Travel to Lake Toba: Very rough guide

My little solo break in Lake Toba came to an end on 18 August as I headed back to Medan for a night before flying back to Singapore on 19 August. While most people visit Lake Toba for swimming or dipping in the lake and jungle trekking, I visited to relax and explore the village.

Why did I choose to go Lake Toba? My parents had their honeymoon there 40 years ago. I thought it will be worth a visit and it’s close to Singapore, despite a long journey on the road getting there. There is something fascinating about staying on a volcano albeit a dormant one. There are a few active ones nearby though which you can visit with a tour.

The beautiful weather, almost cool all day even if it’s sunny, fresh avocado at more affordable prices, sunrises and sunsets…this place is a little haven in Southeast Asia.

Lake Toba is about the same size or larger than Singapore and this is the lake in the supervolcano, the size of Singapore. I marvelled at the vast lake and the size of the island when I was there. I barely explored outside of Tuk Tuk and Ambarita which are probably equivalent to only about Marine Parade to Bedok.

By Google Maps
By Google Maps
Tuk Tuk
Tuk Tuk, the mushroom shaped bulb – The place where most tourists stay.
A pretty ok map of Tuk Tuk outside one of the cafes. It takes about an hour or so on foot to complete the loop.
A pretty ok map of Tuk Tuk outside one of the cafes. It takes about an hour or so on foot to complete the loop.

I managed to finish a few books while on the trip and walked my shoes to a muddy mess. A few quick notes on Lake Toba for those who may be considering a visit. So this is just a guide from my own experience.

 

Getting there

Many talk about the beautiful island in the middle of a supervolcano, but not really about the journey.

Lake Toba is accessible from Medan, albeit a distance. With Medan only about 1.5hrs away from Singapore by plane, it is a quite place for short trips or getaways.

The two recommended airlines from Singapore to Medan are Silkair and Jetstar. International flights are now at Kuala Namu, previously Polonia International Airport. Kuala Namu was previously a palm oil plantation and you’ll still see some palm trees around the area before the entry to Kuala Namu. It is also the second largest airport in Indonesia after Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport. This is also the first airport in Indonesia with a direct train link to Medan City. The move from Polonia to Kuala Namu was primarily a safety reason, especially following a crash in September 2005. Mandala Airlines crashed at Polonia shortly after taking off. This was among a few other crashes at Polonia mainly due to the short runway and its difficult takeoff path. Kuala Namu’s departure area has a few shops where you could get your last minute gifts. I bought some gifts from the airport and also souvenirs from Starbucks.

The best way to get from Medan to Lake Toba is by shared taxi. Most of these taxis are 7-seaters and you could be sharing the ride with strangers. If you are lucky, you get the quiet companions who do not smoke indoors. I called the taxi company which was recommended by someone on Tripadvisor before my trip. However, do get the landing time exact to the mark as I am pretty sure mine left after waiting for me for about 40 minutes. So I had to make a call again from my Singapore number at Kuala Namu airport.

Also, do get an Indonesian SIM card from the airport (next to the money changer near the international arrivals). The taxi companies will not communicate with you on an international number as it costs too much for them to text or call international numbers. I was informed of that after i called them on my Indonesian number. Afterwhich, I started receiving updates on the taxi which will be picking me up. It costs Rp10,000 to get a SIM card and another minimum of Rp25,000 for top-up which amazing has lasted pretty long and I still have some credit on it. Approximately 60 minutes talk time with a local number and probably about 20 minutes with an international number.

The drivers do not speak much English so maybe a Bahasa Indonesian guidebook may be useful for simple sentences and requests. Do not expect a nice chauffeured Kijang. Most of these cars are 7-seater Toyota Avanzas, Daihatsu space wagons (i’m not sure of the make), Suzuki space wagons etc. Some of these cars are probably more than five years old.

