Ins and outs

1 Getting there
1.1 Air
1.2 Boat
2 Getting around
2.1 Where to go
2.2 Air
2.3 Bus
2.4 Train

Getting there


Most visitors arrive at Medan, in the north, near the west coast of Sumatra, which offers international connections with Kuala Lumpur and Penang, in Malaysia, and with Singapore. There are also flights from Singapore to Padang. There are domestic connections with Jakarta from all Sumatran provincial capitals.


There is a twice weekly 'international' ferry linking Penang (Malaysia) with Belawan (Medan's port), 14 hours. Hydrofoils and high-speed catamarans also make the crossing five times a week, four to five hours. In addition to the popular Belawan-Penang route, there are also ferry connections from Belawan with Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur's port) and, via Penang, with Langkawi. An alternative route into or out of Indonesia is to catch a regular high-speed ferry from Singapore's World Trade Centre or Tanah Merah piers to Batam or Bintan islands in the Riau archipelago, 40 minutes. From there it is possible to catch a boat - fast or very slow - to Pekanbaru, up the Siak River on the Sumatran 'mainland', from where it is a five-hour bus ride to Bukitinggi. There are also ferry connections between Melaka and Dumai, although this is not a very popular entry/exit point. The most important domestic entry/exit point is Bakauheni on Sumatra's south tip; hourly ferries link Bakauheni with Merak, West Java. The PELNI ships Kelud and Sinabung call in on Medan on loops to Jakarta's Tanjung Priok via Balai Karimun and Batam respectively.

Getting around

Where to go

Travelling in Sumatra can be a time-consuming business. Some key destinations - notably Danau Toba - have no airport. Furthermore, distances
can be great and with average road speeds of around 50 kph, even on the Trans-Sumatran 'highway', it can take a while to get from A to B. This means that anyone intending to sample Sumatra in anything more than the most cursory of ways will need to allocate at least 10 days. The classic 'route' is to travel between Medan and Padang (which both have airports with daily flights), via Berastagi, Danau Toba and Bukittinggi. This really requires a minimum of 10 days and preferably two weeks. However, there are opportunities for shorter stays, and people living in the region regularly come to Sumatra for a week or less for breaks in the cool Batak and Minang highlands. It is quite feasible to fly into Medan and make for Danau Toba for five days or to Padang and take the bus up to Bukittinggi for a similar length of time. But long-haul visitors, with jet lag to deal with and perhaps a new climate too, would probably find such a short visit exhausting and ultimately less than satisfying.


This is the most convenient and comfortable way to travel around Sumatra.
service all the main provincial cities. The other main domestic airlines on Sumatra are
. Smallest of all are
, which tend to service more out-of-the-way places.


Buses are the main mode of long-distance travel. Steady improvements to the 2500 km Trans-Sumatran 'Highway' (a misnomer - over large sections it is more like a village road, one and a half lanes wide), which runs down the entire island from Banda Aceh in the north to Bakauheni in the south, is making road travel much faster and more comfortable. It used to take 20 hours from Parapat to Bukittinggi, now it takes 10-14 hours depending on the vehicle. Roads off the Trans-Sumatran Highway are still generally poor, and in the rainy season delays of two days are not unknown while floodwaters subside. Travelling through the Bukit Barisan, or along the west coast, is still quite slow, with average speeds of 40-50 kph, as the road follows every turn of the mountain. There are air-conditioned, VIP or express buses plying all the major routes. The most highly regarded private bus companies are ALS and ANS.

Because tourists tend to have a lower pain threshold than locals - and a lower tolerance threshold to delayed departures - tourist buses now ply the popular routes. In particular, the route from Padang, through Berastagi, Danau Toba and Sibolga, to Bukittinggi. These
bis parawisata
(tourist buses) are often eight-seat minibuses that leave at a set hour (roughly) and tend to arrive more quickly than the
bis biasa
(ordinary bus) alternatives. Tourist services are safer; they often pick up and drop off at hotels in towns; and they may also include stops at designated tourist sights en route (the dreaded
objek wisata
). The main disadvantage (other than cost) is that they reduce contact between locals and tourists.


There is a limited rail network in Sumatra. In the north, there is a line running from Medan to Rantau Parapat, and from Medan to Tanjung Balai.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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