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.
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.
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.
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).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.