Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 1 of 4)
Date: Wed 22nd Jan’14
From Medan to Parapat
I am in Sumatra, Indonesia. The largest of Indonesia’s islands (that’s completely in Indonesia). More specifically, I am in the town of Parapat, North Sumatra. Back for another micro-adventure in one of my favourite countries after 3 years.
This time round my plan was to visit Lake Toba, the largest lake born out of a volcanic super-eruption. I had been to Lake Toba when I was much younger, though I have scant recollection of the place. Goal set for this trip? 1) Get to Tuktuk, small touristy outcrop of land on Samosir Island, the island in the middle of the lake. 2) Learn a little more about the Batak people, inhabitants in this region of North Sumatra. Loftier initial plans to visit West Sumatra’s Pagaruyung, the old Minangkabau capital and Pulau Nias was not possible, due to time constraints and the appalling amount of time required to travel overland from city to city within Sumatra.
I arrived in Medan’s brand new Kuala Namu International Airport. The airport is located an hour’s drive from the city (much further out than the old airport). How to get to the city? There is a train that goes to the Central Train Station in Medan (80,000 Rp) and a swarm of taxi drivers who will set upon you as soon as you exit the airport. Cheapest way? As you exit, turn right and take the Damri bus. It leaves when full and the ticket is 10,000 Rp. The bus drops you at Amplas Station, which is a little way east of the city centre, but perfect for me, as this was the place to board the public long-distance bus to Parapat.
From the Amplas bus station, the Sejahtera Bus (32,000 Rp) goes to Parapat, stopping at the towns of Tebing Tinggi and Pematangsiantar along the way. Total journey takes 5 hours, making pit-stops everywhere to drop off passengers. My bus left at 1.30pm, which meant that I arrived too late in Parapat to take the connecting last ferry across the lake to Samosir Island. No worries though; I decided to stay the night in Parapat.
The bus journey is typical of the travel here in Sumatra, along a one lane road, with the driver channeling Fast & The Furious, overtaking in the oncoming lane. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you do like your thrills, sit in the front row.
The second half of the bus ride passed through Batak territory. I started to see many churches by the side of the road, for the majority of the Bataks were Christians. A pretty pink-bricked ‘Gereja of St.Maria’ here, a Gereja of St. Stephanus, an Advent Hari Ketujuh (7th day adventist) there. Unlike the Acehnese to their north and the Minangkabau to their south who were Muslims, the Bataks are staunchly Christian (though some sub-groups like the Angkola and Mandailing were Muslims). It was fascinating to see Batak graves, adorned with their traditional roofed designs. Somewhere after passing Pematangsiantar, the terrain became hilly and after half an hour of winding upslope, the road opened into a gorgeous view of Lake Toba below.
The last ferry for the day had left so I found lodging at the Wisata Sedayu (100,000 Rp), located a stone’s throw away from the bus station. It was a decent enough place to stay, but the one I was aiming for was a Hotel Sedayu, a recommendation by Lonely Planet’s 10th edition of Indonesia). I surmised that the latest Lonely Planet isn’t very good. Not only did it not mention that there were two Sedayus and to pick the correct one (both 100 metres away from each other), it also failed to include the Parapat map, which the 9th edition had. Sadly, recent additions of LP seem to be cutting back on useful information, as well as simplifying maps to the extent that they’ve become pretty much useless.
Food. That always sets me in a good mood. So off I went for dinner after sorting out my lodging. There are plenty of warungs, or stalls along Jalan SM, the main highway in Parapat. Batak food, Minangkabau food, Javanese food and all sorts of other Indonesian regional fare. I settled for a Minang warung, going behind the ubiquitous glass displays in Indonesian eateries that stack up their dishes like a pyramid, and helping myself to plenty of different dishes. Yum. Rice, rendang,
sambal prawns, lots of sweet green and red chillis, all topped off with a glass of diabetes inducing tea. Heavenly I say, and one of the main reasons why Indonesia ranks so highly on my best countries I’ve visited list.
Tomorrow, I will be up early and trying to head to Bilage, where there is a Batak museum. Not much information on the web or in the guidebook, so I’m hoping it turns out well.
Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 2 of 4)
Date: Thu 23rd Jan’14
For the second day running, I failed to get to Tuktuk, my intended destination on Pulau Samosir, the island in the middle of the supervolcanic crater lake in North Sumatra called Lake Toba. Instead, I ended up spending the night in the remote village of Onanrunggu, sleeping in a local Batak family home. How did I get here?
They day began unassumingly enough. I went to the Parapat bus station at 8am, and it was deserted. The junction outside the bus station where it meets the main road is where all the minivans, locally known as opelets, pick up passengers. My destination? Balige.
Balige is a small town on the southern mainland shore of Lake Toba. On the 2nd of January 2011, the largest Batak museum in the world was opened to the public here. Balie is also firmly in Batak territory, so it should be an interesting place to visit, I thought.
I think it was contemporary Batak music they were playing throughout the journey. Because I understand Indonesian fairly well and I am unable to fathom what was probably Batak singing in the songs. The music is a lot of flutes and keyboards, over a repetitive chacha-like beat that occurs in every song. Actually, I quite like the music.
Central Balige is like many Indonesian towns, except for the fact that Batak roofs permeate through the buildings in town. There was also a row of impressive Batak houses lined up by the side of the main street. This was where the central market was located.
Batak houses are designed with huge impossible-to-miss roofs that from the side look like upturned boats, with the bow forming the front of the house. Today, the majority of Bataks in North Sumatra are Christians, of both the Protestant and Catholic denominations. However many of their traditional Batak beliefs remain, such as the designs on the Batak houses. For the houses, the roof represents the ‘world above’ or the heavens, and this roof extensively decorated with Batak motifs. The floor level where the family lives is raised above the ground level, the ‘middle world’. And under the floor level is where the animals are kept; this is the ‘world below’.
The Batak museum is located about 3 kilometers out of town, in a village called Desa Pagar Batu. I took a pleasant morning hike out there, passing by many churches and Batak graves set in paddy fields before arriving at a small complex. This was the mausoleum of Raja Sisimangaraja XII. He was a Batak leader who fought against Dutch colonial rule in the 19th century and is recognised as an Indonesian national hero.
Further down the road is the TB Sillalahi Centre, which comprises two museums in its grounds: the Batak Museum and the TB Silalahi Museum. TB Silalahi is a former Indonesian Minister of Batak descent, and the museum honours him with displays of his ceremonial attires, belongings and awards. I was more interested in the Batak Museum of course. Entry for foreigners is 50,000 Rp).
Oddly enough, there is no information about Balige or the museum in guidebooks, or even a Wikitravel / Wikivoyage entry. I thought that the site of the largest Batak museum in the world would at least deserve a mention. The museum exhibits’ text panels even had English captions, so you cannot say that it was targeted only at locals.
Expectedly, I was the only foreigner there (and even then, everyone thought I was local). The architecture of the museum building was modern and impressive, a two-storeyed building with a mezzanine floor where you enter from. The ground floor is an open-air museum showcasing sculptures of Batak guardians and ancestor figures. A 150-metre ramp leads up from the mezzanine floor to the second level, where an impressive array of exhibits displays the rich Batak heritage, culture and traditions. Among these were models of Batak houses, the aksara which was the unique alphabet developed by the Bataks, rare metal charms and jewellery, and various weapons.
My favourite was the Batak ritual staff. The Tunggal Panaluan is a carved wooden staff shaped like a totem pole, with faces carved onto it, one atop the other. There is a cautionary tale about the staff.
Interlude: The tale of the Tunggal Panaluan
Once there was a man named Guru Hatia Bulan, who lived with his wife. After seven years of trying to conceive, his wife finally gave birth to a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. However, the birth date of the twins was an inauspicious one, and during the name-day ceremony, the villagers beseeched Guru Hatia Bulan to separate the two, to prevent any misfortune befalling the village.
He was adamant that they grow up together however, and the twins were so close that as they grew up they no longer behaved like brother and sister. Instead they became lovers.
