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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Wednesday 27th of July 2022
I visited it in 1970. There were a few back-packers even then, en route from Europe to Australia. I ate curried goldfish, fresh from the lake. Even then some locals spoke some English. I remember one waiter at a breakfast bar asking whether I wanted my egg sunny side up!
Thursday 4th of March 2021
I visited Lake Toba in the late 60's and it was well populated with tourists. The Batak on the island in ancient times published a Pustaha or book on wood that told them what to do on any given day! Also, Lake Toba was used for child sacrifice in ancient times to the appease the God of the Volcano. It is noted that Lake Toba is known for having had the greatest volcanic eruption in ancient history - even great than Kra ka tau where i have also been. Recommend travelers may learn more from the history of places they visit than focusing on the food and accomadations!
Monday 8th of March 2021
Thanks for the comment Dick, that's the beauty of travel though. Not everyone is interested in the historic details of every place they visit, and not everyone is interested in having an Instagrammable meal. There's something for everyone out there!
Sunday 1st of December 2019
We went to Lake Toba in July 2017, it is still quiet and very relaxing. There doesn't seem to be a Backpacker Scene there as in other part of Indonesia.
Sunday 1st of December 2019
Thanks for the update Patrick!
Tuesday 24th of October 2017
lake toba is very beautiful. I love Indonesia amazing people and so many beautiful mosques to visit and temples and palaces but the jungle is the best especially in North sumatra you can see orangutans in the wild they are amazing.
Thursday 2nd of November 2017
Yeah I'd love to do that. I actually planned to but got stuck at Lake Toba -- too relaxing!
Wednesday 10th of December 2014
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.
Thursday 11th of December 2014
I'm sure if you went back it'd be exactly the same that's pretty rare for Southeast Asia I think!