panoramic image of lush forests and farmland in Sumatra

Your Trip to Sumatra: The Complete Guide

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Your trip to Sumatra could easily become one of your most memorable travel adventures. Beach cocktails in Bali are nice, but once you’ve felt the exhilaration of spotting wild orangutans in Sumatra, you’ll be hooked! Despite heavy deforestation, Sumatra remains one of the “wildest” places left on earth. Indigenous peoples still follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in some of Sumatra's national parks. If that makes your heart thump a little harder, read on. This guide to Sumatra can help you overcome the unique challenges of traveling in this part of Indonesia.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Generally speaking, the best time to visit Sumatra is during the drier months from May to July. Expect heavy downpours on any given day no matter the season. Dry season thunderstorms are short but can be intense enough to cause flooding. Parts of Sumatra suffer from choking haze during an annual “burning season” that peaks between June and October. Check air quality before planning a trip to Sumatra.
  • Language: Bahasa Indonesia is the national language; however, more than 50 languages are spoken among the various ethnic groups in Sumatra.
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR). Prices are usually written with “Rp” before the amount (e.g., Rp. 20,000).
  • Getting Around: Buses are the most common way to move around within a province. Road conditions can be rough; for longer distances, opt to fly with one of the budget airlines instead. For getting around in cities, taxis (Bluebird is the most reliable company) and Grab (a ridesharing service) are popular. Ojek (motorcycle taxis) are also an option for short distances.
  • Travel Tip: Slow down! With a length of over 1,100 miles divided by the equator, Sumatra is larger than California and Sweden. Sumatra is the largest of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands—you shouldn’t expect to explore too much of it in a week or two. Avoid stress on your trip to Sumatra by allowing some extra time for delays.
A motor bike and green field in Sumatra with a volcano in the distance

Darwel / Getty Images

Things to Do

Sumatra is rich with exciting wildlife, beaches, and opportunities to learn about the Indigenous cultures. A majority of travelers end up in North Sumatra to visit Lake Toba and go jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang, an epicenter for ecotourism in Sumatra. Nearby Gunung Leuser National Park is the only place where orangutans, rhinos, and elephants are known to live together! Tigers also prowl the park. But Sumatra’s other provinces offer abundant outdoor adventure (active volcano climb, anyone?) and cultural interaction.

  • Visit Lake Toba and Pulau Samosir: Along with getting to swim in the world’s largest volcanic lake, you can explore Samosir Island and learn about Batak culture from the friendly residents. The climate at Lake Toba is often a little cooler and the air is fresher than in the rest of Sumatra. Samosir is an island within the caldera of a supervolcano (Lake Toba) on an even bigger island (Sumatra).
  • Experience the National Parks: Sumatra’s national parks offer plenty of opportunities for spotting endangered species and experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of a rainforest. Trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park from Bukit Lawang is the most popular way to see semi-wild and wild orangutans, if you're lucky. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, mostly due to habitat loss caused by palm oil plantations. Treks range from half-day outings to three nights or more spent sweating in the jungle.
  • Explore by Motorbike: Sights are often spread out in Sumatra, so traveling by motorbike (or scooter) is the best way to explore an area independently. Your guesthouse can provide a rental, helmet, and a map to the nearest waterfall—there are many. With good timing, you may be able to catch an unforgettable pacu jawi (traditional cow racing) meet. If you don’t feel safe taking on Sumatra’s hectic roads with two wheels, hire a private driver for the day instead.

Get more ideas for adventures with our full-length articles on things to do in West Sumatra, the top things to do in North Sumatra, and the top things to do in South Sumatra.

What to Eat and Drink

Some travelers are a little intimidated by local eateries and too often relegate themselves to nasi goreng, Indonesia’s take on fried rice. But there’s a reason Padang cuisine spread from Sumatra across the archipelago: it’s cheap and delicious! Nasi Padang restaurants often display their smorgasbord of prepared dishes in the window so passersby can see what’s available. You’ll be given a plate of white rice and charged for whatever you add on top; all you need to do is point at what looks tasty. Along with Padang cuisine, Sumatra has many interesting snacks and street-food treats to try. Seafood and fresh fruit are always easy to find. Freshwater fish is a popular choice near the big lakes.

