding the lake. Being from Singapore, I don’t get the luxury of witnessing such breath-taking views.

I couldn’t ask for more from the guest relations at the resort. They were exceptional. From the countless emails to help us with the booking of rooms, rental of vehicle, tours, checking in, to the day we checked out. Everything was flawless. As for the room, well, see it for yourself…

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Medan13.jpgAt that was just Day One! Phew! *drinks water*

Jungle Exploration

Day 2

Second day started as early as 5am to scout for the ideal spot for a sunrise time-lapse at Taman Simalem Resort Ampitheatre. As the sea of pre-dawn clouds cleared and sunlight slowly crept in, we were in awe at the gigantic size of the lake which is supposedly bigger than our homeland, Singapore. This doesn’t look like a lake. It’s an OCEAN!

Illusioned by the first rays of light, the lake looked like clouds and it reminded us when we were trekking in Nepal where we were living above the clouds rather than underneath it.

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Breakfast with a view

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Remember the volcano, Mount Sinabung, that we didn’t get to see on the first day? Well, we got a clear view of it from our breakfast area.

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Jungle Trekking

We headed for breakfast afterwards before getting a free buggy ride to a dropoff point to start our 1.5h jungle trek. The jungle trek is one of the complimentary activities at Taman Simalem Resort.

The pace was slow but fun with the guide showing us how the locals use certain leaves for different purposes. The Liana branches overhanging from the trees were strong and well-developed such that we took turns swinging around like Tarzan.

The end of the trek led us to a twin waterfall where we drank mineral purified water shooting out from rocks. We trekked back to our hotel rooms and got a quick break before starting our 4h return journey back to Medan City.

It’s time to make our way back to Medan city and into the glass doors of Grand Swiss-Belhotel Medan.

Day 3

Unlike Yogyakarta, Bali and Surabaya where there’s ancient sites, temples or volcanoes close to the city area, there’s nothing much to do in Medan city except for pampering yourself with spa massages, shopping, and souvenirs. Medan is usually the transit/stopover for people going to/from Lake Toba. We do however, recommend staying at Grand Swiss-Belhotel Medan solely because of the buffet breakfast =) oh yes, and the uber comfortable bed.

Personal thoughts: Due to time constraints, we didn’t explore Samosir Island but we had the chance to see ancient Batak-inspired palaces and houses located at Parapat. We also talked to locals of Batak origins who shared with us about Lake Toba, their culture and history. We get to see Samosir from a high vantage and most importantly, we got our sunrise time-lapse video =)

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Indonesia, Travel

2D1N Getaway To The City of Batam


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Batam is an island located 20km from Singapore’s south coast and only 1 hour away by ferry. It is the third largest city in the Sumatra region after Medan and Palembang. Batam is the ideal choice should you want to go for a short getaway from Singapore without having to go through long immigration queues like the Malaysia checkpoints which could drag for hours and hours.

The Ferry Terminals

There are 5 ferry terminals in Batam namely, Harbour Bay, Batam Centre, Nongsa Pura, Sekupang and Waterfront City (Teluk Senimba). These are visa-free and visa-on-arrival ports of entry.

These are the ferry operators that operate from Harbourfront Ferry Terminal:

  • SINDO Ferry  S$49 (all-in price for return tickets on weekends)
  • Batam Fast 
  • Horizon
  • Indofalcon
  • Majestic Fast Ferry

These are the ferry operators that operate from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal:

  • Batam Fast 
For the shopholic and the spa addicts
Harbour Bay Ferry Terminal is the nearest ferry terminal to the town of Nagoya. Nagoya is where all would go to for shopping and spas. From Harbour Bay Terminal, it is only a 5 min taxi ride (IDR20,000) to Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall, the largest shopping mall in Batam.
For those who prefer Zen and Tranquility
Waterfront Ferry Terminal serves as the perfect terminal for tourists who are staying at Holiday Inn or Harris. Both resorts are only 5-min away and provides complimentary pick up and return service for their guests.

