Sumatra (SOO-mah-TRAH), also known as Sumatera locally, straddles the equator. It is heavily forested and rich with rare wildlife. Numerous large reserves and preservation areas have been set aside, which makes the island ideal for ecotourism.
The mountains in the west and the swampy plains in the east define Sumatra’s landscape. The backbone of the island is the volcanic Barisan Mountain chain, which runs the entire length of the island from north to south. The volcanic activity of this region produces fertile land and beautiful scenery, including the region around Lake Toba. It also contains rich deposits of coal and gold.
To the east, big rivers carry silt from the mountains to the vast lowlands and swamps. Even though the area is unsuitable for farming, the area produces significant quantities of palm oil and petroleum.
Most of Sumatra was covered by tropical rainforest prior to the development of natural resource industries. The jungles are home to species such as orangutans, tapirs, Sumatran tigers, elephants, and unique plants such as the rafflesia. Unfortunately, economic development and illegal logging threaten the habitat and existence of these rare creatures and others. Conservation areas have not been spared from destruction.
Sumatra’s Cultures and Languages
Sumatra is not heavily populated. The most-populous regions include north Sumatra and the central highlands in west Sumatra, while the major urban centers are Medan and Palembang.
The people are of Malay origins, including many different tribes, who speak 52 different languages. Most of these groups share similar traditions and their languages are closely related. Malay-speaking people dominate the eastern coast, while people in the southern and central interior speak languages related to Malay, such as Lampung and Minangkabau. The highlands of northern Sumatra are inhabited by the Bataks, while the northernmost coast is dominated by Acehs. Ethnic Chinese minorities also are present in urban centers.
Religions Of Sumatra
The majority of people in Sumatra are Muslim. It is believed that Islam first entered Southeast Asia through Aceh in the 8th Century. Islam spread through contacts with Arabs and Indian traders. By the late 13th Century, the monarch of Samudra Kingdom (now in Aceh) converted to Islam.
Most central Bataks are Protestant Christians because of the Dutch conquest and occupation of the area. The rest of the people follow Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Chinese traditional beliefs. It is one of the most conservative religious areas in all of Indonesia. The Acehnese practice a more orthodox form of Islam than the rest of the country, due to its historical trade links with the Middle East.
An ancient name for Sumatra was Swarna Dwipa (Sanskrit for Isle of Gold), apparently based on the fact that mines in the Sumatran highlands have exported gold for centuries.
With its strategic location in the India-China sea trade route, several trading towns on Sumatra flourished, especially on the eastern coast, and were influenced by Indian religions. The most notable of these were the Srivijaya and the Sumudra-Srivijaya—a Buddhist monarchy centered in what is now Palembang. Dominating the region through trade and conquest throughout the 7th-9th centuries, the kingdom helped spread the Malay culture throughout Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and western Borneo. The empire was a seafaring power that extended its influence from island to island.
Srivijaya influence waned in the 11th Century. The island was then subject to conquests from Javanese kingdoms. From the beginning of 16th Century, the Sultanate of Aceh was involved in a continuous power struggle, including battles with Portugues, British, and Dutch colonialists.
In 1824, the British turned over all colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. Initially, the Dutch agreed to respect the Acehnese Sultanate’s independence. However, in 1871, the British reversed its position and supported a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent the French from gaining a foothold in the region. The Dutch colonial government declared war on Aceh on March 26, 1873. It raged off and on for decades. By 1904, Aceh was under Dutch control. An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Acehnese were killed and more than one million people were wounded. Guerilla warfare against the Dutch continued until they virtually abandoned the island during World War II.
After World War II, Indonesian troops invaded and annexed Aceh, causing local resentment over what was viewed as more foreign occupation. Since then, there have been many armed conflicts between the Indonesian military and local forces fighting for greater separation from Indonesia’s central government.
Aceh possesses one of Indonesia’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas. However, many Acehnese people feel that the economic benefits generated by the region’s great natural resources, especially oil, leave the region and benefit the Jakarta government and foreign corporations instead of the local area.
This dissatisfaction has led to movements to push for greater autonomy or complete separation. The armed secessionists of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) emerged. Conflict between the GAM and Indonesian forces led to the province being subject to martial law and being named a military operational zone by the Suharto government.
After the Suharto regime fell in 1998, Aceh quieted down substantially, which lead to a 2002 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between the GAM and the Indonesian military. This collapsed in early 2003, however, and the government restored measures of martial law and began a large-scale offensive in the region.
