Clear water with a forest at Lake Toba, Sumatra

Backpacking in Sumatra – 17-Day Planning & Route

This post was last updated on May 25th, 2020 at 09:58 am

Sumatra is one of the most beautiful destinations in Indonesia. The island is much less visited than cultural Java or relaxed Bali, but lovers of nature and wildlife should really go backpacking in Sumatra. Here you can walk off the beaten track, spot wild orangutans, and spend the night in the middle of the jungle. And another great thing: you are often the only tourist there. An unforgettable destination for the adventurous backpacker or world traveler and perfect for a tour of a few weeks.


We spent 17 days – just under 2.5 weeks – to cover the stretch from Medan in North Sumatra to Padang in West Sumatra. 700 kilometers of bad roads and dense jungle, and enough time to enjoy this special island. We combine trips through the jungle with relaxing moments at the most beautiful lakes in Indonesia. Wondering which route we followed and which places we have seen?


Take a look at our 17-day route and travel itinerary for a backpacking trip in Sumatra.


Backpacking in Sumatra

Planning and Route for a 17-Day Tour of Sumatra

Sumatra - Route and Planning for a 17 Day Backpacking Tour


Medan (1 Night)

Dark clouds over Medan Train Station


We start our backpacking adventure in Sumatra in the city of Medan, located in the northeast of the island. It is the largest city in Sumatra and very hectic with streets full of roaring scooters and dirty air. We arrive in the dark, and it is quite difficult to see something beautiful here. From the taxi we see dark streets and busy traffic passing by, and that is exactly what you are not looking for when you travel across Sumatra. Although Medan certainly has its highlights, we decide to stick around in Medan for one night.


Where to stay: Thong’s Inn Kualanamu Transit Hotel is a great option in the center of Medan. The beds were very comfortable and a great option for a short stay or a transit. At night this location will light up beautifully. We are especially happy with the free shuttle service from the airport. The breakfast had surprising elements, such as peanut butter for your toast. The park looks great during the day and the transport to Bukit Lawang, our next destination in Sumatra, is fairly cheap.


Bukit Lawang (4 Nights)

Orangutan cub swinging from the trees in the Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra


The choice not to linger in Medan for too long is quickly made. The next stop: Bukit Lawang. Off to the jungle. Everyone who goes backpacking in Sumatra goes here, and so did we. On day 2 we use the local bus to get to this village on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park within a few hours. A lovely place, located directly on a river. There is a lot of choice of guesthouses and you will encounter a lot of backpackers here.


We arranged a nice place to sleep at Sam’s Bungalows, where we spend the night in a nice bungalow with a view of the jungle. We spend one night in Bukit Lawang and then go trekking through the jungle. On the way we see golden brown orangutans swinging through the trees and we slept in a tent in the jungle. After two days of suffering in the bush, we return to the village for two more nights in Bukit Lawang, before we pack our backpack and travel on.


Where to stay: Sam’s Bungalows is a lovely place at the end of the village. The room is really neat and the food from the accompanying restaurant is delicious. Read our extensive blog post about our stay at Sam’s Bungalows.


Read more about us spotting orangutans during our trek in Bukit Lawang.


Lake Toba (5 Nights)

Beautiful blue water, sky and jungle at Lake Toba


It takes several hours to drive from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba. The distances we cover in Sumatra are not that long, but overland travel is just very slow here. Because the whole operation would take extra time by public transport, we decide to go there by minivan. The jungle changes into a volcanic landscape, and after almost 12 hours of travel, we’re finally at our destination. Lake Toba is the largest lake in Asia and is formed by a collapsed volcano crater. Samosir Island is located in the lake, and for the next few days, we will stay in the town of Tuk Tuk, a real backpacker Valhalla.


In the meantime, we move from our guesthouse once again, but our days here also consist of relaxing, eating, and reading. We swim in the lake, get a massage, rent a scooter, and enjoy the special environment. Lake Toba is a place where you can still see a lot of remains of the original inhabitants (headhunters!). And if you are a bit interested in culture then you’ve come to the right place. Many people who go backpacking in Sumatra hang around longer than planned and we can understand that.


