We knew we had left the desperate-for-‘first-world’-status efficiency of Malaysia when we arrived at Polonia Airport in Medan and managed to sneak past the sleeping passport control official twice (first to draw money, and then to exchange money after the visa guys tried to overcharge us in Ruppiah). Joff even strolled through customs and right out of the airport to look for an ATM, without so much as a second glance from the airport staff. Medan has quite a reputation amongst travellers for being an awful city, so we were keen to breeze through and make our way to Lake Toba as quickly as possible. It was the end of Ramadan, so the city was abuzz with activity and people preparing for the celebrations ahead. The rough idea was that, by heading to the more Christian South, we would be able to avoid the crowds and enjoy some chilled Batak culture before making our way up to Bukit Lawang.
We luckily made it onto the first available public bus bound for Parapat just in time to get some decent seats. Decent is a totally relative term in this case, as the public busses in Sumatra are something to behold; rusty and boxlike, with ripped pleather seats, greasy windows, and curtains so stained that their original colour is just as much a mystery as the number of years the vehicle in question has been tortured by the barely-there Sumatran road system. No sooner had we taken these seats, there came a steady flow of people, and just when we were thinking ‘they can’t possibly fit in,’ the conductor would come along and jostle some youngsters around so that there was place for everyone. It was like watching a game of human tetris. As the journey progressed, the bus would grind to a halt at regular intervals and admit more people. Eventually we had a row of young men sitting on all the baggage behind our heads on the back seat, peering down quizzically and striking up sporadic conversations as they bounced around, squashed beneath a mountain of possessions and the sagging roof. It goes without saying that there was definitely no air-conditioning, but the sauna-like conditions, together with the haze of second hand smoke emanating from the many chain-smoking passengers seemed intrinsic to the whole experience and we ended up enjoying it. Just a little.
Four hours later we reached Parapat, where we caught the evening ferry across the lake to holiday town of Tuk-Tuk on Samosir Island. Lake Toba is a volcanic crater lake of immense proportions. Samosir (roughly the same size as Singapore) sits in the middle, a giant green mass surrounded by crystal water, which is in turn framed by towering green volcanic peaks. The size makes it all quite difficult to comprehend as the ferry makes its 45 minute journey across. We’d been advised not to book in advance due to the proliferation of cheap, good value accommodation available in Tuk-Tuk. But as soon as we arrived, we realised this may have been a crucial mistake. Our severely flawed line of thinking had lead us to ignore the fact that the Eid (a.k.a Hari Raya) festivities are national public holidays for everyone in Sumatra, so Tuk-Tuk was packed to the rafters with long-weekender locals and there was quite literally no room at the inn. We traipsed up and down the main stretch for over an hour until we eventually had no choice but to take the one room we had been offered at a rather swanky establishment called ‘Toledo Resort’. It was more than double our daily budget, but at that point, it was 8pm and we were so hot, sticky, dirty, hungry and exhausted that it seemed entirely justifiable. One look at our room and we knew what we had spent our money on: a phenomenal view, glorious crisp white sheets, a huge bed, great pillows, cable TV, block-out blinds, air conditioning, and the clincher: a hot water shower. A bit giddy on this luxury, we ventured out to find Jenny’s, a restaurant recommended by every traveller and guide book we had come across, and were duly rewarded with spectacular dinner of barbecued fresh lake fish, chips and salad — exactly what was needed to vanquish the stresses of night.
The next day we rented a scooter and scoured the area for cheaper accommodation, but all of the places we found were either full for the following two nights, or had infuriatingly tripled their prices for the long weekend. We had no choice but to book into Toledo for another night, but this time the budgetary concerns far outshone the glitz of our luxury room. We decided sadly that we had no choice but to leave the following day, as we could not afford to stay another night, and therefore devoted the afternoon to enjoying the lake (from Toledo’s swimming island) and seeing as much of the breathtaking surrounds as possible. As soon as we ventured out of Tuk-Tuk, a different side of Lake Toba greeted us with some utterly inexpressible natural and cultural beauty.
On the way back, a little melancholy about having to leave this enchanting island, we stopped at one last stunning viewpoint and spied a little grouping of bungalows on the isolated mini-peninsula below. Braving the steep incline of the drive down, we went to go try our luck one last time, and were offered a neat bungalow on the water’s edge for an unbelievably good price. The next day, we happily made Tuk-Tuk Timbul our new home and spent the following three days basking in the sun, swimming in the lake, reading, relaxing, playing chess, making friends with the resident dogs, and enjoying lazy afternoon teas and phenomenal mixed fruit pancakes at the little on-sight cafe. It was exactly the Lake Toba experience we had hoped for; friendly, picturesque and tranquil, and we did not miss our brief stumble into luxury one bit.