The Holiday Inn Experience

You can do a full day in Batam or stay for the weekend. In this article, I’m sharing my experiences for a 2D1N weekend getaway.
Since I’m going with my family, we have decided on Holiday Inn Resort which is isolated far from the shopping areas of Nagoya. We opt for tranquility this time round. Holiday Inn has some really good reviews for its Tea Tree Spa. We booked the 2-bedroom suite (SGD150/night) and it was spacious and clean. The pillows are clean, soft and we had a good night’s sleep. Yes, it may smell stuffy when you first enter the room, but just open all the windows for 20 mins to let the air in, and all is good. What I like most are the employees. All the Holiday Inn employees that I’ve come across are friendly, helpful and responsive.

Complimentary shuttle bus to/fro the Waterfront Ferry Terminal will be provided upon pre-arrangement with the hotel. Yes, it is very far from Nagoya and everywhere else, but they do provide car rentals at reasonable rates, as well as shuttles buses to Nagoya for shopping.

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Car rental charges provided by Holiday Inn

Another plus point is the Tea Tree Spa. Excellent customer service, wonderful massage,  and the masseuse is extremely professional. Not forgetting, spa packages are reasonably priced.

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Pretty much reminds you of Bali, doesn’t it?

The Itinerary

Day 1

We decided not to waste any time and went straight for the car rental service provided by Holiday Inn. We rented the car for 5 hours, which was more than enough time for Day 1.

And of course, food comes first so we decided to try some seafood. Naturally, all drivers would recommend Golden Prawn 933. No doubt the food is nice, but it comes with a hefty price, which part of it goes to the the driver’s commission.

Alternatively, you can hold on that hunger a bit more and head to Batam’s iconic Barelang Bridge.

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Barelang Seafood Restaurant. Don’t be deceived by its run-down exteriors. Wait till you see the inside.

Price is based on 4 pax. We didn’t even take any photos of the food because we were like starving Tasmanian Devils ready to devour the food! However, we did take a photo of the receipt. Seafood is fresh, delicious and CHEAP! SGD40 for 4 pax

Verdict: images images images images images

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The ‘kelong’ beside the restaurant has a clear vantage point of the Barelang Bridge

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The seafood are cooked fresh and you can catch it yourself!

After satisfying our tummy, we head up to the Barelang Bridge to see the side stalls along the bridge. You’ll be spoilt for choice as there are ALOT of stalls selling grilled corns. but let me tell you one thing. ALL OF THEM sell really TASTY grilled corns. Just pick any!

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Next, we went to Nagoya. Fuh! And it’s still Day 1!

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Photo Credit: Nagoya Hill Mall

Nagoya Hill Mall is the largest mall in Batam. The next best mall is the DC or Diamond City Mall. For Singaporeans who are missing and craving for A&W, fret not. There’s a two-storey B&W at Nagoya. Root beer float, anyone?

That sums up Day 1. Day two, is all about the Spa.

Tea Tree Spa

Holiday Inn’s Tea Tree Spa are pretty much the reason WHY people chose to stay at Holiday Inn.

Opening hours: Everyday, 9am – 11pm

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Balinese-inspired exteriors

Tea Tree’s reputation is the result of excellent customer service of its service staff and masseuse. Plus, it has a wide range of spa treatments from facial, feet to therapeutic body massages. We didn’t make a booking prior to arriving so decided to just walk-in and give it a shot. Lucky for us, there’s a slot and in just 10 minutes, we were transported to Eden. =) Highly recommended!

That sums up our 2D1N retreat to Batam. Short, simple and relaxing. I’m sure there’s more to Batam than what I’ve just wrote here. Stay tune!

Indonesia

Journey to Mount Bromo, East Java, Indonesia


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From the paradise-themed Bali, of which I personally felt has lost its charm to the fast influx of tourists, we took a 1-hour van ride (from Perama Tours) from Kuta to Gilimanuk Ferry Terminal at the western coast of Bali. We boarded a RoRo (roll-on, roll-off marine transport vessel) which transported both passengers and vehicles including our van. Since it’s our first experience riding a RoRo, we were trying our best to control our excitement as the other Indonesian passengers were looking quite neutral since it was a routine ride for them to the other side, our destination – Ketapang Ferry Terminal, the eastern coast of the Surabaya border.

The ferry ride took about 1.5h. The overall ride was calm given Bali’s legendary waves created for surfers (at that time i thought everywhere in Bali was surrounded by majestic surfer waves). By the time we reached the other side, our driver was already out of the RoRo and he recognized us before we did.

