Sumatra- The Wild West of Indonesia

Sometimes life’s best adventures come out of nowhere.

Two days after racing in the week long Langkawi International MTB Challenge in Malaysia, my Kona teammate Kris Sneddon and I were shaking hands at the Kuala Lumpur International airport. We had just wrapped up battling some of the Worlds top mountain bikers across the jungles of Langkawi Island, we fought for top 10’s amongst enjoying the life that coconut racing comes with. Now he was headed back to Canada to go hunting with some buddies, while I changed my flight to an unknown date.  It was October and the race season was finally over, but I wanted to enjoy a few more days of adventuring before returning to Canadian soil for a frigid winter of working up North as a tree faller.

Leaving excess gear at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur, I set out with a small North Face pack full of a supplies and headed off towards Singapore. The plan was to ride 400 km down the West coast, hang out a few days in Asia’s cleanest city, then ride back up the east coast of Malaysia to KL.  After a scorching 120 km ride full of torrential downpours and getting lost in Palm plantations, I came to the historic coastal town of Malacca.  This was a touristy city focused around its famous Chinatown which was full of random unidentifiable food. Here I ran into a girl from Switzerland who had just returned from an adventurous journey through Sulawesi. She had somegood tales to tell about the trip which inspired me.  This reminded me, that during the Langkawi race, my buddy Jack Funk had brought up the idea of doing a bike tour over in neighbouring Sumatra.  The tourist proclaimed “Wild West of Indonesia.” I often call up Jack for insight on the World as he has been on adventures all over. I had never heard of Sumatra before he mentioned it to me, so I gave him a call for a bit of beta, looked for options to get over there then decided to sleep on it.  

In the morning the Singapore plans were abandoned and soon I was floating on a dodgy boat heading over the Strait of Malaca to the port town of Dumai in Sumatra.  Watching 1970’s punk rock on the in boat TV added to the unsettling feeling of this  journey as I was headed somewhere I knew absolutely nothing about.  Unloading the ferry onto the raggedy old dock of Dumai was a shock to my green Canadian eyes as the place was strikingly poor and untamed.  Heading towards immigration I met another Canadian, a 65 yr old man of Chinese decent, the only other tourist in sight.  He was a nomad and fit in a lot better with the locals then my pale white skin. Filling out the border declaration card it was highlighted on the wall that any infraction with drugs in the country would lead to immediate jail time and possible death.  When the guard opened my backpack and pulled out zip lock bags full of white and green powders there was an odd silence.  Giving me a stone cold look, he went to get his senior officer for further investigation.  They returned, pulling out my bag of hemp seeds and then one full of chia powder.  Trying to explain these powders and seeds were super foods to charge my body and not drugs to destroy it, wasn’t so easy, as there was a substantial language barrier.  After smelling the vanilla whey protein powder and the watermelon flavoured spirulina mix, the officers dead stern looks turned into laughs as they sent me on the way.  I was sweating bullets but managed a smile as I exited the boarder patrol and headed into the wild lands of Sumatra.

Riding through the streets of Dumai was pure chaos. Everywhere I went girls were staring and middle aged men were yelling foreign words. I couldn’t tell if this was friendly or a wtf are you doing in my country.  My nerves were rattled but I knew I had to keep going so stopped by a bank, withdrew some money, grabbed food from a street stand, and then tried to get out of dodge.  All I had for directions was the name of a place, Lake Toba, which I heard was beautiful, and a good place for tourists.  It was over 400 km away.  I had looked at a map on Google before I left Malaysia but it was fading in my memory.  Without a smartphone it was really cave man like back in these days.

 After a few wrong turns I found my way out of town and was soon on a rough highway, crossing my fingers it would lead to Lake Toba.  The highway was more chaotic then town with cars driving both ways on the pothole-ridden road and drivers passing each other in the ditches.  It was the definition of a gong show.   30 minutes into my ride I came across a police checkpoint in which 7 guys all yelled at me at once.  My hair was standing straight up on my neck as intuition kicked in, opting to go confront the yellers to see what all the fuss was about.

Heading over to the police stand some of the policeman looked worried, while others were laughing. 1 fellow came straight towards me with a hand out as a welcome sign.  “Where the hell are you going son?” he asked in broken English.  “Lake Toba” I replied.  They all looked at each other and began shaking their heads.  The one guy who spoke a bit of English explained the highway was: A) way too dangerous for a bike rider, B) the path to Lake Toba would take me through some giant palm plantations which was home to drug bandits, and C) there were no hotels for long stretches and I would have to camp out.  It became pretty clear my plan was a dud. Sumatra was living up to its name as the Wild West of Indonesia!  After some more advice I found myself riding back too catch a night bus to Medan, where I would be more properly situated to launch a bike tour around Sumatra.

