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Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world and the largest Indonesian island, lies in the west of the country. Whilst not exactly the first stop of most travellers to Indonesia, the perhaps most famous traveller of all, Marco Polo, did visit the island in 1292. With a population of over 50 million, it is home to nearly a quarter of all Indonesians. As with most large islands, an amazing array of plant and animal life can be found here that doesn't exist elsewhere, but sadly heavy deforestation has put many of these species on the (critically) endangered list.
The island of Sumatra is crossed by the equator near the centre. It is the westernmost island of the Sunda Islands. To the north of Sumatra is the Malay peninsula, separated by the Straits of Malacca. Across the Karimata Strait, to the east, is Borneo. Java is on the southeast, separated by the Sunda Strait. To the west of the island is the Indian Ocean.
The backbone of the island is on the west coast and is lined by a chain of active volcanoes. Many beautiful sceneries, such as those at Lake Toba, are a result of the volcanic activity on the island.
The provinces of Indonesia on the island of Sumatra are:
The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. It comprises three Indonesian national parks on the island of Sumatra: Gunung Leuser National Park, Kerinci Seblat National Park and the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The site is listed because of the outstanding scenic beauty, an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes, and contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation.
Gunung Leuser National Park in the north of the island is 150 kilometres long, over 100 km wide and is mostly mountainous. 40% of the park is steep, and over 1,500 metres. 12% of the Park only, in the lower southern half, is below 600 metres but for 25 kilometres runs down the coast. Eleven peaks are over 2,700 metres and the highest point is Gunung Leuser reaching 3,466 metres. The area surrounding Gunung Leuser is known as the Leuser Ecosystem.
Kerinci Seblat National Park in the centre extends 350 kilometres down the back of the Bukit Barisan, averaging 45 kilometresm width and 2,000 metres above sea level. The northern half has a lower eastern mountain range, between 800-1500 metres. Three quarters of the park is steep. The highest point, and highest volcano in Indonesia, is the Mount Kerinci, standing at 3,805 metres.
Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park is also 350 kilometres long but only 45 kilometres wide on average. The northern two-thirds are rocky, averaging 1,500 metres with the highest point, Mount Pulung standing at 1,964 metres. The southern half is lower; 90 kilometres of it is a cape and the Park borders the sea for half its length. Many of rivers derive in the Parks and there are several lakes and hot springs.
Sumatra has tropical climate with hot and humid conditions throughout the year. Temperatures at sea level are around 30 °C during the day and 23 °C at night with little variation during the year. There is no real dry season just a less wet season which last from February to August. More rain falls from September to January when temperatures during the day are just a few degrees lower as well.
Note that regional variations regarding rainfall can be high and also that temperatures in the higher areas of Sumatra can be significantly lower. Even within the thick rainforests temperatures can feel much cooler sometimes, especially during rain.
Sumatra is big and there are quite a few airports you can fly into. Not all have international connections though.
Polonia International Airport near Medan has many flights, including to destinations like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Penang, Ipoh and Singapore.
Minangkabau International Airport near Padang has flights with Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur, while other cities served are Jakarta and Singapore.
Palembang and Pekanbaru have connections to the cities mentioned above as well, and there are several more airports which mainly have connections to Jakarta.
There are bus services from Java to various part of Sumatra. It's mostly to Jakarta, but there are also buses to Yogyakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, and Malang.
There is a daily ferry operating between Penang in Malaysia to Belawan (the port of Medan) on Sumatra. From Penang, it leaves at 9:00am, arriving at 1:00pm. From Medan it leaves at 10:30am arriving in Penang at 2:30pm. Check the Langkawi Ferry website for more details about schedules and prices.
* Not a visa-free or visa-on-arrival port of entries. However, there may be exceptions for visa-free visitors.
Travelling by plane is a very attractive option compared to the alternative of travelling long distances on an uncomfortable bus. Domestic carriers serving Sumatra include Merpati, Mandala Airlines and Lion Air. All Sumatran aiports charge an airport departure tax of between 15,000Rp and 30,000Rp that needs to be paid on the spot.
The only useful railway service runs from Bandar Lampung in the very south of Sumatra to Palembang (400 kilometres) and to Lubuklinggau. From Medan there a few trains a day to Pematangsiantar, Tanjung Balai and Rantauparapat.
The most common way to travel around Sumatra but far from being comfortable or efficient. The roads are not in good condition, with many potholes and other hazards not making the journey easy. Its easy to be fooled by looking at a map and thinking its not that far, when in fact a journey of only 100 kilometres can take several hours or more.
The Trans-Sumatran Highway, a 2,508.5km road, connects the entire island of Sumatra from north to south. It passes through most major cities like Banda Aceh, Medan, Pekanbaru and goes all the way to Bandar Lampung.
If you are travelling in a group then taking a private car is a good alternative to taking the bus. In the main tourist spots like Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba you'll get many offers from drivers wanting to take you to your next destination. The rates vary and you will need to negotiate.
Boat travel in Sumatra links the mainland with the smaller islands lining the coast. Common routes are from Banda Aceh to Pulah Weh and Sibolga with Pulau Nias.
As with many other areas of Indonesia the staple food of Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and Mie Goreng (fried noodles) can be found everywhere throughout Sumatra. This can be served plain with vegtables, or 'special' which often includes chicken and tofu etc. Prices of course vary depending on whether you are eating in a local eatery or more tourist orientated restaurant. For a cheap eat then Warungs (street stalls) are your best bet. These are just simple, open-air eating-places that provide a small range of dishes based on rice and one meat or vegetable. It's unlikely you'll find a menu in them – the dishes are often on display and you can just ask for what you fancy. Other popular dishes include:
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