Old Colonial Jakarta at Kota Tua

The "Big Durian" Jakarta was my third destination in Indonesia after Lake Toba and Bali. Travelling to somewhere new was thrilling enough to me although I had the feeling that the capital of Indonesia did not rank high on the itinerary of most travelers and had little idea on what to expect. I was lucky to have an insightful introduction to the city thanks to a friend who lived and worked there. Kota Tua (Old Town) topped the list of attractions that I visited and was truly a gem in the city to me. It was a happening place. Buskers, cultural performers and street vendors filled the square with old colonial era buildings in the backdrop. The Jakarta History Museum, housed in the former Dutch-build Town Hall, was a great place to pick up some histories. The whole Kota Tua experience should be completed with a visit to Cafe Batavia at the other side of the square.

Old Town Hall in Jakarta
Dutch-build Town Hall (now housed the Jakarta History Museum) at Kota Tua Jakarta


The Island of Thousand Temples

Bali is the most significant among the few remaining pockets of predominantly Hindu areas in Indonesia after the fall of the Hindu Kingdom of Majapahit in the early 16th century. The Balinese Hinduism is unique and an integral part of the Balinese culture and everyday life of the people. Bali boasts several stunning temples (pura) built on some of the most picturesque sites on the island.

Pura Tanah Lot
Canang sari offerings, Pura Tanah Lot and surfers (10/2010)

Pura Luhur
Pura Luhur on top of a cliff at Uluwatu (10/2010)


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Sunset at Kuta Beach, Bali

A short weekend break with my labmates brought me south, across the Equator for the first time, to the Island of Bali in Indonesia. All in all, Bali certainly did not disappoint, albeit the inevitable commercialism and tourism. The exotic Balinese culture has spectacular nature to match and the locals are generally friendly and courteous too. We had great time there and concluded our trip by a visit to Kuta Beach for sunset and dinner before flying back to Singapore the next morning.

Sunset at Kuta 1

Sunset at Kuta 2


The Batak People and Culture

Horas! Welcome to the Batak heartland that centres on Samosir Island and covers the surrounding areas of Lake Toba. Sites of cultural and historical significance to the Batak people can be found on the island at places such as Tomok, Ambarita and Simanindo (see Lake Toba Album). Batak houses, with distinctive saddle-shaped, twin-peaked roofs, are eye-catching and unmissable. They can be found all over Samasir Island in all shapes and sizes, from elaborately decorated traditional houses preserved in museums to practical zinc-roofed village houses or resort cottages by the shoreline.

The following excerpt from gives some ideas on the Batak architecture and symbolism built into the design:
"The roofs of the house are designed so the back of the roof in higher than the front. The father of the house always sleeps at the front of the house and the children in the back. The higher roof in the back signifies that the father wants his children to reach higher in life than himself. The steps leading up to the small entrance are always atleast 4, 5 or 6 to signify how many children the family wants to have. The small entrance into a Batak house are designed so you have to bow down to enter the house paying respect to the people inside the house."

Batak House 1
Batak House 2 Batak House 3

Batak culture is also known to be rich in customs and rituals. This 53-sec video clip, taken at the Museum Huta Bolon Simanindo, aims to give a sample of traditional Batak dance. The performance (Mon-Sat 10.30-11.10, 11.45-12.30; Sun 11.45-12.30) is not to be missed by culturally inclined visitors to Samosir, Lake Toba.


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Samosir Island and Lake Toba

70,000 years ago, this was the site of a massive supervolcanic eruption. The impact was catastrophic. Severe environmental and climate changes rendered many life forms to the verge of extinction and changed the course of human evolution (Toba catastrophe theory).

The resulting Lake Toba is the testament to the event but its association to the violent past is not readily evident today. Visitors to Lake Toba and Samosir Island within the lake are charmed by the scenic beauty and tranquility that the heartland of Batak people has to offer. This hidden island within the island of Sumatra is definitely a gem worth going for.

Lake Toba 1
Lake Toba 2
Samosir Island and Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia (02/2009)


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The Route to Samosir

Samosir (within Lake Toba) is an island within the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Most visitors to Samosir fly to Medan, the gateway to North Sumatra, which is only about 50 min from Kuala Lumpur, crossing the Strait of Malacca. Samosir is a great place to be for scenery and culture or simply to chill out. Here're some get-in and get-out tips, from my recent trip there, to share with anyone who is planning a trip there.

Going through the immigration at the Medan Polonia International Airport was a breeze for me. Arrival procedures are pretty standard. Two forms, namely Customs Declaration Form and Arrival/Departure Card, are to be filled and submitted on arrival. The Departure Card (detached from the arrival card) is to be retained in the passport and submitted to the Immigration Officer on departure.

Leaving the country can be tricky if you are unfamiliar with the rules. Get your boarding pass at the Check-in Counter as usual but be sure to keep some Rupiahs for the airport tax (Rp75,000 for Polonia International Airport: international flights), paid at the Airport Tax Counter. Then submit the "fiscal form", which you collect at the check-in counter, to the Fiscal Counter. Foreign visitors are exempted from the fiscal that Indonesian citizens required to pay when exiting the country. Do not forget your Departure Card, which you have been keeping since arrival, as it will later be collected by the immigration officer.

PS: Although the access to the Polonia airport terminal is restricted to ticket holders, there are people, in plain clothes, within the terminal who offer assistance with the flight check-in, presumably with a fee. If in doubt, always hold on to your documents and do the check-in yourself!
Kuala Namu International Airport, currently under construction, is to replace the current airport in the near future.

Medan Polonia Airport
Medan Polonia International Airport

The journey from Medan to Prapat, the town by Lake Toba, takes about 4 hours by taxi and you get to experience the local traffic and driving ethic along the way. Some taxi companies pick you up directly from the airport and the trip to Prapat costs about Rp70,000 per person in a 8-seated Toyota Kijang.

Medan to Prapat
En route from Medan to Prapat

Prapat is served by regular ferry/boat service to Tomok and Tuk Tuk on the Samosir Island. Tuk Tuk is where most accommodation can be found. Some resorts in Tuk Tuk can pick you up from Tomok if you miss the last evening boat to Tuk Tuk, which leaves earlier than that to Tomok. Be sure to get enough cash at Parapat before crossing as there is no ATM machine on Samosir Island. There will be more on the lake, island and its people in the coming blogs.

Prapat to Tomok
Boat to Samosir from Prapat

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