© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
☺︎This story can be lived as a real experience(more)

Toba Lake: the inland sea of North Sumatra

3 minutes to read

Indonesia, a country consisting of over 17000 islands, obviously has no shortage of marine landscape. Very large bodies of freshwater, on the other hand, are rare - most natural lakes have formed in the craters of dormant and extinct volcanoes, and those cannot be too big. There is one notable exception: Lake Toba in North Sumatra, huge enough to be called "an inland sea". Only the size is exceptional, not the origin - the lake rests in the caldera of a supervolcano. Its last major eruption, around 74000 years ago, covered a third of Asia in volcanic ash, caused a planet-wide decrease of temperature, and wiped out a number of animal species. If it erupts again, it is a good question whether our civilization will survive such a disaster. For now, however, it does not feel threatening – on the contrary, it is a perfect place to relax, enjoy the peace, watch sunsets, and explore the surroundings.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

A place to chill out

It must tell you something that in a country mostly made of beaches tourists praise a lakeside location as a perfect place to relax. Yet, this is the case with Lake Toba - check any travel forum. This is partly because of its mild, relatively cool climate and beautiful views, partly due to the availability of alcohol, otherwise hard to find in the predominantly Muslim Sumatra. But mainly it is the local population: Toba Batak, an ethnic minority, Christian with a notable animist twist, and more hungry for life than anyone else in Indonesia. Indonesians, as a rule, are kind, laid back, and humble. Batak, on the other hand, are active, outspoken, and inclined to grab any opportunity to have fun. Yes, this includes guitars.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

A place to explore

While for many travelers a few days of lounging on a veranda with a book and a beer is exactly the kind of rest they need after navigating the bumpy roads of Sumatra, Lake Toba offers plenty of opportunities for the active types as well. In the vicinity of the lake there are quite a few waterfalls, hot springs, viewpoints,and other natural attractions. Sipiso-piso waterfall, for example, is deservedly popular. But the main attraction is the perfectly preserved Batak culture. Folk dances can be seen in a few tourist restaurants of Tuktuk and in Batak Museum of Simanindo. Ambarita has a circle of ancient stone chairs once used for Batak court trials. A cave in Pagar Batu, where Batak kings used to be chosen, is believed to possess powerful magic up until now – enter at your own risk. Traditional Batak houses with roofs shaped like the horns of a buffalo are everywhere. Many villages also boast historic royal tombs of carved stone, and other megaliths. And do not forget – this culture is alive, evolving in the minds of the people, not frozen in old stones. Talk to Bataks. Make friends. Get drunk for free, at the very least.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Most tourist accommodation is centered in Tuktuk village on Samosir Island. The common way to reach it from Medan or elsewhere in North Sumatra is to take a bus to Parapat on the eastern shore of Lake Toba, then a ferry across it. There are also boat services from Ajibata. To travel around Samosir Island, infrequent angkot (minivan) circumnavigate it along the coastal road, passing through most of the historic villages. A slightly more adventurous method to explore the shores of this inland sea would be to rent a motorbike or a bicycle in Tuktuk. If you would rather completely avoid meeting other tourists, a good alternative is Tongging in the northern corner of the lake. It can be reached by a sequence of angkots (change at Simpang Merek). This would position you away from the megaliths, but closer to the waterfalls. And the sunset views of Lake Toba from Tongging are even more beautiful.  

Tuktuk, Samosir Island, North Sumatra
Tuktuk, Samosir Island, North Sumatra
Tuktuk Siadong, Simanindo, Samosir Regency, North Sumatra, Indonesia

You loved this story?

Live it yourself as a memorable local experience!

Discover the Live Stories

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

View more stories

Stories you might also like