posted Jan 4th 2016
From Berastagi, the ‘volcano town’, we took a bus & tuktuk to Lake Toba where we planned to spend the next few weeks. It’s the largest volcanic lake in the world & is supposed to be one of the most scenic places in Sumatra with little fishing villages, ferries criss-crossing the lake & a beautiful backdrop of huge hills all around.
Instead the whole experience was severely compromised by Indonesian HAZE from nearby forest fires that obscured any chance of seeing any noteworthy views. We hoped that during the 3 weeks we would spend in the area, the grey sky might turn to blue, but it never did!
In fact this is a yearly phenomenon caused by slash-&-burn farming methods to quickly cut down rain forests & replace them with quick-profit palm oil plantations. This year the problem was worse than ever, leading to 6 Indonesian provinces declaring a state of emergency & 180,000 people being affected by respiratory illnesses. However, that’s just Indonesia! The problem also spread over the rest of South East Asia during 4 months, reducing visibility in 7 countries & causing school & airport closures in 3 of them. Every year the Indonesian government promises to tackle the problem, but apparently the problem is way out of control, & even foreign fire-fighting teams from Singapore & Russia failed to make much of a dent.
The best part of visiting Lake Toba, was meeting the Batak people, who are the main inhabitants in the area. They are indigenous tribes that are ethnically completely different from the rest of the country. Mostly Christian, they are famous for their amazing traditional houses, as well as elaborate & highly-decorated tombs that can be seen throughout the rice fields. They also make a potent type of rice beer called ‘tuak’, that’s of course frowned upon by the majority Muslim population!
Some other observations from the Lake Toba area:
*Buses & minibuses don’t issue tickets so you have to find out the price first & pay if it sounds about right! Similarly with many shops & restaurants: prices are seldom displayed.
*Hardly any car or bus drivers use seat belts!
*There doesn’t seem to be any lower age limit for those driving scooters, with some drivers appearing to be as young as 12.
*Hardly any motorbike or scooter drivers wear helmets.
Would we recommend a visit to Sumatra? – yes, but just make sure you check the long-term weather forecast first & don’t go during the haze season!