Originally hailing from Northern Thailand and Myanmar, the Batak people were driven out of their homes by invading Mongolian and Siamese tribes. Crossing South East Asia, they arrived in Sumatra and made their first settlements on Palau Samosir, the island which occupies the massive Lake Toba (Danau Toba) and they sure picked a great place to make their home. Finding peace in the beautiful lush green landscape of Palau Samosir, protected by the mountains and utilising the plentiful waters of Lake Toba, the Batak people lived in isolation here for years, cutting themselves off from the outside world. Today, the Batak people aren’t as insular and will welcome you into their island home with open arms.
With plenty long bus journeys on rough roads, trekking Sumatra’s highest volcano in less that perfect conditions and more trekking planned for when we would reach Berastagi, we decided to make the journey to Lake Toba to chill out and give our bodies a break for a few days and it was the perfect place for it.
Sumatrans are heavy smokers, really heavy smokers; it’s a running joke that they are influenced by the volcanos on the island which, like the locals, are always smoking! A five-hour public bus from Medan to Parapat, the jumping off point for Palau Samosir, wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke the entire way. Getting off the bus in Parapat, we stank like ashtrays and felt we had smoked a hundred cigarettes ourselves but thankfully it was going to be nothing but good, clean, fresh air for the next few days. The port area in Parapat had a small jetty with two ferries tied to it, after enquiring which one was going out next, we jumped aboard and started the short, 35-minute journey to the little village of Tuk Tuk on Palau Samosir.
Batak architecture is really unique. At the front of the home the roof rises into a large curved point, almost like a handle on the front of the house. As we were arriving late we had booked ahead, the accommodation we were staying in was all traditional Batak houses around a small garden. Climbing a ladder to our room on the second floor, we had to duck down to get through the tiny door, the bed was on the floor and the interior was all wooden; it was like staying in a tree-house! Over the following days we went for short walks, swam in the cool waters of the lake and got some much-needed rest.
One evening a performance of traditional Batak dance and music was put on for the few visitors on the island and we went along to see it. Batak people are known to be very musical and you could tell it was true as you walked around in the evening time after dark listening to guitars being played in most homes.
With our time in Lake Toba coming to an end, we rented a motorbike and spent the whole day driving around the island. In Ambaritta there were 300 year old stone chairs where the Batak elders used to discuss important matters, try those accused of breaking the traditional laws and behead those found guilty! In fact, the Batak people used to dine on the flesh of captured enemies and law breakers up until 1816, thankfully their cannibal ways are long behind them.
Driving through the countryside was beautiful, the views of the mountains across the lake, bright green rice fields, strange, tiered graves, simple catholic churches (most Bataks are now Catholic) and small friendly villages lined our route. Circling back towards Tamok for our last night on the island we stopped at a restaurant and really saw what an important function the lake still has for the locals, many of who live very simple lives. A mother and her kids were down at the shore, kids jumping into the lake, the mother washing clothes, then bathing the kids and just beyond them a man casting his nets from a small wooden canoe. The sky’s colours changed dramatically, a rainbow appeared out on the lake and we just sat, soaking up the peaceful vibe of Danau Toba. The Batak people couldn’t have picked a more perfect spot.