Lake Toba Travel Guide – All About Lake Toba
The largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest in the world might sound pretty special. Even more special is the fact that it is located inside a large volcanic crater with an island called Samosir right in the centre of it. Here’s our Lake Toba travel guide to introduce you to this charming destination.
Lake Toba is located within the large island of Sumatra in the western part of Indonesia, a few hours’ drive away from the city of Medan. In our Lake Toba travel guide we will explain how to get there and the best things to do in the Lake Toba area.
If we had to choose one word to describe Lake Toba, it would be tranquil. So much so, that we decided to extend our stay once we arrived there so that we could appreciate its peaceful vibes for longer. As we describe in our Lake Toba travel guide, there are ample things to do on Samosir island and around the lake.
Lake Toba Travel Guide
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Lake Toba is set at a much higher altitude when compared to Bukit Lawang, so when we arrived early evening, we felt immediately felt chillier. The welcome change in temperature and humidity warranted wearing a light long-sleeved cardigan most evenings.
It is good to note that the people of Lake Toba belong to the Batak community. Their architecture is visibly different from that found in the rest of Indonesia. The traditional houses include a staircase in the centre of the building and the entrance is very low.
Historically the Batak people used to practise cannibalism but most were converted to Christianity in the 21st century. In fact, as we approached Parapat, the gateway to Lake Toba, the high concentration of Christian churches became more evident.
Lake Toba Travel Guide – how to get to Lake Toba and Samosir Island
Most accommodation in the Lake Toba area is found on and around the shores of Samosir island. The town of Parapat on the mainland is also part of the Lake Toba area but is quite mundane when compared to the island. You might need to spend a night here if you miss the ferry to the island though!
Here’s how to get to Parapat and to Lake Toba in our Lake Toba Travel Guide:
Parapet can be reached from Medan via public bus which takes around 6 hours, either from the Amplas bus terminal or directly from the airport (this is more expensive than taking the bus from the terminal).
It is also possible and very common, to charter a car or book a seat in a shared car, which might be a slightly more comfortable option (not always the case) than using the public bus. In some instances, the car will pick you up directly at your hotel whereby you will avoid the touts who are notoriously present in this bus terminus.
From Bukit Lawang
Due to the road condition, all southern transport from Bukit Lawang backtracks to Medan anyway.
To get to Lake Toba from Bukit Lawang using public transport, one would need to get back to Medan’s terminus and from there follow the guide above (“From Medan”). Do note that this may increase transfer time by at least 2 hours and would be greatly subject to bus availability at Medan.
We far preferred the option of booking two seats in a shared car, which took us directly to Parapat at the cost of 230,000 IDR (about €14.50) each. This transport was arranged by our great host at Ida Guesthouse. By directly, we mean changing vehicles half way and stopping two times for snacks/lunch, but that is all pre-organised and hassle free.
Ferry to Samosir
The ferry to Samosir cost 15,000 IDR (€1) each (one-way). The ferry leaves every hour until 18.00 (check for the latest updates as this is subject to change at a day’s notice), and the rather pleasant journey takes about 30 minutes. We informed the boatmen of our destination, and the ferry dropped us off directly at our hotel by the water’s edge.
Lake Toba Travel Guide – where to stay in Lake Toba
Romlan Guesthouse in Tuktuk catered to our needs perfectly. At 135,000 IDR (€8.50)/night for two people, the chalet which included a private bathroom was great value for money. We even had a porch where we could enjoy a couple of beers during sunset.
Wifi was only available at the reception, and was terrible, yet the guesthouse served great food and real café latte (not the condensed milk version) so we ate here a couple of times. See the Lake Toba Travel Guide – where to eat in Lake Toba section for more about food on Lake Toba.
Lake Toba Travel Guide – things to do in Lake Toba
Relax on a hammock
Lake Toba is the ideal destination for relaxing and taking a break from the hectic side of Indonesia. The great thing about Lake Toba we thought, is that it is very quiet when compared to other destinations in Southeast Asia and you can easily do your own thing without anybody getting in your way, which is not always the case with more popular destinations.
It is very easy to lie on a hammock at the water’s edge with a beer in hand and put aside your thoughts for a few days. Being relatively inexpensive, home to cool weather and some lovely people, Samosir on Lake Toba seems to bring together the perfect ingredients for a very serene retreat.
We were not too surprised that some backpackers we met in Samosir had decided to extend their few days’ stay into a few weeks’ stay!
Visit Tomok Village
Tomok village is a few kilometres away from Tuktuk and is a little bit larger. It is also the only place on the island with ATMs (two not one, as has been reported elsewhere) as well as an Indomaret and an Alfamart.
There are also local shops from where you can buy fruit and vegetables and souvenir shops with “Lake Toba” items. Tomok village is the go to place for a wider range of supplies than can be found in Tuktuk.
This attraction lies in Tomok village, a few kilometres away from Tuktuk so if you need supplies from Tomok, visiting the tomb at the same time makes sense. You will be given a sash to wear as you enter the site and there’s no entrance fee but a donation is expected and asked for. A 5k note should suffice.
We thought it was amusing that the person handing out the sashes seemed to be colour co-ordinating them to the individual tourists’ clothing!
The tombs are accessed from a side road of the Tomok main road. The road leads up to the Batak museum (where you can easily park your bike) and then continues on the right-hand side to the tomb through a path lined with souvenir shops.
