This Chinese New Year (CNY) is special and meaningful for DS and I as it was spent outside Singapore.  We went on a 4D3N holiday in Lake Toba on Sumatra Island, Indonesia (13-16 Feb).

Lake Toba, viewed from Sipiso-piso Waterfall in the Karo highlands, on our way from Brastagi to Medan.

It is rare for us to travel during CNY and the last time we did so was nine years ago when we had to go to Honolulu, Hawaii (DS was on a work assignment and had to work through CNY!).  However, what actually made this trip special and meaningful is the destination.  It is where DS and I had our honeymoon in 1990.  To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this year (in a few months’ time), DS thought it would be a good idea to re-visit Lake Toba.  It was difficult to find an agency that offers packaged tours to Lake Toba nowadays.  The usual well known travel agencies that I called did not have any such arrangements.  Fortunately a friend recommended us an unheard-of agency that happened to have a departure on the eve of CNY, and we jumped on the opportunity.

I am not sure how many people would like the idea of re-visiting their honeymoon destinations after many years but we are most happy to have done so.  It gave us the opportunity to reminisce about our honeymoon, and to see what have changed after 20 years.

Our group was a small one consisting of only 13 people, including both of us.  We were very fortunate that they, including a lively family of 5, are very nice and friendly people.  That made the entire trip very pleasant although the tour guide was a disappointment.  He is an Indonesia Chinese that is not only inexperienced, but also incapable of communicating effectively to us.  He does not speak English and is poor at Mandarin.  So, he ended up speaking Hokkien most of the time!  Even so, we could not fully understand him because there are differences in the dialect between Indonesia and Singapore.

Our tour itinerary was largely similar to that 20 years ago.  It is interesting (or perhaps sad?) that many things seem to still remain the same after 20 years.

Aero-bridge is still not used at Polonia International Airport Medan.  We had to walk from the plane to the airport building on arrival and vice versa on departure.

Poor handling of baggage

Just like 20 years ago, the road conditions are still very poor.  In you are unable to take the long, bumpy and winding roads, then this is definitely not the kind of holiday you should consider.  Travel from one location to another often took a few hours.  My buttock was painful after the first leg of journey from Medan to Parapat which took us slightly over five hours.  Fortunately, we had our MP3 players to keep us entertained!  I also suffered from many mosquito bites on both legs after the trip.  I hope I won’t get dengue!

Public toilets there are still very backward and mostly poorly maintained.  This is definitely incomparable to developed countries like Japan where we just had a 13-day holiday there last December (I will probably blog about this someday).  It would definitely be worse than a nightmare for me if I had not brought along my Whiz Freedom and disposable toilet seat covers.  It is important to be well-prepared especially when travelling on a less developed country.

Standard of living is so low that cleanliness and hygiene seem unimportant at all.  Pollution is also bad, so bad that by the end of each day, our nostrils were covered with black dust (no exaggerating).  We were shocked to discover this when we cleaned them during our shower.  Photos below are self-explanatory.  It has been a very long time since DS and I last travelled to a less developed country.  Obviously,  our standard has gone up so much in the last 20 years that I find some of these things intolerable.  I count it a great blessing to be living in Singapore.  While I appreciate what we have in Singapore now, I also can’t help feeling sad for these people and the country as a whole.

In Medan, shortly after Polonia International Airport which is just a short 10-minute drive from the city centre

Look at the pollution.  Spotted this during our brief stop-over at a local tidbit shop enroute to Parapat (Lake Toba)

A bare-footed lady in the middle of the road under the hot sun.  I saw her standing up begging for money after this shot was taken. We even had a beggar came knocking on the window glass asking for money when our bus was waiting for the traffic lights to turn green.

Would you want a bath in this bath tub?  This is the bath tub in our room at Niagra Hotel, Parapat which is said to be the best hotel there! Maintenance standard is poor in the hotels we stayed, even in hotel that are said to be 5-star.  We experienced leaking basin, damaged water tap knob etc.

