Live and Thrive Wherever You Are

How to Travel around Medan and Lake Toba and Not Lose your Mind

Medan and Lake Toba

Ah, Indonesia. Though we’ve lived for nearly a decade in Australia, we’ve never once set foot in Indonesia. Truth be told, we didn’t see the appeal of Bali due to it’s party reputation. But if fate wants you to go somewhere, you go. That’s when we ended up in Medan and, subsequently, Lake Toba.

My sister was accepted on a one-month exchange program at Universitas Muhammadiyah Sumatera Utara (UMSU) in Medan. Whoohooo. Proud sis here. As it was her first time traveling alone and living away from home, the parents were concerned so I offered to check in on her. She stayed with us in Singapore enroute to Medan where I reiterated what she should and should not do. After that, I bid her goodbye.

Now, here are our experiences. Hopefully, you learn from them.

Lake Toba

Lake Toba


  • Book as early as you can. You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. Book early. We selected Jet Star as the time of departures and arrivals worked for us. Scoot travels to Medan, too, but we didn’t take it because the times weren’t convenient.


Above the Clouds

Flying with Jet Star


  • Activate mobile roaming or buy an internet only sim card. If you have a pretty good roaming service, use it. No, you cannot purchase a talk / text sim because they require a family card / identity card. What mobile / telecom resellers can sell are internet only sim.
  • Convert cash at your airport of departure before arriving in Medan. That way, you won’t have to waste time looking for it at the Medan Kualanamu Airport. Less stress for you and your travel companions. Credit cards are accepted but sometimes there are issues in some retail / restaurants. Preferred credit cards are Visa and Mastercard. AMEX is usually only accepted at major hotels.
  • Inform your bank of your travels. I forgot to tell my bank I was travelling to Indonesia. It was a good thing they didn’t lock my account but I wasn’t able to use my US atm card to withdraw. Good thing I had another ATM card as a backup. So, bring a backup.
  • Download Uber and Grab. I recommend Grab mainly because the drivers text in Bahasa and the app automatically translates the text in English. Uber didn’t have that. We spent about 20 minutes looking for our Uber driver at the airport. Addresses, though they appear on the app maps, isn’t that clear in reality. Unless it’s a popular place like hotels and malls, the driver will ask whether you’ve arrived at your destination. So, take note of the landmarks
Railroad tracks by

You’ll see some parts of the road like this on the way to and from Medan Airport

  • Know where the pickup point is in the airport. It’s at the parking lot. You exit Arrivals, cross the road to the big parking spot on the left. Then it’s a matter of finding your driver. You’ll have lots of people asking if you want a car. Ignore them unless you can speak Bahasa. Our driver was friendly but had limited English skills.
Medan airport by

The airport at Kualanamu was generally navigable. Everything is clearly labelled.

  • Be friendly. You will find yourself needing help. We got lost on our first night in Medan because we were given the wrong address. Our Uber driver kept driving around trying to find the place. When we got there, it was the wrong campus. I tried talking to the guards at one entrance. “No English,” the guy said smiling. We crossed the busy road to the main campus entrance. The guards were watching TV but gave us their attention. After pantomiming and showing google translate, they figured out that we needed to go to another campus. They dragged somebody who spoke English, not that well but enough to be able to converse with us. When the Grab taxi arrived, one of the guards spoke to the driver to make sure we get to the right destination. The helpful guy also told us the amount that we should pay, which turned out to be accurate.
  • Cross the road like a boss. The roads are filled with cars and motorbikes. There are pedestrian crossings but if it doesn’t have those traffic signals, vehicles will not give way to you. If you must cross the road, do it like the locals do. Do it like a boss. Walk like you own the road.
Motorbikes by shmishem

Cars and Motobikes dominate the road

  • Be firm on prices. Prices, especially for resort activities are posted. However, that doesn’t mean the locals won’t try to negotiate a higher price. When we couldn’t find the shared taxi to get to Lake Toba, we found ourselves at Raja taxi. Pantomime, writing, and minutes later, they wanted to charge 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah for the Medan to Parapat ride. We countered at 500,000 since I’ve read that it would cost 480,000. At the Lake Toba resort, we wanted to ride the jet ski. The notice board said prices were 150,000 for a 30-minute ride. We rented two. Then the jet skis arrived, apparently owned by private individuals not by the resort and they tried to raise the price to 400,000 for both. We said no. After three more nos, they accepted.
  • Factor in traffic. I wouldn’t recommend walking as sidewalks aren’t everywhere. They pop up here and there in the central business district but they seem to be missing elsewhere. Take a Grab when you can. You’ll get to your destination, albeit it might take longer due to the traffic.
Close contact by shmishem

See how close the cars are from each other? I could have opened the window and touched the guy’s arm. Not in all places but there are some narrow roads.

  • Be open to experiences. Though Medan and Lake Toba have a slower pace of life than what you’re used to, traffic can get bad. The tea you ordered can take up to 20 minutes to arrive, same with the food. Most of the food are spicy.
Boats at Parapat

These are the boats they use to cross the lake


Ferry to Lake Toba by shmishem

Ferry to Lake Toba. It’s Indonesian Rupiah 15,000


Sample Batak dwelling

Sample Batak dwelling


Batak dancers

Batak dancers at the Museum


Batak King's tomb

The King’s tomb. The Batak had many kings


Traditional Batak tomb by shmishem

Traditional Batak tomb

Spicy Medan Food

Most Indonesian food we tried were spicy.

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