The villagers found out and condemned the twins, expelling them to live at the top of the mountains by themselves. Guru Hatia Bulan could not bear to forsake his children however, so each day he would go to the peak and bring food for them.
One day the girl, Si Tapi Omas, was foraging in the forest when she came across a tree. She climbed up the tree to pick its fruit, and to her shock, she was swallowed whole and became one with the tree. Her brother Si Aji Donda came running and tried to help her but he too became stuck to the tree and was meld to it. Their dog which had followed them also got stuck. All of them cried out for help.
Soon Guru Hatia Bulan arrived with his daily rations for his children and was horrified to find them stuck onto the tree, He called for the village dato, or shaman. The shaman, Dato Parmanuk Holing came by and inspected the tree. Suddenly he found himself dragged and stuck onto the tree! A succession of famous shamans was called to help: Maragin Bosi from Si Ajui Bahir, the shaman Pongpang Niobungan, and also the renowned Boru Sibasopaet who came with his snake. Each one was beseeched to pull the twins from the tree from which they were stuck. But every single shaman failed, and found themselves swallowed up by the tree as well.
Finally, a shaman named Parponsa Ginjang came by and said “This phenomenon is the results of the twins angering the gods, and the only way to fix this is to offer prayers to the gods and then chop the tree down, to prevent more people getting swallowed up by the tree.”
Guru Hatia Bulan chopped down the tree. He brought the wood back to the village where the village artist carved out a staff that featured the faces of each of those who have been swallowed up by the tree. On the staff were the two children of Guru Hatia Bulan, the shamans who tried to help, the dog and the snake. Everyone in the village looked on. And when the staff was finished, the shaman Parponsa Ginjang suddenly fell into a trance.
From his mouth came the words “Oh you, who has carved our features. We have eyes but we do not see, we have mouths but we cannot talk, we have ears but we do not hear. We curse you, oh carver!” The artist said in fear “Do not curse me, but instead curse my blade, for without it I would not be able to carve!”
To everyone’s surprise the carving knife retorted “It is not me you should curse, but the blacksmith. For if he had not made me, I would not be able to carve.” The blacksmith did not want to be the guilty one, and he said “Don’t wrong me, it is Guru Hatia Bulan who you should curse!”. At that point in time, everyone turned towards Guru Hatia Bulan, and the entranced shaman said “I curse you, oh Guru Hatia Bulan, you and your father and the mother who gave birth to you.”
To which Guru Hatia Bulan answered: “It is not me that you should curse, instead you should look at yourself. You are the cursed one, you who have fallen, been carved and and will never have descendants.”
The staff fell silent, before finally saying “Alright, let it be this way, oh father. Use me for calling rain, stopping rain, as a weapon, to cure illness and to ward off diseases.” And with that, the shaman fell out of his trance. From that day onwards, the ritual staff and similar ones were carved, and these were used by powerful shamans throughout the Batak lands.
I must have spent too long at the museum, for it was 2.30pm when I finally left Balige. My destination was Tuktuk, which meant retracing my steps to Parapat, and taking the ferry across the lake to Tuktuk. But then I got too clever for my own good, and thought: “Hey, since Balige is also on the shoreline, it should have its own port!”. I asked around and ended up at the Balige port, but the ferry did not go to Tuktuk from there. It goes to the island, but only as far as Onanrunggu, a village 20 km to the south of Tuktuk. No matter, I thought, I could land there, and go by road the rest of the way to Tuktuk. The ferry was leaving in 5 minutes, and I made up my mind to just board it and go.
It was a brilliant plan, or so I thought. Arriving in Onanrunggu, I asked for the direction of the bus station. The villagers laughed. No buses. And no vehicles either, none that could take me there this late in the afternoon. According to the villagers, the road was so bad that 20km would take at least one and a half hours, and even if I paid the 200 000 Rp they were asking for, the the motorbikes riders would worry about riding back in the dark after they had dropped me off. I waited for an hour for a passing vehicle, before finally giving up.