On December 26, 2004, the western coast and outer islands of Sumatra, particularly Aceh province, were devastated by a 15 meter-high tsunami following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean. The death toll surpassed 200,000 in Sumatra alone, primarily in Aceh. Relief efforts were complicated, and in some cases hindered, due to the armed conflict in the area.
After the devastating tsunami, both the GAM and the Indonesian government declared a cease-fire and reiterated the need to resolve the conflict. The administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed a greater willingness to negotiate with rebel forces after the disaster.
Negotiations resulted in a peace agreement that ended the long war in Aceh. The treaty was signed in Helsinki on August 15, 2005. One month later, the Indonesian government released hundreds of rebels from prison.
Transportation Around Sumatra
Padang’s Tabing Airport is the main gateway to West Sumatra. There also is a weekly ship service to Jakarta by MV Kerinci from Teluk Bayur harbour. The voyage takes about 30 hours. There also are small vessels from Muara harbour sailing to small towns along the entire west coast of Sumatra. Regular bus services run between Padang and Bukittinggi and other major cities on the island, as well as via the trans-Sumatra Highway to Jakarta, and all points east.
Sumatra’s Cities, Towns, Villages and Nearby Islands
Bandah Aceh (BAHN-dah AH-cheh): Is a special territory of Indonesia, located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. It is known for its political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders.
The western coastal areas of Aceh, including the cities of Banda Aceh, Calang, and Meulaboh, were among the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami resulting from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake on December 26, 2004. While estimates vary, approximately 230,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, and about 400,000 were left homeless.
While parts of Banda Aceh were unscathed, the areas closest to the water were completely destroyed. Most of the western coast, and outlying islands, were severely damaged, and many towns completely disappeared. Other towns along Aceh’s west coast that were hit by the disaster include Leupung, Lamno, Patek, Calang, Teunom, and Semeulue. Affected or destroyed towns on the region’s east coast include Pidie, Samalanga, Bireuen, and Lhokseumawe.
The government has proposed the creation of a two-kilometer buffer zone along low-lying coastal areas, within which permanent construction is not permitted. This proposal is unpopular among some local inhabitants, especially fishing families that are dependent on the sea.
The capital and largest city in Aceh is Banda Aceh, located on the coast near the northern tip of Sumatra. Other major cities include Sabang, Lhokseumawe, and Langsa. Administratively, the province is subdivided into 17 regencies and four municipalities.
Aceh is a diverse region occupied by several ethnic and language groups. The major ethnic groups include the Acehnese, Gayo, Alas, Tamiang, Kluet, and Simeulue.
The region also has a substantial population of Arab descent. There is a small group of European descendants who live in Kecamatan Jaya and Aceh Jaya. Many of them have blonde hair, white skin, and blue eyes. They are believed to be the Islamicized descendants of Portuguese soldiers. They live with Acehnese traditions and only speak Achenese and Indonesian.
Bandar Lampung (BAHN-dahr Lahm-poong): Lampung is a province of Indonesia, located on the southern tip of Sumatra. It borders the provinces of Bengkulu and South Sumatra. The original inhabitants of Lampung are members of the Lampung tribe, who speak a distinct language and have their own alphabet. The province has a population of nearly seven million people. Most of the people in Lampung migrated from Java, Madura, and Bali. These migrants came in search of more land than was available on the heavily populated islands. Others came as part of the government’s transmigration program. Lampung was one of the earliest and most important transmigration destinations.
Lampung is commonly known for its geographical instability in terms of earthquakes and volcanoes. On May 10, 2005, a strong earthquake, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, caused widespread damage across the province.
Bangka-Belitung (BAHNG-kah BEHL-ee-TOONG): This is one of the provinces of Indonesia. It includes two large islands, Bangka and Belitung, and several smaller ones, which lie east of Sumatra, and northeast of the South Sumatra province. The province was formerly part of South Sumatra, but became an independent province along with Banten and Gorontalo in 2000. The capital is Pangkalpinang. The Bangka Strait separates Sumatra and Bangka, and the Gaspar Strait separates Bangka and Belitung.
Bengkulu (BEHNG-koo-LOO): Bengkulu is one of the provinces of Indonesia. It is on the southwest coast of Sumatra. The capital and largest city of the province also is called Bengkulu. It was formerly the site of a British garrison, which they called Bencoolen.
The British East India Company established a productive pepper-trading center and garrison at Bengkulu in 1685. In 1714, the British built Fort Marlborough in the city where it still stands. The trading post was never profitable for the British, but the British maintained a presence there for 150 years before ceding it to the Dutch as part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.
