Once upon a time along the backpacker trail, travellers sailed the high seas to reach the island of Sumatra, touching down in one of the international ports: Batam, Belawan (near Medan), Pekanbaru or Dumai. But the era of budget airlines has made the friendly skies a faster and more affordable option for international arrivals. As fuel prices and fares for land and sea travel soar, airfares consistently take a nose dive.
Keep in mind that Sumatra is one hour behind Singapore time.
Medan is Sumatra's primary international airport, with frequent flights to mainland Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. In West Sumatra, Padang receives flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur several times a week. In eastern Sumatra, Palembang is linked to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The primary international carriers include Garuda Indonesia, Malaysian Airlines, Lion Air, Tiger Airways, Air Asia, Firefly and Silk Air.
You can also hop on a plane from Jakarta to every major Sumatran city aboard Garuda, Merpati, Jatayu, Mandala or Sriwijaya. Flights from Sumatra to other parts of Indonesia typically connect through Jakarta. One notable exception is Merpati's flight between Medan and Pontianak (Kalimantan).
All Sumatran airports charge a departure tax ol 75,000Rp to 150,000Rp for international flights.
Many travellers still heed the call of the sea and enter Sumatra by ferry from Malaysia. There are two primary port options: Melaka (Malaysia) to Dumai (Indonesia) or Penang (Malaysia) to Belawan (Indonesia). If you don't have a lot of time to explore Sumatra, Belawan is your best option, as it is a short bus ride from Medan, which sits at the centre of most tourist attractions. Dumai is on Sumatra's east coast and is a five-hour bus ride to Bukittingg.
From Singapore, ferries make the quick hop to Pulau Batam and Bintan, the primary islands in the Riau archipelago. Mainly
Singaporean weekenders heading to beaches and resorts in the Riau islands use these water routes.
From Batam, boats serve the following mainland Sumatran ports: Dumai, Palembang and Pekanbaru. Only a few backpackers depart Batam for Sumatra because all of these ports but Dumai are a long way from postcard-worthy spots. See Pulau Batam or Pulau Bintan for more information on boat transfer between Singapore and beyond.
Ferries swim across the narrow Sunda Strait, linking the southeastern tip of Sumatra at Bakauheni to Java's westernmost point of Merak. The sea crossing is a brief dip in a daylong voyage that requires several hours' worth of bus transport from both ports to Jakarta on the Java side and to Bandarlampung on the Sumatran side for more details.
Pelni-operated boats still paddle between Indonesia's islands, carrying freight and families.
Check with local ticket agents for schedules and prices as both are subject to change.
Most travellers travel by bus around Northern Sumatra and then hop on a plane to Java, largely avoiding Sumatra's highway system. Most of the island is mountainous jungle and the poorly maintained roads form a twisted pile of spaghetti on the undulating landscape. Don't count on getting anywhere very quickly on Sumatra.
Sumatra's airports are incongruously modern and numerous, providing a quick and cheap means of arrival or escape.
An hour on a plane is an attractive alternative to what may seem like an eternity on a bone-shaking bus. For long-distance travel, airfares are competitive with bus and ferry fares. Medan to Banda Aceh and Medan to Gunung Sitoli are two popular air hops.
Domestic carriers include Merpati, Mandala, Lion Air and Sriwijaya. Nusantara Buana Air (NBA) and Susi Air fly to minor destinations that the bigger airlines don't bother with.
All Sumatran airports charge an airport departure tax (between 20,000Rp and 40,000Rp) that is not included in your ticket. Ticket agents are located in the smallest of towns and typically charge 10% commission As cheap and convenient taking domestic flights may be, it's also important to take into account the environmental impact of air travel .
Most boat travel within Sumatra connects the main island with the many satellite islands lining the coast.
The most commonly used routes link Banda Aceh with Pulau Weh, Sibolga with Pulau Nias, and Padang with Pulau Siberut (in the Mentawai Islands chain). In the less-visited areas of southeastern Sumatra, Jambi, Palembang and Pekanbaru are important towns for river transport. The Riau islands of Batam and Bintan are also linked to south-eastern port towns by ferry.
Most long-distance ferries have several classes, ranging from filthy and crowded to filthy and less crowded. An upgrade in class might be a necessary luxury.
Bus is the most common mode of transport around Sumatra, and in many cases it's the only option for intercity travel. But it is far from efficient or comfortable. The primary thoroughfare is the Trans-Sumatran Hwy, which is little more than a jungle-bound track for petrol-eating beasts. Locals prefer the more affectionate term: 'chicken roads'. The pavement inexplicably disappears, oncoming vehicles must yield to one another, and the potholes are as big as moon craters. It is not uncommon during the rainy season for bridges to wash out and for mudslides to block the road.
Most trips take extra long because of road conditions. At this laborious pace you have plenty of time to soak up the views: cascades of deep, lush greens; terraced rice fields; mottled rushing rivers; and isolated villages gathered around the communal well.
Buses range from economy sardine cans to modern air-con coaches. At the top of the class structure are super-executive buses with reclining seats, deep-freeze air-con, toilets, and an all-night serenade of Scorpions al-bums. Many passengers come prepared with winter hats, gloves and earplugs.
Bus terminals in Sumatra can vary, from modern and organised to run-down and abandoned. In some towns, you can go straight to the bus terminal to buy tickets and board buses, while other towns rely on bus compai offices located outside the terminals. Tick prices vary greatly depending on the quali of the bus and the perceived gullibility of tl traveller. It pays to shop around and to ask your guest house about reliable companif do be aware that some accommodation a as booking agents and charge a commissk for their services.
The usual Indonesian forms of transport . bemo or opelet (small minibus), becak (bic cle-rickshaw) and bendi (two-person hors drawn cart) - are available in Sumatran tow and cities. The base rate for a bemo or ope, is 1500Rp to 4000Rp; the minimum fare 7000Rp for becak and l0.000Rp for bendi. Establish a price for a becak ride befo climbing aboard. For an opelet, you pay aft you disembark.
For midrange and shorter journeys, ma: locals and travellers prefer to use minib services, which can be more convenient th hustling out to the bus terminal. Some mil buses are in superb shape and provide doe to-door service, while others are a little ricki and shovel in more people than a clown c Typically, tourists will,end up paying me than the locals; negotiating a front seat e sures a little breathing room as the drh won't crowd his steering range.
The only useful train service in Sumatra ru from Bandarlampung to Palembang, a then on to Lubuklinggau. There are also p; senger trains from Medan to Pematangsiant Tanjung Balai and Rantauparapat - thou these are rarely used by tourists.
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