In the end, the local mechanic I had been speaking to put me up at his mom-in-law’s place, for a quarter of the price of the ojek. It turned out to be a good decision. I got to walk around in an authentic Batak village, and got some great photos. Only downside is that I did not eat well. I had cup noodles ‘Pop Mie’, since my host was more concerned about me getting ‘halal’ food than I was, after I told her I was Muslim. And throughout the trip, in many circumstances did I see such considerate behaviour between Christians and Muslims.
Tomorrow morning, the plan is to arrive in Tuktuk. (Third attempt!). From Onanrunggu, I will be taking the 7am ferry to Parapat, and from Parapat, take the ferry back across the lake to Tuktuk. It is a testament to the slow transportation in Sumatra; to get from Point A (Onanruggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both linked together by land, I had to cross over to Parapat.
Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 3 of 4)
Date: Fri 24th Jan’14
Finally, I end up in Tuktuk, on the third try. At 7am, I boarded the two-hour ferry to Parapat. After yesterday’s fiasco where I found myself stranded for the night in the little village of Onanrunngu, I was intent on getting to Tuktuk. I said goodbye to the nice family who put me up for the night, and boarded the same ferry I took yesterday, this time heading to Parapat.
The deckhand, an olive skinned Batak boy of about 13, gave me a shrug, as if to say “Heading to Parapat? Then why in the world did you take the boat from Balige to Onanrunggu last night in the first place?”. I shrugged back at him, and my shrug said “Yes, I know I’m an idiot. I should have just taken the bus from straight from Balige to Parapat”.
The journey took me through some exhilarating scenery. Lake Toba was formed 75 thousand years ago when a supervolcanic eruption created the crater, resulting in weather changes throughout the world and later being filled up with water to form what is today Lake Toba. And the scenery is the kind I have seen elsewhere where volcanic rocks abound. Cliffs rise out of the lakes on either side of the ferry, its surface covered with vegetation. Pulau Samosir to my left and the mainland on my right. And on the ferry were locals picked up along the way from various villages; the water low enough for the ferry to dock right at their doorstep! These locals were going to Parapat for business, or work, or to do their shopping in a big town.
I arrived in Ajibata harbour, about 1 km away from Parapat, disembarked and took a morning stroll to Parapat. Apparently it was faster to just walk, the ferry takes another 20 minutes to get to the next bay.
The Tiga Raja harbour in Parapat was also a market area with vendors selling pineapples, mangosteens, bananas and other tropical fruits. I bought a bunch of bananas and some mangoes and got on the ferry to cross back to Samosir Island, this time to Tuktuk. As ridiculous as it sounds, the fastest way to get from Point A (Onanrunggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both located on the same island 20 kilometers apart, is to go back to the mainland and take a ferry back from there.
I saw my first tourists in three days on the Tuktuk boat. Tuktuk is where all the tourists stay, and at the end of the 1 hour ferry ride, I saw before me a string of resorts, all laid out along the shoreline. Each one boasted traditional Batak cottages, their courtyards opening out into the lake. I picked a place which had wifi, and for around 6.5 USD, got a room so big that I had enough space to do cartwheels in the bathroom!
Tuktuk is a tourist haven, the laid-back kind of place where you just relax and do nothing, the kind of place where an intended 2 day stay becomes a week long retreat. It had all the ‘characteristics’ of similar places → banana pancakes, wifi, magic mushrooms and TV channels showing movies and sitcoms.
After four hours of doing nothing (Internet!), I got restless and decided to go for a 3 kilometre hike to the next village Ambarita, the site of a group of 300 year old stone seats, used by the Batak for meetings and discussions.The stone seats themselves were underwhelming and the western tourist group firmly entrenched in the seats as their guide talked to them dissipated whatever mystical quality the stone seats had for me.
Instead, my afternoon took a serendipitous turn. Earlier as I was in the hills walking towards Ambarita, I heard music playing from somewhere down in the village. Thinking it came from the stone seats, I mumbled about how touristy this attraction must be. However, arriving at the stone seats, there was no music. The music was further ahead, and I followed the direction from where it came from.