The person I liaised with was ‘John’ [Jhon Warisman Saragih] from CV. Parapat Indah Trans. http://www.laketobatravel.com. Best way to reach him is via mobile: +62 821 6664 4926, if you’re calling from your mobile phone. Include a ‘0’ after +62 and before ‘8’ if you’re calling from a landline. They are located at Parapat which is the town you’ll be driven to for the boat to Lake Toba or what the locals call Pulau Samosir, the island in Lake Toba. The shared taxi is Rp80,000 per person. This is much more expensive than taking the bus or the train but this option takes you there much quicker with fewer people sharing your space. I heard that the bus rides take up to 8 hours. Rp80,000 works out to about SGD8.20 or so.

Be prepared for a 5-hour car ride with one break along the way. This company takes the break at the same spot on the to and return journey – Deny’s Cafe (if i recall correctly). It is about mid-way.

It might be 4 hours if traffic is ok. Most of these drivers overtake and drive on a ‘mission’. I couldn’t manage sitting shotgun and switched to the back seat (way back since the middle seats were taken) during the break. The suspension is a little gone so I really felt those bad potholes. There were two danish girls on a school break in the car on the way to Lake Toba.

The first glimpse of the lake and the mountains will have you smiling on the inside. We arrived in Parapat close to 5:20pm and caught the boat leaving at 5:30pm just when we arrived. Last boat at 6pm. It costs about Rp15,000 for places closer to Tuk Tuk town. It was Rp20,000 for me as Mas Cottages [more about accommodation in the later para] is slightly further and closer to Ambarita.

The boat journey was about 1 hour. That is how big the lake is. Some people drive from Medan and get on the huge ferries with their cars to Tomok harbour.

 

Money

Be sure to have sufficient cash for your accommodation and other activities like rental of motorbikes, bicycles, food, tipping and so on. There are only two ATMs near where most tourists are. One in Ambarita (which is probably about 1.5km away from my accommodation) and the other in Tomok, both by BRI Bank.

The one in Ambarita runs out of cash sometimes and you might find yourself traveling about 5km or 7km to the next ATM in Tomok.

ATM in Tomok by BRI Bank.
ATM in Tomok by BRI Bank. You’ll want to have wheels after getting money or some company. It’s unlikely to be robbed but you’ll want a deterrent.

MasterCard is preferred there. Sorry VISA, “Everywhere you want to be” most of the time but not this time. [The VISA ads really get to me sometimes in the cinemas.]

Alternatively, do bring some of your local currency and you get the money changed at Tuk Tuk. Rates aren’t as good as Medan but it’ll do.

 

Accommodation

Most accommodations there are from SGD10 to SGD35 per night. You’ll get a decent nice room for about SGD30 a night. I had a discount on the number of nights I stayed so it was SGD30 instead of SGD35 for me per night. The room is deemed as a ‘suite’. Definitely a much better quality than the standard room which goes at SGD15 per night.

You could also check out other places besides Mas Cottages. I went to see a few places – Tuk Tuk Timbul, further down the road from Mas and Tabo Cottages, closer to town, Tuk Tuk. Both are owned by Europeans. Tabo is managed by Germans. I met Annette of Tabo and she told me she manages the place and she is German from Cologne. If you want to swim in a pool instead of the lake which is not very clean now, you could opt for Tabo Cottages.

I might consider Tabo the next time as the villas are rather beautiful, the cakes and bread are delicious and they have kayaks available. They are the sit-on-top kayaks and not the close tops. I was a little deterred when I saw the plastic looking kayaks. Nevertheless, I went for it since I have been thinking about doing it and I had to do it.

Restaurant staff aren’t as attentive at Tabo but it is up to you to develop good relationships with them. Also, do not leave your food unattended for even a second. The birds and flies attack them in an instant. I experienced it and had to re-order a new cake.

