Travelling to Lake Toba, North Sumatra

Spectacular Lake Toba is a volcanic lake in Sumatra’s northern central region, offering tranquillity and a little peace, in crowded Indonesia.

Some background

Back in 1998, a flight from Australia to Indonesia was the start of some long-term travel through the Indonesian Archipelago.

No plans. No time constraints.

Landing in Indonesia one month after the racial riots that left 1,000 people dead, decide to travel through the island of Sumatra for a while, before moving slowly south to Java.

You may also like to read about the long road from Batam to Dumai, the uncomfortable overnight bus from Dumai to Bukit Lawang, and Sultry Bukit Lawang, before continuing with this post.

Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
In the jungle near the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre – Bukit Lawang

A little on Lake Toba

Twice the size of Singapore Lake Toba (Danau Toba in Indonesian), rises 900-metres above sea level. Stretching 100-kilometres in length, 30-kilometres’ wide, with a depth of up to 505-metres, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake on the planet.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
View from Samosir Island, Lake Toba

Estimated to have erupted from 69,000 to 77,000 years’ ago, it’s believed that this was due to a climate change and “the largest-known explosive eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years”. A supervolcano eruption.

Getting there

From Bukit Lawang, both tourist and public buses head east briefly stopping first in Medan, before heading south to Parapat.

Bus from Bukit Lawang to Parapat, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Decide to catch the tourist bus this time, for the 9-hour journey. Lush green vistas furnish and fill our windows with gorgeous ever-changing canvases.

Driving along hectares of Palm Oil plantations – although picturesque – sadly, denotes the replacement and loss of the natural-surrounding jungle.

Bus journey

Public buses stop along the dusty road to pick up and drop off passengers, which precariously ride the roof of buses when there isn’t room inside. A sight to behold!

Our tourist bus is filled with mostly British tourists, some of which apparently are walking encyclopaedias on Indonesia. Just like the tourist that loves to hear the sound of her own droning, loud voice. Together with her partner, they’re very rude to the bus driver – no wonder some locals don’t appreciate tourists.

Berastagi, north Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Stopping at the cross-roads’ town of Berastagi, which means “rice store” and also links the coastal city of Medan to the Karo highlands, it’s time for a spot of lunch.

Of course, the bus stops at a tourist restaurant, which is the problem with taking this type of bus. This savvy restaurant even serves New Zealand lamb chops on its menu. Why would I travel from Australia to Indonesia to eat food from New Zealand?

Back on the road, descending along the dirt track feels as though gravity is diving us deeper into stunning Lake Toba. The majestic volcanic lake and beautiful waterfalls unfold before our eyes.

Sipiso-piso Waterfall

Sipiso Waterfall, north Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

The bus stops long enough for us to take a few photos, of the striking narrow Sipiso-piso (meaning “like a knife”) Waterfall.

The falls cascade from a cave 120 metres down to Lake Toba’s base, and is one of Indonesia’s highest waterfalls.

Sipisopiso Waterfall, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Impressive Sipiso-piso Waterfall

The view of Lake Toba from this height is majestic! Descend the 700 steps to the base of the falls if you have around 45-minutes to spare, for the round trip.

Sipiso-piso reminds me of a much smaller version of Angel Falls in Venezuela, which I visited a decade later while sailing around the Caribbean.

Dokan Batak Village

Another stop at the intriguing Dokan Batak Village in Kabanjahe near Berastagi – this is just a quick stop in this northern-central region.

Dokan Batak Village, Kabanjahe, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Ornate Batak building

The Karo highlands have been home to six different ethnic groups for thousands of years. Malay settlers named these groups “Batak” – a term to distinguish non-Muslims. Rather than religious alliances today, Batak is associated with an indigenous ethnic background.

Dokan Batak Village, Kabanjahe, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Surveying the lands

Of the six Batak tribes, only the Karo highlanders resisted change from decades of colonisation, occupation, traders, and hard-government policies.


Finally arriving in Parapat at around 6pm, a plethora of hustlers shove pictures of their guest houses in our faces. Everyone competes for our business.

