Beautiful Lake Toba, Sumatra

Lake Toba is one of the awesome natural wonders of the world. Lake Toba actually is a huge crater lake that was created by the eruption of the Toba super volcano, over 100,000 years ago. This eruption is believed to be the largest explosive eruption on earth in the past 25 million years. The eruption led to a volcanic winter with a decline in temperature between 3 to 5 C and even up to 15 C in higher latitudes around the world. The total amount of erupted material was around 2,800 km3. The eruption caused South Asia to be entirely covered in a layer of ash of approximately 15 cm thick.

The lake is so enormous that it has an island almost the size of Singapore in its centre. At over 1,150 square kilometers, and a depth of over 450 meters, Lake Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest lakes in the world.

View over Lake Toba
View over Lake Toba. Picture taken south of Tomok on Samosir Island, up the mountain

Lake Toba is a place to come and sit back, relax and absorb some beautiful pristine scenery. As you sit and take in the view of the picturesque mountains set against the cool clear lake, you will feel the worries of the world melt away. As the lake sits 900 meters above sea level there is a cooler climate here making a refreshing break from the heat, humidity and pollution of the city. Nowadays more and more westerners enjoy their retirement at the shores of Lake Toba.

Venture onto Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba and discover the Batak heartland, beautiful mountains, clear waterfalls to swim under and locals taking their water buffalo out in the fields.

Swimming at Binangalom waterfall that plunges right into Lake Toba
Taking a refreshing swim underneath Binangalom waterfall that plunges into Lake Toba

This is a place to come and enjoy the legendary Batak hospitality. Say cheers and enjoy some traditional palm wine - called tuak - with the locals. Sit and have coffee and chat with islanders keen to practice their English. Where-ever you go, it won’t take long to make a new friend. And if you are into playing chess, you might find yourself some excellent opponents here. When the sun starts to set, walk around and join a group of youngsters singing and playing the guitar.

Most accommodations can be found at the main land in the town of Parapat. That being said, at Samosir Island you won't have any trouble finding a place to stay either - especially at Tuk-tuk. Parapat occupies a small, rocky peninsula stretching out into Lake Toba. On the way down to Parapat from the hill town of Berastagi you will get some spectacular views over the lake and Samosir Island as Lake Toba first comes into sight and the road winds its way down the mountain closer to the shoreline.  Although the majority of the Toba Batak people have embraced Christianity, ancient beliefs and traditions still persist.

Many visitors prefer to take the more scenic option and stay on the massive island of Samosir in the middle of the lake. The original home of the Toba Batak people, the island has many traces of ancient days including stone tombs and traditional villages, such as Huta Siallagan at Ambarita which has a courtyard with stone furniture where in the old days convicts were tried and beheaded. Or visit Simanindo where traditional Batak ritual dances and music are performed. At Tomok you can find the stone tomb of former king Sidabutar and there are souvenir stalls with Batak handicrafts. Buy the traditional red and black hand-woven shawls called ulos (that are still used today at important celebrations like marriage and funerals), a Batak calendar on rattan, woodcarvings and more. Samosir is accessible by regular ferries from Parapat or the large ferry from Ajibata.

And if you wish to better understand Batak culture, visit the Batak Museum at Balige, further south on the mainland shore side. 

Despite being a tourist spot for many years, Lake Toba still remains a natural and undisturbed natural beauty. Venture away from the small villages and you will find yourself in the country surrounded by farmland, churches and strange tombs dotting the landscape.

View over Lake Toba from Sipisopiso
View over Lake Toba. Picture taken from where Sipisopiso waterfall is

What to do at Lake Toba

There is plenty to see and do around Lake Toba. In Parapat, there are facilities for swimming, water skiing, motor boating, canoeing, fishing and golf.

Many visitors spend their time in and on the water by swimming in the invigorating waters or hiring a boat to go around the huge lake, for instance to Binangalom waterfall. The climate is cool and dry and with views of the beautiful lake, this is an ideal place to relax. Watching the sunset over Lake Toba is the perfect way to unwind and spend your time with your loved ones.