We got in and he drove us about 1h throughout the more country-like Banyuwangi for lunch at an overpriced restaurant (though still cheaper than your typical Singaporean food courts). Goats, farmers, and vegetation started to sprout more frequently the further we got away from the jetty. Somehow I welcomed this simplicity more than the heavily touted Bali.

Another countless more hours with a numb butt (actually 5h to be exact), we reached the guesthouse area of Mount Bromo called Ceromo Lawang. Of course the journey up the mountain wasn’t smooth. Full of winding roads with dead turns and lack of barriers to prevent you from slipping over plus the one-way route accomodating two-way traffic, we were praying in our hearts the whole journey (though it was not as hellish as Indian roads and drivers). Oh, i forgot to mention that it was pitch black by then and our van started to have headlight problems every few seconds. So yeah, we drove in utter darkness every few seconds intermittently where any moment could send us either down the slopes of a mountain or go for a head-on crash of an oncoming vehicle and even possibly both.

We thought the stress was over when we reached Ceromo Lawang but more was in store as the whole village was under a blackout so yeah we had to hunt and bargain our way in the dark. Being experienced travellers by this time, we knew not to go with what the driver recommended, did our research beforehand and instructed him to go further to where we wanted. He was hesitant but our training about being firm and more aggressive than commission earners in India left him with no choice but to abide.

We checked-in at Cafe Lava Hostel at about 2300h and were dead tired. It is heavily recommended to wake up at 0400h to hike up the volcano to catch the sunrise but we were dead beat and extremely grateful that we were still alive after a hellish 15h journey from Bali’s Kuta to Surabaya’s Ceromo Lawang (which guidebooks said would take 10h). We woke up at 0700h instead, when 90% of the tourists were still making their way back from the sunrise hike.

The buffet breakfast (included in the USD35  daily room rate) was exceptionally pleasing for the price we paid and we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. By the time the rest came back at 0800h, the whole restaurant was packed, noisy and in a lot of mess. Taking it as our cue for us to go ahead with our hike, a splendid day’s journey began.

About 10min walk to the entrance of Mount Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park where we paid about USD7 for the entrance, i knew the 15h trip was going to be worth it. The weather was terrific compared to hot, humid Bali (something i’m still not accustomed to despite being born and bred in Singapore), the mild pungent scent of sulphur, the vast unpopulated plains made from black sand, the silence of emptiness and abundance, and basically the whole package made yesterday’s journey melt away temporarily for us to just bask in the present.

Our few minutes of tranquility was interrupted by a bunch of motorcyclist touts hard selling us to take their bikes to the base of Mount Bromo rather than walk what seemed like 5km or more (we would find out later it would only take us about 10minutes of easy walk because it looked WAY further than it actually is). Still dizzy by the sudden change from hell to heaven, we abide to their aggresive USD10 ride after bargaining it down to USD2. Then we started ascending the 250 steps up to the crater of the legendary Mount Bromo.

Every step was punishing though ironically pleasing. By the time we reached the mouth of the crater, we were gasping but uplifted spiritually. And then we saw smoke spewing out from the crater. And then we  saw smoke spewing out from the crater again to join the white clouds. Yes, i had to type that twice to emphasize how grandeur that simple magical miracle is.

After about 30min just staring at smoke spewing out from a boiling volcano underneath I decided to walk the perimeters of the volcano before being shouted by Linda to get back to the safe zone. Another 30min of just staring at smoke spewing out from the crater (i swear it is that hypnotizing), we went down to explore the rest of the extinct volcanoes.

The hikes up were terrific with viewpoints that I cannot describe in words. Streams flowing, cabbage garden plots littered randomly and vegetation growing up inclined slopes were some of the few treats 2329m above sea level could offer you.

When we were ready to head back to call it a day, it started raining and we rushed to the nearest shelter which happened to be a public toilet. And then another magnificent thing happened when the rain turned into mists as it hit the black sand. And then I was hypnotized into watching the mists this time round for another 30min.

As we headed back we were hit with another flash thunderstorm. A villager offered us her hut as shelter and we were grateful for her sincere hospitality. Somehow I figured out about how easily contented and happy these people are with their simple little possessions.

When the rain stopped, we thanked her and headed back to end a perfect day. After a good night’s rest we took the van down at noon to Surabaya’s Airport and to our temporary 1 week break near home, Malaysia, where we will head to Linda’s village at the borders of Johor and Melaka.