Travelling Sumatra: Everything You Need to Know (Insider’s Travel Guide and Tips)

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

Share the love!

Travelling Sumatra is the adventure of a lifetime, but it can be hard to plan ahead when there isn’t much info out there on the web.

Our Sumatra travel guide is here to enhance your travels, alleviate your nerves, and answer all the burning questions you have about exploring this incredible destination.

What’s the best simcard to buy? 
When should you visit?
What’s the weather like? 
What visa do you need? 
How the heck do you use a bum-gun!?

Don’t worry, my friend, we’ve got you covered. We’ve been there, done that, and sometimes learned the hard way, so you don’t have to.

So, let’s dive right in and show you how it’s done in Sumatra.

How Big is Sumatra?

Sumatra is the largest island within Indonesia, with an area of 473,481 km2 (294,207 miles).

To put that into perspective, the United Kingdom is only 242,495 km2 (150,679 miles), so this one island of Indonesia is almost twice as big as that entire area!

How Many People Live in Sumatra?

Back in 2010, 47 million people — give or take — called Sumatra home. Compare this again to the UK (at half the land area) with a population of 66 million-ish people and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of room to move in Sumatra.

Where is Sumatra

Indonesia Map
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Located in wonderful, eclectic, exotic Indonesia, the top half of Sumatra’s east coast is just a stone’s throw from Singapore or the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (around a one hour flight to each city).

From the southern tip, you could practically swim across to Java – home ofIndonesia’s capital, Jakarta — although obviously, we don’t recommend trying it.

The equator passes almost smack through the middle of Sumatra, and Pulau Weh (also known as Sabang) — the small island off the northern tip Sumatra in Aceh province — actually marks kilometer 0 –the northernmost point of Indonesia.

What Are The Different Regions of Sumatra?

Because it’s just so darn big, Sumatra is divided up into seven different provinces; each has its own local governance and attractions, however, the province of North Sumatra is by far the most populated and attracts the most international tourists. It is also home to the huge, chaotic city of Medan, where most people enter Sumatra via Kuala Namu international airport.

Sumatra Provinces
Sumatra Provinces – Image courtesy of Wikimedia


    • Aceh
    • North Sumatra (Sumatera Utara)
    • West Sumatra (Sumatera Barat)
    • Riau
    • Jambi
    • South Sumatra (Sumatera Selatan)
    • Bengkulu
    • Lampung

What is Sumatra Famous For?

Tourists usually come in search of the natural wonders on offer: orangutans and other iconic wildlife, pristine jungles and steamy volcanoes.

Unfortunately, Sumatra also has the unwanted honour of having the highest rate of forest loss in the WORLD, losing an estimated 40% of old-growth forest over the last 20 years. 

This island is also rich in natural treasures, it’s famous for its high-quality coffee, and a slew of agricultural products like rubber, tea, tobacco, palm oil (ugh) and more. There’s also petrol, gas, coal, gold, silver and other goodies to be had.

What is the Weather Like in Sumatra?

Perched on the equator, Sumatra is a true tropical island — just a really, really big one! There’s only two seasons: wet and dry.

Officially, wet season is from October to April, so naturally, dry season is from May to September.

To get a little more accurate, in the north you can typically expect the most rain between October to January, and in the south, November to February.

The average temperature throughout the year is 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 F)

Having said this, bear in mind that times are a-changing (thanks global warming!) Living as locals in Sumatra, we’ve noticed that the lines between the seasons are blurring. In the last few years it’s rather unpredictable.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter too much. Even in wet season, you will seldom see days where it rains all day. More often, you get an hour or two of torrential rain in the late afternoon and evening and can carry on as normal before that.

The added bonus is that the wet season is usually accompanied by some truly spectacular thunderstorms for a bit of holiday excitement.

Here’s a super secret tip for you: rainforests (and areas adjacent) see more rain! Shocking, we know. Be prepared for a bit more rain in these regions, although, again, you’ll usually be able to find plenty of non-rainy time to get out and about.

