Travelling Sumatra: Everything You Need to Know (Insider’s Travel Guide and Tips)

Travel to Sumatra, Indonesia is the adventure of a lifetime, but it can be hard to plan ahead when there isn’t much info out there on the web.

Our Sumatra travel guide is here to enhance your travels, alleviate your nerves, and answer all the burning questions you have about exploring this incredible destination.

What’s the best sim card to buy? 
When should you visit?
What’s the weather like? 
What visa do you need? 
How the heck do you use a bum-gun!?

Don’t worry, my friend; we’ve got you covered. We’ve been there, done that, and sometimes learned the hard way, so you don’t have to.

So, let’s dive right in and show you how to travel to Sumatra.

This blog was originally published in 2018 and updated in June 2023 to ensure accuracy. 

Want to watch on YouTube?


How Big is Sumatra?

Sumatra is the largest island within Indonesia, with an area of 473,481 km2 (294,207 miles).

To put that into perspective, the United Kingdom is only 242,495 km2 (150,679 miles), so this one island of Indonesia is almost twice as big as that entire area!

Image of the shape of Sumatra Island in pink overlaid by the United Kingdom in purple, showing the relative sizes of each
Image Courtesy of:

How Many People Live in Sumatra?

An estimate from 2021 stated that just over 59 million people call Sumatra home. Compare this again to the UK (at half the land area) with a population of 66 million-ish people and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of room to move in Sumatra.

Where is Sumatra?

Located in wonderful, eclectic, exotic Indonesia, the top half of Sumatra’s east coast is just a stone’s throw from Singapore or the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (around a one hour flight to each city).

From the southern tip, you could practically swim across to Java – home ofIndonesia’s capital, Jakarta — although obviously, we don’t recommend trying it.

The equator passes almost smack through the middle of Sumatra, and Pulau Weh (also known as Sabang) — the small island off the northern tip Sumatra in Aceh province — actually marks Kilometer Nol  –the northernmost point of Indonesia.

What are the Different Regions of Sumatra?

Because it’s just so darn big, Sumatra is divided up into seven different provinces and one autonomous province (Aceh). 

Each has its own local governance and attractions, however, the province of North Sumatra is by far the most populated and attracts the most international tourists. It is also home to the huge, chaotic city of Medan, where most people enter Sumatra via Kualanamu International Airport.

    • Aceh
    • North Sumatra (Sumatera Utara)
    • Jambi
    • Riau
    • West Sumatra (Sumatera Barat)
    • South Sumatra (Sumatera Selatan)
    • Bengkulu
    • Lampung
Outline map of Sumatra Island divided into the 8 provinces
Image source:

What is Sumatra Famous For?

Tourists usually come in search of the natural wonders on offer: orangutans and other iconic wildlife, pristine jungles and steamy volcanoes.

Unfortunately, Sumatra also has the unwanted honour of having the highest rate of forest loss in the WORLD, losing an estimated 40% of old-growth forest over the last 20 years. 

This island is also rich in natural treasures, it’s famous for its high-quality coffee, and a slew of agricultural products like rubber, tea, tobacco, palm oil (ugh) and more. There’s also petrol, gas, coal, gold, silver and other goodies to be had.

What is the Best TIme to Visit Sumatra?

A shot taken of turqouise water with forest covered islands in the distance

Perched on the equator, Sumatra is a true tropical island — just a really, really big one! There are only two seasons: wet and dry.

Officially, the wet season is from October to April, so naturally, dry season is from May to September.

To get a little more accurate, in the north, you can typically expect the most rain between October to January, and in the south, November to February.

The average temperature throughout the year is 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 F)

Having said this, bear in mind that times are a-changing (thanks global warming!) Living as locals in Sumatra, we’ve noticed that the lines between the seasons are blurring. In the last few years, it’s been rather unpredictable.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter too much. Even in wet season, you will seldom see days where it rains all day. More often, you get an hour or two of torrential rain in the late afternoon and evening and can carry on as normal before that.

