Monthly Archives: June 2012

And the Sumatra journey begins…

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Crossing Bohorok River on wooden bridge, entering Bukit Lawang, the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park, natural habitat of the Orang Utan. [Photo: Dian Hasan]

Medan, the colonial city with a storied past

Monday, May 21, 2012. Medan, North Sumatra.

We embark on our Sumatra Adventure Trip via Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province. A teeming metropolis, Indonesia’s third largest city. We were pleasantly surprised to see a relatively compact city, with a big urban feel, greeted by an antiquated airport that is literally smack dab in the city center. Our hotel, Aryaduta, was a mere 10 minute drive from the airport. A stone throw away from the old colonial downtown, a treasure trove of art deco and classical architecture, witnesses to Medan’s bygone era as an important trading city, built on the riches of rubber, palm oil and tobacco plantations.

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Art Deco curves that have withstood the test of time.

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Remnants of the past in Medan’s old colonial heart.

Medan is the gateway to the Northern part of Sumatra, and her major tourist attractions such as Lake Toba, Gunung Leuser National Park (one of only two natural habitats of the Orang Utan), the Highlands and Palm Oil Plantations, as well as Aceh Province (Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam), further afield. Aceh’s claim to fame was the unfortunate site of 2004 Boxing Day Earthquake and Tsunami, which was the worst Tsunami disaster in the 21st century.

Anytime a discussion ensures over Indonesia, it’s always relevant to mention her staggering stats and figs, for many around the world still fail to realize Indonesia’s size. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with over 15,000 islands (the exact count really depends on who’s counting, but a few hit and misses are irrelevant). With a population of about 238 million, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, and is situated on the “ring of fire”, the proud owner of the world’s greatest number of active volcanoes.

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The ornate interior of the Tjong A Fie Mansion and Museum.

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Tjong A Fie Mansion, built in 1899, an excellent reference on Medan’s rich history.

Indonesia has had her share of image problem and misconception. In recent memory it drew global attention for all the wrong reasons; natural disasters, bombings, terrorist attacks, political unrest, and economic turmoil. Her brightest spark has always been Bali, but one little island in her collection of many, renowned for her natural beauty, world-class surf, unique culture and gracious and artistic people. Her other islands are probably still deeply embedded in people’s minds – most notably in the West – as exotic remote isles, home to a plethora of strange fauna and flora, head hunting tribes, and impenetrable jungles, where the wild roam free, and the birds of paradise decorate the skies. Sumatra and Java are probably better known as coffee variety, but they’re also two of the better known islands. The others, such as Borneo (Kalimantan in Indonesian); Celebes (Sulawesi in Indonesian); and Moluccas, are known as resource rich islands that gain Wall Street mention for all the oil, gas, timber and coal that oozes out of her soil. The latter, Moluccas, is known in history books as the original Spice Islands, a collection of small islands that have single-handedly changed the course of world history more than any since the Ancient Greek and Roman times.

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Tjong A Fie’s personal barber. Commissioned all the way from India.

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An old padlock spotted in Medan’s old city.

Some intriguing trivia that makes one ponder upon hearing it includes: The Dutch swapping Manhattan (yes, THAT Manhattan, the long swath that is now the defacto capital of the world) for the tiny island of Run in Banda Sea. This island measures a measly 3 km long and 1 km wide, and in the 17th century was so valued for her nutmeg and mace, a treasured commodity during the Discovery Age that was pioneered by the Portuguese.

We feel it’s important to provide a rather thorough backstory on Indonesia’s history, as this large country deserves to be mentioned in such light. Especially today, amid her economic growth, and growing importance as an emerging nation that is poised to take its place among the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) darlings of Wall Street. Today, Indonesia is a very different place, holding a bagful of hope from a land blessed with such beauty and richness. Tourism is one such hope, if managed properly could propel Indonesia into the world’s formidable travel destination, where sustainability and eco-tourism could potentially be the mainstay, and not an afterthought.

Which leads us back to the story, day one of our Sumatra Adventure. Bukit Lawang, 3 hours north of Medan, became our first choice of experiencing Sumatra, her wild side, to be exact. Home to the furry orange man of the forest – which is a direct translation of both Bahasa Indonesia and Malay, Orang Utan (Pongo Pygmaeus). Indonesia is one of only two countries on the planet (the other one is Malaysia) that has the Orang Utan. There are two species – Sumatran Orang Utan (Pongo Abelii) and Borneo Orang Utan (Pongo Pygmaeus).

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Proud Mama Jackie and her offspring, gazing in contentment after finishing the “Nasi Goreng” (fried rice) she snatched from our group during lunch break. Coming in close proximity with Orang Utans in the wilds of a tropical rainforest is an unforgettable experience. [Photo: Max Hasan]

From our research we found that there were two main options of viewing Orang Utans. At the Bohorok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centrein Bukit Lawang, or in the wild. The Centre was established by Swiss Zoologists in 1973 as a place to rehabilitate orphaned orang utans and release them back to the wild, but since 1986 it has been declared closed to receiving new orang utans. We opted for the second – more exciting option – to see them in the wild, accessible only through a choice of 3- or 6-hour trek into the jungle with a professional guide.

