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10 January 2011

Medan, Indonesia

By Debra

When Airasia announced its Merdeka RM9 sale, I told myself that no longer would I think of my dwindling finances nor delay my intention of going on a holiday. It has been three years since my last vacation and even if it meant going to neighboring Singapore, I would willingly drag myself and my tiny travel suitcase across the sea.

I searched the Airasia website for the cheapest destination, clicking on various dates and countries until I found somewhere to suite my budget. Medan, Indonesia it was!

After 3 months of hard work stashing cash into our holiday account, myself together with my aunts and cousins, who were also deprived of holidays, headed to LCCT to make our journey to Polonia Airport. Upon arrival, the first thing we did was whip out our cameras and snapped pictures in front of the Airasia airplane! It was a once in a lifetime opportunity (and forbidden by Airasia) for us to have our picture with a nice huge red coloured airplane at the background.

The Indonesian Immigration queue was quite long so we took more pictures there while waiting. Then a strange thing happened. While getting our luggage, we encountered a porter who was quite persistent in assisting us. Despite us not requiring his assistance, he helped to load our bags on the trolley. I quickly took my bag from his trolley and walked away. He insisted that he wanted to help us, but we declined and took our own bags. Then on the way out, he followed us and tried to demand for payment for lifting the bags. Luckily our tour guide was waiting for us, so the persistent porter went away.

Apparently there is this scam in Polonia Airport where porters offer assistance then demand payment. Some of them even follow you to your car or make a scene so you pay them. The distance from the luggage pick up area to the exit door is only about 10 metres apart!

Relieved to meet our driver, we gasped at the one and only Petronas fuel station in sight and headed towards Lake Toba. It was a 4 hours drive through winding, bumpy roads, passing by local villages with view of local coffee, palm oil, and fruit plantations along the way.

The calm and peace of Lake Toba

We reached Lake Toba late evening. A sense of peace and serenity swept over as we stared blankly at the calm waters and tall mountains of the world’s largest volcanic lake. The cool air gently blew our hair and we enjoyed local coffee at a hillside cafe, built of wooden planks and pillars that looked as it it could crumble at any given time. It was only 6.30pm and already getting dark. We headed to our hotel, had dinner and enjoyed massages that costs about RM17 per person per hour! My aunt had hers twice!

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Samosir Island (a tiny island in the middle of Lake Toba) for our heritage tour. We saw Batak houses, tombs of dead Kings, did some shopping followed by a lunch of Padang food. Apparently, the Bataks from Samosir Island were very into Black Magic. Before being introduced to Christianity, most of them we Parmalim and practised black magic. Our tour guide says that it is a dying art because once you become a Christian, you will not inherit ‘the gift’ as only it can only be passed down to a Parmalim. There are some who still practise it though.

The symbol of the Batak people of Samosir Island – A lizard & four breast. It seems, the bigger your breast, the more ‘in demand’ you are as big breasts denotes your capability to breasfeed and multiply i.e. more children, which among the community means an abundance of wealth.

We boarded the noon ferry and headed back to our hotel. It was time to check out and head to Berastagi and catch a view of Mt.Sinabung, an active volcano.

The drive from Lake Toba to Berastagi took about 2 hours as we had stopped for some spicy ginger tea also known as ‘Bandrek’ by the locals at Siantar Coffee House which was 1700 metres above sea level, and followed by a quick stop to get a view of the beautiful Sipiso-piso waterfall located at the north side of Lake Toba. Because it had rained the past few days, it was freezing cold. Imagine being in an airconditioned closet with a temperature of 16′ c, and wearing only your t-shirt and shorts! Again, we stopped at one of those wooden hut / coffee houses for local coffee to warm ourselves.

Hot ‘Bandrek’ and Banana fritters

Sipiso-piso waterfall

Our first stop at Berastagi was the fruit market. It was a shopping haven! Apart from fresh fruits and plants, the place was a square with many tiny shoplots selling souvenirs, batik clothes and keychains. We went crazy there, buying things as if we did not have any concerns (or bills) to worry about. Beautiful wooden souvenirs, gorgeous batik dresses and pashminas with batik designs were our main purchases. Everything was made out of batik. I purchased a laptop bag made out of batik prints whereas my cousin got herself a batik cloth pencil box and a batik wallet.

