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Sumatra is the second largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, about the size of California, formed by a longitudinal spine of mountains including nearly 100 volcanoes. Sumatra is a beautiful island with volcanoes and hot springs, lakes and rivers, rolling green foothills, plantations and wild jungle scenery. Many reserves protect the island's wealth of indigenous wildlife, and elephants, tigers, rhinos, orangutans and tapirs can be seen on organised safaris within protected reserves.
The majority of the population lives in the foothills, plateaus and highlands of Sumatra, working as farmers. The entire island was once covered in dense rainforest, but today most has been destroyed by the need for agricultural land, which is the country's prime earner, with key exports including palm oil, rubber, tobacco, coffee and tea.
The island is home to numerous peoples and cultures. Among them are the Muslim Minangkabau and the great highland people, the Batak, inhabiting a fertile volcanic plateau, with a language, dress, religious belief, architectural style and culture all of their own. Lake Toba, the spiritual centre of the Batak, is a major tourist destination lined with resorts. The busy hill town of Bukittinggi is the hub of the Minang culture, surrounded by spectacular scenery and close to Lake Maninjau, a sparkling volcanic crater lake surrounded by jungle-covered crater walls.
This is an island of plenty: with its scenery, wildlife, natural resources, cultural diversity and extraordinary architecture Sumatra has much to offer the visitor. Though not as popular a destination as neighbouring Bali or Jakarta, Sumatra is an increasingly fashionable eco-tourism destination, and cycling or riding a scooter through the mountains and valleys can be a great way to take in the astonishing natural beauty.
The little village of Bukit Lawang is situated on the eastern banks of the pretty Bahorok River, facing one of the grandest forest areas in South East Asia, the Mount Leuser National Park. With its restful and pleasant setting, this was once one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern Sumatra, the town existing primarily to cater to the tourist trade, with guides, restaurants and a variety of delightful guesthouses strung along the river. Since November 2003, however, Bukit Lawang has struggled to recover from the massive flash flood that wiped out most of its infrastructure, causing a huge dip in the tourism that once formed the backbone of its economy. Rebuilding is underway and Bukit Lawang has maintained its charm despite disaster. Its major attraction, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre across the river, welcomes visitors more enthusiastically than ever.
The Rehabilitation Centre helps orphaned orangutans that have been displaced because of land clearing, or rescued from captivity, and teaches them the necessary skills to be able to survive in the wild. Visitors have an opportunity to view the apes twice daily when they come swinging through the trees to collect the bananas and milk left on feeding platforms in the forest, one of the more memorable experiences in Indonesia. Jungle trekking and tubing down the river are other popular activities.
Bukittinggi, or 'high place', is situated on a hill and set among majestic mountains, green plantations and rice terraces. One of the friendliest and most easy-going cities in Sumatra, it is home to the Minangkabau people and the area is steeped in the Minang culture, which is Muslim and strongly matrilineal. Bukittinggi is the commercial, educational and administrative centre of the highlands. One of the features of the town is the characteristic architecture: wooden houses with curved roofs soaring to a point representative of buffalo horns and decorated with beautiful wooden carvings.
The Jam Gadang (Great Clock) is a Minangkabau-style clock tower and the town's landmark, overlooking the bustling market place that is crammed with fruit, vegetables and clothing stalls, and rickety horse carts whose drivers insist on squeezing them through the colourful chaos. Pagaruyung Palace is another famous landmark and example of traditional architecture. Nearby Mount Merapi is an active volcano which can be reached on a beautiful hike; this is one of the most popular excursions from Bukittinggi for tourists. There is lots to see and do in the area and Bukittinggi itself is an intriguing city to explore.
Famed for its right-hand reef breaks, Nias is a key surfing destination for many travelling through the area, with the best known surf spots being Sorake Bay and Lagundri Bay. But this fascinating island also boasts a rich cultural history with prehistoric remains which are thought to have been built in the megalithic Stone Age. Tourists visiting Nias Island can enjoy the war dances performed by locals, among other traditional festivities, and the local music, which is mostly sung by women, is known to be hauntingly beautiful and unique. The beauty of the island is the main draw for those who visit its shores but for the anthropologically-inclined this area is of great interest as its relative geographical isolation has allowed its traditional culture to thrive. Popular activities other than surfing include scuba diving and snorkelling in the clear waters, which brim with rich marine life.