Getting on the night bus, I met up with my 65 yr old Canadian friend from earlier, and we received front row seats to one of the scariest nights of our lives.  He seemed experienced and took some sort of drug to fall asleep for the 10 hour bus ride, while I gave my heart and nerves a workout to last a life time.  Spending the night watching our bus driver swerve in an out of traffic, forcing smaller cars off the road and narrowly missing countless head-on collisions was something to remember.   To make the trip a little more discomforting was the fact nearly everyone on the bus was a chain smoker.  They had the bus hot boxed pretty damn good as everyone puffed and coughed the trip away. 


Midway we stopped at a small restaurant for a midnight snack.  I took everything off the bus and unsuccessfully searched around for a hotel as I was done with the kamikaze bus trip.  There was nothing around though and I ended up with the option of either spending the night out in the open with apparently a bunch of drug bandits, or to hop back on the bus ride to hell.   I reluctantly chose the bus ride to hell.  It didn’t get any prettier but we did make it to Medan 1.5 hours ahead of schedule.  My Canadian comrade immediately found another bus, an 8-hour ride up to lake Toba.  I curled up in the bus stop and waited for daylight before trying to find a way out of the city of 2 million inhabitants.  As the sun rose I hopped on my bike to start the journey up to the touristy town of Kabanjahe, 1300 vertical m and 90 km away.

Getting out of Medan turned into one big game of lost and found; unfortunately I was always lost.  The language barrier was a problem, but even worse were the different set of directions from everyone I talked too.  Go west, go east, go south, no north. WTF?  Apparently the term “I don’t know the way” doesn’t exist in Medan; instead they just give random directions to act as if they know something.

After 1.5 hours of pulling U-turns and dodging traffic I stopped in at a police checkpoint and was given some proper directions, soon finding myself cycling away into the countryside.  The ride into the mountains was sweet as the road weaved upwards into a fresher more pleasant temperature with coconut and fruit stands all over the place.  This was the perfect supply of cheap fuel to keep my tired body going.  About 20 km from my destination I came across a posse of Monkeys on the road, they all turned around to stare with 3 coming straight towards me.  Was I going to get mugged by these guys? Luckily no, they turned away last second and loped beside me as I slowly peddled up the road.  A little further up one of these mischief-makers would steel a bag of chips from a roadside stand with the owner swinging a broom at him as he hopped off into the jungle with his snack.  It made me crack a smile for the first time since touching down in Sumatra.

Hitting Kabanjahe I snagged a bite to eat, a tasty avocado smoothie with chocolate in it. Next up I grabbed a room in a hostel and fell asleep at 6pm.  I hadn’t slept in 2 days and was completely exhausted.  Waking up 13 hours later felt like heaven on earth.  From here I gathered up some proper info, drew myself a map, and headed out the door towards Lake Toba.  The ride for the first 30 km was through more chaos and heavy traffic, but soon I was off the mainline, rolling along a nice road through the countryside .  My rock star status was right where it left off with everyone and their dogs giving me their attention.  2 hours into the ride I hit a nice detour down to a huge set of Falls.  It was great to get to the waterfalls and see the beautiful lake Toba for the first time. From here I rode for a few hours on a spectacular route overlooking the lake with next to no traffic.   Lake Toba is a great wonder of this World as it was formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption over 70 000 years ago.  At around 1200 square km, and 450 m deep, it is of a very large scale.  Today it is a peaceful tourist attraction which blows away peoples minds when they first see it.  

 Nearing the town of Parapat the traffic was crazy busy again and my nerves got a shock as I hit the ditch to avoid a car driving towards me on my side of the road. From what I learned on the bus ride, in Sumatra the traffic laws depend on your size.  If you’re a small biker you are at the bottom of the pecking order and you better be ready to dodge everyone else. Eventually reaching a dock, I snagged a sketchy boat for a lift over to Samosir Island, and the town of Ambarita.  It was  a tourist ghost town with the hostel capacity to host 1000’s of tourists, yet there were only about 15 of us in the whole town.  Samosir  Island is famous  for its indigenous culture one that has a deep history involving stories of primitive actions such as  cannibalism.

Once settled into a nice lake front hostel for the night I set out for a lap of town to find a place to eat.  There were dozens of options, and all cheap as supply was way over demand.  Apparently this place use to be the party hotspot in Asia until Thailand took over in the late 80’s.  After finding another Avocado smoothie and some dodgy rice/veggie mix it was back to the hostel for the night.

