From Medan, explore the wild spaces of Sumatra. Spot the orang-utans at Bukit Lawang or admire the mighty mountain lake of Danua Toba.
Surrounded by the wild spaces of northern Sumatra, Medan is a big, earthy introduction to street-life, Indonesian-style. It’s an in-your-face sort of place, but beneath the surface modernity there are layers of history, with relics of a colonial past and intriguing traces of Sumatra’s long heritage of trade and immigration.
Standing at the junction of the Deli and Babura Rivers, Medan started life as an outpost on the fringes of the Deli Sultanate in the 17th century, but it came into its own from the 1860s as Dutch planters cleared swathes of the surrounding jungle to grow tobacco. A century ago this was a grand and dignified colonial city with broad boulevards and magnificent mansions, and you’ll still find traces of this forgotten era in the hints of art deco architecture, and in Medan’s Chinese and Indian quarters where the descendants of 19th-century settlers still live and worship today.
Medan’s greatest attraction, however, is as a portal to the exotic promise of the great green island beyond. 'Sumatra' is a name to set travellers’ feet itching, and even on a flying visit you can strike out from the city to visit the cool upland retreat of Berastagi, take in the mighty mountain lake of Danua Toba, or come face to face with orang-utans at Bukit Lawang. But make sure you take the time to explore Medan itself on the way through, for Indonesia’s third largest city offers a warm welcome, a whiff of durian and a dash of spice.
Medan is hot and humid year-round, though it doesn't see quite such heavy rainfall as many other parts of Indonesia during the wet season. October is usually the wettest month, though the temperatures are a little lower at this time too. Unless you're coming specifically to trek the jungle trails of the surrounding wilderness then any month is a good time to visit.
Singaporeans and citizens of other ASEAN member states can visit Indonesia for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from many other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Medan for US$25.
Indonesian rupiah. You'll find ATMs accepting international cards at the airport, and all over town. There are currency exchange counters at the airport, and the major banks in the city centre will change foreign currencies, including Singapore dollars.
There are direct trains from the glitzy new airport at Kuala Namu straight to the city centre - a first for Indonesia. You'll also find airport buses operated by DAMRI, as well as plenty of taxis. Within the city it's usually easy enough to hail a taxi, but some drivers might refuse to use the meter - Bluebird is the most reputable company. There are also squadrons of rattletrap becak (pedicab) which are always fun for a short trip within the city - the operators drive a hard bargain, however.
The roaring traffic is the main thing to watch out for in Medan - crossing the street here is always going to be a challenge. Otherwise, as in most of Indonesia, it's relatively safe for such a large city. Medan does have a reputation for motorbike-riding bag-snatchers, however, and tourists have been targeted in the past so don't wander around with a handbag or camera dangling from your shoulder and keep cash and passports tucked away somewhere safe.
|How are you?||Apa kabar?|
|Fine, thanks||Baik, terima kasih|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Permisi!|
|Thank you||Terima kasih|
|What's your name?||Siapa nama anda?|
|My name is…||Nama saya…|
|Nice to know you||Senang berkenalan dengan anda|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||Anda ada di Facebook/Twitter?|
|Where’s an internet café?||Warnet [warung internet] di mana?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Di mana saya bisa mendapatkan taksi?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Stasiun bis/kereta di mana?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||Tiket sekali jalan/pulang-pergi ke…|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||Ada kamar untuk satu/dua orang?|
|When's check out?||Kapan waktu check-out?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||Bisakah anda menyarankan restoran/bar yang bagus?|
|A table for two, please||Tolong meja untuk dua orang|
|A menu, please||Tolong minta menunya|
|The bill, please||Tolong minta bonnya|
|Where's the toilet?||Kamar kecil di mana?|
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If the heat of the city gets too much for you, beat a retreat to this cool upland getaway. Just two hours from downtown Medan, you could come to Berastagi for an afternoon or spend the night. There’s a backdrop of green hills and steaming volcanoes, and you can reach the 2094-metre summit of Gunung Sibayak easily. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can tackle the trek to the less accessible Gunung Sinabung.