Where to stay: Bagus Bay Homestay is a place where you can sleep in a real Batak house, but they also have normal rooms. This guesthouse has a lovely garden with fruit trees and hammocks, and during breakfast, they serve delicious sandwiches with avocado. It is a short walk to the center of Tuk Tuk, but it’s nice and quiet.


Read more about the best things to do at Samosir Island and Lake Toba.


Night Bus to Bukittinggi

And then it is time for the hellish bus ride that takes us to the other side of Sumatra. The trip from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi takes 17 hours, but there are not many other options. Back to Medan takes four hours and then we have to get to Padang by plane. So we choose the bus ride from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi and look further there. Backpacks are tied on the roof and with a bag full of snacks we start this journey.


The bus is far from comfortable: the air conditioning is too high, someone behind us has a living creature, and we do our best to drink as little as possible because the tight toilet cubicle is very dirty. Fortunately, the journey is always faster when you think of the worst, so we thought it was “doable”.


Bukittinggi (3 Nights)

Jam Gadang (Clocktower) next to the main street in Bukittinggi


We still have a few days before flying from Sumatra to Java, and we spend three of them in Bukittinggi itself. Here too you see a lot of the indigenous tribes that used to live in this area, but just a bit different than at Lake Toba. We spend a day checking out the Rafflesia Forest Reserve (for the special Rafflesia flowers), look at the surroundings of the town, and then we felt we’ve spent enough time there. Bukittinggi is a great base to view the area, but we say goodbye to the busy traffic and the singing mosques and look for tranquility.


Where to stay: Treeli Boutique Hotel & Hello Guesthouse. In Bukkittinggi we spent the first night in the Treeli Boutique Hotel to recover from the long bus journey. The rooms are very clean and tidy and have air conditioning. The restaurant on the roof terrace also serves excellent dishes. If you have a little less to spend, Hello Guesthouse is a good option. The friendly owner can help you plan your trip to Sumatra and there are few hostels where you get such tasty breakfasts as here.


Read more about What to do in Bukittinggi & surroundings.


Lake Maninjau (2 Nights)

Rice field terraces with Lake Maninjau in the distance (Danau Maninjau)


Because Lake Toba was so great, we decide to lock ourselves up for a few more days in a village on the much smaller Lake Maninjau. This is also a crater lake, and actually even more beautiful than Lake Toba. The lake is surrounded by volcanoes, bright green rice fields, and long rows of palm trees. We are the only tourists in the whole village and sleep in a small homestay where we can sit on the water, drink beers and swim. Again, we do very little, but it is a great place to relax completely. The most serene piece so far and a nice ending to our tour of Sumatra.


Where to stay: Beach Guest House. The rooms are very basic, but the owner is very sweet and the view over the lake is fantastic.


Padang (1 Night)

With a little pain in our hearts, we say goodbye to Lake Maninjau. Because we will fly to Jakarta early, we choose a hotel on the outskirts of the city, so we don’t go all the way into Padang. Via we arrange a room in a five-star hotel for a ridiculously low price, and that did turn out to be too good to be true on arrival. Fortunately, the bed is clean, big, and soft, and there is a KFC in the shopping center around the corner. We conclude our last evening in Sumatra with strange films on the film channel and take away chicken in our king size bed.


Where to stay: Musa Enda B&B. If you are looking for a hotel that is not too far from Padang airport, then it is recommended to book a room at Musa Enda B&B. Kind owners, neat rooms, and reasonably close to the airport.


TIP – Read more about Padang here!


Alternative Travel Routes Through Sumatra

Are you going backpacking in Sumatra? The above route over Sumatra is a perfect combination of nature and culture. Ideal for backpackers on a budget, because the prices are quite low here. You travel through beautiful areas and each town has its own traditions. In 17 days we saw a lot, but at the same time, we also took our time with everything. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a perfect route for Sumatra.


You can complete this route in fewer days (for example 2 weeks), but then you naturally have less time to relax. If you have more time, you can visit an island off the coast or visit the beaches under Padang. If you have less time (for example 1 or 1.5 weeks) you can return to Medan after Lake Toba. Because even in the latter case you get a good picture of this beautiful island.


After our tour of Sumatra, we stayed for another week in Java, and then we flew to Singapore and Malaysia. You could also choose to stay in Indonesia and continue traveling to Bali and Lombok, for example. Check out all our tips for Lombok.


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