18.04.2014 - 20.04.2014
Quite some time had passed since we went on a holiday and the Good Friday long weekend presented itself as the perfect opportunity to plan a hasty trip to Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. The first step was of course to determine how we were going to cover everything in just 2 days. So, in order to save some precious time we booked a car with driver in Medan from Singapore itself.
Medan is the closest "big" city to Lake Toba. We arrived at Kualanamu Airport, the new international airport for Medan, about an hour's drive from the city. Jojo, our driver from Toba Transporter, was waiting with the standard placard outside and we straightaway jumped into our Innova for the 4.5 hour drive to the lakeside town of Parapat.
Jojo spoke some English and we managed to convey that we needed vegetarian food. A quick stop at 'Restoran India' for some takeaway fried rice and we were off again. After repeated questions (in progressively poor grammar), Jojo revealed that the ferry across Lake Toba from Parapat to samosir island would leave at 1 pm and that's why we couldn't (shouldn't!) make too many stops on the way! The journey was quite pleasant with countryside scenery interspersed with quaint Indonesian villages. Only the last hour of the drive was uphill with winding roads. This last hour also happened to be the time when Jojo started getting all tensed up, literally sweating, and repeatedly saying that we would miss our ferry. Now, because of the communication gap, we really couldn't understand why, even though we were on time, we should miss the ferry. On reaching Parapat we knew why, and how!! Snaking long queues of cars were parked about half a kilometer distance from the ferry point and to our dismay the ferry was actually a barge that could only take a limited number of vehicles every 3 hours!! It turned out that being Good Friday weekend, every possible person on Earth had turned up in Medan (or so it seemed to us anyway!). Jojo managed to communicate to us that we wouldn't get a ferry till late night and so he advised us to take a passenger ferry to Samosir Island, while he waited in the queue with the car.
This turn of events actually ended up to be a blessing in disguise ultimately! The hour long ferry ride across the vast and clear blue Lake Toba was rejuvenating. It was only then that it sunk in that we were riding to an island (Samosir) within an island (Sumatra)! Most of the popular resorts on Samosir Island are located on the banks of Lake Toba and have their own private jetties. Our ferry dropped us right at the entrance to our resort, Samosir Villas. The facade of this resort is very traditional Batak style (not to be confused with Batik!). Bataks are an ethnic community in Sumatra known for their distinctive traditional longhouses, headhunting and cannibalism! Creepy enough?! Wait there is more! The volcano that is Lake Toba today erupted some 70,000 years ago killing almost all the humans and bringing about a climate change by lowering the temperature of the Earth for almost 1000 years! No wonder it's a supervolcano! Imagine an explosion that left a 100 km long and 1,600 feet deep hole, that is Lake Toba for you!
Most of the resorts are located on a small U-shaped area of the Samosir Island known as Tuk tuk. Since our car was still on the other side of the lake, we straightaway hired a scooter (rentals are pretty cheap for a whole day) and set off for the village of Tomok, about a km from Tuk tuk. The graveyards are the most fascinating buildings in Batak architecture. We were told that the richer the family, the more elaborate and beautiful the gravestone would be. On our way to Tomok, we saw several such gravestones and stopped to admire their beauty.
The major tourist attraction in Tomok is King Sidabutar's tomb, the ancient ruling clan of Tomok village. We were given a traditional shawl to wear as a mark of respect. The tomb complex has several sarcophagi, some large, some small. An interesting sarcophagus is that of King Ompu Ni Ujung Barita Sidabutar. According to legend, the elderly king wanted to marry a young woman named Anting Malela. During the engagement, Batak women traditionally carry a cup without handles on their head. However, Anting Malela broke the engagement by refusing to carry the cup. Furious, King Ompu Ni Ujung Barita used black magic to make her crazy. When King Ompu Ni Ujung Barita died, he was placed in a sarcophagus beside the earlier king. His likeness is carved on the front of the sarcophagus. It shows him wearing a turban-like headgear. A sculpture of Anting Malela is also carved behind the sarcophagus. It shows her carrying a cup without handles over her head, a sign of the king's command for obedience.
