Samosir Island is located in Lake Toba, a large crater lake in northern Sumatra. At 630 square kilometres – slightly smaller than Singapore – Samosir is the world’s largest island within an island. The island was born of a pair of dramatic prehistoric volcanic events, and was technically a peninsula until 1906, when the Dutch dug a canal through the narrow isthmus that attached it to the mainland.
Today Samosir is the perfect location for a stress-free holiday in a gorgeous highland setting among the friendly Batak people. The cool air, laid back pace of life and absence of crowds form a welcome respite from the heat and commotion you normally encounter in Indonesia. You can see the island’s unique and fascinating Batak heritage in its clusters of traditional houses with roofs that curve upwards like buffalo horns, white-washed churches that dot the landscape, and ancient stone tombs and monuments. The breathtaking, unspoilt countryside with its steep, pine-covered slopes that descend into the deep blue water, and wide views in every direction will clear your mind and ensure that your stay on Samosir relaxes you completely.
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Many spots around Samosir Island are worth visiting for their fascinating Batak cultural treasures, as well as the beautiful vistas you experience along the way. The many well-preserved sopo (Batak houses) with their curving roofs draw a lot of visitors to Tomok, as do the ancient tombs of the ruling Sidabutar clan. Further north in Ambarita is the tomb of King Siallagan, along with an old open-air court and execution ground where convicted criminals were tortured and killed. The eerie atmosphere is heightened by the fact that the king and elders would then drink the blood and eat the heart and liver of those executed.
While the Batak museum in Simanindo attracts many visitors, you might want to give it a miss as the exhibits are unimpressive and the dance performances equally lacklustre. For a more enjoyable glimpse of Batak culture, go where people are singing and making music. Take in a concert of traditional or religious songs, join the villagers for a tot of palm toddy and a song, or go to church and experience the heavenly harmonies of the choir. Above all, enjoy the relaxed pace of life and the beautiful landscape that surrounds you at every turn.
Tuk Tuk is well supplied with restaurants and warungs (simple establishments serving local fare), so although there is no five-star cuisine you will find an ample variety of food options. Western favourites such as sandwiches, salads, burgers, pizza and grilled meat dishes are widely available. Being a tourist centre, Tuk Tuk’s prices are higher than nearby towns such as Tomok and Parapat where some local tourists like to eat, although it still offers excellent value by our standards.
Of course you can obtain tasty Indonesian dishes anywhere on Samosir. From Muslim western Sumatra there is spicy, delicious Padang food, which is easily identifiable from the window displays featuring dishes stacked in a pyramid. The Bataks are mostly Christian and enjoy their pork, so meat lovers are well catered for. They also eat dog meat, although it is not usually offered to tourists. If you do want to try dog (or avoid it), it is often listed as B1 or babi satu (type 1 pork), while pork is B2 or babi dua (type 2 pork). However, you might prefer one of the Chinese-style restaurants that proliferate on the island thanks to the large Chinese-Indonesian population of the Medan area.
In the 1970s and 80s when Samosir was a popular stop on the overland trail, the island hosted regular full-moon parties and other wild nocturnal events. Since then, and especially after the late-1990s economic and political crisis, Samosir Island has become a lot more sedate. There are plenty of places to enjoy a cold Bintang beer or a cocktail, though, both in the resorts clustered around Tuk Tuk and in the town itself. Many bars and restaurants have DJs or live bands in the evenings, and there are several nightclubs and discos too, although they are seldom crowded. Some hotels and guesthouses also offer entertainment facilities such as large screen TVs for sports and movies, pool tables and table tennis.
For a bit of local flavour, visit a toddy shop and try a glass – or several – of tuak (palm wine). The Batak people are known throughout Indonesia for their love of singing and playing music, and tuak is just the thing to get you fired up to join the singalong. This is an excellent way to experience local popular culture and make fast friends with the Samosir islanders, in additional to being a lot of fun!
Although there are souvenir shops in the main tourist town of Tuk Tuk, it is better to buy local handicrafts in Tomok, a pleasant town about 6 kilometres to the south that is well worth a visit for its beautiful houses and ancient tombs. Here you will find many stalls selling intricate wood carvings, Batak musical instruments, traditional ulos cloth and other handmade items that make great gifts or mementos of your trip to Samosir Island. Ambarita, to the north of Tuk Tuk, also has several souvenir stands located on the way from the boat landing to King Siallagan’s stone chairs.
Until recently, the only method of payment accepted on the island was cash in either rupiah or US dollars. However, Samosir Cottages and Samosir Villa Resort now take credit cards (Visa and Mastercard), and can also arrange cash advances for any travellers who find themselves short. The nearest ATMs are in Parapat, on the mainland.
Samosir Island is not really an activity destination, but there are still plenty of things to do besides simply relaxing. After seeing the local sights such as traditional Batak houses and stone artifacts, a refreshing swim in the cool water of the lake might be in order, or you can rent a small boat or canoe and explore further afield. Given the size of the island and the lack of public transport, the best way to get around is to hire a motorcycle, although many locals will be pleased to turn their bikes into impromptu motorcycle taxis. Be aware that the terrain is hilly and most roads and bridges are in fairly poor condition. If you prefer to remain in the Tuk Tuk area and get some exercise you can also rent a bicycle or even walk, since it never gets very hot.
As you travel around the island you can observe everyday life – farmers ploughing their fields with their water buffalo, children playing with piglets and puppies – with the stunning scenery as a backdrop. You can watch highly skilled wood carvers, weavers and other craftspeople at work, and even try your hand at carving your own masks, puppets or figures.
Lake Toba was formed in a dramatic event that, according to scientists, also had a direct impact on the development of the planet and the human race. Somewhere between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago the Toba volcano staged the world’s most powerful eruption in the past 25 million years. The “super-volcanic” or “mega-colossal” eruption left a huge, deep crater that filled with water. Around 40,000 years later, the magma chamber beneath the lake started to move upwards, and Samosir Island emerged from the depths.
Ash from the Toba eruption was dumped all over Southeast Asia in a layer ranging from 15 centimetres to several metres thick, and also covered the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The dust in the atmosphere depressed average global temperatures by 3-5 degrees Centigrade (and up to 15 degrees in higher latitudes) and plunged the whole world into volcanic winter for a decade. Some scientists say the Toba event was responsible for a 1,000-year global cooling period that caused a human “genetic bottleneck”. Most of the world’s animal and plant life died off in droughts and other severe climate phenomena, and only 3,000 to 10,000 early humans – from whom we are all descended – remained. As a consequence of Toba’s eruption, our ancestors were forced to devise survival strategies that kickstarted the evolution of modern man and made us who we are today, so the theory goes.
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How to get there: The nearest airport is in Medan, four or five hours by public bus, shared minivan or rental car from Parapat on the eastern shore of Lake Toba. Most hotels and travel agents in Medan can arrange transportation to Parapat. From Parapat there are frequent ferries to Tuk Tuk and the neighbouring town of Tomok, on Samosir. There are also private boats for hire. If you are going to Tuk Tuk, ask the ferry master to drop you at the jetty of your hotel or guesthouse. The crossing normally takes around an hour, but the water can get choppy during the northeastern monsoon season (September to January) when strong winds sweep down the steep sides of the caldera.