It was a Batak wedding, right in the middle of the road. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and a full-blown ceremony was ongoing. Music was blaring, everyone was dancing and even the band playing was live. I peeked from the rear of the festivities and tried to see what was happening. The bride and groom were seated in the middle, on chairs. Family members danced around them and took turns to drape the Ulos cloths over the bride and groom. This is the Ulos Hela ceremony. It was all quite exciting, seeing little old Batak ladies spinning around to the lively music was the highlight of the day.
Back at the resort, I spent the evening stuffing myself and on the Internet. Three days to get to Tuktuk. And tomorrow I will be leaving for Medan.
Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 4 of 4)
Date: Sat 25th Jan’14
From Parapat, I took a shared taxi (75000 Rp) which on hindsight is a decent deal, since it brought you directly to your destination. Taking the public Sejahtera bus is 32000 Rp and it is much slower, stopping passengers everywhere. And you will need to flag a cab to get to your final destination once you reach the Medan bus station. There were even two locals taking my ‘tourist’ 7 seater shared taxi.
Compared to the idyllic waters of Lake Toba, Medan is a noisy, polluted Indonesia city. Potholes and open drains needed to be avoided, traffic lights seemingly turn red and green without a pattern, and the stream of traffic: cars, becaks, taxis, motorcycles all add to the chaos. Medan feels alive.
I splurged on a nice hotel, used by travelling Indonesian businessmen, evident by the tone-deaf hotel guests that night who were warbling on the karaoke machine in the lobby. Come to think of it, my hotel room that night costs more than the past three days combined!
The sights in Medan. There are no must-see sights in this city. I popped into the Masjid Raya, a mosque built during the Kingdom of Deli. Also saw the Istana Maimoon, a royal palace whose usage is very much ceremonial these days. Along the way, I got into an altercation with a becak driver. He insisted on taking me in his trishaw to Maimoon Palace for 2000 Rp. Sure, it was just 100 meters away, so let’s do the guy a favour, I thought. He then tried to charge me an extortionate sum of 75000 Rp for the short trip, which was ridiculous! I paid that same amount in the 5 hour shared taxi ride from Toba to Medan! Of course I was furious and refused. “But I brought you sightseeing”, he reasoned, which was not even valid as my view was blocked throughout by the flap covering the front of his trishaw. I gave him an earful, a generous 10000 Rp and stomped off.
Medan’s Lapangan Merdeka is a large open space, and at its perimeter are a row of open air eateries: fast food, local fare, some fancy restaurants and a section with a stage where live bands can play. Fashionable Medan youths hang out here. Beside the lapangan Merdeka is the Central Railway Stations, which I took to get to the airport (80000 Rp).
The price was very steep, considering I paid 10000 Rp getting from the airport to town in the public Damri bus a few days back. But this was a modern airconditioned cabin; clean and brand new. I was impressed with the brightly lit and spacious seating areas, and the announcements in English and Indonesian. You could even do a city check-in at the station. I was just thinking “This is pretty good” when the train departed 15 minutes late. “Still Indonesia then, even the fancy trains run late,” I smiled to myself.
I spent the rest of the time in Medan roaming at the many shopping complexes. Medan Mall holds many brands and shops, and the adjacent linked mall is a warren of small merchants selling all sorts of knick knacks. The grandest new mall is however Centrepoint, located just beside the train station. This 6 storey mall has all the brands I know back home. There is Malaysian brand Parkson, Singapore brands like Bakerzinn, and Charles & Keith, and big tenant Korean brand Lotte, amongst others. The Chinese New Year festivities were in full flow, and there were performances on the ground floor atrium of the mall.
The top floor of the mall is a food court (so very similar to the layout of Singaporean malls), where each stall sold different regional and international fare. Opened only last month, the food court boasted Hainanese Chicken Rice from Singapore, Ipoh Laksa, Hong Kong Tsim Sha Shui, amongst other dishes. You even paid with pre-paid cards, and topped them up at counters, just like Singaporean malls.
And that was that. I left Medan the next morning, for the 1 hour flight back home. I bought boxes of the local specialty, Bika Ambon, which is a sort of tasty cake and headed home. Five days covering Parapat, Balige, Samosir Island and Medan.