Few isles tempt the imagination with the lure of adventure quite like the wild land of Sumatra. An island of extraordinary beauty, it bubbles with life and vibrates under the power of nature. Eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are Sumatran headline-grabbers. Steaming volcanoes brew and bluster while standing guard over lakes that sleepily lap the edges of craters. Orangutan-filled jungles host not only our red-haired cousins, but also tigers, rhinos and elephants. And down at sea level, idyllic deserted beaches are bombarded by clear barrels of surf.
As varied as the land, the people of Sumatra are made up of many cultures, from the devout Muslims in Aceh to the hedonistic Batak Christians around Danau Toba and the matrilineal Minangkabau of Padang. All are unified by a fear, respect and love of the wild and wondrous land of Sumatra.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sumatra.
This scattering of ruined and partially restored temples is the most important Hindu-Buddhist site in Sumatra. The temples are believed to mark the location of the ancient city of Jambi, capital of the kingdom of Malayu 1000 years ago. Most of the candi (temples) date from the 9th to the 13th centuries, when Jambi’s power was at its peak. Grab a bicycle (per day 10,000Rp) at the entrance to explore the immensely peaceful forested site, marvelling at the temple stonework
MosqueMesjid Raya Baiturrahman
With its brilliant-white walls, ebony-black domes and towering minaret, this 19th-century mosque is a dazzling sight. The best time to visit is during Friday-afternoon prayers, when the entire building and courtyard are filled with people. A series of retractable shades in the tiled courtyard offer all-weather protection for worshippers. A headscarf is required for women.
Pulau Penyenget, reached by frequent boats (7000Rp) from the Tanjung Pinang pier, was once the capital of the Riau rajahs. The ruins of the old palace of Rajah Ali and the tombs and graveyards of Rajah Jaafar and Rajah Ali are signposted inland. The most impressive site is the sulphur-coloured mosque, with its many domes and minarets.
Set on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean, the star-shaped Benteng Marlborough, a former British fort, became the seat of British power in Bengkulu after 1719, when it replaced nearby Fort York. Despite its sturdy defences the fort was attacked and overrun twice – once by a local rebellion just after its completion in 1719, and then by the French in 1760. It was also used by the Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian military.
MuseumMuseum Pusaka Nias
This superb museum, housed inside several traditional-style buildings, offers an in-depth introduction to the indigenous culture of Nias. The displays run the gamut from jewellery worn by noblemen, weapons, crocodile-hide battle armour and traditional fishing and hunting equipment to headhunting sculptures and paraphernalia, wood carvings used in ancestor worship, ceremonial drums, nifolasara (boat-like) coffins with dragon heads, and microliths (anthropomorphic stone figures found on top of megaliths throughout Pulau Nias). One room features beautiful scale models of traditional houses.
A visit to this beautifully designed, hard-hitting museum commences with a walk through a dark, dripping tunnel that symbolises the 2004 tsunami waves. This is followed by a powerful set of images of the devastation projected from tombstone-like receptacles, and a circular chamber engraved with the names of the lost. Upstairs a very graphic short film is shown, along with photographs of loss, displacement, rebuilding, hopefulness and reunited families.
WaterfallBeringin Tiga & Curug Embun
A straightforward hike here through coffee and palm-sugar plantations finishes at a campsite near an idyllic natural hot spring, from where you can take short hikes to the Beringin Tiga falls and the remarkable Curug Embun falls, which comprises two falls: one cold and the other fed by hot springs, with great swimming where the two meet. Safety ropes assist descents to Curug Embun. It's 33km south of Curup. Wild Sumatra Tours can arrange day trips here from Bengkulu (US$100 per person).
In the same compound as the Museum Negeri Banda Aceh, the Rumah Aceh is a fine example of traditional Acehnese architecture, built without nails and held together with cord and pegs. Inside is a typical traditional kitchen and living area with hanging crib, among other traditional Acehnese pieces. Out front is a huge cast-iron bell, the Cakra Donya, said to have been a gift from a Chinese emperor in the 15th century.
This largish island with pristine beaches takes a couple of hours to walk around. It's one of the most popular places to stay with several guesthouses set up here. Snorkelling is possible but there’s a steep drop-off near the shore off the main beach.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Sumatra.