There are plenty of souvenir stalls outside the tomb complex and heavy bargaining is advised! Cotton hand-weaved shawls called ‘Ulos’ and wooden Batak sculptures are unique and a good buy. There is also a small Batak museum down the road inside a traditional house. There was no one there to explain or show us around, but most of the items were labelled, so we took a quick look around on our own.
From there we headed to the other side of the island, crossing Tuk tuk again, to the village of Ambarita. The drive was fantastic; a long stretch of near empty road with paddy fields on both sides and a mountain range beyond the fields. To top that a light drizzle and cool winds absolutely elevated our spirits! It was almost 5 pm when we reached our place of interest, the Stone chair of King Siallagan, and the sun had started its journey to the west. The story behind this tourist attraction is dark and disturbing.
Located inside a smaller village called Huta Siallagan, this set of stone chairs with a table in the centre is where the elderly and important people of the village used to meet to decide the village matters. The trials for wrongdoers were also conducted here. The accused would be held behind bars in an area under the King’s house right behind the stone chairs until the trial day. If found guilty, the accused was taken to an execution spot in the same village and his body parts, removed and given to the villagers to be consumed. The heart was reserved for the king, so that he may eat it and become more powerful. This practice of cannibalism stopped when the later Batak kings were converted to Christianity.
After a lovely Italian and Indonesian dinner at a cosy resort named Tabo Cottages, we returned to our resort to a surprise welcome by Jojo who had finally (and thankfully) made it to Samosir!
The next morning, it was already time to bid goodbye to the quaint little island of Samosir and head back to mainland. The ferry point this time around was less packed and we took the first barge out of the island.
After an hours’ (or longer) drive on a winding and uphill road, we reached simarjarunjung, a viewpoint halfway up a hill overlooking the Lake Toba. It was cloudy and partially obscured, nevertheless beautiful.
After drinking in the picturesque scenery, we headed back downhill to the ancient King’s Palace of Simalungun. It was an enclosed village of sorts, with a huge Batak house in the centre for the King and several other traditional houses for the Queen and others. Since we were the only ones there, we explored the houses at our leisure.
The next stop was the town of Berastagi, where we headed first to the famous fruit & vegetable market. The market was pretty huge with a variety of local produce on sale including fruits, vegetables, flowers and pets!! We were quite stunned to see bunnies, puppies, mice and rats on sale right there in the open performing tricks & generally looking cute to attract tourists and locals. It was pretty hot though with the afternoon sun beating down on us, so we didn’t spend too much time at the market and rushed back to the comfort of our aircon car.
Following this, we went in search of Taman Alam Lumbini, the golden temple of Berastagi. The road leading to the temple was horrendous, even though the temple is one of the major tourist attractions of Berastagi. After an hours’ ordeal of bumps and jerks we reached the very ‘Myanmar style’ Buddhist temple. The golden facade and the rich detailing on the walls made for a beautiful sight. The inside of the temple was quite modern and appeared to have been newly renovated. We recharged ourselves with some green bean soup from the vegetarian cafe outside the temple and proceeded to the town of Medan.
The Velankanni Church inspired by a church of the same name in South India was our first stop at Medan. The architecture and colours were fascinating and gorgeous. We spent a lovely hour there reading the miracle stories of Mother Mary and drinking in the serenity of the place.
Of course, our visit to Medan wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the Mariamman temple. A small and beautiful temple in the heart of Medan, stepping into the temple made us feel we were back home . The sculptures all around the temple especially those depicting the marriages of Shiva-Parvathi and Lakshmi-Vishnu were vivid and wonderful.
Following lunch at a hidden Indian restaurant, we eagerly made our way to the hotel for a much needed restful evening.
Early next morning, was our flight back to Singapore. We bade farewell to Medan carrying the memories as lovely as Lake Toba and Medan with us .