One of the most common questions we are asked is: is Sumatra safe? As one of the lesser-known parts of Indonesia, people aren’t sure what to expect.
Unfortunately, the media LOVES making people scared. Bad news makes money! Natural disasters, the rare traveler horror story, and terrorism dominate the news about Indonesia.
As a solo female traveller to to Sumatra for seven years before moving here, I have an insiders insight. My verdict?
In most areas of Sumatra, I feel safer than I did living in New Zealand.
The worst thing that ever happened to me was getting my bag (with phone and credit cards inside) stolen by an invisible ninja monkey on a remote beach in Pulau Weh — but I got it back two days later!
While bad things can and do happen everywhere in the world, overall, we believe Sumatra is safe – for solo female travellers, families, and travellers of any age.
In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at some of the events you might have heard about that make you nervous about travelling to Sumatra — NOT to scare you, but to ease your mind by showing how rare each one was.
So, let’s talk about your biggest Sumatran safety concerns, go over some travel tips, and learn a little bit more about this amazing destination.
Is Sumatra Safe From Natural Disasters?
As part of Indonesia, Sumatra lies along the infamous ring of fire, so is more prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity – part of its attraction for many (the volcanoes, not so much the earthquakes!)
If you’ve seen Indonesia in the news in the last year, it’s probably because tragedy has struck. The country has had more than its fair share of disasters – including tsunamis, earthquakes and eruptions — and yes, a few of these were in Sumatra.
If you decide to avoid Sumatra (and Indonesia) because it lies on the ring of fire, you can also cross New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Mexico, the west coast of the USA, Chile, Peru, Taiwan, and many more incredible travel destinations off your list.
Realistically, your chances of being in a car accident are dramatically higher than those of being caught in a natural disaster – so don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from heading out on adventures! Nobody has a crystal ball, and unpredictable things can happen anywhere.
Volcanoes in Sumatra
There are 35 active volcanoes in Sumatra, BUT only one of them (Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra) has erupted within the last 10 years, with most lying dormant for centuries.
The most impressive of these is the supervolcano which is home to Lake Toba (the largest volcanic lake in the world). This eruption about 75,000 years ago was what you’d call a whopper; it was the biggest known eruption on Earth in the last 15 million years.
You can read more on that in our Lake Toba blog, but we guess it’s safe to say that this area is not an immediate danger to anyone after tens of thousands of years of inactivity!
So, let’s just check out the one volcano that is puffing away currently.
Just to prove how temperamental and unpredictable mother nature can be, Mount Sinabung slept peacefully for around 410 years before rather dramatically springing back to life in 2010.
Before you start to panic and eye those dormant volcanoes in your neighbourhood, take comfort in the fact that this kind of event is almost unheard of.
Sinabung erupted with no warning, forcing the evacuation of more than 12,000 residents. To this day, many have still not been able to return to their homes and farms due to continued, sporadic eruptions or damage to the land.
So, is Mount Sinabung dangerous? It partly depends on how smart you are! In 2014, 15 people were killed during a hike too close to the crater. However, the mountain had been erupting DAILY for three months, so not the smartest move on their part.
There have been some spectacular eruptions over the last few years, often with long periods of low activity in between. Check out this awesome video from 2018.
As we write this, the temperamental volcano has just erupted again after not doing much for the past year.
It’s unlikely your Sumatra travel plans will be disrupted by Mount Sinabung erupting, unless the ash clouds cause airport delays, which hasn’t happened for quite some time. As for your personal safety, you’ll only be at risk if you decide to trek up it at the wrong time.
Many people hike up Mount Sinabung for the spectacular views; if this is something you want to add to your Sumatra travel itinerary, check in with the Volcano Discovery website for the current status.
Earthquakes in Sumatra
Let’s just clarify that nobody can predict earthquakes — not even scientists. So, we can’t guarantee that you will be safe from earthquakes anywhere in the world!
Yes, the ring of fire has more earthquakes than most places on the planet, but Sumatra no more so than anywhere else.