One thing to note, dry season does make for a bit of an easier journey if you’re heading for places where the roads aren’t quite so good, which is pretty much everywhere outside of the big cities.

In a nutshell, Sumatra is hot and humid most of the year. Sometimes there’ll be more rain bucketing down than you even imagined possible, while at other times, the rivers will dry up to trickles, but you’ll seldom be cold, unless you are heading for higher-altitude areas.

For more in-depth info about the weather, seasons, public holidays, and other things that may affect your holiday, head over and read our blog, Best Time to Visit Sumatra. 

What’s the Best Way to Travel Around Sumatra?

Getting around in style in the smaller villages.

Did we mention that Sumatra is big? Travellers to Sumatra often underestimate the distances between each destination. Coupled with bad roads and vast areas of impenetrable jungle, there’s no such thing as a quick road trip here.

As a side note, mentally prepare yourself for a good dose of very well-managed chaos. For a first-timer, a road trip in Sumatra can be a bit of a fist (and buttock) clenching experience. Road rules don’t seem to apply and traffic lights are often decorative only.

But somehow, it works! Try to relax in the knowledge that your driver knows exactly what they’re doing, but chuck that seatbelt on just in case.

If you’re hoping to see as much of Sumatra as possible, flying is going to be your best bet to optimize your time. Of course, it’s possible to travel the length and breadth by car or bus; you’ll literally be doing overnighters or longer, often on less than ideal buses that crawl along bumpy roads.

Domestic flights are pretty affordable and a much quicker way to get from A to B, but it’s up to you lah!

Airports in Sumatra

Medan is the entry point for most visitors to Sumatra, via Kuala Namo International Airport (KNO) — a slick, modern port of entry. But there are plenty of other airports scattered around the island, most of which have good international links, including

Then there are smaller airports which accept flights from Jakarta and selected other airports, including:

  • Bengkulu
  • Bandar Lampung
  • Dumai
  • Sibolga
  • Tanjungpinang
  • Tanjung Pandan
  • Pangkalpinang
  • Jambi

Getting to Sumatra by Boat

You can reach Sumatra from other islands in Indonesia or from Malaysia by ferry.

The major port is Dumai in Riau; here, you can get your visa on arrival needs sorted.

In the spirit of honesty, this isn’t something that we’ve done much research on, but if you’re a seafaring adventurer, let us know and we’ll help you out – or help us out and share your experiences with us!

Travelling Sumatra by Car

By far the most comfortable and enjoyable way to travel around Sumatra is by private car. Bummer that it’s also the most expensive way.

If you have the budget to hire a car and a driver, we recommend it; you get the convenience of stopping where you want, when you want, the journey is quicker than on a bus, and most drivers are super nice, friendly and act as your own personal tour guide.

If you are stuck looking for a driver, hit us up, we will do our best to sort you out!

Some popular routes have shared cars available, a much more budget-friendly option. Ask at your guest house or check out our specific location guides for more information.

Taxis in Sumatra

Bluebird taxi in Sumatra
Bluebird taxis are popular throughout Sumatra. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Getting around by taxi in the bigger cities is a relatively budget-friendly option. We recommend using the blue, Bluebird taxis – they use a meter system and, in our experience, we’ve never been ripped off by this company.

Note that most drivers don’t speak English, so you’ll need to have your destination written down clearly so they understand. Cities like Medan are chaotic and sprawling.

If you’re heading somewhere that isn’t super well known, you may find yourself guiding your driver using Google maps on your phone.

Grab and Go-Jek

These services are amazing and make life in Sumatra (in fact, most of Indonesia) so much simpler. Unfortunately, they are really only available in some of the bigger cities, but if you find yourself needing a cheap, reliable way to get around the city, this is it.

Both utilize a smartphone app system, where you input your pick up and drop off point, get a quote (always dirt cheap) and then track your driver as he or she comes to pick you up.

