The Archipelago Journal: Samosir

Southeast Asia’s largest lake was once a destination for intrepid travellers in the know. Now the North Sumatran secret is out: Lake Toba, its stunning surrounds and inner island of Samosir – nearly the size of Singapore – are officially calling on all adventurers.

Words by Bob Napitupulu, Photography by Suwandi Chandra


Lake Toba is truly immense. Depending on which side you stand on, you may not be able to make out the other end of the lake. The water is ocean-blue and stretches for hundreds of kilometres with lush green hills and stone cliffs hewing along its curves.

It’s a beautiful sight to behold from virtually any angle, and at 1,707km2, there are many angles from which to choose. If you ask a local for the best spot to take in views, don’t be surprised to get a different answer every time. My personal favourite view is seeing the lake slowly reveal itself from behind the dense jungle as you drive down from Silangit Airport.


On this particular trip, I arrived pretty early in the morning and already the sun was shining brilliantly in the sky. As I got closer to the lake, shimmering flashes of white and blue caught my eye in between the foliage. Just as I thought I had a sense for how big it is, that last tree line passed out of view and the full scale and majesty of Lake Toba was right in front of me. It gets me every time.

Of course, the drive down to the lake wouldn’t be complete without a stop at one the many cliff-side cafés and restaurants. These humble spots offer simple bites – like tasty grilled fish and rice, grilled corn and supremely good Sumatran coffee – along with humbling panoramic views across the lake.


I decided to stop for a coffee to enjoy the clear day, and in the middle of the massive expanse I could see Samosir Island. The island, and, in fact, the entire lake, was created by a major eruption between 30,000 and 75,000 years ago – the largest known volcanic eruption within the last 25 million years. The lake itself is actually four overlapping calderas, forming the Sumatran volcanic front.

This tumultuous prehistoric geology has influenced a fascinating cradle of Indonesian culture, the Batak people. There are several different types of Batak cultures, each individually unique, but with closely related languages and rituals that have been carried forward from hundreds of years ago.


If you’re keen on learning all about the various Batak cultures, visit the TB Silalahi Center and Batak Museum, which has an excellent private collection of old and rare cultural artefacts as well as items, awards and personal effects of T.B. Silalahi, former Lieutenant General of the Indonesian National Army and Minister of Administrative Reform.

Having visited the museum before, I decided to skip it this time and head straight for Samosir. I took a scenic ferry ride from the Parapat port to the island. Stepping off the ferry, the natural beauty of Samosir is immediately apparent, and its influence on the unique local customs, arts and culture suddenly becomes obvious. You can see the nature reflected in the huge traditional wooden houses, adorned with intricate ornamental carvings, each illustration carrying its own symbolic meaning. These iconic houses, with their striking twin-peaked roofs, are designed to accommodate several generations of a family simultaneously.


I was exploring the village of Huta Siallagan on Samosir, established hundreds of years ago by the king of Siallagan. Direct descendants of the king still inhabit the village, but their homes have been retro-fitted with a few modern amenities such as satellite television!

I was fortunate enough to be invited into one of the authentic Batak homes dating back over 500 years, constructed entirely without nails and divided into three levels: the area under the house serves as the stockyard to store animals; the middle level is the living space for the families; and the topmost part is where harvested crops are stored.


Continuing my trek, I spot magnificent monuments across the island as well as the tomb of the legendary Batak progenitor. As a predominantly Christian culture, there are also beautifully decorated churches that dot the island. A number of family-friendly resorts can now be found on the island with hiking trails to soak in the sights and fresh air.

Tourism is beginning to pick up around the island as a result of the government designating the lake as one of the country’s ‘Top 10 Priority Destinations’ for tourism development. President Jokowi’s programme and enthusiasm in promoting and realising the potential of the area is already having a noticeably positive impact in and around the lake. North Tapanuli, for example, is now attracting visitors to its recreation parks such as Gantolle Hutaginjang, and drawing attention to lesser-known gems surrounding the lake, such as Muara Beach, the impressive Sarulla and Sipariama Purbatua waterfalls, and the Alam Sipoholon natural hot springs.

Now with Garuda Indonesia offering direct flights from Jakarta to Silangit, hopefully the enthusiasm for Lake Toba will continue to grow as more of its beauty is revealed, appreciated and preserved.

Jakarta to Silangit

Flight Time 2 hours 25 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours August 2016


5 Senses – Sight

Gorga is the ancient Batak art of ornamental woodcarving featuring three specific natural colours: red, black and white. Gorga are often seen on the walls of traditional houses; while in the past they were only made for the houses of important members of society, today they represent good fortune for all, with each carved motif reflecting a different aspect of life and having its own symbolic meaning. You can find local craftsmen and have one personally made to take home with you as a good-luck souvenir.