Coal mining is a major economic activity in Bengkulu. Three companies produce between 200,000 and 400,000 tons of coal per year and export it to Malaysia, Singapore, South Asia, and Northeast Asia. Fishing also is an important activity. Agricultural products exported by the province include ginger, bamboo, and rubber.
Bukittinggi (BOOK-eet-TEEN-gee): This is West Sumatra’s center of culture and tourism. It is nestled in the highlands, north of the provincial capital of Padang. This inland area has a range of high mountains, which dip into picturesque valleys and lakes. Amongst them are the remains of the old Minangkabau Kingdom of Pagaruyung, which is now the center for art, silver, weaving, embroidery, and woodcarving.
A center of attraction is the town’s clocktower topped with a hornshaped roof and referred to by the people as Jam Gadang. It overloks the market square and the city’s magnificent surroundings. Located 930 meters above sea level, Bukittinggi formerly named Fort De Cock by the Dutch, has a cool climate and is surrounded by three volcanoes: Tandikat, Singgalang, and Merapi. In the outskirts of the town is the Ngarai Sianok, a deep canyon that separates Bukittinggi from Kota Gadang.
Kota Gadang is renowned for its silver filigree and hand-embroidered cloth. Also worth visiting is the museum, Rumah Gadang, located in a traditional extended family house built in the 19th Century.
There are dance performances at the museum’s open stage every Sunday and on public holidays. Night dance performances are at Sliguri. It is also worth seeing the bullfights at Padang Lawas.
Jambi (JAHM-bee): Jambi is a province on the east coast of central Sumatra, which contains a city also named Jambi. The population of the province is about 2.5 million people.
Before colonization by the Dutch East India Company, Jambi was the site of a well-established, powerful Srivijayan Kingdom that engaged in trade throughout the Strait of Malacca and beyond. In the early decades of the Dutch occupation, around 1750, the Jambi sultanate traded pepper with the Dutch. This relationship declined by about 1770, and the sultanate had little contact with the Dutch except during conflicts. By 1906, the entire area was brought under colonial control.
Medan (MEH-dahn): This is Indonesia’s third-most populous city, after Surabaya and Jakarta. It has about 2.5 million people. Compared to Jakarta, the city looks provincial, as it lacks skyscrapers and shops.
Medan did not enjoy vast development until the 1860s, when the Dutch colonialists began clearing the land for tobacco plantations. Medan quickly became a center of government and commercial activity, dominating development of Indonesia’s western region.
There are many older buildings in Medan that still retain their Dutch architecture, including the old City Hall, Post Office Center, the Water Tower, and Titi Gantung—a bridge and railway complex. Other sights include Maimun Palace and the Great Mosque (Masjid Raya) of Medan.
Mentawai Islands (MEHN-tah-WAH-ee): This chain of islands is off the west coast of Sumatra. Siberut Island is the largest in the chain, which also includes Sipura, North Pagai, and South Pagai
Siberut is the largest and northernmost of the Mentawai Islands, which is home for the Mentawai people. It is a national park covered with rainforest and primates, including the kloss gibbon, Mentawai langur, and Mentawai macaque.
Siberut was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. However, no one is believed to have died on this island as a result.
The Mentawai Islands are part of West Sumatra province. Padang, the capital of the province, lies on the Sumatran mainland opposite the channel from Siberut. The Mentawai Islands have become a noted destination for surfing. The islands lie approximately 150 kilometers off the southwest Sumatran coast, across the Mentawai Strait. They are accessible by boat.
Nias Island (NEE-ahs): This is part of a chain of islands parallel to Sumatra’s western coast, along the Mentawai Strait. The most popular area for tourists and surfers is Lagundri Bay, close to the town of Teluk Dalam, on the southern tip. Enclosed by the beaches of Lagundri and Sorake, the bay has both left and right-hand breaks for surfers. As they wait for waves, surfers can often watch sea turtles swimming below. Nias was part of the famous hippie trail of the 1960s, which was traveled mostly by surfers. It has been the site of several international surfing competitions.
Some have cited local culture as one of the few remaining Megalithic cultures. The predominant religion is Protestant Christianity, which is practiced by slightly more than half the population. German missionaries introduced the religion to the area in the early 19th Century.
On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake struck a few kilometers north of the island, creating tsunamis as high as 10 meters. At least 122 people were killed and hundreds more left homeless across this island alone. On March 28, 2005, another powerful earthquake hit the island. At least 300 people were killed. Hundreds of buildings toppled and thousands were left homeless.
Padang (PAH-dahng): This is the capital and largest city of West Sumatra. It has a population of roughly 800,000 people who mostly speak the Minangkabau language.