Parapat local market

A boy cleaning his legs by Lake Toba

A boy eating is food in front of the shop by the road side at Tomok village, Samosir Island

Boys happily having their bath in Lake Toba at Ambarita.  The girls do the same too.

Can you guess what building this is?  It is a hotel where we stopped over to have ginger tea while on our way to Brastagi.  It seems to me that the building is going to collapse anytime!  Its restroom condition was horrible too.

A boy playing with sands in front of the shops at Karo Highlands where the Sipiso-piso waterfall is.

Rubbish dump with lots of flies at the local market in Brastagi.  It is probably hard for many to imagine that the tour agency there has actually made the dirty local market a tourist attraction!

Horse shits found everywhere in the local market!  We find it disgusting that they actually allow horses in such a place. Horse riding is a competitive business there!

A road-side food stall in Medan city

Another aspect of change in us in the last 20 years is our standard and expectation for food.  Then, we had no problems with the food but during this trip, we realised how our life style has improved over the years that we found the food completely unappetizing and unexciting.  Not to be insulting, we thought a bowl of instant noodles would be far more delicious than some of the food we had eaten during the 4 days.  I was dying for a good meal back in Singapore!  Service standard, be it in the restaurant or shopping mall, is generally poor too.

I think Indonesia is fortunate to have been blessed with Lake Toba, a beautiful natural attraction.  However, it is also a pity that it seems that not much has been done to upkeep and even improve the conditions of that part of the country to maximize its full potential for tourism.

It was not at all negative though.  I will share photos of some of the attractions in my next entry.


3 thoughts on “VACATION AT LAKE TOBA – AFTER 20 YEARS (part 1)”

  1. Thank you for the blog.It has been twenty five years that we went to Lake Toba on our honey moon and I have been yearning to go back on our twenty fifth anniversary. This article is very interesting to us. As everybody we talked to in Singapore was not very encouraging. Your note is nothing short of it. I still want to go there and I want to make the best of it if at all possible. I am afraid I am intent on destroying my beautiful old memories.
    My questions are:
    1. Is there anything good that you found that made you happy? Coming from India originally, we have all seen poverty and will see so in the future. But that is another subject where we all need to do something about.
    2. Is there anything you can do to have made it better, such as more research and a better travel arrangements, if so any ideas to help us?
    3. Did you the market if Bristagi an interesting one as we found many temperate fruits,flowers and vegetables?
    4. Did you see the beautiful old farm houses of old times or all have been destroyed?

    Please give us the feedback if possible.

    PS. this was posted in 2010. Where is part 2?

  2. Hi Birendra, thanks for visiting my blog and your comments.

    I think enjoyment of the place is very personal. Although I was not partiularly impressed with the place, I was glad to have made the trip again with my husband after 20 years.

    My husband and I enjoy travelling on free-and-easy but my personal view is that such kind of travel will be quite a challenge for Lake Toba/Medan, given the lack of developed/proper roads and proper transportation system. Language can be a problem too. So, a package tour from Singapore is recommendable.

    Most of the fruits/vegetables/flowers sold in the Brastagi market can be found in Singapore, and the market condition is poor and very dirty, so I would have given that a miss if not for the packaged tour.

    I am afraid I do not know of any beautiful old farm houses that you mentioned.

    Part 2 can be found on this link :


  3. 01/30/2012

    Dear Ms. Qing, Thank you very much for the reply. I read both article by you, one with critical observations and other with beautiful pictures with informative comments. I could not find any other informative articles besides yours. May be I have not tried hard enough. I realize that every one sees with a different perspective and a revisit is never the same. Often i do not like to revisit places as usually we only remember the good parts and thus our memories are with rose colored glasses. Our first trip was from Singapore twenty five years ago and we went as a whole family. We are trying to swing it again but our father is not with us any more. Let us see what happens. Mahalo ( Hawaiian thank you)

    Thank you for the reply and all the best.


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