You can choose from motorbike or car options. This is our absolute go-to method for getting around big cities like Medan. It’s much cheaper and safer than a taxi.

All you need to do is download the Grab or Go Jek app and you’ll find it simple to use.

Download Grab

Download Go Jek

Travelling Sumatra by Bus

Almost anywhere where you want to go, you will be able to find a bus to get there. But fair warning — it’s not easy to find any kind of information.

We’d love to publish a full bus schedule covering even the main routes in Sumatra, but it doesn’t reallllly work like that here.

Well established routes — for example, Medan to Lake Toba or Bukit Lawang — have more regular schedules and better quality buses, but try to do a bit of research before you head out.

We love the friendly people of Sumatra, but of course there are some out there looking to make a buck or two extra out of unsuspecting tourists.

Do your best to suss out the going rate for bus tickets before you get on the bus.

Check out our individual location guides for more specific info on buses. Failing that, you can usually get relatively accurate, up to date information if you have booked with a local hotel or guesthouse.

There are overnight sleeper buses for long distances.

Travelling Sumatra by Local Bus or Becak

Becak transport
Becaks are a great and cheap way to get around

There are local buses — more like minivans — that get around some of the cities and villages; they are known as angkots. If you want to truly live like a local, jump on with the chickens, sacks of rice, and squeeze into a space. If you’re lucky, they may be blaring out some dangdut music – Indonesia’s unique disco/techno combo!

A cheap and cheerful way to get around is to jump on a becak. This is a motorbike with a comfy side car attached. In Thailand, it’s known as a tuktuk, but in Sumatra, Tuktuk is the place where you’ll be staying on Samosir Island in Lake Toba; try not to confuse the two!

Currency and Money in Sumatra

Indonesian Rupiah
Image Credit: Wikipedia

In line with the rest of Indonesia, Sumatra uses Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). Most of us will find the money a tad confusing, purely because there are a lot more zeros than we are used to!

Enjoy the difference, it is probably the only time in your life you’ll be an actual millionaire.

Exchange rates as of December 2018

10,000 IDR =

  • USD $0.69
  • EUR 0.60
  • AUD $0.95
  • NZD $1.00

How Much Do Things Cost in Sumatra?

Because of exchange rates, most of the western world, and a large part of the rest, will find Indonesia super affordable.

As a guideline, check out the generalized pricelist below, bearing in mind that prices vary from area to area, just so you can get an idea.

  • Nasi goreng (fried rice) – 15,000 – 25,000
  • Large beer bintang – 35,000 – 45,000
  • Budget room (out of the big city) – 100,000 – 150,000
  • Large bottle of water – 7,000 – 10,000
  • Souvenir t-shirt – 50,000 – 150,000
  • Cup of coffee – 4,000 – 6,000

ATMs in Sumatra

ATM in Sumatra
ATM in Sumatra

The general rule of thumb when travelling Sumatra is this: when you have a chance to withdraw money, do it!

Once you’re out of the main cities, you’ll be hard pressed to find ATMs. And from experience, more often than not, the ones you do find (after traveling by motorbike for hours on a terrible road) are out of order.

Bring rupiah before you arrive. There are money changers around the place -including Medan airport – but not all of them are above a bit of a rip-off.

The main banks with ATMs that accept credit cards for withdrawls are:

  • Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI)
  • Bank Mandiri
  • Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI)

Depending on your card and banking rules, you may be faced with considerable fees when you withdraw money, so it’s best to withdraw the maximum amount possible every time, which is generally 2.5 million rupiah.

If you want to get the maximum, you’ll need to look for a machine that has a sticker saying 100,000 on the front. This means it gives out 100,000 rupiah notes, and usually has a higher maximum withdrawl than those with the 50,000 sticker.

Do I Need to Tip in Sumatra?

Tipping isn’t a  hard and fast rule as you’d find in the United States, but there are many situations in which it is expected – and a nice thing to do.

It’s not really necessary in accommodation or restaurants, but if you feel like doing it, go for it.