Just a few hours from Medan, but a world away from the heat and dust of the city, Bukit Lawang is a big draw for many visitors to North Sumatra. A pretty jungle village at the edge of the huge Gunung Leuser National Park, it is famed as a place to see orang-utans up close, but it’s also got great jungle trekking, river tubing and a generally relaxed atmosphere. You can get here on a long day trip from Medan, but it’s much better to stay overnight – there are lots of cute guesthouses.
Medan’s Mesjid Raya (Grand Mosque) is a magnificent building standing proud in the heart of the city. It’s a concoction of bone-white plaster, blue-green tiling and dark domes. Built at the turn of the 20th-century, it was designed for the Sultan of Deli by Dutch architects who combined Andalusian, Mughal and Neoclassical elements and then placed the whole thing in the heart of the Indonesian tropics. Visitors are welcome to look around outside of prayer times.
Tjong A Fie Mansion
Set back from a busy street, Tjong A Fie Mansion is probably the best preserved example of domestic Chinese architecture in Indonesia. Built by the eponymous agricultural entrepreneur, this beautiful late 19th-century mansion is a classic of Peranakan architecture, with a central courtyard, shuttered windows and expanses of dark teak flooring. You can wander the upstairs rooms with their European furnishings and Chinese ceramics and forget about the seething 21st-century city outside for a while. The whole place is a rare example of Indonesia’s own Peranakan heritage on proud display, and well worth exploring.
Another throwback to the days when Medan was both a colonial capital and the seat of an ancient Muslim kingdom, the Istana Maimoon was built by the Sultan of Deli in the 1880s in a style combining Mughal, Malay, Dutch, Italian and more. Inside you can see the grand throne used during inauguration ceremonies and imagine the glory days of the court. The royal family still lives in the private wing at the back of the building.
At first glance Medan might look like a modern city, but beneath the modern glass and concrete there are layers of history and culture for urban explorers to hunt out.
Begin your journey at Lapangan Merdeka, Medan's colonial heart. The white-tiled London-Sumatra Building at the southwest corner of the square was once the headquarters of Harrisons and Crossfield, a major plantation company. Also flanking the square are the old Dutch-era post office and the Balai Kota which once housed the colonial city administration.
From here take a stroll south down Jl. Ahmad Yani, once the centre of Medan’s Chinese business district. Most of the buildings have modern facades of steel and glass, but there are a few hints of the fine old shop-houses that are hidden beneath, and at Number 105 you’ll find the magnificent Tjong A Fie Mansion. On Jl. Mesjid, a little way to the west, you’ll see the century-old Gang Bengkok Mosque with its unusual hexagonal tower.
Medan’s Muslim royals, the scions of the Deli Sultanate, kept their own centre of operations at uneasy arm’s length from that of their colonialist partners – you’ll find their magnificent Istana Maimun palace and nearby Mesjid Raya a kilometre-and-a-half south of Lapangan Merdeka. Across the river, meanwhile, in the streets around the pretty Shri Mariamman Temple on Jl. Kh Zainul Arifin, you’ll find traces of Medan’s Tamil Hindu community.
Sumatra is a travel destination of legendary stature – its name redolent of jungles, tigers and orang-utans. Medan is a perfect starting point for journeys to many wild corners of the island, some of which can be easily visited during a quick weekend trip.
Start with the wonderful Danau Toba, a sky-blue lake filling the prehistoric crater of what was once an enormous volcano. Pulau Samosir, the island at the centre of the lake, is a great place to relax, but for real adventures stretch your legs and head off on hikes into the surrounding hills, home of the Batak people who were once feared as head-hunters.
Tracking further north, stop by in the little town of Berastagi, just a couple of hours from Medan. This is the base for exploring the lush green Karo Highlands, and for plotting expeditions to the summits of surrounding volcanoes. Sinabung and Sibayak can be climbed from here, and you can also trek to traditional villages in the foothills.
The biggest attraction in this region lies to the north of Medan. Head to the little village of Bukit Lawang for close encounters with orang-utans, sweaty jungle treks, and tube rides down the river. If you want a truly challenging adventure, you could arrange a trek into the mountainous depths of the wild Gunung Leuser National Park – a vast and untrammelled wilderness.