Alcohol is available in Sumatra but not everywhere. Bintang, the local beer, is a pale lager (4.7 percent ABV) much like Heineken. Avoid homemade spirits such as tuak and arak—they can sometimes be deadly due to methanol contamination.

Despite Sumatra’s reputation for producing world-famous coffee, you’re more likely to be invited to drink tea with locals. Coffee and tea are heavily sweetened by default unless you request tidak gulah (“tee-dak goo-lah”) or “no sugar.”

Read about some popular Indonesian dishes and what to eat while in Sumatra.

Where to Stay

Where to stay in Sumatra depends on the place you’re traveling. Hotels are the obvious choice in major cities, but family-run guesthouses are preferable in smaller places such as Tuk-Tuk (Lake Toba) and Bukitinggi (West Sumatra). You can sometimes find ecolodges in villages near national parks. On islands and along the coast in West Sumatra, you can choose from a handful of sustainable bungalow operations. When staying in remote areas off the tourist trail, local homestays may be the only option.

Getting There

Until the Trans-Sumatra Toll Road—a massive infrastructure undertaking—is completed, road conditions make traveling long distances by bus a jarring experience. Instead, opt to fly into the nearest major port of entry then take regional buses from there. A bus from Medan’s airport to Parapat, the jump-off point for Lake Toba, takes 4 to 6 hours.

International visitors can also enter Sumatra by taking a ferry from Malaysia or Singapore; although, flying into a major hub is much more convenient.

  • Medan: Kualanamu International Airport (KNO) is located around 14 miles east of Medan, the capital and easiest port of entry for North Sumatra. KNO replaced Medan’s outdated Polonia National Airport in 2013 and became a major transit center for the western part of Indonesia; it’s currently Indonesia’s third-largest airport.
  • West Sumatra: Minangkabau International Airport (PDG) is around 14 miles northwest of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.
  • South Sumatra: Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport (PLM) is approximately 10 miles northwest of Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra.
A baby orangutan holding on to a tree vine

Bas Vermolen / Getty Images

Culture and Customs

Sumatrans shake hands softly when meeting someone new. You can show additional respect by touching your hand to your heart after each handshake. Don’t be too surprised if someone you just met asks to become Facebook friends right away.

The bowl of water provided by some restaurants is for washing your hands after eating with them. Make a habit of using only your right hand for eating, paying, and receiving change or items from people. The left hand is generally considered unclean and should be kept in your lap while eating.

You can save a lot of hassle by sticking to authentic Bluebird taxis when available, but beware—rogue drivers and taxi companies paint their cars the same color. The ridesharing app Grab can also help you book honest drivers.

Although a few ethnic groups adhere to a mix of Christianity and animism, Islam is the predominant religion in Indonesia. Some parts of Sumatra such as Banda Aceh are especially devout. Be mindful when choosing clothing to wear. If traveling in Sumatra during Ramadan, you’ll need to be extra respectful about eating, drinking, and smoking in public.

Money Saving Tips

  • Knowing a little Indonesian will help when haggling prices, something you should do for nearly every purchase (excluding food and drinks). You can sometimes score a discount by asking bisa kurang? (sounds like “bee-sah koo-rong”) with a smile.
  • Eating and touring can be surprisingly inexpensive on a trip to Sumatra, provided you do them outside of your hotel. Look for the busiest local places and give them a shot! If English menus aren’t available, someone will often go grab a student or young family member who’s happy to interact.
  • The Lunar New Year in January or February is about the only time Lake Toba and other destinations in North Sumatra become too busy. Avoid traveling around that time or you’ll pay a premium for tickets and accommodation.
  • In most cases, tipping isn’t expected in Sumatra, but you can tip private drivers and guides a little for excellent service. Keep in mind tips often have to be shared. Tip 30,000 rupiah (around $2) for massages and spa treatments. Some restaurants and all hotels add a service charge to bills, but there’s no guarantee the staff will receive it. Tip service staff 10 to 15 percent directly and discreetly when you feel it is merited.
Article Sources
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  1. Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia Washington DC. "Facts and Figures."

  2. Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia. " 5 Reasons Why North Sumatra Is the Perfect Destination for Ecotourism." October 7, 2020

  3. Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia. "Lake Toba."

  4. World Wildlife Fund. "Sumatran Orangutan."

  5. CIA World Factbook. "Indonesia." April 27, 2021