Sumatra is an Indonesian island still relatively out of the beaten track if compared to neighbouring Java and Bali. Despite the island is mostly known for the terrible impact that the 2005 tsunami had on it, Sumatra has much more to offer to intrepid travellers! The island has the perfect scenario for a motorbike adventure through jungles, villages, lakes, tropical reefs and incredible surf breaks.
To reach Medan, Sumatra’s capital city, you can take a flight from Jakarta, Bali or even Kuala Lumpur. Domestic flights are usually very cheap in Indonesia and changes can be easily made for a few extra dollars.
Medan is not exactly a fascinating Asian capital. Actually, it is probably one of the most polluted, chaotic and stressing cities that you can find in the region. So try to get out of it as soon as possible. Renting motorbikes in Sumatra it’s not a very developed business yet.
The only option that we could find in three days of scouting was this local rent. Despite the sketchiness of its online presence, the man that owns the business was English speaking (kind of) and accommodating. The bikes were two new Hondas 125cc – he didn’t rent anything bigger – that worked just fine for the dense traffic of Sumatra.
There’s only one road that runs all around the island. As you might guess: it is quite busy. By “busy” I mean that you will have to share the road with oxcarts, scooters, huge trucks, SUVs, local buses and a plethora of other random vehicles. The two-lane road can be unsealed in some areas, which creates a serious dust situation when you’re driving close to trucks.
The local driving style is, of course, as crazy as in the rest of Asia. An SUV that overtakes a bus in the opposite direction while you’re overtaking a massive truck full of rocks in the midst of black exhaust gas will soon become familiar. For these reasons: Never underestimate distances in Sumatra. It took us a good 12h to cover 350km.
Starting from Medan you can travel inland to the mountain town of Berastagi and the laid-back Lake Toba.
From there you can head north to notorious Banda Aceh, the city that was most affected by the 2005 tsunami.
Then take a ferry to Pulau Weh, a chill out tiny island which is the northern tip of Indonesia and a paradise for divers.
On the way back south stop in the Gunung Leuser National park to hike in the jungle and spot the last orangutans.
Finish your trip by going to Nias Island, the surfing capital of Sumatra.
Berastagi is a cool mountain village immersed in a lush, green jungle. Homeland of the Karo People, a Christian community who live in distinctive wooden houses with pointed roofs, the village was used as a holiday station for Dutch colonisers who sought a break from Medan’s heat.
The town is close to two volcanos that can be climbed with organised tours and that constantly spray roofs with soft ashes. The central market is a little gem where you can find everything from second-hand American clothes to wonderful flowers and tropical plants.
Lake Toka is the largest volcano lake in the world, formed 70,000 years as a consequence of an explosive eruption. Today the laid-back atmosphere of the lake has made it an obliged stop in the backpackers’ circuit.
Surrounded by jungles and mountains, Lake Toba also has one of the biggest lake islands in the world: Samosir. That’s where most of the backpackers choose to stay, enjoining chilly swims and long hikes on the island’s mountain range.
Banda Aceh is an obliged stop in order to take the ferry to Pulau Weh. The city looks surprisingly tidy and organised despite the catastrophe of 2005. That’s because it was completely rebuilt thanks to international aid.
The massive (and already deteriorating) Tsunami Museum works as an indelible reminder of all the lives that were lost in the aftermath of the quake. The city is not really interesting but its night markets are a good dinner option while waiting for the next ferry to Pulau Weh.
The ferry to Pulau Weh only works two times a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Despite the ferry is constantly late, if you’re travelling with a motorbike you better show up at the harbour one hour in advance. That’s because most of the locals, that travel with a bike as well, will start to line up pretty early and once the boat is full there’s nothing left to do that spend an extra day in Banda Aceh (which I do not recommend).
Pulau Weh is a fishermen’s island slowly converting to tourism (the enforced Sharia law still keeps the crowds at bay). A mecca for divers, it still holds the feeling of a lost paradise covered in jungle.
Make your base in the jungle town of Ketambe to go hiking an and kayaking under the thick canopy of Gunung Leuser National Park. While most of the local (and international) tourists visit crowded Bukit Lawang, GL National Park is still one of the largest untouched tropical jungles in the world. Because fewer people trek here, animals are more regularly spotted.
This is virgin rainforest at its best, filled with gibbons, monkeys, orangutans, deer, hundreds of species of tropical birds, tigers, rhinoceros and elephants. You have to be quite fit to endure the two-three days’ treks in the jungle but the night camps will be an experience to remember.
Along the west coast of Sumatra are some of the world’s best surf breaks. Islands such as Nias and the Mentawais have been favoured spots for adventurous surfers for years.
Coming from the North, Nias is the easiest to reach. “Easy” of course has to be intended according to Indonesian standards. You can take a 6h ferry ride from Sinkil (that, unfortunately, operates only twice weekly) or the daily ferry from Sibolga (10h). Nias most famous surf breaks are located in Sorake Bay, whose swell is claimed to be better than the one in Maui.
For beginners, it is better to stop in Lagudri beach, where you can also rent boards and take lessons. The peculiar Niassian people have preserved their culture, traditions and architecture almost intact over the centuries. Which makes the island an interesting destination also for non-surfers. Learn more here.
Long distance travel by motorbike in South East Asia is for motorbike lovers, those who do not fear dust, misadventures and a fair amount of super-fast and life-challenging decision making. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be rad as well!
Feature image credit: Pavel KirillovLast updated on Jun 21, 2019
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8 thoughts on “Sumatra by Motorbike: Through the Jungle and Along the Ocean”
This looks amazing and Sumatra has been on my radar for a while! Unfortunately I’m not a motorbiker though, did you get a sense of what it would be like to travel by public transport / would a driver be necessary? Did you feel safe? Incredible surf photo 🙂 Ellie
Hi Ellie! I reckon travelling by public transport is way safer and easier! You have private bus conpanies that cover all the destinations listed in the article for a few dollars 🙂 at one point we even loaded our bike on a big bus for an overnight transit. Not even joking
Hi sabrina. Like your article! Thank you for the insight on your trip, i read it with big joy!! ;-). Im planing on doing something similar – my plan is to buy a bike in nortern sumatra and use it to travel to west nusa tengara woth it. I‘ll have my sorboard with me 🙂
Can you help me with two questions that ceep circuling my mind: when visiting the outer islands infront of sumatra, is it easy to take the bike there? How about island-transfers in general? I heard people from one island do not seem to like people from other islands and will treat you differently.. true? And the second is about the sleeping situation. Did you always stay in losmen and homestays? How about camping, do you have any experience with that?
Cheers from zurigo in svizzera
Unfortunately, I haven’t been to West Nusa Tengara (yet). I’ve only been to Sumatra, Bali and the Gilis. No problems with transfers there for sure. Never tried camping neither, sorry! Local homestays out of the beaten track are very affordable though.
how long did this trip take you?
How long did this take you and what kind of budget did you have?
Hi Chris, you can comfortably do the loop in two weeks. Sumatra can be dirt cheap. Actually, you would struggle to find high-end accommodation at all: the island is not touristy yet.
Hey hey! I am planning a trip from north sumatra through java to bali. We did a very similar trip to your post on public transport a few years ago and back for more! (It was incredible and CHEAP!)
This time we want to buy an old motor bike… any advice? We have international car licenses and although no motorbike license, quite a bit of experience riding bikes around the farm back home.