Over 70,000 years ago a massive eruption on the Sumatran island of Indonesia created a volcanic crater that would eventually fill up with water and become what we now know as Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Sometime after the volcanic eruption, the magma chamber filled up, creating a resurgent dome (I read that on Wikipedia) that is now the island of Samosir in the middle of this large lake and that’s where we decided to relax for the past week.
Lake Toba is one of those places where relaxing comes easily and naturally. Lodging and food are very cheap — our room was less than $9 per day with a balcony overlooking the lake — and even though it’s considered a worthwhile place to visit, there are not that many tourists. It used to be much more popular, but outside of the Chinese New Year holiday in January/February, the island only gets a slow trickle of foreign tourists during the rest of the year. This is our kind of place. The food is also surprisingly good and affordable for an island. (Go to Maruba for the avocado salad. It’s life changing.)
Getting to Lake Toba is relatively easy if you’re coming from Medan. You can take a once-a-day train for Rp 20,000 (less than $2 USD) that drops you off in Siantar, hop on a becak for Rp 10,000 to get to the minibus area, get on a minibus for Rp 20,000 for a 45-minute ride to the ferry, and finally, board a ferry for Rp 10,000 to head over to Samosir Island. Hmmm, it doesn’t sound that easy, but it was. We originally planned to get a private taxi from Siantar straight to the ferry, but we met an Indonesian army fella on the train who decided that two women were incapable of getting to Samosir without his manly assistance. I thought our incomplete knowledge of the area had more to do with the fact that it was our first time in a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language and didn’t have reliable transportation information due to the lack of a well-established tourist infrastructure, but maybe he knows something about the female mind that we don’t know. We’re just girls, ya know. Anyway, we did appreciate his help, but we would’ve appreciated it more without the healthy dose of sexism.
We arrived on Samosir Island around 8:00pm and quickly headed to dinner. We hadn’t eaten a proper meal since breakfast because we were worried about how our stomachs would handle Indonesian train food. Plus, the lack of Western toilets on the train made my stomach shrivel up to the size of a ping pong ball. The first two nights we stayed at Tuk Tuk Timbul in a room that we later realized was a bit overpriced for what we got. On our first day we walked from our lodging towards the more populated area and realized that Tuk Tuk Timbul was only good if we could ride motorbikes. We left after our second night and went to a new place called Gokhon Guesthouse and it was perfect. We had a balcony overlooking the lake, internet access in our room, and great food options right outside our door.
If you’re here on a Sunday, beware the roaming students who flock to the island to practice their English on unsuspecting tourists. As we were walking to lunch we noticed groups of young Indonesians approaching white tourists. We didn’t know what was going on because we hadn’t seen this many people on the island up until now. I then overheard one group talking to a British family and with my keen listening skills I ascertained that they were English language students doing practical homework on the island. At first, none of the groups wanted to talk to us because we were Asian, and as we all know, Asians don’t speak English. As soon as we joked to each other about that a group of girls noticed us and since there were no white people in sight, they decided to settle for us and our broken English. They asked us our names, where we were from, our ages, and if we liked their country. We answered their thought-provoking questions and asked them a few of our own. We learned that some were young enough to be our children. LOOOOORRRRD, I’m so old!!! After a few more questions they wanted pictures with us to prove that they actually met Asians who spoke English. I declined since I don’t generally like taking photos with strangers, but Kanako agreed and the girls giggled hysterically like a pack of starstruck tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. One girl pushed another student out of the way so she could get a romantic shot of just herself and Kanako. She screamed, “I love you, miss!” at Kanako as we walked away. The ladies love my lady.
The one major drawback about Lake Toba, and the reason we didn’t go swimming, is the pollution. There was a time when raw sewage was dumped directly into the lake, but rumor has it that the local government took a strong interest in fixing this so they had plumbing and sewage treatment plants installed several years ago. I’m sure this greatly alleviated the problem, but it’s hard to know how well enforced these regulations are in these developing countries. A more recent problem has to do with the fish farming industry. Most of the farmed fish is tilapia, a pretty disgusting bottom-feeder that you’d probably stop eating once you learn how they’re farmed, what they are fed, and, ultimately, the effects of their over-farming on the ecosystem. I’m fully aware of the hardships that developing countries have with growth versus ecological preservation, and the difficulties the locals face with everyday survival versus environmental sustainability. I know that these issues aren’t high on their list of priorities and I’m hardly a tree-hugger myself (I mostly hug bushes), but I do think that when I visit these places I have a duty to understand my impact on the area and behave in an ecologically responsible manner as much as possible. Even the littlest things add up over time.
There are touristy things you can do on Samosir, like checking out the stone chairs, or going to see the smaller lake on the island, or fishing for mutant fish in the middle of the lake, but I think the best thing to do is sit on your private balcony with a good book. Lake Toba is one of those places where you can force yourself to slow down and really enjoy the simple pleasures in life. There are no distractions and no need to be outside doing or consuming things. Once you find the right lodging that suits your needs, it’s easy to see why so many people end up staying here for months at a time.
More Lake Toba pictures on our Flickr album.