Lake Toba evokes a quiet and serene beauty. Locally known as Danau Toba, it is the world’s largest crater lake, covering an area of 1,707 km2 (1,000 km2 bigger than Singapore). At the heart of the immense volcanic lake is an island, Pulau Samosir.
The lake attracts travellers from all around the world, hoping to experience its myster for themselves. In fact, the lake is said to have been formed by a massive super volcanic eruption about 77,000 years ago. Known as the highly controversial Toba catastrophe theory rumoured to have killed much of the human population and caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years.
If you’re looking for a new destination to check out, Lake Toba should definitely be first on your list. Its sheer beauty and rugged landscapes are perfect for both nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.
Getting to Lake Toba
First of all, where is this elusive lake? It occupies the caldera of a super volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia. To get there from Singapore, take a 1.5-hour flight to Medan. From there, there are two ways to get to Lake Toba: on a four-hour train journey or a private car rental.
If you opt for the train, it leaves from Medan to Pematang Siantar once a day, costing IDR 40,000 (S$3.85) per one-way ticket. It’s an affordable, scenic and comfortable four-hour journey to your destination. From Pematang Sinatar, you can then take a becak (local rickshaw) to Parapat.
Alternatively, the most convenient way for bigger groups is to rent a private car for around IDR 400,000 (S$38.50). The drive from Medan to Parapat takes about 4 hours.
Both modes of transportation will require you to take a ferry from Parapat to Samosir Island, the peaceful island in the heart of the lake.
Samosir Island is the gateway to Lake Toba, and home to the Batak tribe. Roughly the size of Singapore, the island was originally formed by the cone of a new volcano that rose up from the lake floor.
Once you get to Samosir Island, you can get off at either Tuk Tuk or Tomok, depending on where you want to stay. Tuk Tuk, the charming tourist town of Samosir, is home to a variety of guesthouses, restaurants and bars — and is where most travellers choose to base themselves.
On Samosir Island, you’ll hear the sound of the traditional gondang music that accompanies the Tor Tor dance, experience the hospitality of the Batak natives, and tuck into mouthwatering cuisine with Andaliman spices.
The island is the cultural centre of the Batak Tribe, who are mostly of Christian faith these days. Here’s a tip: remember to greet them with “Horas,” the traditional Batak greeting, and you’ll find that they are one of the warmest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
Visit the Huta Bolon Simanindo Museum, the former home of Raja Simalungun, the king famous for his fourteen wives. Here, you can delve deeper into the Batak culture — by admiring the ancient furniture, weapons, and famous Ulos (traditional handmade batik sarongs).
A highlight here is the Tor Tor dance with the locals, which takes place at 10:30am everyday from Monday to Saturday. The ancient Batak dance was traditionally performed as a tribute to the gods and ancient spirits. These days, it is a sign of respect to the guests and elders.
Batak cuisine bursts with flavour, and is ruled by fresh fish, pork and an intriguing spice known as andaliman which has the numbing sensation of sichuan peppercorns but with citrusy notes. Head to Jenny’s Restaurant for freshly caught fish, which are served seasonal, steamed or grilled. After dinner, chill out with a chilled beer while enjoying the live music.
If there’s one traditional dish you can’t miss in Samosir, it’s the Pork Sak Sang, a savoury, spicy dish native to the Batak tribe. It is made from minced pork stewed in its blood, coconut milk and spices. In fact, it has a special significance to the Bataks in Toba, and is an obligatory dish in marriage celebrations. If you want to try it (and you should), the best place to indulge in this is Horas Sugary, which offers delicious food set against panoramic views.
Another unique but delicious dish is guacamole chapati, which can be found in several cafes, such as Today’s Cafe. Don’t forget to try the Gado Gado while you’re there.
There’s no better place to be one with nature than at Lake Toba. Aqua lovers can choose to swim in the warm waters of the volcanic lake or spend a day kayaking. For a more relaxing evening, choose to wind down taking a boat ride on the lake while watching the sunset.
But of course, swimming in the lake that was the product of an eruption that nearly killed the entire human population isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you prefer staying on land, rent a scooter and ride around the beautiful island, chase waterfalls on Samosir, or hike to the top of Pusuk Buhit Mountain near Pangururan, located on the west of Samosir and Lake Toba. The hike will be worth it as you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the lake itself.
Where to stay
While the towns and villages surrounding Lake Toba are fairly undeveloped, you’ll have a limited number of accommodation options. However, check out the Lake Toba Village Inn, a quaint property boasting rooms overlooking the lake and Pusuk Buhit Mountain.
Best time to go
If we’ve convinced you to get on Skyscanner or Expedia to book your tickets, the best time to go is in May, when the weather changes from slightly cool to warm. If you’re not a fan of crowds, avoid the peak period during Chinese New Year (around January or February), where there will be a definite hike in prices.