…….The World Without Boundaries

Riding a Motorbike around Samosir Island

Written By: jipp - Mar• 06•19

So I was on Samosir Island, which is the biggest island in Lake Toba. It is so big, it is even bigger than the island of Singapore.

I rented a motorbike from my hostel for IDR90,000 per day, for a straight 3-day so that I don’t have to return it at the end of each day and avoid getting charged for a late return.

So the plan was to make a one full round around the island and that was what I did. After filling up the fuel to a full tank, I was all set to go. The first thing that caught my attention was the hills near Tuk Tuk. I parked the bike and went up the hill, whose landscape was dominated by a rolling grass-field area. I was welcomed by buffaloes, who seemed quite agitated with my presence. Some of them came to me anyway, probably thinking that I could give some salt to them, which I had none unfortunately.

At the top of the hill was a cemetery. With the views to die for from there, I was quite sure whoever got buried in there had died a happy person. On one side is the sweeping view of the lake, on the other a paddy field set in a beautiful valley. I could see a tall waterfall on the other side of the valley, which was the main caldera that took form when the volcano erupted some hundreds years ago.

Only the day before a bunch of travelers that I met at the hostel asked if I wanted to join them to the waterfall. I politely declined, and they returned to the hostel with swollen faces and arms. Apparently they got attacked by bees when they were on their way to the waterfall. Phew!

I was taking in all the beautiful views from atop the hill when I spotted somebody, who was taking a good rest at the hillside. I later caught up with him and he showed me what he was there to look for. I first heard about magic mushroom when I had a drink with an American traveler at the hostel. He told me that he bought a handful from a shop in Medan and told me that he needed it for energy.

I really thought he was talking about some drug – and that magic mushroom was only a nick-name to it – until I bumped into this guy on the hill and told me that what he had was magic mushroom. So it really is a real mushroom. I remember asking the American if it was legal, and he said “well, it is not legal, but it is allowable”. It made me confused a bit, but I rested my confusion right there at the table.

Of course I later found out that mushrooms are considered narcotics in Indonesia – which is known for its strict punishments for drug-related offences. Not that I was interested in giving it a try anyway.

From the hill, I continued my bike tour to Tomok, a lakeside little town which is known as the epicenter of Batak cultures and history on Samosir island. Since the town is quite near to my hostel in Tuk Tuk, I decided to skip it for now and return to it on my last day on Samosir Island. I did go to what is known as the floating tomb, a very old tomb that has now been lifted from its original position in the ground by the growth of a fig tree.

After parking my bike and asked a local woman for directions, I made my way towards and was at the tomb in less than 5 minutes. I was there completely alone and everything suddenly went very silent and for a moment I had this eerie feeling growing in me and the urge to just get the hell out of there. But then of course, like always, my curiosity won, just how it always does.

I instantly noticed that it was just a small tomb, probably the tomb of somebody who died before he or she grew into an adult. The position of the tomb really tells a lot about how old the tomb is – although there is no way of telling how old exactly. I made one quick round around the tree, but slow enough to take a video of it, before returning to my bike in a brisk walk. Seriously, the silence was deafening.

From Tomok, I made my way up to the mountains and stopped at a restaurant with a sweeping view of the lake. The view from there was just surreal. I ordered a fried noodles with chicken and egg, together with a cold Coke which came so smoothly down my throat. I wish I could stay there longer but seriously I had no way of knowing how long I was gonna go so I had to leave as soon I had finished my meal. Not quite far from the restaurant was a waterfall that falls right onto the side the road. It was such a perfect place to clean up vehicles because of the very easy access to water.

Then from the waterfall I just rode higher up the mountains until I came to a point where the road splits. One of the roads would cut across the island – and would take me to the inner parts of Samosir, while the other would take me along the coastal areas so I would never lose sight of the lake.

“If you want to see more beautiful views, you go for the coastal road. If you want to shorten your ride you can take the inland road” a lady who happened to be around told me. I gave her some ringgit notes for that little advice that she gave me, which she excitedly took because she had never seen any ringgit notes before, while I vroomed my way off towards the coastal road.

