Secret Sumatra

Explore one of Indonesia's less tamed islands

Maimun Palace
Maimun Palace
Samosir Island
Samosir Island
Lake Toba
Lake Toba
Sipiso Piso
Sipiso Piso

One of the less well-known islands of the Indonesian archipelago, Sumatra remains relatively untamed – a quiet getaway with a good measure of unpredictability. Words and pictures by Gretchen Ferrao.

Gateway to the north
The descent into the island of Medan is postcard perfect, with ribbons of greenery bending around the bright blue sea.

An hour later, we arrive at Maimun Palace. The 2,000-odd-square-metre property at the centre of the sultanate of Deli was built between 1887 and 1891. Conceptualised by an Italian, its Malay and Indo-Mughal design influences are visible along exteriors with a mix of minarets and timber tiered roofing. A tour of the 30-room palace, however, isn’t as elaborate as you’d expect, given that only its main room is open to the public. If you’re not a design nerd, look out for the cute local kidswho rent out traditional costumes at the venue to make believe they’re in a royal period drama. Or for the live music performances in the mornings (between 10am and 2pm) on weekdays and at 2pm on weekends.

Our next stop is Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni, a Catholic shrine that’s said to be modelled on the Velankanni Church near Chennai. While Chennai’s is iconically white with Portuguese influences, the one in Medan flaunts Indo-Mughal design with a palette picked straight off a cassata. The Medan shrine was initiated and designed by an Indian Jesuit missionary in 2005. This probably explains the curiously south Indian features of all the paintings within.

Where the light is
Later that day we bumped along, up undulating terrain until we were in the volcanic hills of Berastagi (1,300m). Once the summer retreat of Dutch traders, the region remains popular among locals and tourists looking to escape the urban hot pot that is Medan. Gaining second wind in this cool-crisp mountain setting, we head out to the town’s main market. En route, we observe in morbid awe the cloak of grey shrouding everything in sight. And then we catch sight of the culprit: the coughing (as our tour guides refer to it) and still sporadically active volcano Mount Sinabung. Along with Mount Sibayak, it is a hiking trail on every visiting trekker’s list.

Trading fitness for food and flowers, we wander about the market. From the peachy sweetness of kasma (Berastagi apple) to the indigo-marbled texture of the papino fruit and cacti in pink – the sheer variety of colour and texture around us triggers a minor Instagrampage. It’s all very charming, barring the dozens of bunnies and a pair of pups round the bend. We won’t get into the details of their fate; let’s just say we couldn’t stomach it this time.

Culture course
A visit to Sipiso Piso falls is an ideal way to kick-start the day. On the 45-minute drive there from Berastagi, we pass farmers at work in tomato fields, quirky looking eateries, gabled-roofed homes with lavish adjoining cemeteries. Our guide, Pah Roy, explains that status after death is just as important among the Bataks. We get a crash course on the community: traditionally, women are the breadwinners; men while away time playing chess or an instrument; the pair of horns atop houses is reminiscent of a bull, a symbol of status. At Sipiso Piso, we trek halfway down to take in the 120-metre-high waterfall overlooking Lake Toba.

Re-energised, we make a quick stopover at the Simalungun king’s palace. A village in itself, the complex is a display of traditional Batak architecture. That is, linear planned, wooden-stilt and palm-leaf houses with a pair of horns atop the front end and what resembles a tail at the rear. Every structure is colour coded a symbolic red (zest for life), white (piety) and black (ignorance/death). We climb into the largest one to find rows of open living spaces, each furnished with a rudimentary cooking set-up and sleeping area.

Natural order
After the half-hour ferry across the ocean-esque Lake Toba to Samosir Island, we get off at Tomok village, where Pah Roy herds us up a narrow lane to King Sidabutar’s tomb. The memorial houses three tombs: the first Christian Batak king, the missionary who converted the tribe and that of another royal. Sidabutar’s tomb, the most elaborate of the three, displays carvings of himself, his bodyguard, his unrequited love as well as other mythical creatures.

Ambarita, our last stop for the day, is visited for the ancient, megalithic stone set-up in the settlement of Huta Siallagan. At the megalith site is a communal table setting of sorts, once a gathering place for the elders to decide on the fate of wrongdoers. A stone’s throw away, is the area where the guilty were sentenced and either beheaded or disembowelled. On that fatalistic note, we retreated to Toledo Inn for the night.

Need to know

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines flies to Medan, North Sumatra via Kuala Lumpur for Dhs1,193 return.

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