More than 1,000 people died in Nias in the 2004 and 2005 earthquakes which shook the region and some evidence of this tragedy may still be visible on the islands, but the tourism industry has recovered. The locals tend to be extremely friendly and they have a respect for the tourism industry as it provides many of their livelihoods.
Lake Maninjau is set like a burning sapphire stone in the crater of the mountain and is a spectacularly beautiful place to relax and unwind. It is a caldera lake, located in west Sumatra, and is thought to have been formed by a volcanic eruption around 52,000 years ago. The lake is set at about 1,545 feet (471m) above sea level, and the average temperature of the water in the lake is around 86°F (30°C). Visitors can enjoy cycling the 37 mile (60km) circumference of the lake, or plodding through the neighbouring rice paddies while others can swim, canoe and hike the surrounding mountains or explore the local villages.
Villages on the shores of the lake include Maninjau and Bayur. Maninjau is a notable tourist destination in the region due to its scenic beauty and situation on the lake; if you're interested in doing some paragliding Maninjau is a great base. There are some hot springs to enjoy close to the village of Mukomuko, on the opposite side of the lake to Maninjau. On the dramatic road that winds down to the lake from Bukkittinggi there are spectacular views and 44 hairpin turns. Beware of the monkeys that gather on the side of the road; they wait there because people throw food out of the cars for them but they are wild animals and shouldn't be approached.
The capital of Sumatra, Padang offers a compact and enjoyable cross-section of Sumatran life and its various cultures. Many surfers stop here on their way to the Batu or Mentawi Islands, but the town itself boasts a few noteworthy attractions such as the Adityawarman Museum, which features a collection of antiques, and the cultural centre where locals perform traditional dances on Sundays or even (martial arts). Many people come here for the markets, for which Padang is famed, but Padang Beach is also popular for its spectacular sunsets and hundreds of colourful food stalls. Another popular beach is Air Manis, which gets mixed reviews from tourists - depending on how clean it is when they visit - but boasts the attraction of a small island which can be waded to at low tide.
Lake Maninjau is close enough to make a really pleasant excursion from the city, and Sikuai is less than an hour away by boat. Sikuai Island is renowned for its natural beauty and earns rave reviews from almost all that make the trip. Although not cheap it is still relatively unspoiled and feels like an undiscovered paradise. Padang makes a good base for excursions of this sort and is in close proximity to a number of lovely areas.
A great place to stop off for travellers en route to the holiday resort of Lake Toba, the town of Berestagi is famed not only for its passion fruit, but also for the two active volcanoes on its doorstep: Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabung. Gunung Sibayak boasts fantastic hot springs whose warm waters are not only open to the public, but are also believed to have therapeutic properties.
More active travellers can climb this mountain instead, earning breathtaking views over the island of Sumatra from the top. This is the most commonly climbed volcano in Sumatra as the hike to the top is comparatively easy, with beautiful and unusual scenery to enjoy along the way. It only takes about two hours to summit and can be done safely without a guide. However the addition of a local expert who can explain the geological significance of the area, as well as identify the local flora and fauna, is worth considering. The volcano is still active and as such the boiling sulphur imbues the region with an unmistakable stench, but the breathtaking views will quickly distract you from this unpleasant factor. Why not reward yourself and head to the hot springs after the hike? The pools range in temperature from pleasantly warm to boiling hot, so be sure you test the water and don't burn yourself!
The holiday paradise of Lake Toba, sparkling like a precious stone, is embedded in the northern highlands of Sumatra and is surrounded by steep and fertile mountains. Filling in a giant volcanic crater, it is the largest lake in South East Asia, with depths of up to 1,680 feet (525m) in places. In the middle of Lake Toba sits the jade-green island of Samosir, which is thought to be the origin of the friendly Batak people. Evidence of their culture and traditions is visible in the little Batak villages with their characteristic curved roofs, the traditional dance performances at Simanindo's Batak Cultural Centre, and the distinctive woodcarvings and weavings sold around the island. Apart from this cultural wealth, there are also several hot springs near Pangururan, which attract visitors.