The added bonus is that the wet season is usually accompanied by some truly spectacular thunderstorms for a bit of holiday excitement.

Here’s a super secret tip for you: rainforests (and areas adjacent) see more rain! Shocking, we know. Be prepared for a bit more rain in these regions, although, again, you’ll usually be able to find plenty of non-rainy time to get out and about.

One thing to note, dry season does make for a bit of an easier journey if you’re heading to places where the roads aren’t quite so good, which is pretty much everywhere outside of the big cities.

In a nutshell, Sumatra is hot and humid most of the year. Sometimes there’ll be more rain bucketing down than you ever imagined possible, while at other times, the rivers will dry up to trickles, but you’ll seldom be cold, unless you are heading for higher-altitude areas.

For more in-depth info about the weather, seasons, public holidays, and other things that may affect your holiday, head over and read our blog, Best Time to Visit Sumatra. 

How to Travel Around Sumatra?

A ferry crossing Lake Toba in North Sumatra

Did we mention that Sumatra is big? Travellers to Sumatra often underestimate the distances between each destination. Coupled with bad roads and vast areas of impenetrable jungle, there’s no such thing as a quick road trip here.

As a side note, mentally prepare yourself for a good dose of very well-managed chaos. For a first-timer, a road trip in Sumatra can be a bit of a fist (and buttock) clenching experience. Road rules don’t seem to apply and traffic lights are often decorative only.

But somehow, it works! Try to relax in the knowledge that your driver knows exactly what they’re doing, but chuck that seatbelt on just in case.

If you’re hoping to see as much of Sumatra as possible, flying is going to be your best bet to optimize your time. Of course, it’s possible to travel the length and breadth by car or bus; you’ll literally be doing overnighters or longer, often on less than ideal buses that crawl along bumpy roads.

Domestic flights are pretty affordable and a much quicker way to get from A to B, but it’s up to you lah!

Airports in Sumatra

Medan is the entry point for most visitors to Sumatra, via Kuala Namo International Airport (KNO) — a slick, modern port of entry. But there are plenty of other airports scattered around the island, most of which have good international links, including

  • Medan (Kuala Namu)
  • Lake Toba (Silangit)
  • Batam (Hang Nadim)
  • Pekanbaru (Sultan Syarif Kasim II)
  • Palembang (Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II)
  • Padang (Minangkabau) 
  • Banda Aceh (Sultan Iskandar Muda) 

Then there are smaller airports which accept flights from Jakarta and selected other airports, including:

  • Bengkulu
  • Bandar Lampung
  • Dumai
  • Sibolga
  • Tanjungpinang
  • Tanjung Pandan
  • Pangkalpinang
  • Jambi

TOP TIP: We use Skyscanner when travelling in Sumatra and beyond. 
Click here to find the cheapest flights to your destinations with Skyscanner.

Getting to Sumatra by Boat

You can reach Sumatra from other islands in Indonesia or from Malaysia by ferry.

The major port is Dumai in Riau; here, you can get your visa on arrival needs sorted.

In the spirit of honesty, this isn’t something that we’ve done much research on, but if you’re a seafaring adventurer, let us know and we’ll help you out – or help us out and share your experiences with us!

Travelling Sumatra by Car

By far the most comfortable and enjoyable way to travel around Sumatra is by private car. Bummer that it’s also the most expensive way.

If you have the budget to hire a car and a driver, we recommend it; you get the convenience of stopping where you want, when you want, the journey is quicker than on a bus, and most drivers are super nice, friendly and act as your own personal tour guide.

If you are stuck looking for a driver, hit us up, we will do our best to sort you out!

Some popular routes have shared cars available, a much more budget-friendly option. Ask at your guest house or check out our specific location guides for more information.

Taxis in Sumatra

Getting around by taxi in the bigger cities is a relatively budget-friendly option. We recommend using the blue, Bluebird taxis – they use a meter system and, in our experience, we’ve never been ripped off by this company.

Note that most drivers don’t speak English, so you’ll need to have your destination written down clearly so they understand. Cities like Medan are chaotic and sprawling.

