Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia
Lake Toba/Flickr/Marc Veraart

Travelers bound for Indonesia usually set their sights on Bali or Java, but Sumatra — Indonesia’s largest island — has just as much, if not more, to offer. Sumatra is easy to reach; hour-long flights operate several times a day from both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and a three-hour ferry runs once a day. But because the island’s infrastructure is still growing, much of the natural wildlife and landscape is still intact, leaving more to discover.

1. There are infinite adventures.
Stretching almost 450,000 square kilometers, Sumatra is the world’s largest volcanic island and home to a wide range of ecosystems and natural wonders. There are few other places where you can scuba dive with endangered fish, relax on picturesque lake shores, camp on the beach, trek through the jungle, raft down river rapids, climb volcanoes, soak in hot springs, and shop for local handicrafts — all in one place.


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Tip: For your pick of adventures, North Sumatra’s capital city Medan is the best home base. From Medan, it’s a three-hour drive west to Bukit Lawang for jungle excursions, or an 80-minute flight northwest to Palau Weh for the best beaches. Sibayak Volcano and Lake Toba are a couple hours south of Medan by car.


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2. You can *actually* immerse yourself in the culture.
While Bali has become commercialized with new resorts and restaurants, Sumatra has not. It is possible to go days without crossing paths with another foreigner, and you can truly immerse yourself in the local culture, which largely remains unspoiled.

Tip: Get a look into traditional Sumatran life in the area surrounding Lake Toba, where indigenous peoples continue to live in Batak-style houses with steeply pitched roofs.

3. It is home to some of the world’s most obscure plants and wildlife.
The rainforests of Sumatra are among the world’s most biologically diverse; they support some 15,000 plants and 400 species of animals — and many more have yet to be discovered. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Sumatra is one of the only places in the world where orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinos live together. At the Bohorok Orangutan Centre, you can trek through the jungle park and see rehabilitated semi-wild orangutans.

Tip: If you enjoy the wildlife you see, think hard about where you choose to spend your money. Coffee plantations make for great tours, but they sometimes displace natural habitats. Likewise, palm oil is a nice souvenir, but its production often violates fair trade ethics and is a major cause of deforestation.

Getting there
Sumatra sits just southwest of cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. From the Malay Peninsula, hop across the narrow Strait of Malacca by plane or ferry. Flights are as fast as 55 minutes and go out several times a day, and ferries as short as three hours and run once daily.

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