The museum is located inside a traditional house which is itself fascinating. The collection of traditional Batak items is very small but interesting.
It is worth a visit if you are close by. Sad to observe was a monkey chained to a tree within its grounds. There are also toilets in the museum grounds which proved to be very convenient that particular day 😀
Huta Siallagan in Ambarita
The ancient Batak village of Huta Siallagan in Ambarita is characterised by traditional houses of the Batak ethnic group. The village is famous for its chairs set in a circle which have been carved from stone and are located near a Hariara tree which is considered to be sacred.
The stones are thought to be about 200 years old but this is not really confirmed. One set of stones was used as a meeting place whilst the other was used as an execution place. Be sure to read up the history of the place before you go there, otherwise they are just….. stones.
Hire a motorbike a drive around the island
This was our preferred mode of transport around Samosir and our favourite thing to do on our Lake Toba Travel Guide. The other transport options include using boats and bicycles, but hiring a motorbike allowed us to explore and discover the island at a leisurely pace. A bike inclusive of fuel cost us 90,000 IDR (€5.60) for a whole day.
We drove through villages where huge water buffalo were grazing in the lush fields accompanied by white gulls flying overhead. Ears of corn lay on the ground, drying slowly under the scorching sun. School children greeted us happily as we passed by and villagers curiously wanted to know where we were heading.
Driving around Samosir introduced us to the beauty, serenity and tranquillity of the island and the friendly nature of its people. At one point I felt so relaxed that I was about to doze off at the back of the bike. That is until another bike came close with the driver shouting something at us.
Being on a remote part of the island, I was sure that we were about to be robbed, but the local guy just drove off. A few meters down, the bike started to wobble a lot. We had a flat tyre, and the kind driver was only trying to warn us! Some villagers stopped and somehow we managed to understand that the repair shop was (luckily) only a kilometre away, so we wobbled and skidded all the way to the shop.
The shop which was just a small shack, seemed to be run by a couple of teenage kids who had great difficulty in extracting the inner tube from the tyre. After about an hour and lots of shouting at each other from their end and “wait mister” every 5 minutes, it was replaced and we were on our way to the beaches!
Visit the Samosir Beaches
Do not expect the beaches on Samosir to be anything like those on Indonesia’s remote islands. These are lake beaches which lack the sparkly blue turqiouse water and soft white sand of the ocean. Still, you can swim in the lake and chill out on the sand which, although not as soft as that on the ocean beaches, is still comfortable enough for whiling away a few hours on the lake shore.
This beach is accessed from the main road a few kilometres away from Ambarita. It was very quiet when we went, there were a couple of warungs from where we bought water and snacks and we just sat on logs watching the local kids playing in the water.
Some fishermen were poised on stilts holding rods and nets into the water, no doubt hoping for a good catch of lake fish to grill on the barbeque. There are some large trees on the beach which provide shade from the sun thus offering the perfect reading spot!
Pantai Batu Hoda
This beach was extremely windy when we visited and we didn’t stay too long in fact. Local women washed their clothes at the water’s edge and young men chatted under the shade off the trees as they stared curiously at our approaching bike.
The shore was filled with seashells and rather pretty, but the water was far too choppy for a swim.
This is the most popular beach on Samosir due to its white sands and is located on the opposite side of the island to Tuktuk. Water activities such as banana boat rides and jet ski rides are available at this beach, which although pretty, can get crowded in weekends, so we were not very enthusiastic about visiting, preferring to spend time on the quiet beaches instead.
Visit the waterfalls in Lake Toba
Lake Toba is home to several waterfalls, the most popular of which are Efrata waterfall, Binangalom waterfall, Simangande waterfall and Gibeon Hill waterfall, some of which are in Parapat, on the other side of the lake of Tuktuk.
The waterfalls were all rather far or not easily accessible from Tuktuk so we did not visit, but they are great destinations if you plan on spending more than a few days on the island.
Take a dip in the Aek Rangat Hot Springs
Also located on the opposite side of the island to Tuktuk, the hot springs have a sulphur smell and are apparently really hot and by no means refreshing, so we missed visiting the springs since they did not seem to justify the distance we had to cover to go there.
Lake Sidihoni – a lake inside of a lake
Not easy to get to and small in size, this lake is remarkable for being a “lake inside of a lake”. We don’t advise you to go if you are staying in Tuktuk and are short on time, but it is worth driving there if you have ample time to explore the island.
Lake Toba Travel Guide – where to eat in Lake Toba
We ate all our meals in the village of Tuktuk since this is where we were based.
This was our favourite restaurant by far – a cozy little place with few tables where we had most of our breakfasts and dinners.
Omelettes and banana porridge and coffee for breakfast meant that we started off the day on a very good note and ended it with huge portions of aubergine curry, pork steak and pork tacos which were more like huge calzones!
We ate our first meal in Tuktuk here since this is where we stayed. We enjoyed the food, but thought that it was slightly expensive when compared with similar fare at Today’s Café.
The fried aubergines were to die for though!
We dined here on our last night and were not disappointed by the fresh food we were served. Our only disappointment was not having had the grilled fish which we saw served in huge portions at the neighbouring table! Unfortunately, we couldn’t come back to try that out!
We have tried to ensure that our Lake Toba Travel Guide be as comprehensive as possible! We believe that Lake Toba is one of the best travel destinations on the Island of Sumatra and we hope that if you ever go there, you get to enjoy it as much as we did!