If you enlist the services of a local guide in your travels, we do recommend tipping; often, this is the only form of income for the guides and it can be hard for them to make enough for their families to survive – particularly as Sumatra is not a thriving tourist hub.

You can tip as generously as you like, but as a guide, we suggest a minimum tip of 100,000 – 150,000 to your guide if you do a half or one day trip with them.

In some areas, the staff at your guest house or the restaurant you eat may be working there without a wage. With limited employment opportunities in small villages, this is their opportunity to learn English and learn the skills that will help them get a job later in life. If you find they’ve been helpful, entertaining, or just generally awesome (as most are) feel free to give them a tip.

What is Sumatran Food Like?

Food in Sumatra
Range of dishes on offer at a local warung

In general, Indonesian food is fresh, tasty and spicy, spicy hot.

Rice and noodles are staple foods, mixed with a variety of vegetables, meats and egg. Food ranges from curries and stews to nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay.

In many of the bigger restaurants and hotels in the bigger tourist you’ll find a pretty good variety of Western food, but once you’re out of the city, you’ll be hard pressed to find so much as a loaf of bread.

Dairy is scarce here – so prepare yourself for a holiday without cheese and milk (again, unless you stick to the tourist areas).

The most common meats used in cooking are chicken and fish. Beef is available, but not readily so; again, you’ll find it in tourist areas and bigger cities.

Muslims are not permitted to eat pig products, so you may struggle to find pork in some areas, however, it’s still around.

Top tip: If you’re like me and have a slightly delicate stomach that can’t handle spicy food, simply ask for “tidak pedas” (not spicy) dishes. They will still be full of mouth-water flavours, just without the eye-watering kick!

Can I Find Vegetarian/Vegan Food in Sumatra?

As a vegetarian living in Sumatra I’ve never had a problem finding meat-free meals. In fact, because meat is so expensive, many of the locals don’t eat it every day.

Tofu and tempe are readily available at all the warungs, and there’s a wide range of veggies to keep dishes hearty and filling.

Being vegan is just as easy; because dairy isn’t a commonly consumed food type, you’ll have no trouble avoiding it. Eggs do tend to be thrown into most dishes though, so make sure you specify “tidak telur” (no egg) to make it clear.

Enjoy a coconut milk based curry, tofu sambal (tofu and rice with rich tomato sauce) or gado gado  – a delicious peanut satay dish served with tofu and veges (and often eggs).

The more off the beaten path you get, the more fresh and tasty the food is. Head to jungle areas and experience amazing jungle food – eat banana tree curry and jungle ferns – it doesn’t get much better than that!

What Are Our Recommendations?

Delicious pergedel

Our favorite treats in Sumatra are pergedel – a delicious sweet potato cake found at most places – and rendang – a kind of curry with a strong coconut flavor.

Can I Buy and Drink Alcohol in Sumatra?

Beer Bintang
Any time is Bintang time.

In many areas of Sumatra, beer is readily available. There’s usually only one type on offer, but luckily, it’s a bloody good one! Bintang is the brew of choice wherever you go. You might find some other offerings in popular areas but Bintang is the cheapest and tastiest – in our humble opinion! We love it!

If you’re after spirits, your best bet is to bring them in duty free; however, the airport only allows one 500mL bottle, so you’l have to make it last!

You can buy spirits and wine in some areas – major supermarkets in Medan and selected other spots throughout the country.

Your best bet? Ask a local guide and they’ll know the best way to get it.

But a gentle word of warning: do take mind of where you are. Stricter Muslim areas such as Aceh (and Pulau Weh) frown upon the consumption of alcohol. It is not sold – at least not openly – and quite difficult to get.

Although Westerners are usually given a free pass for this kind of thing, be respectful and don’t openly flaunt the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

What is Tuak?

Drinking Tuak in North Sumatra
Enjoying a jug of Tuak in Batu Katak, North Sumatra

Tuak is the local drink of choice. It’s known as “palm wine” although has very little in common with actual wine!