Padang’s Teluk Bayur harbor is the largest and busiest harbor on the west coast of Sumatra. The city is a common transit point for surfers travelling to the Mentawai Islands. The city also is famous throughout Indonesia for its spicy food. Padang-style restaurants are common throughout Indonesia.
Pekanbaru (PEHK-ahn-BAHR-roo): Pekanbaru is the capital of Riau province. The Siak River, the deepest river in Indonesia, divides this city. Oil was discovered nearby in 1939, which has driven the local economy ever since.
Sumatra’s Major Attractions
Alas River (AH-lahs): The Alas River winds across North Sumatra through jungle, limestone gorges, and native villages. The river drops down to the Indian Ocean, representing a descent 10 times that of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River. Visitors can float this river in boats, which makes for an unforgettable adventure. The voyage begins in the Karo Highlands.
Berbak Wildlife Reserve (BEHR-bahk): The Berbak Wildlife Reserve has one of Indonesia’s largest tiger populations. It dominates one-fifth of Sumatra’s east coast. The park is a dense, swampy refuge that contains Indonesia’s largest peat forest, a unique environment caused by an excess accumulation of organic matter on the forest floor. Due to acidic soil, trees here rarely grow past 40 meters, allowing a substantial amount of light to pierce the canopy.
When heavy rains flood vast areas of Berbak, its animals often concentrate at higher elevations, often in inaccessible areas. The best time to visit, therefore, is during the dry season from June to October. The reserve’s most famous and common resident is the tiger, whose deep, thick roars are often heard in the distance. There also are more than 240 species of birds here, not to mention crocodile’s and turtles.
In the far north of the park is Lake Toba, an enormous and beautiful crater lake. The lake features several developments and resorts for rest and relaxation before or after excursions into the park. Most journeys to this area begin in Medan.
Kerinci Seblat National Park (KEHR-reen-chee SEH-blaht): This is the largest national park on Sumatra. Conservationists have identified it as one of the five most important habitats for tigers in the world. Gunung (Mount) Kerinci towers out of the park and reaches an impressive height of 3,805 meters. This active volcano is the highest peak on Sumatra. The park is located near the village of Sungaipenuh, which is a long bus ride (eight hours) from Padang.
Krakatau (KRAH-kah-TAH-oo): Krakatau is an uninhabited island off the southern part of the Bay of Lampung. This area consists of four islands, one of which is called Anak Krakatau (child of Krakatau), which has grown higher every year. Anak Krakatau has emerged from the bottom of the sea between three other islands. Krakatau is reachable in three hours by boat from Canti, a fisherman village near Kalianda, South Lampung.
Gunung Leuser National Park (GOON-oong LEH-oo-SEHR): Gunung Leuser National Park is home to the orangutan. The park has two distinct orangutan reserves within its boundaries, Bohorok and Ketambe, both of which rehabilitate animals back into the wild after they have lived in human captivity.
Mount Leuser National Park offers 10,000 square kilometers of protected habitat for the Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutan, Asian elephant, and the Sumatran tiger. The park hosts 320 species of birds, 176 mammal species, 194 reptile species, and 52 species of amphibian. Meanwhile, half of all plant species on Sumatra are found in the forests of Mount Leuser. The park is easily accessible from the village of Bukit Lawang, which is 96 km northwest of Medan.
Lake Toba (TOH-bah): This is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The lake has a large island, Samosir, out in the middle, where visitors can stay overnight. Steep cliffs, pine trees, and several villages of Batak people surround the lake. Prapat is the major village on the lake, where accommodations are abundant and ferries to Samosir Island are frequent. Plus, the Siguragura Falls, approximately 200 meters high and one of the highest in Southeast Asia, is located nearby. Affluent travelers from Indonesia, China, Japan, and Singapore flock to Lake Toba. Take a flight to Medan and then a ride a bus south to the lake.
Way Kambas National Park (WYE KAHM-bahs): This park is home to wild elephants, gaja. The park also hosts a training center for the elephants, providing an excellent opportunity to view them up close. The center trains elephants for numerous purposes, including agriculture, logging and entertainment. The center, however, was the world’s first facility to train elephants and then release them back into the wild to help keep the wild herds away from villages and crops.
Spend at least two hours at the park, so get an early start and plan on spending most of the day if possible. Refreshments and food are available at the park, so pack a few snacks for the road. Children swarm visitors at the park’s entrance to sell corn, jagung, to feed to the elephants. Buying corn will help support the children and you’ll have fun feeding the elephants. Way Kambas is about 90 kilometers from Bandar Lampung, where you can hire a car and driver to take you to the park. The drive takes nearly two hours each way.