Sometimes we do really silly things, like wake up at 3am to take a one hour ride to a 40-minute hike to get to the summit of a small hill to see a less-than-spectacular sunrise over an ancient Buddhist temple. In theory, it sounded like a wonderful idea and in pictures it looked amazing. In reality, we were tired, sleepy, and surrounded by about 50,000 other people, some of whom spent more time taking selfies than actually watching the sunrise. Although I can’t say I blame them. It was hazy, cloudy and far from amazing.
About 30 minutes after the sun rose, we made our way back down the hill to get back in the van to head over to the temple. Did I mention that we were dumb enough to go here on a Sunday? In addition to all of the foreign travelers, there were a ton of locals there too.
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.
Trying to find information on obtaining a 60-day Indonesian tourist visa in Penang is like trying to find the Holy Grail. We couldn’t find any legitimate source, like a consulate website or working email address, and the only application form that we found online was for the embassy in KL. There were conflicting accounts about the visa requirements such as whether or not we needed to present an onward ticket and the background color of our photos (they used to require red background visa photos).
After scouring the interwebs for hours and not being able to find any solid information I walked over to Chulia Street to inquire with a travel agent. The woman said we didn’t need an onward ticket but we definitely needed a red background visa photo. She only served to confuse me more because this was the complete opposite of what I found on the interwebs!