Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia, is the world's largest volcanic lake and also one of the best places in Asia to chill out for a few days. There may not be an abundance of things to do at Lake Toba, but the atmosphere is so pleasant that you probably won't even notice. Renting a motorbike or private car is the best way to visit several small sights in one day. Pulau Samosir, a newly formed island inside the lake, is blessed with great scenery, friendly locals, and a pleasant vibe.
Explore an Ancient Batak Village
Perhaps the most popular thing to see at Lake Toba is the ruins of an ancient Batak village, which can be found in Ambarita. Here, you can find stone chairs that were used for meetings by the local king, and both a torture stone and chopping block that were once used for executions.
Ambarita is located three miles northwest of Tuk-tuk along the main road. The stone chairs are not on the main road, so it's best to ask in town about how to get there. Hiring a Batak “guide” inside the village is both entertaining and well worth the $1 or so (prices are variable) for learning about the cannibal rituals and Batak culture.
Visit the Hot Springs
The hot springs are located on the side of the island opposite Tuk-tuk, outside of Panguruan—the largest settlement on Pulau Samosir. While the hot springs are interesting to see, the sulfuric smell is noxious and the water is too hot to enjoy.
Skilled motorbike drivers can brave the road higher into the hills to see the source of the hot springs. The views of Lake Toba from above the hot springs are spectacular, and it's the best place to grab a photo of the lake.
Tour the Batak Museum
Located in Simanindo, approximately nine miles from Tuk-tuk, an ancient king's traditional house was restored and converted into the Batak Museum. The museum is small, but a must if you are interested in understanding more about the Batak culture.
Traditional dancing is sometimes performed at 10:30 in the morning—assuming that tourists have shown up. The dancing done at the museum is far more authentic than the variety performed in guesthouses.
See the Tomb of King Sidabutar
Just three miles southeast of Tuk-tuk, in the village of Tomok, are more stone remains and ancient tombs. The site is small but interesting, however, you must negotiate a labyrinth of souvenir stalls to visit the site. Find the ruins by taking a right from the main road in Tomok through the narrow alley lined with souvenir stalls. Most people find the carved man on the front of the largest sarcophagus strangely out of place.
Watch Traditional Batak Dance and Music
Bagus Bay and Samosir Cottages, two popular guesthouses, regularly have traditional music and Batak dance on Saturday and Wednesday nights around 8 p.m. Like anything else, the number of tourists in attendance determine if the show goes on. Shows typically begin tame as everyone is still eating, then progress into fun drinking songs and animated performances by very talented locals who play a mixture of modern and ancient instruments.
Drive Around the Island
Circumnavigating the whole of Pulau Samosir may require an early start, however, riding along the lake on a motorbike is a very enjoyable way to see everyday village life. Old churches, volcanic scenery, and daily life keep each mile you drive interesting enough to see what's around the next bend.
Overall, the roads are in fairly good condition, however, rough patches and random animal crossings keep things extra exciting. Helmet and international license laws are rarely ever enforced on Pulau Samosir.
Rent a motorbike for around $7 per day; the price includes a full tank of gas which you do not have to replace. Cheaper rates can be negotiated if you take the motorbike for more than one day.
See a Lake Inside of a Lake
Lake Sidihoni is tucked away in the island interior west of Tuk-tuk. Interestingly, there are very few lakes within lakes in the world. Getting to Lake Sidihoni is tricky. You must brave the rough road between Ronggumihuta and Partungkoan on motorbike, then hike the slightly obscure path. If lost, try asking someone “di mana Danau Sidihoni?”
Buy Traditional Textiles
The small village of Buhit is home to weavers of the traditional Batak cloths used in dances and rituals. The clothes are wrapped around the head to keep the sun off. Buhit is located north of Tuk-tuk (take a right as you exit the main gate) before you arrive at Panguruan and the hot springs. Be prepared to negotiate prices when you buy textiles and souvenirs.
Lake Toba is filled with fish of all sizes that regularly hang around the guesthouse docks and shore walls. Both nets and poles can be purchased at shops around Tuk-tuk. Try fishing in the morning; egg or bread leftover from breakfast makes great bait. Alternatively, fish are also attracted to a flashlight directed at the water, which makes them easier to net at night. Locals may be willing to take you on a proper fishing trip by boat with a little negotiation.