And she was right. More and more beautiful scenery came unfolding right before me from there on. It really was a countryside with beautiful Batak villages and farms along the way.  I couldn’t get enough of the sight of buffaloes grazing over the grass fields – which were sometimes got intruded by the presence of overweight pigs and goats. They certainly live harmoniously with each other and I was so glad that I was there to witness it at least for the moment. Then there were the ponds to complete the whole countryside scenery, probably to provide source of drink water to the animals.

Then there would be churches (or chapels) and of course the beautiful cemeteries for which the people of Batak are known. Like seriously, the sizes and landscape decorations of cemeteries in Samosir (and probably beyond) really amaze me. I remember how the taxi driver that drove me from Parapat to Silangit airport joked about how Batak people spend more money on cemeteries than on their houses. It might be a joke but it really was the case. They put statues on their cemeteries, complete with metal railings as fences when they don’t have any on their houses.

Every now and then I’ll stop to take pictures – or just to enjoy the views – and I just could not believe how beautiful Lake Toba is. In fact some of the spots remind me of New Zealand – or perhaps some pictures of some beautiful fjords in Norway. They were just so surreal. The extra essences would be the presence of terraced paddy fields and even non-terraced ones when I reached the South-Eastern part of the island which consisted mostly of flat areas.

By then it was getting quite too late, and quite a few times I was not quite sure whether to turn back or to keep pushing on and explore more. Turning back would be quite of an anti-climax and there was no way I was gonna make it back to my hostel in Tuk Tuk without catching up with the night. So I decided to just push on and find somewhere that I could stay in for the night. In fact I also opened myself to the possibility of just knocking on someone’s door and begged to be allowed to stay in at least until the next morning. After all Batak people are known to be very accommodative.

Another stupidity that I later realized was the fact that I did not bring any warm clothes with me. The cold was beginning to bite into me as the evening wore off, and I could only pray that my ride would continue to be dry because seriously, it would be a disaster if a rain suddenly decided to come upon me.

In the meantime, the scenery along the way continued to amaze me. I mean, where else in the world can I ever see a beautiful spread of paddy fields that comes with a blue lake in the background – and a beautiful range of caldera further off in the back? The more I told myself to keep riding because it was getting too late, the more of my insta-self demanded that I should stop and take pictures because those views would probably never come back to me again. I only stopped stopping for pictures when things were too dark to be caught on my amateurish phone camera.

Then I started asking people about where to find a hotel. Good thing about the people of Samosir is the fact that they are good drinkers. They drink their own rice wine and they drink a lot so you’ll see them gathering around a table and drink their time away. It was easy to ask them if there was a hotel somewhere around. They were more than happy to tell me. I remember how glad I was when the first group that I asked told me of a hotel called Hotel Gorat. At least I was assured of a warm place to stay in for the night.  “About 1 kilometer from here” they told me when I asked how long it was going to take me to reach the said hotel.

So off I went and I was quite sure I had surpassed the 1 km while the hotel was still nowhere to be seen so I had to stop again to ask.  Again, I was told that I still had 1km to go – so I continued riding and I would stop to ask again when the said hotel did not come to sight. Bizarrely enough, each of the groups or individuals would keep saying with confidence that I had 1 km to go when it would still not come to me even after 1 km. In the end I decided that the people of Samosir had problems with deciding on a distance. LOL.

I was actually worried that it was getting to cold for me to continue riding so there was a big relief in me when the hotel – hotel Gorat – finally came into sight. All the check-in and check-out businesses were run from a little café just outside of the hotel so I was happy to have my dinner right there and avoid any necessity of going somewhere else in the cold.

The food was however so limited so I had to settle for a cold rice with egg, topped with some sauce with acidic pungent smell – and when the whole thing did not come smoothly on me, I had to request for them to cook something from their shop (which was part of the café) – a noodle soup to be exact – just so that my throat could tolerate more of the food. I happened to take a glimpse of the insides of the kitchen cubicle when I was paying for the food and I was so glad that only saw it when I was already done with my food. URghhh!

Hotel Gorat was a big hotel, and it had that grandeur of a 5-star hotel when seen from the outside, but once you are inside, you’ll see that it is just another run-down hotel, probably a left-over from the heydays when the tourism industry at Lake Toba was still booming. The room was huge and it had a huge wooden closet. I had to squash off lizard droppings from the bed before I had the courage to land myself on it. It was such a long long day for me but I was eager to find out what the next day would bring me to. I was not even half-way around the island!