Fermented from the fruit of a palm tree (different than the palm oil trees), it can be a potent brew and may take a little getting used to. I’m told that after your third glass, it grows on you, but I’ve been unable to get through even one, so I may never know!

Tuak is super cheap and often purchased in plastic bags and drunk by the village men by the jug load.

Healthcare in Sumatra

Bring your essential medications with you, but ensure they are in containers labelled with your name and bring a copy of your prescription, just in case!

If you do run out, there are pharmacies (apoteks) in larger town and cities that might be able to fill your script, but don’t count on it.

You can buy things like cold and flu tablets, paracetamol and bits and pieces at the Indomaret (like a local 7/11 – there’s literally one on every corner in populated areas) or even small local shops, while antibiotics, creams, and other medicines are available at apoteks – often without a script, which comes in handy.

Medical centres and hospitals vary by location – check out individual location guides for specifics.

The bigger cities will have hospitals that provide quick, efficient and affordable service. We have personal experience at  Siloam and Columbia in Medan; the service is affordable and fast. Outside of the big cities, you’ll find the odd small clinic or local hospital.

The most common complaint of travelers will be tummy upsets. Drink only bottled or thoroughly boiled water. Pack some immodium tablets (or buy them at the local pharmacy). Charcoal tablets can be found almost everywhere and work wonders for a bout of diarrhea!

Languages Spoken in Sumatra

There are 52 unique languages spoken throughout Sumatra. From Acehnese in the far north to the Minangkabau in the south.

Luckily, almost everyone you meet can speak Indonesian, and in many tourist spots most people have a good grasp of basic English, with many speaking it fluently. In fact, the main tourist spots boast guides that now a mind-boggling array of greetings and common words in many different languages that they’ve learned from visiting guests. All of them are self-taught and it’s impressive how well they pick up difficult languages like English.

Although many people you meet will relish the opportunity to practice their English with you, they are so appreciative if you know even a few words and phrases.

We recommend making an effort to learn even a smattering of the language to forge strong connections and show respect to the places you are visiting.

Pack a mini Indonesian dictionary in you backpack, make sure you’ve got google translate at the ready, or take time before you travel to learn from a smartphone app.

I tried many different apps and learning methods, but the one that really helped me become more fluent was “Duolingo.” 

Culture in Sumatra

Batak Toba dance
Batak Toba dance at Simanindo – Photo Credit Flickr: Drriss & Marrionn

Like Indonesia itself, Sumatra is bursting with different cultures. Each different region may have one or more “cultural groups,” with totally unique languages, or even different cuisines, music, dances and customs.

From the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mentawai people from the Mentawai Islands and the uniquely isolated culture of Nias Island to the six different Batak tribes throughout Sumatra, there is a plethora of different cultures to appreciate and uncover – far too many to go into any detail here.

What they generally have in common, however is their strong sense of community, generosity and welcoming nature.

Immigration and Visas in Sumatra

At the time or writing, citizens from 169 countries are eligible for the free 30 day visa entry into Indonesia.

For a list of countries that are not eligible, check here

If you’re planning to get the most from your 30 days and stay right up until the last day, bear in mind that the day you arrive into Indonesia counts as day one, and you must leave no later than day 30. Don’t get it wrong and assume it’s a month-long visa; you’ll have to pay a fine for every day you overstay.

Most ports of entry require a proof of onward or return travel. Every time I’ve flown into Medan airport (and everyone I know of) has been asked for this. So make sure you’ve got your flight out booked and ready to show immigration.

If you don’t like to plan, and don’t know exactly when you’ll be leaving Indonesia (or from where) buy the cheapest flight you can find (from Sumatra it’s usually the Medan to Kuala Lumpur route which you can often find for around 300,000 IDR) or book a ticket that you can alter or cancel.

Want to stay longer than 30 days? It’s not too complicated to stay for 60 days. The easiest way is to apply from your home country before you travel. Apply through the Indonesian consulat for a 60 day visa in advance.

