Getting there & away
Once upon a time along the backpacker trail, travellers sailed the high seas to reach the island of Sumatra, touching down in one of the international ports: Batam, Belawan (near Medan), Pekanbaru or Dumai. But the era of budget airlines has made the friendly skies a faster and more affordable option for international arrivals. In addition, as fuel prices and fares for land and sea travel soar, airfares consistently take a nose dive.
Keep in mind that Sumatra is one hour behind Singapore time.
Despite cheap airfares, many travellers still heed the call of the sea and enter Sumatra by ferry from Malaysia. Except for more remote islands, most destinations are more easily and affordably reached by air. There are two primary port options: Melaka (Malaysia) to Dumai (Indonesia) or Penang (Malaysia) to Belawan (Indonesia). If you don’t have a lot of time to explore Sumatra, Belawan is your best option, as it is a short bus ride from Medan, which sits at the centre of most tourist attractions. Dumai is on Sumatra’s east coast and is a five-hour bus ride to Bukittinggi.
From Singapore, ferries make the quick hop to Pulau Batam and Bintam, the primary islands in the Riau archipelago. These water routes are used mainly by Singaporean weekenders heading to the Riau islands’ beaches and resorts.
From Batam, boats serve the following mainland Sumatran ports: Dumai, Palembang and Pekanbaru. Only a few backpackers use Batam as an entry into Sumatra because all but Dumai are a long way from postcard-worthy spots.
Ferries swim across the narrow Sunda Strait linking the southeastern tip of Sumatra at Bakauheni to Java’s westernmost point of Merak. The sea crossing is a brief dip in a day-long voyage that requires several hours’ worth of bus transport from both ports to Jakarta on the Java side and Bandarlampung on the Sumatran side.
Pelni-operated boats still paddle between Indonesia’s islands, carrying freight and families. Except for more-remote islands, most destinations are more easily and affordably reached by air.
Check with local ticket agents for schedules and prices as both are subject to change.
Medan is Sumatra’s primary international airport, with frequent flights to mainland Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. In West Sumatra, Padang receives flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur several times a week. In eastern Sumatra, Palembang is linked to Singapore. The primary international carriers include Garuda Indonesia, Malaysian Airlines, Lion Air, Tiger Airways, Air Asia, and Silk Air.
You can also hop on a plane from Jakarta to every major Sumatran city aboard Garuda, Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Jatayu, Adam Air, Mandala or Sriwijaya. Flights from Sumatra to other parts of Indonesia typically connect through Jakarta. One notable exception is Merpati’s flight between Medan and Pontianak (Kalimantan).