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Horas Samosir!

Written By: jipp - Feb• 17•19

So after more than a year break from traveling, with the last trip was to Chiang Mai in October of 2017, I decided to return to it (traveling) this year and decided to go somewhere for Chinese New Year public holiday. So when I saw that a return ticket to Lake Toba would only cost me RM225, I immediately went ‘why not?’ I was even more exhilarated when I found out that a room at Bagus Bay Homestay – which is like one of the top lodges on Samosir island – would only cost me about RM160 for 6 damn nights. In the end I only changed some RM600 to rupiah, which made my trip to Lake Toba one of the cheapest travel trips thus far!

So I flew directly from KL to Silangit Airport near Lake Toba – instead of flying to Medan like most travelers had to do before this new airport was opened. I have heard so much about gruesome experiences that travelers had to go through going on the ride from Medan to Lake Toba so I was glad that I didn’t have to do it. From Silangit Airport, I took the free ride offered by a bus called Damri which dropped me off near the Tiga Raja jetty in Parapat from where I would be taking a boat to the lake island of Samosir.

Parapat that I found out is a very nice lakeside town. I checked myself in at a budget hotel called Hotel Bagus Inn – which is probably the nearest hotel to Tiga Raja jetty. At IDR100,000 per night (MYR30), the room was very basic but it would do me just fine for the night. I really like that the room has a veranda from where I could get a sweeping view of the Tiga Raja market and also the jetty and what there was beyond.

Hotel Bagus Inn in Parapat

But of course being near to the market means you have to know how to shut yourself down to all the noises from the market and the traffic. The people in Parapat (and probably the whole of Indonesia) honk their cars and motorbikes a lot so you gotta make yourself get used to it or you’ll go crazy before long. Then the Batak people – which dominate the population – are quite loud too. They joke a lot and they talk at the top of their lungs. But I really like them. They are so friendly and welcoming to outsiders.

So from Parapat I went on a 40-minute boat ride to a place called Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island. The most amazing thing is, the boat would drop passengers off at the jetty nearest to their respective hotels so it really was so hassle-free. Once I landed ashore at the jetty, I was at Bagus Bay Homestay in less than 10 minutes. Talking about convenience!

I liked Bagus Bay Homestay almost instantly when I got there. It is very green and I feel like being so close to nature. The restaurant is probably one of the best in Tuk Tuk and it has all kinds of foods and drinks and the great ambiance was a big plus. The pork rendang was definitely my favorite among all the meals that they offered – or at least among those that I had ordered. The combination of curry and coconut just clicked at the right spot of my appetite I actually found myself ordering it over and over again – even to the very last day of my stay at Bagus Bay Homestay.

The room is very basic – it has the bed, a little wooden rack where I put my stuff on – and that’s it. There was one power socket, but I had to be creative with fitting in my hand phone charger because the universal adapter that I took with me would easily slip off the socket under the weight of its bulkiness.

There is a mosquito net which I never got to use anyway because I think the mosquitoes were bearable even without the net. They did not provide towel and shower stuff but thanks God I’ve been traveling quite extensively for the past few years (except for last year of course) that I already knew how to be prepared when going on a budget trip such as this one.

The only downside is probably the rooms being far from sound-proof so it is quite a problem for those who have a sensitive pair of ears. I mean, I was not surprised when the American guy who stayed next door when I first came in moved to another room on the next day. I remember how somebody came nudging at my back in the middle of the night when I and my friend Frank joined a hiking package in New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Watching the Batak dance and folks song performances at Bagus Bay Homestay

I would have been more prepared this time if he came to me but he never did. He did not even say anything when I bumped into him several times all throughout my stay at Bagus Bay Homestay so I just went with the flow and pretended like nothing ever happened at all. LOL.

My favorite part of the whole homestay is the lounging area at the lakeside.  I really like to go there and take in the moment and everything that comes with it – the beautiful view, the serenity of the lake, the relaxing ambiance, the cooling atmosphere – everything. I could spend hours just lounging idly on one of the wooden chairs and watch the world go by – usually until it was too cold or dark to stay outside, then I’d return to my room and do whatever there was to do for the night. I certainly had no specific plan and my trip this time was intended to be such.