Needing a rest from the high energy of bike touring I opted to spend two days exploring the island.  Looking for an adventure the next morning I set out on my bike to go exploring. There was a road circumnavigating the Island but I chose a seldom used one in the middle of the island instead.  I followed this through the jungle for over an hour, hitting various intersections, descending a fair bit and then hitting an apparent dead end.  Finding a small piece of trail I followed this down to someone’s little hut, got chased by a dog, escaped on another trail and eventually back onto a dirt 

road. It was cool touring around seeing some beautiful traditional Batak culture houses which are very unique looking.  5 hours into the ride I was starting to get hungry and a little nervous of my surroundings.  Eventually I found another trail, hopped a fence, and then found a road leading through someone’s farm.  Unsure how they would greet me I decided to keep going as I was getting tired and still needed some food. Riding up to the house 4 kids came out and stared at me like I was a ghost.  Their dog was going nuts but luckily this one was tied to a chain.  Once past this house I hit a small gravel road descending back down to the Lake through a bunch of little huts.  I was ripping down there as locals gave me stunned looks and yelled various words.  Eventually I found a handful of bananas to fill the stomach, just enough fuel to keep the journey going. 10 hrs after leaving I was riding back to the hostel exhausted and clueless where I had just gone! 

The next morning I rode up to the top of the island, taking a different dirt road.  This one better used, eventually leading towards some very loud music.  Coming around a corner to see hundreds of people gathered for a wedding was an eye opener.   Pulling a U turn and peacefully retreating to my hostel would’ve been the responsible decision, but something lured me to keep biking down towards the throngs of Sumatrans.  Nearing the party, people started glancing over and pretty soon the wedding was on hold for the gringo biker.   I wasn’t sure if I was a welcome addition to the wedding or a real disturbance.  Pretty soon one man stepped forward to welcome me to the party, offering a coffee and waving at me to join his friends for a game of cards.  The wedding started up again and we played cards for an hour before one man started talking to me about his daughter.   I was confused and was anxious to get riding again so I waved goodbye to the party and continued onwards.

It would’ve been great to spend a 3rd day exploring the island, but I opted to keep going as my end destination of seeing Orangutang’s in Bukit Lawang was still a long ways away in North Sumatra.  Heading over the island towards Sidikalang I was waved down by 4 men to join them for coffee.  Starting to feel more comfortable in Sumatra I began taking up a few of these offers for food and beverages with the locals.  This coffee date was one to remember.  After exchanging laughs and looking at maps, one of the more talkative men took my hand and said he had a question for me.  “Would you consider taking my daughter to be your wife?” What?  Was he serious?  Yep, he was dead serious.   This was slightly awkward.  I quickly told him I had a girlfriend back in Canada waiting for me.  He wouldn’t take this as an answer and kept trying to persuade me into taking his daughter.  I was over it, ready to lie to them that I was gay, but instead thanked them for the coffee and continued on my voyage.

Once exiting Samosir Island through the town of Singkam I began a long gravel climb in the rain out of the crater that formed Lake Toba.  It was a perfect road for climbing with little traffic and great scenery as I headed skyward towards the plateau above.  From here it was a smooth journey down abandoned highways towards Sidikalang. After 110 km I reached the north Sumatran town and found a small homestay for the night.  After a shower I headed out on the town to find some food and quickly noticed this wasn’t a very touristy place as everyone was staring at me like a rock star again.   I was adapting to being a white gringo rock star over here and began embracing the attention with offering a warm smile to those around me.  This seemed to please the Sumatrans yet still allowed me to concentrate on getting on with whatever life adventure I was on. On this night the adventure was to find a carb heavy dinner as I had 200 km on deck the next morning to Bukit Lawang. 

The next morning I slept in and left a little late on what was going to be a testing day.  The route proved hillier then expected and getting proper directions to Bukit Lawang was a challenge.  The distances to go after 8 hours of riding was hovering between 20 and 80 kilometres.  I was hoping 20 was more accurate and opted to take a shortcut through a jungle road to save some time.  

This route was given with warnings which I began to understand when I came around a corner to face a lone Sumatran glaring straight at me with a rifle in hand.  Giving him the standard warm smile and wave, he just returned with a stone cold look.  Getting closer I had no option but to silently pass by him by going in

the ditch.  This character acted like a bandit out of a movie as I slowly rode by, crossing my fingers for no gunshot sounds.  Going around a corner I was now out of immediate danger,  standing up and sprinting into a rough descent down through the jungle towards Tanjunglankat.  From here another rainstorm rolled in and daylight faded into the darkness of night.  Apparently still nowhere near Bukit Lawang, I pulled over popped on a dim headlamp and continued on into the abyss. 

