For many visitors, this is the sole slice of Sumatra they’ll taste. And with good reason: here you can ogle the orangutans in Bukit Lawang, veer over the volcanoes of Berastagi, laze away on the shores of Danau Toba, skim the waves off the Banyaks and Nias, and go underwater on Pulau Weh.
Sumatra’s major metropolis, and Indonesia’s third-largest city, is seen as a necessary evil by many Sumatra-bound travellers. It’s almost inevitably a place to pass through en route to more exciting destinations and also, for some, a welcome return to the trappings of ‘civilisation’ in the shape of modern malls and restaurants.
The landscape and character of Riau province is distinct from the northern and western rind of Sumatra. Rather than mountains and volcanoes, Riau’s character was carved by rivers and narrow ocean passages. Trading towns sprang up along the important navigation route of the Strait of Melaka, across which Riau claims cultural cousins.
The market town of Bukittinggi sits high above the valley mists as three sentinels – fire-breathing Merapi, benign Singgalang and distant Sago – all look on impassively. Sun-ripened crops grow large in the rich volcanic soil, as frogs call in the paddies, bendis (two-person horse-drawn carts) haul goods to the pasa (market), and the muezzin’s call is heard through the town.
An urbo-Indonesian sprawl of traffic and smog, Padang sits astride one of the planet’s most powerful seismic zones, centrally located on the tectonic hotspot where the Indo-Australian plate plunges under the Eurasian plate. Significant tremors occur on an almost annual basis, the most recent being in 2012.
The eastern portion of South Sumatra shares a common Malay ancestry and influence with Riau and Jambi provinces from its proximity to the shipping lane of the Strait of Melaka. Rivers define the character of the eastern lowlands, while the western high peaks of the Bukit Barisan form the province’s rugged underbelly.
A tiny tropical rock off the tip of Sumatra, Pulau Weh is a small slice of beach and jungle that rewards travellers who’ve journeyed up through the turbulent greater mainland below. After you’ve hiked around the mainland’s jungles, volcanoes and lakes, it’s time to jump into the languid waters of the Indian Ocean.
Sumatra’s second-largest city is a major port that sits astride Sungai Musi, the two halves of the city linked by the giant Jembatan Ampera (Ampera Bridge). A thousand years ago Palembang was the centre of the highly developed Sriwijaya civilisation that ruled a huge slab of Southeast Asia.