Sumatra travel guide

The Indonesian island of Sumatra was the inspiration for Skull Island, home to the legendary movie monster King Kong. Not nearly so well-explored as many other parts of the island nation, Sumatra is a place where you can still get a sense of isolation and adventure – and see some incredibly diverse wildlife while you’re at it.
Orangutans may be the most famous resident here, but the rainforest also hides Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants – all of them endangered and getting more so.
But Sumatra has lost almost 50 percent of its tropical rainforest in the last 35 years. Deforestation has been so intense that smoke from the burning trees has caused tension with neighbouring countries. Yet rainforest trekking in search of wildlife remains one of the principal reasons to visit Sumatra, as does meeting the tribal communities around Lake Toba, and seeing sunrise at the summit of an active volcano.

Read our Sumatra travel guide to find out more.

Sumatra is…

a real-life Skull Island where rhinos, tigers and elephants populate the forests, but thankfully the largest apes are the orangutans.

Sumatra isn’t…

as well-explored as many Indonesian islands, so you still get a sense of wonder and adventure.

What does a Sumatra holiday entail?

Sumatra holidays are usually small group trips with up to around 16 participants. You’ll have a tour leader accompanying you, as well as local guides that are absolutely vital and enlightening especially when it comes to visiting tribal villages in rural areas. Sumatra is often combined with other Indonesian islands such as Flores, Bali and the fearsome Komodo, and tours that focus on Sumatra alone last for up to 12 days. Itineraries might zoom in on orangutan watching, or take a wider approach with lots of trekking and cultural interaction involved.

Getting around in Sumatra can be tricky, with varying quality in road surfaces. Most trips focus on the north of the island, however, so there are not too many long drives involved. Key destinations, including Gunung Leuser National Park, Medan and Lake Toba are all bunched fairly close together.
Trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park, a common feature of Sumatra holidays though rarely the sole focus, can be heavy going over difficult terrain, particularly the further you go in, but if you want to see orangutans in the wild, this is the best way. It highlights the importance of joining guided small group trips, which will also be able to easily arrange porters. Some trips involve camping, during which you’ll be sharing a twin tent. You’ll need rubber-soled shoes for riverside walking. Bring your own water purification tablets and keep an eye out for the occasional leech.

“Take plenty of insect repellant and lightweight clothes. When in Sumatra make sure you are really fit before doing the one-day trek, as it is more than challenging as [there’s a] very steep ravine to climb up in high humidity. Just relax and enjoy it.” – Val Golding on an Indonesia wildlife holiday

Our top Sumatra Holiday

Sumatra small group holiday

Sumatra small group holiday

Venture to Indonesia’s wild, wild west

From £748 to £1025 9 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 1 Apr, 8 Apr, 13 May, 17 Jun, 1 Jul, 22 Jul, 12 Aug, 9 Sep, 16 Sep, 7 Oct, 21 Oct
2024: 30 Mar, 13 Apr, 20 Apr, 11 May, 8 Jun, 29 Jun, 6 Jul, 20 Jul, 10 Aug, 7 Sep, 28 Sep, 19 Oct
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Sumatra or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sumatra map & highlights

Part of the Sunda Islands group in the west of the Indonesian archipelago, Sumatra is the largest all-Indonesian island, and the sixth largest island in the world. You’ll typically arrive into Medan and focus on the north of the island. Key destinations include Berastagi and Bukit Lawang, the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park, while Lake Toba lies slightly further to the south. Focusing your Sumatra holiday on the north allows you to see a lot in a short space of time, as well as reducing the amount of time you spend bumping along potholed roads on long drives. Packing an inflatable travel cushion is highly recommended.

1. Berastagi

Home to the Karo people who live in traditional longhouses, Berastagi is a hill station at an elevation of 1,400m, making for a cooler climate that offers relief from the sometimes stifling equatorial rainforest. You can stock up on fresh fruit at the local market before taking a guided one-day climb up volcanic Mount Sibayak.
Bukit Lawang

2. Bukit Lawang

A bumpy three-hour drive west of Medan, Bukit Lawang is usually the second stop on Sumatra holidays. This peaceful riverside village is the base for treks into Gunung Leuser National Park and one of the best places to see orangutans in Sumatra. When not trekking or ape-ogling, you can take a cycle rickshaw ride or visit a village home for an Indonesian cookery demonstration and homemade lunch.
Gunung Leuser National Park

3. Gunung Leuser National Park

Gunung Leuser is UNESCO-listed and the island’s premier trekking destination. One of the world’s largest national parks, it’s home to some 80 percent of Sumatra’s wild orangutan population, as well as over 300 bird species and nearly 200 other mammals – from Sumatran tigers and elephants, to rhinos and monkeys. Longer treks between orangutan feeding stations are possible and involve wild camping.
Lake Toba

4. Lake Toba

Lake Toba is an impressive spectacle. It’s the largest lake in Indonesia, and comes with an island at its centre that’s almost the size of Singapore. Indonesia’s highest waterfall is here, too, but the main attraction is the Batak villages dotted around Samosir Island. The people wear bright homemade clothing, they follow animist traditions as well as Christianity, and their boat-like houses have pitched roofs shaped like buffalo horns.

5. Medan

Medan is a city of shopkeepers – loud, busy and polluted but bursting with character. It’s the capital of northern Sumatra and the most common entry and exit point for trips here. You probably won’t spend too much time in Medan before heading further afield, but you’ll be here long enough to appreciate its unique blend of Islamic and European architecture, as well as splendid Chinese merchants’ houses.
Mount Sibayak

6. Mount Sibayak

It’s over a century since Mount Sibayak last erupted, but there’s still plenty of geothermal activity going on. You’ll see steaming vents on the way to the crater lake, and you can soak in a hot spring afterwards to reward your efforts. It takes around 90 minutes to get to the top for sunrise. It’s not very physically demanding, but as trails aren’t well-marked or maintained it’s necessary to go up with a guide.

Responsible tourism

It’s estimated that Sumatra has lost around 50 percent of its forest in the last 22 years. This loss of crucial habitat, combined with poaching, has left many species such as Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans on the brink of extinction.

Proving the value of the rainforest and its wildlife through tourism is one of the best ways to convince the government to conserve it. We believe that any visit to Sumatra should involve at least some time spent in a national park like Gunung Leuser. In markets, we advise avoiding any handicrafts made of wood or paper just to be on safe side, as illegal logging remains rife.

Book your trip with a responsible tour operator to ensure that guides are likely to be drawn from local communities. Also, spend time in rural villages, ensuring that tourism income reaches people that need it – and hopefully encouraging them to protect their island’s fragile environment too.

If your Sumatra holiday inspires you to act, then the biggest change you can make back home is to look out for palm oil-free products whenever you can. Palm oil production is among the main causes of deforestation in Sumatra and many other parts of the world, especially around Southeast Asia.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Denys Kutsevalov] [Is/Isn't: Jack] [What does a Sumatra holiday entail?: Argoitz rgi] [Berastagi: Christian Advs Sltg] [Bukit Lawang: Madeleine Holland] [Gunung Leuser National Park: Nomo] [Lake Toba: Visions of Domino] [Medan: Mimihitam] [Mount Sibayak: Palma Bernardo Alexius Hutabarat]