If you’re not quite that organized, you can do it once you arrive. On arrival into Indonesia, you will need to pay for a Visa on Arrival at the airport, which will set you back $35USD. Once you have that, you can head to immigration before the 30 days are up and extend it.

To clarify, you cannot extend a 30 day free tourist visa. If you decide 30 days are not long enough on that visa, you will need to fly out of the country to Malaysia or Singapore and then reenter again.

Is Sumatra Safe?

Local kids on the back of a truck, Sumatra
The village school bus in Tangkahan, North Sumatra

Overall, Sumatra is a safe place to visit. The people are generally friendly, welcoming and protective of tourists.

The usual rules apply — as with all over the world — big cities are not the best places to go out at night, particularly if you’re travelling solo. Be cautious when exploring in Medan, even in the daytime — don’t carry your bag or mobile where it’s visible; snatch and grabs by passing motorbikes are common.

In the city, be polite but firm when approached by friendly locals. Be wary of stopping for a chat; many people will be generally interested in you, as they don’t see many foreigners, but there are opportunists (as with anywhere), so best to say hello and keep walking.

Don’t hang your phone or camera out the window of the car to take photos- you may “lose” it.

If you’re riding on a scooter, store your bags and valuables under the seat, do NOT wear them. This is a good general rule wherever you go.

Don’t flash your money around. Keep your “big money,” the pretty red 100,000 notes stashed somewhere else and the “smaller money” in a separate place for making regular purchases. 100,000 is a lot of money in Sumatra and will be noticed — especially a wad of it.

General travel tip worldwide: don’t always carry all your money, passport and credit cards with you. If your bag gets stolen, you’re in trouble. Keep emergency money and a spare credit card stashed back in your hotel room. Always store money in a few different spots.

Smaller villages tend to be very safe places. People are respectful and your belongings SHOULD be safe. But take normal precautions as you would at home.

If you’re travelling by scooter, it’s better to wear a helmet. Although there’s not much police presence in smaller villages and the attitude is pretty relaxed, you could face a fine if the police decide to pick on you that day. Plus, there are some crazy drivers and roads, to better to be safe than sorry. 

Need more info? We have a blog all about Is Sumatra Safe just for you!

Buying and Using a Local SIM Card in Sumatra

Telkomsel sim card
Get yourself a cheap local Telkomsel SIM to stay connected

On arrival to Sumatra (or anywhere in Indonesia) you can buy a local SIM preloaded with data or pulsa (data is for internet and pulsa is for making phone calls and sending SMS).

SIM cards can be found at most airports or easily purchased from vendors almost everywhere.

There are a few providers but the best option is to get a Telkomsel SIM (also known as SimPATI or As).

A new SIM can set you back from between 30,000 IDR to 70,000, depending on the data and pulsa included.

As of 2018, everyone who buys a local SIM must register it or it won’t work. You’ll need your passport for this, and make sure to ask the seller to register it for you.

How to Check Your Phone Number?

Go to your call screen and enter *808# and hit the call button.

A screen will show up with your number and you will also get a text.

How to Check Your Data and Credit (pulsa)?

To check data:

  • Go into your call screen and type *363# and hit the call button.
  • A screen will pop up with options.
  • Type the number next to “Paket Lainnya” – (sometimes the option number changes) and press send.
  • Type the number next to “Cek Kuota” and send.
  • A screen will tell you your request is in process then you will receive a text letting you know your remaining data.

To check credit (pulsa):

  • Go into your call screen and type *888# and hit the call button.
  • Type the number next to “Cek Pulsa&Kuota” and send.
  • A screen will appear revealing your remaining pulsa at the top.

This process may differ from number to number and phone to phone, making life complicated! If in doubt, ask a friendly local for help!

How to Top Up Your Data and Credit (pulsa).

Visit any vendor and give them your number to buy a data package or pulsa. Prices and promotions vary in different times and places.