All I did was get up to ask for Wifi password. When I returned, there were two sparrows pecking at my pineapple cake. I’d tasted only a bite of it. It was sweet but ok if you like these butter cakes sweet. I ordered a lemon cake next which I cleaned off the plate in a few seconds. I highly recommend the lemon which is less sweet and light. Goes really well with ginger tea, tea or coffee. They serve coffee from coffee beans at Tabo too. Be prepared to pay equivalent prices to Singapore for those coffee. I believe they were about Rp45,000 per cup. A slice of cake was about Rp12,000, which is wonderful as we hardly get cakes at that price in Singapore. At least not from a cafe or restaurant. You also get ‘brown bread’ there for about Rp40,000 a loaf, about the same as Singapore. The loaves are larger there though. ‘Brown bread’ is like wholemeal and fresh with no preservatives or improvers so they last about 3 days before they get moldy.

 

Getting around and activities

I walked mostly. You’ll get maps from your accommodation or try to purchase before going there as they do not sell any maps on the island. I bought a useless photocopied map for Rp2,000 (20 cents) from one of the travel agencies in Tuk Tuk, just to use the bathroom with no lights.

Road condition is bad and you’ll find mud, sand and potholes all around. If you are riding either a bicycle or a motorbike, you’ll need to be careful.

Motorbike rental from the cottages are about Rp100,000 to 120,000 per day with petrol. You might be able to get cheaper rentals outside. Bicycles are about Rp50,000 per day. Villagers are also looking to get more money from tourists and offer their motorbikes for rental with your ‘guide’ at Rp300,000 per day as a passenger.

You’ll need to watch out for other fellow tourist riders who do not watch out sometimes. Some of them are kids at no more than twelve years old. The village kids do ride motorbikes too.

Some cars do pass through the small roads in the village and they do horn to alert you.

 

If you could, do go on a kayaking adventure. It was my second time kayaking in my whole life. The first in Canada last year in a closed top. It is a great way to experience Lake Toba from the lake and explore surroundings. The lake is deep and deepest point is more than 500metres deep. Quality of the lake water is decreasing with the numerous fish farms. I noticed some trash in the water too when I was kayaking. There are jet skis, boats and larger boats which are closer to Tomok carrying vehicles. Otherwise, the water is pretty calm.

Blister from kayaking.
Blister from kayaking.

People

The Batak people are usually friendly and people around Tuk Tuk are friendlier than those in Tomok or Ambarita, so i thought. Some are too friendly and some guys working on houses would call out, especially if you are a female alone. Kids are rather cheeky too and will try to talk to you and follow you.

The people on Lake Toba are primarily Christians although there is a small handful of Muslims.

Another thing I noticed were the elaborate graves or burial sites.

 

Animals of Lake Toba

Plenty of dogs and cats around the area. These cats probably do hunt mice, unlike our domesticated cats. I had a dog jump up on me when I was jogging in the village. He had some companions who left me alone, thank goodness. He had his paws all over my shirt, until a black alpha dog gave a warning and all the dogs followed him.

 

Food

You’ll spend an average of about Rp50,000 per simple meal or about Rp80,000 to 90,000 for meals with fish. A fried rice is about Rp30,000 and a drink is 20,000. Grilled fish is about Rp45,000 to 60,000.

There is a lot of onions in their food so do tell them not to put onions if you dislike it. I totally dislike onions and it also causes stomachache for me.

Pancakes at most restaurants are like pratas or wraps. I ordered a pancake once and didn’t really like it. However, I think you will be able to get ‘normal’ pancakes at Tabo.

Avocados are in abundance there with trees growing everywhere. You could get fresh avocado drinks or in your salad pretty easily. The skin of the avocados are different from the ones we get from USA or South Africa in Singapore. The ones there are smooth.

There are passion fruit trees too and I recommend the hot passion fruit drink. It is refreshing.

Above all, Lake Toba is a place to slow down and just ease into the flow. Places are mostly empty now and people visit Lake Toba with friends, lover, family to enjoy the scenery and some trekking.

 

 

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