For me there is something so relaxing about being on Samosir island. It is so peaceful and for one I felt so glad that there were not many tourists around when I was there. Lake Toba was once a top tourist destination in the region but somehow it had diminished down for reasons that I am still trying to apprehend. When I was there, people would compare it with Bali, which remains the top tourist destination in Indonesia for so many years now.

Lake Toba has all it takes – and one of the locals insisted that Lake Toba is even more beautiful than Bali. I had to agree with him. The fact that Lake Toba is a fresh water lake makes it stand out from the rest (counting in the size of the lake of course). The weather is cool and it doesn’t have the saltiness and tackiness that you’ll get from the air at sea beaches.

Tuk Tuk

But then he was fast to admit that the people around Lake Toba have mostly embraced the modern cultures brought about by Westerners (or may be the more modern people from other regions) so they are losing the cultural appeals that the people in Bali still very much retain.

One of the very first things that struck me when I first arrived at Lake Toba was the existence of so many churches. I mean, churches of all sizes and designs can be found all over the island of Samosir and beyond. It’s like every village has at least a couple of churches – probably one for the Catholics and the other for Protestants. Samosir for one is so Christian – it is even more Christian than most places that I’ve to in the Philippines.

I did make my time attending the Sunday mass at the Catholic Church near to Bagus Bay Homestay. Although the mass was run in Batak language, I had no problem aligning myself to it because Catholic masses are pretty much standard everywhere in the world. One thing I immediately noticed was the dresses of the locals at the mass. They were so dressed up I actually spent most of my time at the mass gazing at their beautiful dresses. I felt so out-of-place dressed in a simple hiking trousers with a tattered round-neck T-shirt but then that was all I had – or rather the best I had on this trip. Heh.

I did do a little bit of hiking to some of the hills near Tuk Tuk and the views were simply amazing. The sweeping view of Tuk Tuk and the rolling hills and the blue lake all around – then the surrounding caldera – they just come straight out of a picture postcard. I saw buffaloes in muddy pools – something that I used to see a lot when I was a kid but not quite anymore – not in  a very long time but this. Being an animal lover now, I can’t bear looking at their roped noses though, something that seemed so normal when I was a kid. I can imagine myself being roped in the nose all the time – the difficulty in breathing and all. It must be so choking for them.

Nights at Tuk Tuk can be deafeningly silent. The travelers at Bagus Bay Homestay would go to the restaurant and spend their time chatting up til late at night – usually over beers. I did join them a couple of times, but somehow I did not really feel like engaging myself with other travelers this time. I did however get on quite well with somebody by the name of Loh from Klang in Malaysia, who at 70 years plus is still very much actively roaming the world. The most amazing thing is, he’d usually go on his own!

He told me about his epic journey in the US, where he did a hike with a Japanese in Grand Canyon but had to turn back after awhile because he just couldn’t keep up with him. Then how he had to disembark from a bus full of Mexicans because the bus had entered Mexico without going through any immigration check (he ran back to the US side and walked back into Mexico the proper way) then how he was detained at Honduran border check because he was suspected of being a Chinese dissident in light of the student massacre on Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Me and Mr. Loh in front of Batak Museum in Tomok

He was quite of a story-teller and I have to admit I enjoyed listening to him and his stories but some of his thoughts are quite too traditional for me. He might have traveled the world but I think a big chuck of his minds is still very much stuck right where it was before he started traveling and arguing back would have been a waste of time because I know it is not easy to change something that’s been developed in one’s head – probably for half a century in his case.

In the end I would just nod to whatever he had to say. I think he enjoyed being listened to quite too much that he decided to come with me when I crossed back over to Parapat the day before I was set to return to KL. But then, I did find quite a big chuck of inspiration in him too. For me, an old man is like a library. You have to read as much of its books as possible while it – the library – is still there.

One of the highlights of my trip to Lake Toba is my motorbike ride around the island of Samosir. It really gave me the opportunity to explore more of this island and see for myself why Lake Toba was once considered the top tourist destination in the region. But of course I would have to spare that for another post.

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