Lake Toba’s Samosir Island, Sumatra

Sumatra’s Volcanic Samosir Island is the world’s largest island within an island.

And, is within a lake, on an island, within an ocean – confused?

Just to explain, the island of Samosir is in Lake Toba, which is on the island of Sumatra and in the Indian Ocean.

In 1998, long-term travel from Australia saw exotic Indonesia on the horizon. Although 1998 is fraught with just one catch. Landing in Indonesia’s Batam Island, one month after the racial riots that left 1,000 people dead, is not ideal.

Wanting to remove ourselves (as foreigners) from any racial repercussion, decide to stick around Sumatra for a month, before heading south to Java – most-populated island in the world.

Getting there

Spend the night in the small town of Parapat on Lake Toba’s sparkling edge, after the 9-hour tourist bus from Bukit Lawang to Parapat. Explore a little of Parapat first, before heading across Lake Toba to Samosir Island.

The short half-hour trip from Parapat to Bagus Bay on Samosir Island offers a beautifully serene panorama of Lake Toba along the way.

Ferry from Parapat to Bagus Bay, Samosir Island, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

The first volcanic eruption formed Lake Toba, while the second eruption some 75,000 years’ ago, pushed up the volcanic island of Samosir.

Samosir Island

“Samosir is the largest island within an island and the fifth largest lake island in the world.” 

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

Stopping off for a delicious and cheap brunch at the Bagus Bay Hotel, continue the search of a room for this evening – hopefully, in a less-touristy part of town.

Another stop along the way to have a few friendly drinks with other travellers, sees a couple of hours dwindle.

Feels as though we’ll never find a room tonight, but it’s great to socialise and mingle.

Tuktuk Siadong

scooter from Bagus Bay to Tuktuk, Samosir Island, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Ambling along a little further, bump into a large but grubby room for the night in Tuktuk Siadong – this is Samosir’s tourist hub and only around a kilometre from Bagus Bay.

Although this area boasts tourist resorts, guest houses, rooms, and small hotels, it seems unusually quiet for a destination that’s hot for Medan’s residents. Perhaps last month’s lethal-riots affected locals so that they’re not venturing out just yet. The riots also affected Indonesia’s economy and especially, the poor.

An evening out

Strolling back to the Bagus Bay restaurant for a huge, tasty meal, the tragic and extremely-moving movie “The Killing Fields” blasts out on a video, after dinner.

In contrast, a display of traditional Batak dancing and incredibly strong voices singing haunting ballads follows next. With everyone invited to join in with the fun, the dancing is hard.

Many notably rude tourists that probably guzzled large quantities of cheap beer talk and laugh, loudly during the free performance. And, while the local compere donning his wrinkled suit explains the meaning of each song and dance. The purpose of the show is to educate and share the traditional Batak culture, but also to preserve this fading society.

At the end of the performance, the compere holds a plastic, pink bucket while stooped over his chair, waiting for ten minutes for a donation. The compere and performers are local farmers and very poor. Only a few tourists donate, instead choosing to continue to drink. Angry and embarrassed at such a pitiful sight, I feel like crawling under a rock ashamed sometimes.

Around Samosir

Hiring a scooter for the day the aim is to explore Samosir further than Tuktuk, so head west for 5-kilometres to the small village of Tomok.

Samosir Island map, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

From my 1998 journal’s crude map, you can see the route taken around Samosir to explore this exotic island.

Can you believe that the welcoming and friendly Brandos Blues Bar that gave me the map back then still exists?

At 630-square-kilometres, it’s relatively easy to ride between villages on the island.


Although well-known, the traditional Batak village of Tomok offers a quieter alternative to the tourist-favoured Tuktuk. Somewhere to immerse yourself in culture and a little sight-seeing, while fleeing the dozens of tiny stalls lining Tomok’s dirt lanes.

Old Tomb of King Sidabutar

One of the main reasons for visiting Tomok during this island frolic is to experience the king’s tomb.

King Sidabutar, one of the last Animist kings, was believed to be the first person to set foot on Samosir Island – his remaining heavy-sarcophagus carved from one block of stone.

Continuing east to the Hot Springs following the Brandos Blues’ sketchy map, we’re lost, so head instead to Tele, which is back on the ‘mainland’.

The sweeping, dramatic view of Lake Toba from Tele – the Bataknese people’s sacred mountain – is unforgettable. Sadly, my 35mm film scanned photos aren’t optimal for this fabulous destination.

The imposing Sagola Valley north of Pulau Samosir is superb!

Tele, Sagola Valley, North of Pulau Samosir, Lake Toba, Indonesia, SE Asia
Sagola Valley

Volcanic mountains stretch down, becoming a backdrop for the meticulous partitioned blanket of rice paddies below.

The ride offers many intimate insights into local Samosir life – everyone smiles – genuinely.

Locals doing laundry on roadside, Pulau Samosir, Lake Toba, Indonesia, SE Asia
Roadside laundry in the middle of nowhere

Throughout Indonesia, washing is strung over bushes or strewn on grass and left to dry, in the sultry heated day’s sun. Clothes washing is omnipresent!

Heading back through Ambaroba, a barefooted 6-year-old digs a deep roadside trench. Life is tough on the island, for some.

Young girl digging in roadside, Pulau Samosir, Lake Toba, Indonesia, SE Asia
Roadside worker

We pass an unusual temple for which I’m not sure of its name now – does anyone know?

Temple, Samosir Island, Lake Toba, Indonesia, SE Asia
Alluring Batak temple

Following an extremely, long but wonderful day, it’s with sore butts that we venture back to Tuktuk, in search of a well-earned sumptuous meal.

Carolina Hotel

Decide to splurge at the flashy Batak Carolina Hotel for a meal, as can’t afford to indulge in a room here so early in this long-term sojourn.

You’d think that the quality and service would be nothing less than excellent at such a pricey establishment?

Drinks finally arrive at the table. There isn’t any sign of food. Someone forgot to make our food! Ravenous and more than an hour later still no morsel of food is forthcoming. No visible crumbs arrive. So, we leave to find another restaurant – Elsina’s. The food at Elsina’s takes another 40-minutes to appear, by which time I’m ready to chew off the chair’s leg!

Leaving Tuktuk Siadong

Sadly, after several memorable days absorbing and exploring this captivating, volcanic island within an island, it’s time to leave.

Ferry from Tuktuk Siadong to Parapat, Samosir, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Taking the short ferry trip back across beautiful Lake Toba for one last time, we head once more to the noisy but rustic Parapat ferry terminal.

Parapat once last time!

Hustlers pushing tickets for a ‘Tobali’ – tourist bus – swarm around us like frantic bees to an over-flowing honey pot. Politely declining, decide to take a taxi to the bus station. And, enjoy some local delicious Nasi Goreng (fried rice) while waiting for the public bus south to Sibolga. This trip should take around 5 to 6 hours, hopefully.

Heated politics

The guy selling the public bus tickets expresses his extreme dissatisfaction with President Suharto and his entourage.

I haven’t heard a kind word about the president over the last few weeks of travelling through Indonesia. Locals vehemently blame Suharto for de-stabilising the Indonesian economy and robbing the poor. All seem to detest the regime and so, support the students’ involvement in overthrowing Suharto. Indonesians strongly believe that “it’s God’s will”. I firmly believe that they’ve had enough of poverty and corruption.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know whether to join in with these heated discussions or to listen quietly.

Leaving Parapat

Slowly heading south-west in Sumatra along the coast, making our way to Bukittinggi. Then, slowly onto Danau Maninjau – Lake Maninjau – a caldera formed some 52,000 years’ ago by a volcanic eruption.

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

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