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.
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.
READ MORE: Interested in the volcanic history of Lake Toba? Check out this article!
The stone chairs
There isn’t that much to do at Lake Toba, 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!
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.
READ MORE: Thinking of going backpacking in Indonesia? Read my Guide!
Would you like to visit Lake Toba? Have you been anywhere similar? Let me know!
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