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A Trip to Lake Toba: One of the Best Places to Relax in Southeast Asia

I’d heard it was quiet, that tourism died in Lake Toba a long time ago, but I was still surprised by how quiet it really was. I went from one end of  Tuk Tuk to the other, around a 40 minute walk, and saw three other western tourists and about 30 guesthouses. This is as far from Thailand or Vietnam as you can get, a major tourist town with no tourists. Stunning scenery and a ghost-town feel combined to make my trip to Lake Toba one of the most serene experiences I’ve ever been.

It wasn’t always like this. Lake Toba used to be a popular tourist destination, but natural disasters and the emergence of countries like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as backpacking heavyweights condemned it to its current status (this is all conjecture by the way, research isn’t my strong point). But all those travellers in the 80s and 90s weren’t wrong; Lake Toba is worth visiting.

A beautiful view of the sky reflecting on the lake, Lake Toba, Sumatra, IndonesiaA Lake Toba Village, Sumatra, Indonesia

Tuk Tuk is a small village on the island of Samosir, which is located on Lake Toba, the biggest lake in Southeast Asia and apparently one of Sumatra’s biggest tourist draws, although I saw no evidence of tourists being drawn there at all. It was low season, so it might not be so quiet all year, but it has definitely been cut from the itineraries of most South East Asian backpackers. The town itself is nothing special; it’s rough around the edges and a bit too spread out, but head just out of town and you’ll find better views and a friendly village atmosphere.

FURTHER READING: Interested in the volcanic history of Lake Toba? Check out this article!

The stone chairs

There isn’t that much to do, but with some great scenery and the laid back attitudes of the locals, it’s hard to think of a better place to unwind. Accommodation is easy to find, cheap and most rooms have views of the lake. My days were spent reading, writing, watching TV shows and movies, listening to music and a daily bike ride or walk to take in some of the great views. The main tourist attraction, a scattering of stone chairs the local Batak tribe used for tribal councils (people didn’t get voted off the island, they got executed) sounds better on paper and was only interesting for about 10 minutes. Don’t go to Lake Toba for the attractions, go to relax!

The stone chairs of Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Getting from Medan to Lake Toba

You can get to Sumatra on a ferry from Malaysia or Java, but it’s far more common to fly into Medan, the second biggest city in Indonesia. You’ll want to head straight form Medan to Lake Toba unless you have a real interest in boring, grim Indonesian cities. You can get from the airport to Parapat pretty easily (but not always comfortably) in 4-6 hours and from Parapat it’s about an hour on the ferry to Tuk Tuk. I recommend taking a mini-van from the bus station in Medan instead of the local bus, which was slow and full of little cockroaches. It was so slow that I missed the last ferry to Tuk Tuk, which meant  I was stuck in Parapat (a small and unattractive town with awful accommodation) for the night.

Accommodation at Lake Toba

Choose wisely and you may end up with a whole hotel/guesthouse to yourself. This may be torture for some but it can be a nice change from the rest of Southeast Asia. I stayed for six nights and was the only one there for half of that time. There are good deals to be had but I didn’t try and bargain too hard as the guesthouse owners are obviously struggling to get by with so few tourists. I paid 140,000 Rupiah (about $13 USD) which got me a nice room with a good view but you could easily pay half of that and still get a decent place to stay — here is a real abundance of accommodation at Lake Toba and  there are bargains to be had.

FURTHER READING: Thinking of going backpacking in Indonesia? Read my Guide!

A rural nature scene in Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Would you like to visit Lake Toba? Have you been anywhere similar? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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11 Comments

  1. […] Koh Rong isn’t for everyone: It’s dirtier than the other islands I’ve been to and the accommodation standards aren’t great, but if you moan about the overcrowded Thai islands and want somewhere a bit more raw, you should definitely check it out. Keep a look out for other great places to relax in South East Asia, including Lake Toba in Indonesia. […]

  2. December 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm — Reply

    Hi Jon – nice post. I went there about 10 years ago and I see that its no busier now then it was back then! http://bbqboy.net/misadventures-in-lake-toba-sumatra/. You’re right – great place to relax and the scenery great. Hated the bus ride from Medan though!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Jon
      December 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm — Reply

      Thanks for the comment! The bus ride would have been OK if there was something nice to look at out the window, but there really wasn’t.

  3. March 13, 2014 at 3:52 am — Reply

    Awesome post! I love reading stories from my home country of Indonesia. I have never been to North Sumatra, although I have relatives who live in Medan. I wonder why tourism around Lake Toba has died down?

    • Jon Algie
      March 13, 2014 at 4:22 am — Reply

      Cheers! Lake Toba is awesome, haven’t been to many other places in Sumatra though. I guess the tourist trail kinda moved to Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam etc

    • April 10, 2014 at 4:54 pm — Reply

      From what I was told, it was a combination of the earthquake and tsunami in 2004(?), fighting between the government and the rebels in Aceh and the government favoring other areas of Indonesia over North Sumatra, which is mostly Christian and Acehnese.

      • Jon Algie
        April 10, 2014 at 5:14 pm — Reply

        Yeah I think all of that played its part, the area might pick up again though since the fighting has stopped. Aceh looks like it’ll be an interesting place to travel – if it gets popular hopefully people will start heading back to Lake Toba, although the peacefulness it has now is part of its charm!

  4. April 16, 2014 at 10:06 pm — Reply

    I love the diversity of Indonesia and this seems like a forgotten gem that is definitely worth exploring. Thank you for highlighting off the beaten path places like this one!

    • Jon Algie
      April 18, 2014 at 9:31 pm — Reply

      Yeah, there is so much to see in Indonesia, you could probably spend years travelling there.

  5. December 10, 2014 at 8:57 pm — Reply

    I stayed at lake Toba about 7 years ago and I remember seeing just two other tourists during our 3 day visit. I have great memories of the place, nice to see that after all these years, it’s still so beautiful and serene.

    • Jon Algie
      December 11, 2014 at 10:27 pm — Reply

      I’m sure if you went back it’d be exactly the same that’s pretty rare for Southeast Asia I think!

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