Samosir: The Island That Tourism Forgot

Restaurant after restaurant gapes open. The lights are on. The waiters stand by. When you pass, they call out: “Come, have dinner here. We have fresh fish.” In the bars, live bands are playing to a crowd of three. Only the local bars, where nothing but tuak (palm-wine) is served, are packed. Someone is strumming the guitar. Others are singing along to the Batak tunes. The atmosphere is jovial though subdued. Life goes on, whether there is work or not.

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Like locusts, the mass of tourists flow into paradisaical spots around the world, settle for a while, then take off, leaving devastation behind. Only to land in the next trendy place. Then another. Fads rule our travel plans. Our grandparents vacationed in their own country. Our parents in nearby countries, like Spain and France. In my lifetime, the in-destinations for Europeans have fluctuated from the Canary and Greek islands, to Tunisia and Turkey, then Thailand, the Caribbean and Bali. The quicker the jets fly, the further we go.

Samosir Island in Lake Toba, Northern Sumatra was once high on the list of must-visit places in Asia. A cool respite from the blazing coastal towns, the island may seem like a great stopover for a few days’ rest. But as soon as you get off the ferry from mainland Parapat and the fresh air fills your lungs, you know you’ll want to stay longer. Not only because of the green hills lined with narrow waterfalls, the fresh-water lake ideal for afternoon swims or the traditional Batak houses shaped as medieval ships. You’ll feel like you’ve stumbled on one of those enchanted destinations yet to be discovered. Only it was already discovered, colonized and hip, with outrageous full-moon parties in the late nineties. Then the locusts moved on. No one really knows why. Perhaps it was because of the war with the separatist guerrilla movement in the northern Aceh region. Or the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. Whatever the reason, the wave of tourists carved out another route, bypassing Lake Toba, leaving Samosir’s hotels and restaurants hauntingly abandoned.

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That’s why now is a great time to visit. The prices are ridiculously low: $7 hotel rooms with balcony and lake view; $15 fresh grilled fish dinner for two, including beer; $5/day for bike rental. But more than anything because you’ll get an off-the-beaten track experience with all the modern conveniences. You can ride into any village, stop your bike and say hello – the friendly Batak people will welcome you into their museum-style abodes. Walk by a wedding, and you’ll be invited to join. Stop for a beer in any village, and the barman will play you a song on his guitar. Poke your head into a classroom and the kids will die laughing at your funny faces. In the evening, return to Tuk-Tuk, the main town, and have your cappuccino, pizza or burger with fries if you don’t like local food. Or order a spicy barbecued tilapia, caught only minutes ago, that melts in your mouth and leaves you dreaming for more.

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Samosir is too fantastic to be missed. Do yourself a favor and get there before the crowds sniff up the scent again.

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