Starting to look for hotel options, there was unfortunately nothing around for kilometres, so I kept peddling down the lonely road.  Now pitch dark I came upon a traffic circle in a small town with a couple young Islamic college girls selling some greasy food at their road stand.  Famished I stopped in and started inhaling the deep fried goodness.  The girls were shocked at the rate of consumption, I was surely their best customer all day and was soon welcomed under their food umbrella stand where they started talking to me in English.  This was a relief to hear some English, although they soon started laughing when they heard my story and what I was trying to do.  “No sir, there’s no hotels for a long ways.  You must stay with us tonight!”  Really? Sounds good!  Their parents were at another food stand close by and decided the girls should take me home alone to their house in the country.  Meanwhile the parents stayed at the stand cooking food and would eventually head to their small house in town for the night.  I was pretty stoked how things worked out!

Next up was a 20-minute motor pacing session behind the girl’s scooter as we headed over some high bridges and through a farmer’s fields before reaching their place.  It was a great turn of events, and a good reminder just how quickly life can turn around sometimes if you keep moving forwards!  In the morning we went back into town to help their parents for 4 hours preparing the street food for the day.  They were cooking everything they could possibly deep fry, including veggies, samosas and tacos.  Part of the bonus was filling my stomach while working with the tasty goodness.  After my workday I washed the grease off my hands and hopped on my bike, cruising the final 40 km to Bukit Lawang. It was a relaxing day, pit stopping for many coconut waters, and more greasy food as I was starting to form an addiction to it.  Reaching Bukit Lawang I found a little tourist haven which was an island of tranquility amongst the chaos of Sumatra. Bukit Lawang is as beautiful riverside village serving as the gateway to the World heritage Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest tropical rainforests in the World.  The sleepy village had a perfect mix of being traditional yet touristy, a combination I could appreciate for a few nights.

I had a great couple days being a tourist. Seeing Orangutang’s, getting an authentic Orangutang shower in the jungle, and finally a party night with 35 Sumatran boys and 3 white girls.  It was a weird party with the local boys acting like they’d never scene a girl before.  The girls were getting the attention of their lives and were happy to stay and play the game with the boys while I opted to vacate the premises to a more relaxed setting.  It was nice to get out of there and back to the hostel where I prepped for the next part of my journey over to the new tourist destination of Tangkahan.  This small town is a peaceful retreat on the edge of the jungle.  The nearby jungle had been getting deforested by locals as fast as anywhere in Sumatra. Luckily an environmentalist came in and shifted the mindset of the locals, convincing them they had the perfect location for ecotourism, which would be a more sustainable way to keep the economy going, then by destroying the rainforest. From here the small tourist village was formed. 

 Getting there was another maze, so I paid a young man on a scooter $10 to lead the way through the endless dirt roads.  It was a sweet 4-hour ride through rural Sumatra, ending with a boat ride across the Kualsa Buluh river, and a hike up some steps into the jungle.  Once in the village I found a tree house styled hostel which would make for a perfect place to relax and spend my final 2 days in Sumatra.  An elephant tour, tubing expedition and a trip to the local hot springs filled my days before I started the long 1 day bike ride back to Medan to fly home.

Midway I stopped in to see the girls at their lunch stand in Tanjunglankat.  They were getting ready for an Islamic party.  They invited me to stay, being a sucker for the unknown I put my trip to Medan on intermission and joined the girls for a few hours.  It was an great experience, one which was hard to leave, but I had a flight booked so pried myself away and continued on to Medan.  I was now late and only made it to the outskirts of Medan before night fell.  Here I found a dodgy hostel for the final night.  In the morning I woke up at 4 am to ride the rest of the way into Medan, allowing some time to get lost.  I had a 10 am flight to catch back to Malaysia, before an onwards flight in the evening from there to Canada, so I didn’t want to mess things up.  It was pretty cool at this time of morning passing a big night market and some random characters heading home after obviously a long night on the town.  One sight I won’t forget is a man riding with probably over 300 bananas attached to his bike. It made me feel pretty weak for just having a small 30 L backpack. Eventually getting to the airport I was behind the eight ball still having to pack my bike for the trip. I didn’t have a bike box so ended up using the saran wrap machine in the airport to make my bike flight worthy.  This was  a life saver as I had no other plan on how to make my Kona Kula flight worthy!

Getting on the Air Asia flight out of Sumatra closed this chapter on what was one of the wildest rides of my life.  Sumatra had drained my energy and I was ready for a long peaceful sleep on my flight back to Canada.  It’s always nice to end the season on a high note, trying to drain the system, before heading off to the frozen North of Canada for a couple months of hibernation and Work.   The memories of this journey to Sumatra seem like a dream from a past life. The large Island in the Indian Ocean sure lived up to its hype as being the “Wild West of Indonesia”!

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