Most vacationers go to Bali or Java. But Sumatra, after all the largest island belonging entirely to Indonesia, is often ignored because it is considered uncomfortable. This is due to the journey (usually via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to the capital Medan). And on the onward journey through the jungle country.
The roads outside of the cities are gravel, the public transport network with minibuses is a challenge; here a car with a driver would be the best option. Also, unlike Bali, Sumatra is largely Islamic, so travelers, especially women, should follow certain rules.
Sumatra is undeniably an adventure, but it also offers everything you would want a tropical vacation to be, if you put your mind to it. Tourism is not yet as developed as in other parts of Southeast Asia. Luckily, you could say.
Since the 1970s, backpackers have loved the island with its many cheap guesthouses and the spicy food in markets and street food restaurants. Nature fans visit the national parks with orangutans or trek to volcanoes like the Sibayak in the north. Surfers gravitate to the west coast for legendary waves, while divers and snorkelers appreciate the pristine coral reefs just offshore.
The most popular snorkeling spot: Sumur Tiga Beach on Pulau Weh Island. However, it is in the Aceh region in the north, the strictest Muslim region in Indonesia, where Sharia law applies. That means: Alcohol is forbidden (except in some beach hotels), tenderness in public is taboo, as are homosexuality and extramarital sex. But it must also be said that the locals are wonderfully hospitable.
Minangkabau festivals are among the most magnificent in Sumatra, and a village wedding is well worth attending. With three million members, the ethnic group is the largest existing matrilineal ethnic group in the world. That means property, title, family name and land are passed from mother to daughter and have been for centuries.
There is still an heiress to the long-defunct Minangkabau kingdom of Pagaruyung, the writer Raudha Thaib, 74. Minangkabau women are in charge, including when it comes to their children's education. The Minangkabau see themselves as devout Muslims, but remain true to their matriarchal culture. With great success: the ethnic group belongs to the educational elite.
It is 88 kilometers long, 29 kilometers wide and up to 450 meters deep: Lake Toba in North Sumatra, the largest and deepest crater lake in the world, and fantastically beautiful. For comparison: Lake Constance is about half as big. Sumatra's record waters are in the caldera of an exploded volcano.
Right in the middle: the island of Samosir. An island for chilling, popular with backpackers since the 70s. A few dozen Western dropouts just stayed there. Today they rent out guesthouses or cottages for a few euros right on the lake, which is ideal for swimming and kayaking.
With clear water surrounded by hot springs, tropical rainforest and mango trees with fruit to pick yourself. And here, in the Christian enclave, you can also drink your Bintang beer on the beach.
Number 8 lives. It gropes, squeaks, has fluffy ears and is protected like a treasure of gold: In March 2022, after seven miscarriages by rhino mama Rosa, the first calf was born in the Sumatra Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park.
A glimmer of hope, because according to estimates there are only between 30 and 80 Sumatran rhinos left on earth. Eight specimens now live in the 250-hectare breeding reserve, four females (including the young animal) and four males. They are to become the progenitors of new generations in order to save the species from extinction.
You just have to follow your nose: the giant rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii) grows in the jungle of Sumatra. Its beautiful white dotted flowers have a diameter of up to one meter. It is considered the largest single flower in the world.
Unfortunately, the giant flower has the disadvantage of smelling like carrion in order to attract blowflies to pollinate it. Just like the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), which is also native to Sumatra. Its ten-foot-tall stinky bulb attracts insects from miles away.
The chance of spotting a Sumatran tiger in the wild is 0.01 percent – negligible. There are no more than 400 of these animals sneaking through the swamps across the island, they are shy and nocturnal. Nevertheless, tiger trekking is a lucrative business, for example in Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia's largest protected area.
Many Sumatra vacationers want to get one of the extremely rare predators in front of the camera, preferably on a three-hour tour. After all, on these overpriced safaris, they like to be shown paw prints, droppings, claw marks on trees and, shhh!, presented with the alleged "Aum" call of a tiger from afar.
In fact, even most of the locals have yet to see a wild tiger, at least not a live one: carcasses were recently found in wire traps – those of a mother tiger and her two cubs.
“This journey through Sumatra is one of my favorite and most beautiful memories”
In 1852, Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858) was the first European woman who dared to travel to the highlands to join the warlike Batak. There were unconfirmed rumors that people used to eat enemies back then.
Once she was surrounded by spearmen, she wrote in My Second World Tour. She had a sentence ready in Batak: "Eat me? I must be tough.” The Batak warriors laughed at her and invited her to the village festival.
Bizarre, record-breaking, typical: You can find more parts of our regional geography series here.