The Aceh Earthquake
On Boxing Day 2004, there was a massive quake in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of northern Sumatra. The powerful 9.1 magnitude quake (the third largest recorded in the world – EVER) was devastating, in turn, triggering a series of tsunamis that killed around 227,000 people in 14 countries (including Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India).
Banda Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra suffered the greatest loss of life; the city was all but flattened.
Why are we telling you about these fear-inducing events? Because knowledge is power and information is the cure for fear.
The earthquake that triggered the tsunami in 2004 was an anomaly; it was a terrible, random tragedy on a scale that may only happen once or twice a century.
Research shows that an average of 50 earthquakes occur around the world every day; most of them are harmless.
If you avoid Sumatra for risk of earthquakes, you better wave goodbye to travelling by car too; your odds of dying in an automobile accident are 200 times higher than that of perishing when the earth shakes!
Tsunamis in Sumatra
You only have to set foot in Banda Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra to see the effects of the devastating tsunami that happened in 2004 following an earthquake (see above). There are memorials and a touching museum, along with other places to pay your respects to those who lost their lives.
Tsunamis make for big news, understandably. Usually (but not always) they are triggered by earthquakes.
As earthquakes themselves are unpredictable, we can’t safely say that a tsunami won’t ever hit Sumatra (or anywhere else in the world lying on the coast). But again, there’s more risk walking out your front door.
Living in Indonesia has made me far more aware of the destructive power mother nature is capable of. We felt our first earthquake (and the next 30 or so!) when holidaying in Bali last year. It was a little frightening, but didn’t change the way we travel or where we choose to go.
However, every smart traveler should be prepared. When we head to a beachside location anywhere in the world, we do quietly observe evacuation routes and suss out where we would need to go if anything happened.
Is Sumatra Safe from Terrorism?
We hate that we need to write about this at all; but sadly, it’s a question many travellers ask no matter where they are headed.
As was tragically demonstrated in my home country of NZ this year, nowhere is guaranteed to be “safe” from acts of terror or hate. It only takes one or two individuals to do awful things, and this can happen ANYWHERE.
People still remember the Bali bombings that occurred in Indonesia in 2002, and rightly so. But again, it’s a miniscule fraction of humanity that perform these atrocious acts.
Nothing of that scale has happened in the country since, and Sumatra has never experienced terrorism targeted at foreigners (to the best of my knowledge and extensive googling!)
That’s not to say there is no possibility of a terrorist attack or political and religious unrest.
There have been isolated incidents of suspected terrorist arrests and rare violence within Sumatra over the last decade, but they’re usually in a remote area and have not involved tourists to date.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs advises “a high degree of caution” when travelling anywhere in Indonesia, but take their advice with a pinch of salt – they have to be super cautious to cover their asses.
They recommend increased vigilance at places of worship and during significant holidays, and warn against getting caught up in any protests or demonstrations.
So, is Sumatra safe from terrorism or acts of terror? You only need to look at the news to see the number of mass shootings in the United States — and the riots, bombings, and shootings that have taken place in Paris, the UK, and other “developed” countries.
Historically and statistically, we haven’t seen this kind of activity in Sumatra – long may it continue!
Is Sumatra Safe for Solo Female Travellers?
Up until the last few years travelling with Agung, all my trips throughout Sumatra were solo. Overall, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences and found the locals friendly, protective and respectful.
Having said that, a lot depends on making sensible choices, playing it safe, listening to your gut, and learning to be firm — great advice for solo female travellers anywhere in the world.
My biggest learning curve was to stop being a people pleaser. Raised to be polite and not wanting to hurt people’s feelings or be a “snob” was not always in my best interests. The very few times that I found myself in uncomfortable situations were either because I was naïve and too trusting, or too “polite.”
Sadly, this is reality for solo female travellers wherever we go in the world. We have to tread the fine line of trusting yet distrusting the people we meet; playing it safe when we really just want to have an adventure.
In my opinion, Sumatra is no more unsafe — and potentially a lot safer — for solo female travellers than many other places, depending on where you’re headed and what you get up to!
As a solo female traveller in Sumatra, I advise caution in Medan City (and other larger urban areas). When you go out, make sure you have data on your phone to order a taxi, grab, or gojek. At night, choose an enclosed car rather than a becak or scooter service.