Ask some locals if there are traditional celebrations at hand, like a marriage or a funeral. Don't feel bothered to attend, your presence is appreciated. At first the people dance solemnly. But when a marriage party is way after midnight, the people get more excited and the dancing gets wilder.

On Samosir, take a trip inland and explore some of the villages and Lake Sidihoni. Samosir Island is an ideal place to rent a scooter, since there is not much traffic around here. If you take the smaller roads, bear in mind that it can be slippery if it has been raining.

If you’re interested in heritage attractions then Tomok village, a traditional village on Samosir, is definitely worth a look. Here you can learn more about local history and customs with a visit to the cemetery complex of King Sidabutar where you will see unique stone etchings.

Samosir Island sells unique wares and souvenirs with antique items to catch your interest. If you want to learn more about traditional Batak life and culture, try visiting the traditional weaving village of Jangga, about 45 minutes by scooter from Tuk-tuk.

Where to sleep around Lake Toba

There are a range of hotels, bungalows, villas and guesthouses available in Parapat.

On Samosir, the majority of hotels are found in Tuk Tuk. Here you can find something to suit any budget. Tuk Tuk is a great base from which to explore the rest of the island, and the facilities here are comfortable and convenient. One of the best places to stay at Tuk-tuk, definitely is Carolina Cottages.

Lake Toba places to eat

Selling shrimp crackers and the like at Samosir Island, Lake Toba
No need to travel far for buying shrimp crackers at Lake Toba. This man will deliver them right at your doorstep

Shopping around Lake Toba

In Parapat you can buy souvenirs such as T-shirts and keychains. Twice a week there is also a traditional market (saturday being the best day) selling fruit, vegetables and clothing.

For more unique souvenirs (even antiques) try shopping on Samosir, especially in Tomok and Ambarita. Watch out for fake antiques however. If you're interested in buying some ulos cloths, famous for beautiful motifs and smooth weaving, visit the traditional village of Jangga where you can witness ulos in the making.

Getting around Lake Toba

Feel the wind in your hair and do as the locals do by hiring a motorbike to explore this beautiful part of the world. If you’re on Samosir, take the day to explore by taking a drive on the road running around the edge of the island. Although rough and unpaved in places, this road offers some spectacular views of the lake from the highest points on the island. 

If you’re staying in the popular village of Tuk Tuk on Samosir, the best way to get around is to walk, or wander, down the main street at a leisurely pace.

How to get to Lake Toba

Parapat is 176 km from Medan and can be reached in under 6 hours by public bus. The bus has two routes: Medan-Parapat or via Medan-Berastagi-Parapat (more scenic, but will take longer) and costs approximately 30,000 rupiahs.

You can buy a spot in a private air conditioned taxi (shared with others) from Medan to Parapat for 80,000 rupiahs one way per person. The trip takes around 4 hours. Travel agents in Medan can also organize a rental car plus a chauffeur for you for around Rp 400,000.

Medan is an international gateway. A number of airlines fly daily between Medan and all major cities in Indonesia and international flights also go from Medan to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

The ferry from Ajibata will take you across Lake Toba to Tomok on Samosir Island
The ferry from Ajibata (near Parapat) will take you across Lake Toba to Tomok on Samosir Island

Once you arrive in Parapat, you can catch the ferry to Samosir Island. The ferry goes every hour from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm. The two landing points on Samosir are the traditional village of Tomok, or Tuk Tuk, where the islands hotels and restaurants are concentrated. The boat will drop you off right at the shore of your hotel - just tell the guy that collects the money where you want to be dropped. If you are coming overland from the south via Bukittinggi and Tarutung there is a public bus available.

Sunset at Lake Toba
Spectacular sunset at Lake Toba. Picture taken from Tuk-tuk at Samosir Island

Lake Toba travel tips

The weather here is cool but pleasant, but if you’re used to hot temperatures remember to bring a jacket.

Change all the money that you will need before you leave Medan as the exchange rate can be poor in the Lake Toba area. Although there is one ATM at Parapat (BNI bank), it might be wise to bring some cash from Medan as the ATM can be out of order - or out of cash.

If you are taking the bus between Medan and Parapat make sure you get on an express bus to avoid doubling your travel time.

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