Dos and Don’ts When Travelling Sumatra

Sumatran people pride themselves on being polite and respectful, both to each other and tourists. Therefore, most of the dos and don’ts are based around politeness. If you do forget some of these, it’s not the end of the world and you won’t be chased out of the village, just general guidelines to help you respect their customs.

Don’t use your left hand when shaking hands, high-fiving, giving or receiving money or items. Why? Indonesians use their left hand to clean up after going to the toilet. Even though they obviously wash their hands after, the left hand is considered to be “dirty” and it’s very impolite.

Don’t touch anyone’s head! This includes ruffling the hair of cute little kids. It’s not polite and will cause offense!

Don’t put your feet on tables or chairs or touch people with your feet.

Don’t go overboard with kissing, touching, and public displays of affection. Depending on where you are, a little peck  may be okay but keep it at that. Sumatran people believe this should be kept private. Even Indonesian tv shows are not allowed to show people kissing – even a light peck. Particularly important in strict Muslim areas such as the Aceh province.

Don’t be offended or shocked if people ask you quite personal questions. They are generally interested about you and want to know how old you are, if you’re married, if you have kids and everything else.

Do take your shoes off when entering someone’s house. Often, you’ll notice shoes outside a shop or restaurant too. Do as others do in this case.

Do shake hands when you meet someone new — or even someone you already know. You might notice that after the locals shake hands with you they will touch their hand to their chest as a sign of respect — showing that you are welcomed into their heart. (Remember right hand only!)

Do dress respectfully. In general, the Sumatran people dress conservatively. They don’t see a lot of foreigners, and even cleavage gets blurred out on the telly! The few tourist areas e.g. Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba are a bit more laid back, but most places it’s best to not be too risqué. Unlike Bali, it is not acceptable to walk the streets or ride a scooter in a bikini – anywhere. If travelling to strict Muslim areas, girls should wear long skirts or pants and tshirts or long-sleeved shirts. Guys should not wear singlets. Be respectful and aware of the customs and cultures you are visiting and dress accordingly.

As a female traveler who has done a lot of solo travel in Sumatra, I prefer to cover up as much as possible to avoid unwanted attention.

Do accept food or drink if it’s offered to you. Again, not the end of the world, but people are trying to welcome you and show you kindness, so it’s respectful to accept when you can.

Do be prepared for the toilets! Most of Sumatra features squat toilets. There will be a bucket full of water with a smaller scoop inside so you can manually “flush.” Fancier toilets feature the good old “bum gun” — a water pistol fitted to a hose that power cleans your butt. Pro tip: always give a test squirt aimed at the floor first to determine the strength of the bum gun and avoid disaster.

Generally there wont’ be toilet paper – the waste systems aren’t equipped for it. If you feel the need to wipe, dispose of the paper in the waste basket provided. Tourist areas will have western loos that flush, if you’re lucky.

Squat toilet
Indonesian squat toilets – great for the thighs.

Essential words and phrases to learn

Many Sumatran people will know one or two English words, most commonly, “Hello,” “How are you,” “Where are you from,” “I love you,” and “Thank you.”

It’s only polite for tourists to learn one or two also.

Here are our top 10 words and phrases to use when travelling Sumatra:

  • Yes = Ya
  • No = Tidak
  • No problem = Tidak masalah or Tidak apa apa
  • Thank you = Terima kasih
  • How are you = Apa kabar
  • I am fine = Kabar baik
  • Excuse me = Permisi
  • Where is the… = Di mana
  • My name is.. = Nama saya …
  • What is your name? = Siapa nama anda?

Sumatra is a traveller’s dream and there’s truly something for everyone. If you want snorkelling, diving, or relaxing on a beach, trekking through a jungle, scaling a volcano or simply exploring new cultures and cuisines, you’ll find it here.

Anything we’ve missed? Reach out to us and let us know! Happy travels!

This blog was originally published in 2018 and updated in June 2020 to ensure accuracy 🙂

These blogs are awesome too - have a read!

This Post Has One Comment

Share your thoughts with us