I’ve heard many stories of tourists having their bag or backpacks grabbed as they sit on the back of a motorbike — potential for serious injury. If you do travel by motorbike or scooter, put your bag under the seat.
In areas outside of the city, use recommended guides from guesthouses, not ones you meet on the street (I learned that the hard way on my very first solo trip, but it all ended well!)
We can give you recommendations for trusted guides in many areas (just contact us and we’ll help you out). Or you can search Facebook groups or travel forums. The last thing you want is to head into the jungle with someone you don’t feel comfortable with.
Many of the guides in tourist areas are referred to as “buaya darat” (land crocodiles) for a reason. Most solo female travellers to Sumatra will meet these guys. Many of them are lovely and can be dissuaded with a firm no only to become protective older brother figures. Others are more pushy.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and make it clear you’re not interested; they’ll get over it, trust me!
Don’t be scared to take on solo female travel to Sumatra. Overall, it’s probably the friendliest place you’ll ever visit. From my very first solo Sumatra trip, I ended up with lifelong buddies and gained a tribe of “brothers from other mothers.”
Our top tips for solo female travel in Sumatra:
- Avoid going anywhere alone at night with a man unless you are genuinely interested. Trust me, you are not going to be just looking at the stars/fireflies/spotlighting for animals.
- Only hire trusted and recommended guides.
- If you’re worried about unwanted attention, wear a wedding ring. Don’t be afraid to lie and say your boyfriend/husband is meeting you back at the hotel/restaurant etc. when questioned.
- In the cities, use Go-Jek or Grab rather than taxis or local transport.
- In Sumatra, how you dress does matter. This is a different culture and mindset from what you’re used to. Dress conservatively where possible to avoid unwanted attention.
- Don’t be afraid to be rude and unfriendly when the situation calls for it.
As a woman, I feel safe in most areas of Sumatra (outside the big cities) day or night. Safer even than in NZ, as people are so welcoming, warm, friendly, and protective.
Smile, be open and friendly where possible, and understand that Sumatran people have a genuine curiosity about your life and travels. You’ll always find someone willing to help you out wherever you go.
Is Sumatra safe for LGBTQ travellers?
While homosexuality is not illegal in most areas of Sumatra, life is by no means easy for the LGBTQ community here.
Indonesia as a whole is sadly becoming less tolerant of same-sex relationships, due to religious and government maneuvering.
However, on the day to day scale, we have witnessed an openness and acceptance in Sumatra that defies what the media tells us.
While our experience and research didn’t reveal any mention of tourists being discriminated against because of their sexuality, we advise discretion and caution — in some areas more than others.
Indonesia has quite a reserved culture; public displays of affection are considered to be impolite, no matter who is performing them. So it’s a good general rule to keep any affection (same sex or other) to the privacy of your room.
For more insight, check out this great piece about LGBT Travel in Asia by Our Taste For Life, who have spent time in Sumatra.
LGBTQ Travel in Aceh
A notable exception to the generally accepting nature of Sumatran people is the Aceh province, where Sharia law is in effect. Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by public flogging or jail time — for local Muslims only; tourists are not bound by these laws.
Still, LGBTQ travellers need to be aware of the situation. If you keep things on the down-low, you should be fine, but may want to boycott on principle.
Queer In The World is a great blog and online resource for gay and lesbian travellers. Here is what they say about travelling to Indonesia in general. Great advice for Sumatra too.
“The main message (apart from discretion!) is just to be aware of what the situation is in Indonesia, but not to doom-monger. Yes, it is a Muslim country that is becoming more conservative. However, politics isn’t always people, and gay travellers could be surprised by the welcome and tolerance they might receive; it would be a generalisation to assume everyone is a conservative Muslim.”
Health Issues when Travelling to Sumatra
Most travellers to Sumatra don’t face any major health issues. The most common complaint is a bit of the old “Bali belly,” which comes from a change in diet and potentially contaminated food or water. Bring a supply of Imodium just in case (you can buy it here if you need to), and you’ll be fine.
