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Taking the plunge at Indonesia's Lake Toba

Stunning and serene, Indonesia's Lake Toba is in fact also a supervolcano. Boasting winding walks, bustling markets and mouthwatering meals, a visit to the lake offers explosive fun, as Thien Ly reports.

Taking the plunge at Indonesia's Lake Toba


Perfect curves: Traditional houses of the Batak people with their distinct curving roofs. The Batak, the main nhabitants around Lake Toba, use traditional farming methods in order to make a living.
Winning smile: The friendly people make shopping at a traditional fruit market at Berastagi City a welcome indulgence.
Stunning and serene, Indonesia's Lake Toba is in fact also a supervolcano. Boasting winding walks, bustling markets and mouthwatering meals, a visit to the lake offers explosive fun, as Thien Ly reports.

I know, geographically and geologically speaking, that it is not a contradiction in terms, but it sure sounds like it. A lake, cool and serene as they come, is also a supervolcano.

Think about it a bit more and it is really cool, awe-inspiring actually, to think that this lake that was having such a calming influence on me, was born out of an earth shaking event, literally.

Welcome to Lake Toba in Indonesia's North Sumatra province.

We arrived there one afternoon in late November after a four-hour drive from Medan City.

The lake and mountains surrounding it at that time were basking in the sunshine, the lake's surface twinkling away as though it did not know how to stop. The mountains seemed to be pursing invisible lips and blowing at white, flimsy clouds that kissed their tops, teasingly.

At 900 meters above sea level, the cooler climate was a refreshing break from the heat, humidity and pollution of the city. I breathed deeply; taking in the clean air that seems to be so much of a luxury these days.

At such places, there is nothing else to do but sit back, relax and let the picturesque landscape –green hills adorned with waterfalls, white clouds, blue sky - work its magic on you.

My Indonesian tourist guide, Liam Saragih, told me that Toba is the largest volcano-tectonic lake and one of the natural wonders of the world. It is 87 km long in the northwest to southeast direction and has a width of 27 km. I believed him completely.

"The cool, blue and clear waters, the relaxed atmosphere and gracious residents and fascinating

Batak culture is what draws visitors from all over the world to the remote destination of Toba," Liam said, somewhat academically, but I was still nodding in total agreement.

In the middle of the lake is a wedge-shaped island called Samosir, thought to have been created by upheavals from the older lake's bottom between 0.6 to 0.1 million years ago. As a ferry that runs every hour took us to Samosir, I gazed in a daze at mountains steeped in cool mist, clear waterfalls and locals taking their water buffaloes out to the fields.

Liam told me Samosir is the original home of the Batak Toba people. The island has many traces of the ancient days including stone tombs and traditional villages, he said, as he led us to Ambarita, a courtyard with stone furniture where in the old days, convicts were tried and beheaded.

Then, we called on Simanindo Village, where traditional Batak ritual dances and music were performed.

It was time to do the touristy thing even as I tried to learn more about ancient Toba culture. At Tomok Village on Samosir, I found mementoes and Batak handicrafts. I bought the distinctive red and black hand-woven shawls called ulos - still used today at important life-cycle occasions - as souvenirs for relatives and friends at home.

Samosir's charms are enhanced considerably by the legendary Batak hospitality. My fellow travellers and I toasted each other and our gracious hosts with some traditional palm wine and chatted with the islanders.

Most of the people who live around Lake Toba are ethnic Bataks. Farming both subsistence and cash crops, fisheries, animal husbandry and tourism are their main economic activities, Liam told me.


Sitting pretty: One of the many beautiful alcoves to be found around Lake Toba. — VNS Photos Thien Ly
The traditional Batak houses with distinctive roofs that curve upwards at each and their colourful decor are certainly worthwhile tourist attractions, I thought.

There are many hotels and smaller accommodations around the lake, especially at Parapat, and at Tuktuk on the island of Samosir. Each building has a different architectural design, but all of them combine to create a really romantic look.

I was happy that despite being a tourist spot for many years, Lake Toba still remains naturally beautiful. Venturing away from the small villages I found myself surrounded by farmland, churches and strange tombs, watched over by Sumatran tropical pine forests on the higher mountains.

Lake Toba is a good place to eat, both for those who like to try out new things and those who are happy to stick with the familiar. Traditional Batak and Indonesian food and a variety of Western dishes including schnitzels, homemade burgers, pasta and roast chicken with fresh herb stuffing are available at local restaurants. Brown bread, burger buns and baguettes are baked most days.

You can order a Batak feast one day in advance. Choices include boneless fish curry, ikan na neura (very fresh raw fish marinated with candlenuts, spices & lime juice), napi nadir (a Batak style curry made with grilled chicken), saksang (chopped pork cooked with Batak spices and fresh pig's blood (blood is optional). Also available to order delicious Lake Toba freshwater lobster (crayfish) at very reasonable prices.

Dutch tourist Anke Asselman was enjoying himself: "I came here because I heard that Lake Toba is inside a volcano. I am very happy I made it. The people are very nice and friendly. The view of the lake is really charming and food is strange and good, and I like it very much.

"I am staying here for four or five days so I can discover all the things at this wonderful place and enjoy it."

"Lake Toba is really wonderful. I am always proud of my native village. It is why I decided to become a tourist guide, so I can introduce my native place and its beauty to many people, especially foreigners," Liam said.

Lake Toba opened to tourism in 1970 and now attracts about 200,000 visitors every year, with most foreign tourists coming from Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, Spain and France, he said.

After leaving Lake Toba I took a one-day city tour of Medan —the third largest city in Indonesia. There were many interesting things to see there, one of which was the Maria Shrine with its unique Indo-Mogul architecture.

Medan is also well known for "food-tourism," since several Indonesian ethnic groups contribute to thousands of tasty, mouth-watering dishes found in every corner of the city.

Dozens of food streets and hawker centres can be found open at any time of the day, offering sweet Javanese cuisine, delicious Batak grilled pork, hot Padang dishes, savoury Chinese noodles and even spicy Indian curry.

SamAbdol Abusamad, a tourist from Malaysia said, "I can see that the country is really beautiful with thousands of islands and fascinating beaches like Bali and Lombok. Indonesian people make the visit unforgettable with their friendliness.

"I also like the traditional culture and its symbols like the ethnic people's traditional houses. I want to come back to this country and discover more wonders."

After being in Indonesia for six days, I could not but agree with Sam and other fellow visitors.

Back home to the daily grind in HCM City, Indonesia's myriad attractions are beckoning me already, patiently, biding their time. — VNS

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