Parapat, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Parapat views

Discover later that staying at the lake’s edge in Parapat overnight is more expensive than across the lake, in neighbouring Tuktuk Siadong on Samosir Island. Parapat is the narrowest eastern link to the island resulting in the main transit point.

The dining experience

There seems to be a lot of Chinese locals in this town, so of course, stop to eat at a Chinese (Hong Kong) restaurant.

A massive TV blares out a soapie from the restaurant’s wall, while three families watch, faces transfixed in awe. Our meal is hastily prepared during commercials so as not to miss any part of the soppy TV-saga.

An overpriced, paltry meal is quickly served before we leave for our noisy hotel. Why is it that people always talk loudly all night long under your window when you’re trying to sleep?

Around Parapat

Wandered around Parapat for a short stint this morning, before the ferry crossing to Samosir Island…

Parapat, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Alleyway glimpses

…and bump into a rustic local market, with a flurry of activity and vivacious bartering on local produce.

Butcher in Parapat market, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Dogs enjoying the town’s butcher

Slabs of fresh meat are strewn across a grubby timber table, which also serves as a dog feeding haunt; they are definitely well-trained and familiar with this spot. Large black plastic buckets filled with live fish are sold by anxious ten-year-olds, trying to make a day’s living. Fresh produce lines the market’s dusty, sandy road.

Leaving Parapat

Would love to linger longer to absorb more of what Parapat has to offer, but it’s time now to catch the ferry for the brief half-hour trip.

Crossing over to the other side to really explore Lake Toba’s Samosir Island for a few days. Volcanic Samosir – world’s largest island within an island – is within a lake, on an island, within a sea. Confused? Intrigued?

Check out next week’s chapter to experience this phenomenon with me…

Samosir Island, Lake Toba, Indonesia, SE Asia
Samosir Island (Photo credit: Satellite photo – NASA)

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

10 responses to “Travelling to Lake Toba, North Sumatra”

  1. PattyConnects Avatar

    Picking up where I left off, pleasantly surprised with your travel logs about Indonesia. Part of my roots are from there, so following with outmost interest. Thanks for taking me to a country I haven’t been able to visit yet and see more of my ancestors home country.
    Hugs, Patty

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Patty,
      Great to hear that my post is taking you to your ancestral home. It’s an amazing country but imagine that it has changed a lot since 1998.
      I have many more posts to digitise from my travel journal and hope that I can bring each destination to life for you!
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  2. the eternal traveller Avatar

    I haven’t heard of this lake before. It must be a spectacular sight.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Although the lake was well-known once in Indonesia, I’d never heard of it prior to landing in Indonesia.
      Samosir Island – the island within the lake – is also gorgeous.

  3. Yeah, Another Blogger Avatar

    Greetings. Any idea how much, if anything, has changed there since your visit 22 years ago?

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Neil,

      Funny you should ask as in the last couple of days I’ve been reading on the BBC that the Korean Palm Oil giant Korindo is accused again of illegally burning Papuan rainforest. I’m really not sure how much of Indonesia’s forests/jungles are left as in 1998, the continual burning was evident.

      I don’t like returning to a place that I haven’t been to in decades as sometimes, it’s too sad to see what’s happened in the country.

      One thing I know for certain is that there is a much larger population (over 267 million) than in 1998 (over 205 million).


  4. Oh, the Places We See Avatar

    Your photos are wonderful — especially love the one of the child looking through the window. Even with all the discomfort of the trip and the perils of getting there, you definitely got some great shots.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Bert and Rusha,
      Great to hear from you and thank you for the great comment!
      I’m not great at scanning photos. As they’re quite faded and the negs almost destroyed, this is all I have. I didn’t take many photos as with 35mm film and carrying it everywhere for months, it was harder than clicking a mobile device as these days… 😉

      Hope you guys are well.

      1. Oh, the Places We See Avatar

        The finished product is so interesting. I love your post.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Thank you and appreciated your lovely feedback!
        It’s taking me a long time to digitise all my old travel journals. I’m terrible at scanning photos, so they’re not great quality as the 35mm film prints aren’t in good condition. Happy that you enjoyed the read.

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