Vaccinations for Sumatra Travel
As for other major health concerns, there’s nothing that stands out. Travel doctors will advise the usual host of vaccinations for Indonesia. I got most of them when I first travelled, because better safe than sorry, but totally up to you. You’ll be looking at:
- Hepatitis A – can be contracted through contaminated food or water in Indonesia
- Typhoid – can be contracted through contaminated food or water throughout Indonesia
- Tetanus – potentially spread via contamination of cuts or open wounds
- Poliomyelitis – can be contracted from contaminated food and water or person to person
- Rabies – if, like us, you want to pat and cuddle every dog or cat you see on the street, then you should get this vaccine as a precaution. Even if you’re not planning to get up and close with animals, you might come across an overly friendly macaque or two, so it doesn’t hurt to protect against this deadly disease. Note – even if you have this vax, you’ll still need rapid intervention if you’re bitten, with further rabies treatment in-country.
- Hepatitis B – can be contracted through sexual contact, contaminated needles, and blood products. Recommended if you plan on getting tattooed or pierced, or getting jiggy with it during your travels. In that respect, always use a protection; HIV is a genuine concern in Indonesia, along with the other standard nasties.
- Japanese B Encephalitis – very rare, but travel doctors recommend it if you will be travelling to more rural areas or staying for longer than a month.
Yellow Fever – there’s no risk of getting this in Indonesia. But if you are arriving from a country that may have yellow fever, you need proof of vaccinations to enter. More info here.
Tap water throughout Sumatra is not safe to drink. Always boil it thoroughly and/or drink bottled water.
For best advice, talk to a travel doctor about what vaccinations they recommend. While the chances of contracting rabies, typhoid, or other diseases are low, the consequences are serious and possibly fatal.
Malaria in Sumatra
All of Sumatra is at low risk of Malaria, which means you probably don’t need to take anti-malarial medication. Your doctor may still recommend it, and as we all know, shit does happen, so the choice is yours.
We have never taken it during any of our travels and have been in jungle areas for extended periods, but you never know your luck (or lack of).
Whether or not you take antimalarials, you still need to do what you can to keep those mozzies at bay, as they can carry other nasties like Dengue Fever.
- Wear long-sleeved tops and trousers when trekking and after sunset.
- Use insect repellent liberally.
- Sleep under a mosquito net where possible.
- Wear light coloured clothing (mozzies are attracted to dark colours).
We are Sumatra Safe Travel Tips
- Always wear a seatbelt in a car and a helmet where possible on a motorbike – in some areas, this is enforced by police.
- Don’t flaunt your “wealth” – be careful about where you whip out your smartphone, fancy camera, or other expensive items (only really an issue in the city – small villages are generally fine).
- Don’t carry large amounts of money with you, and don’t rifle through a wad of 100,000 notes looking for small change. Keep the “big” money tucked away, and pay with small notes wherever possible.
- Respect the culture. If in doubt of what’s appropriate, observe the locals and take their lead.
- Indonesia’s drug laws are no laughing matter. If you do decide to take the risk and purchase or use illegal drugs in Sumatra – be aware of the possible consequences! Jail time or worse is on the cards even for minor offences. While in many places you’ll openly be offered marijuana, mushrooms and more on the streets, this doesn’t mean it’s accepted. Be smart about it. You have been warned!
- Get travel insurance. Yes, you’ll probably never need it. But if the worst happens, you and your family won’t have to sell your home/belongings/kidneys to get home safe and sound.
What We Want You to Know
Asking “Is Sumatra Safe” is like asking if it’s safe to cross the road; it depends where you go, what precautions you take, and a whole load of other variables often out of your control.
But the most important message we want you to take from this blog is that the reality of travelling Sumatra is vastly different than what you read on most online sources and the perception you form from that.
When you travel through Sumatra, you feel like you’re a world away from the troubles of “real life.” You’re usually in a little bubble of happiness surrounded by caring and friendly people who want to make sure you have the time of your life.
Our advice? Take care of the aspects you can control (travel insurance, vaccinations etc.) and forget about the things outside of your control.
Sumatra is about adventure, stepping out of your comfort zone, and letting go of your everyday worries. Never try never know!