We had ample time to shop because our drive to My.Sinabung had to be cancelled. It was too misty and our driver did not want to risk the danger of driving uphill on a winding road and for fear of landslides. So for a brief moment when the sky was clear, we managed to get a glimpse of the volcano from where we were shopping. We could see smoke rings and according to our tour guide, the volcano has been emitting smoke for quite sometime and the villagers no longer take notice of it. It was a wonderful sight and would have been better if we were closer but mother nature did not permit. It was time to leave and drive down to Medan City.
The journey downhill took about 1 hour 45 minutes, through villages and small towns. The one lane road were full of potholes but we were too engrossed by what we saw – almost all the houses, whether brick or wooden huts, had a huge satellite dish that could apparently receive signals from as far as France and Arab.
Throughout the journey, our tour guide had briefed us on the lifestyle of the Batak people and it was quite an interesting ride as we listened and looked in wonder and awe.

The Batak people builds tombs, larger and more grand than their homes, to keep the bodies of the dead. We came across these tombs alongside the road, quite often, and according to our tour guide, the body is not buried underground but placed in the tomb and can be taken out after a few years for a second funeral i.e. cleaning of the bones.

We passed by a few women carrying spades and baskets of vegetables on their head, and our tour guide went on to explain that Batak men do not work. Their job is to sit in coffee shops, drinking coffee or tuak, and playing chess or just hanging out. The women work the farm and take care of the children. They even carry their babies in their arms while working! It has been their culture and it has been that way as long as anyone can remember. I silently thanked my lucky stars for not being born a Batak woman.

A Batak woman on her way to work the fields.

As we arrived Medan City late evening, we were flooded with memories of KL’s Chow Kit and Kota Raya area as that is how I would describe the city. Apart from certains parts of the city that looked similar to Bukit Bintang, it was mostly bricks, dirt and dullness and flooded with Bechak drivers and motorcycles. We called it a night after a delicous spicy dinner and a brief moment of internet access at the hotel.

A very angry Bechak driver!

The next morning we made our way to Sun Plaza, a high end shopping mall similar to our KLCC and the only thing we could think of was to make a pitstop at Starbucks to kill time. If you are a shopoholic, you might enjoy the variety of clothes and shoes being sold in Sun Plaza, but we only checked out the bookstore. Af first we quite excited because we saw quite a few good titles, but out joy was shortlived as most of the books have been translated into the Indonesian language. There was only one shelf with English books.

Our tour guide kept telling us that we could buy ‘everything’ in Medan city and now we know that he meant electrical items, modern clothes and branded items. We were more interested in local souvenirs and traditional clothes, which luckily we bough it Berastagi. We could not find any similar unique items in Medan. Pasar Ikan was a horrible experience as we had those guys carrying plastic bags of t-shirts and key-chains who kept following us and trying their best to convince us to make a purchase. If not being harrassed by these ‘lelong’ guys, we would have enjoyed walking around Pasar Ikan as there were many shoplots and stalls along the alley selling clothes, batik, souvenirs and food items.

The only consolation in Medan city was the cheap and relaxing spa services. After two and a half hours of pampering and mandi lulur for about RM90 each, and it was time for us to leave. We reached Medan airport, paid the tax of Rp75000 per person, never made eye contact with any porters and boarded our Airasia flight (which was on time) for a 45 minutes journey back home. We were greeted by the familiar smell of Mcdonalds at LCCT, Kuala Lumpur.

While reminiscing about our wonderful trip to Medan, we decided that Krabi Island would be our next holiday destination. We’re now all on standby for Airasia’s next RM1 promotion. :)

  • Diah

    can you pls give me the detail how to get to danau toba and berastagi?
    what travel agent you had?
    im coming there this July, using air asia (prome fare off course, viva AA for making dream comes true!!)
    thanks a lot

  • Kuhanesh

    I am also planning to take the 4 days 3 nights tour at Medan in March this year 20011 as per your above article…did u book the tour from air asia go?

  • Debra

    I used a local travel agent. Boustead Travel @ Shah Alam.