Google rescue in the nick of time

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Instant buddies! Trekking into the thick jungle with total strangers means you become close friends in the first few hours of your trip. Our comical guide Thomas is on the right. [Photo: Dian Hasan]

My generation relied on information from books and libraries (if we were lucky to get our hands on them), while my son’s generation lives and breathes Google. Don’t get me wrong, I may be an old fart, but I Google too. The morning of our flight to Medan, we hadn’t found any reliable source for Bukit Lawang trek guides yet. But thanks to the wifi, iPad and Google, we searched for a guide and Thomas’ Jungle Tourspopped up on the first page of our google search. Clean, modern website, visually rich, with clear and updated information and plenty pictures of Orang Utans. Thomas knows Branding 101, no doubt! The email couldn’t be more appropriate – jungleman_thomas@yahoo.com. We were sold. We sent Thomas a brief email and SMS text message. It turned out to be the best decision, helping make this leg of our Sumatra Trip the most unforgettable.

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We team up with Dana, Tomer, and Laura, three adventure travelers from Montreal, and into the jungle we go. In the able hands of our jungle guide, Thomas. Photo: Dian Hasan]

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Bohorok River that flows through Bukit Lawang. The bridge in the background was donated by the Central Government following the 2003 big flood. [Photo: Dian Hasan]

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Kesawan area, Medan’s old colonial heart.

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Kesawan area, Medan’s old colonial heart.

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The minaret at Medan’s Grand Mosque

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Medan’s Grand Mosque

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Art Deco in Kesawan area, Medan’s old colonial heart.

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Art Deco splendor. Kesawan Area, Medan.

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Medan’s unique motorbike-type pedicab

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Scenes of Old Medan.

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Hindu Temple, Medan

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Tjong A Fie Mansion & Museum, Kesawan, Medan

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Sultan Maimoon’s Palace, Medan

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Entrance to Sultan Maimoon’s Palace, Medan.

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Tjong A Fie Mansion & Museum, Kesawan, Medan

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Gate at Tjong A Fie Mansion & Museum, Kesawan, Medan

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Aryaduta Hotel, arguably Medan’s best 5-star hotel.

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Remnants of the past. Tip Top Restaurant (est. 1934), in operation since the Dutch Colonial era.

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Witness of a bye gone era. Tjong A Fie Mansion & Museum, Kesawan, Medan

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The ornate ceiling decoration at the splendid Tjong A Fie Mansion & Museum, Kesawan, Medan

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5 things I wish I knew before visiting Indonesia

Indonesia is a huge, mysterious archipelago of disparate islands and cultures. It is impossible to summarize. With over 238 million people, it is the 4th most populous nation on earth. Travel opportunities are many and various. Sparkling seas teeming with life, soaring volcanoes, never-ending coastline and cultural wonders all await the intrepid traveller.

1. Indonesia is more of a continent than a country

Indonesia is big. Very big. It covers a territorial area of over 5 million square kilometers. Look at it on the map and you will see that the distance between Banda in the west and Irian Jaya in the east makes it as wide as South East Asia itself. It is so big that any consideration of the land, the population, the geography, the marine life, the cuisine, the religious beliefs and the economy of Indonesia can only be done by first separating it into its regions.

2. The population is incredibly diverse

With a country so enormous, it is no wonder that there is a wide spread of people. However given the landmass is fragmented into so many islands, the diversity of the people should come as no great surprise. However, it is endlessly surprising. If you put into a room a typical Jakartan, a Bajau from Sulawesi, a Papuan and a Timorese you wouldn’t believe they all live under the one flag.

3. Some flavors may not be your cup of tea

Coffee and tea are big in Indonesia with some of the coffee from Java, Aceh and Sumatra gaining a reputation worldwide. Most unusual is probably the very expensive Kopi Luwak whose beans must go through the intestines of Asian Palm Civets to have removed the bitterness. From this faeces comes coffee that sells for a fortune in Europe and elsewhere. So ‘it’ not only happens. It sells.

4. At the heart of the world’s marine biodiversity

The coral triangle, the world’s most bio-diverse region of sea includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon islands, the East of Borneo and the Philippines. Mostly that means Indonesia. It is believed this is where life in the sea began. It is home to 76% of the world’s coral species , 37% of the world’s fish species and a high level of endemism. It is little wonder that so many places in Indonesia are of interest to conservationists and scuba divers alike; places such as Bali, Raja Ampat, Komodo and North Sulawesi.

5. The Spice Islands of Indonesia were once traded for New York

In 1667 the Treaty of Breda was signed, bringing an end to Dutch – English hostilities over the coveted Spice islands in Indonesia’s Banda Sea. It transpired to be a hugely significant moment in history, as the agreement was based around a property swap of the then English Run Island with the then Dutch New Amsterdam – Manhattan, New Jersey and Delaware Estuary. So New Amsterdam became New York.

Inspiration: World Nomads

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