Numerous holiday resorts and villages are scattered around Lake Toba's Samosir; the Tuk Tuk peninsula and village of Ambarita being the most popular places for tourists to linger. The area was once very fashionable for holidaymakers, but is now fairly quiet. Despite the amount of guesthouses and restaurants on Samosir, there is little other tourist infrastructure, but the variety of activities and the cultural experience makes this one of Sumatra's most fascinating and relaxing holiday destinations.
Children on holiday in Sumatra should not expect water parks and arcades. Instead, this exotic island boasts plenty of fantastic outdoor activities to keep the little ones entertained and enthralled. Lake Toba is a perfect family resort town with plenty of water sports, scenic cycle rides and colourful local cultures to enjoy. Take a trip to the Orangutan Sanctuary in the Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra, or visit the Berbak Wildlife Reserve in Jambi for a great day out with the family where children will enjoy spotting hairy-nosed otters, Sumatran tigers, barking deer, crocodiles and gibbons. The King Palace in Bukittinggi is a magical experience for kids of all ages where they can learn about the Minangkabau Kingdom, while a trip to Belitung Island will reward with a day spent on one of its beautiful beaches which are safe for swimming and provide plenty of open space for kids to let off some steam. Many of the major hotels in Sumatra offer kids clubs where children can meet and play with other kids their age and it is often worth checking into a hotel with these facilities.
The Indonesian climate is tropical. The warm waters of the ocean surrounding the archipelago ensure fairly constant temperatures on land and there is little seasonal variation. There is also very little difference in daylight hours from season to season.
Sumatra's weather is typical for Indonesia, but temperatures can often be lower than expected in the highlands. This slightly cooler and less humid highland climate can be a great relief and is good for hiking and other adventurous activities. The average daytime highs in Sumatra range from 72°F - 86°F (22°C - 30°C) while the rainfall differs from region to region and humidity levels are high in the lowlands. There are two main seasons: the dry season runs from February to August; and the wet season from September to January.
The climate of Indonesia is dominated by heavy monsoon rains, which generally occur between October and April, often causing damage and making local travel difficult (the rainy season is also the worst time for some mosquito-borne diseases). The best time of year to visit Sumatra is any time during the dry season.
Sumatra's shopping is mostly centred round the larger towns and cities, such as Padang, Berastagi, Medan and Bukittinggi. Most of Sumatra's towns have plenty of road-side stalls selling the usual tourist souvenirs such as fake designer goods and Bintang t-shirts. For a more western shopping experience head to places like Minang Plaza or Plaza Andalas in Padang. Fantastic bargains and buys can be found in Padang, with a bit of haggling. Head to Padang's Pasar Baru street market for great buys like leaf hats, batik silk fabrics and clothes.
In Bukittinggi, make a stop at the bustling Pasar Atas market for souvenirs, and explore the town itself for a plethora of craft, jewellery, and antique shops. For fresh produce, the nearby town of Berastagi is best known for its fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly passion fruit. Travellers wanting a real taste of Indonesia should try betel nuts from the market in Berastagi, which are chewed together with lime and tobacco; or pick up some of the local palm wine known as Another good buy is Sumatran coffee beans, which are prized by coffee connoisseurs the world over.
Sumatra may not be the first stop on many travellers' Indonesian itineraries, but this island is still a very popular tourist destination and boasts some fantastic attractions and activities that will appeal to all kinds of people. Depending on the pace you want to set, a trip to one of the Mentawi islands, Batu or Nias Island is a must as they are fantastic locations for surfing, windsurfing and scuba diving. Those wanting something a little more relaxing will love a cruise down the Siak River back in West Sumatra.
The holiday resort of Lake Toba in the north makes the perfect location for a relaxing holiday break, while the glistening Lake Maninjau offers retreat from the bustling tourist-packed beaches and frenetic outside world. A hike to the Mertua Waterfall in Pekanbaru is a must for all nature lovers, as is a visit to the Kerinci Valley and National Park which boasts a remarkable collection of Sumatran Rhinos. For a brush with orangutans, visit the Gunung Leuser National Park in the north, or for the ultimate wildlife experience, visit the Burbak Wildlife Reserve near the strait of Melaka to view clouded leopards, Malayan sunbears, otters and gibbons.
Bukittinggi, which served as headquarters for the Japanese army during WWII, is worth exploring to visit the King Palace, Tuo Belimbing Mosque, or even Lake Singkarak. With all these great attractions and so much more, visitors will find there is more to this popular island than just its abundant natural beauty.
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