If you’re heading somewhere that isn’t super well known, you may find yourself guiding your driver using Google maps on your phone.

Grab and Gojek in Sumatra

These services are amazing and make life in Sumatra (in fact, most of Indonesia) so much simpler. Unfortunately, they are really only available in some of the bigger cities, but if you find yourself needing a cheap, reliable way to get around the city, this is it.

Both utilize a smartphone app system, where you input your pick up and drop off point, get a quote (always dirt cheap) and then track your driver as he or she comes to pick you up.

You can choose from motorbike or car options. This is our absolute go-to method for getting around big cities like Medan. It’s much cheaper and safer than a taxi.

All you need to do is download the Grab or Go Jek app and you’ll find it simple to use.

Download Grab

Download Go Jek

Travelling Sumatra by Bus

Almost anywhere where you want to go, you will be able to find a bus to get there. But fair warning — it’s not easy to find any kind of information.

We’d love to publish a full bus schedule covering even the main routes in Sumatra, but it doesn’t reallllly work like that here.

Well established routes — for example, Medan to Lake Toba or Bukit Lawang — have more regular schedules and better quality buses, but try to do a bit of research before you head out.

We love the friendly people of Sumatra, but of course there are some out there looking to make a buck or two extra out of unsuspecting tourists.

Do your best to suss out the going rate for bus tickets before you get on the bus.

Check out our individual location guides for more specific info on buses. Failing that, you can usually get relatively accurate, up to date information if you have booked with a local hotel or guesthouse.

There are overnight sleeper buses for long distances.

Travelling Sumatra by Local Bus or Becak (Motorcycle Taxi)

There are local buses — more like minivans — that get around some of the cities and villages; they are known as angkots. If you want to truly live like a local, jump on with the chickens, sacks of rice, and squeeze into a space. If you’re lucky, they may be blaring out some dangdut music – Indonesia’s unique disco/techno combo!

A cheap and cheerful way to get around is to jump on a becak. This is a motorbike with a comfy side car attached. In Thailand, it’s known as a tuktuk, but in Sumatra, Tuktuk is the place where you’ll be staying on Samosir Island in Lake Toba; try not to confuse the two!

Currency and Money in Sumatra

In line with the rest of Indonesia, Sumatra uses Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). Most of us will find the money a tad confusing, purely because there are a lot more zeros than we are used to!

Enjoy the difference, it is probably the only time in your life you’ll be an actual millionaire.

Exchange rates as of June 2023

10,000 IDR =

  • USD $0.67
  • EUR 0.61
  • AUD $1.00
  • NZD $1.08
Indonesian Rupiah

How Much Do Things Cost in Sumatra?

Because of exchange rates, most of the western world, and a large part of the rest, will find Indonesia super affordable.

As a guideline, check out the generalized pricelist below, bearing in mind that prices vary from area to area, just so you can get an idea.

  • Nasi goreng (fried rice) – 15,000 – 25,000
  • Large beer Bintang – 40,000 – 50,000
  • Budget room (out of the big city) – 100,000 – 150,000
  • 5-star hotel room 1,000,000+
  • Large bottle of water – 8,000 – 10,000
  • Souvenir t-shirt – 80,000 – 150,000
  • Cup of coffee – 4,000 – 6,000

ATMs in Sumatra

The general rule of thumb when travelling Sumatra is this: when you have a chance to withdraw money, do it!

Once you’re out of the main cities, you’ll be hard pressed to find ATMs. And from experience, more often than not, the ones you do find (after traveling by motorbike for hours on a terrible road) are out of order.

Bring rupiah before you arrive. There are money changers around the place -including Medan airport – but not all of them are above a bit of a rip-off. 

The main banks with ATMs that accept credit cards for withdrawls are:

  • Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI)
  • Bank Mandiri
  • Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI)

Depending on your card and banking rules, you may be faced with considerable fees when you withdraw money, so it’s best to withdraw the maximum amount possible every time, which is generally 2.5 million rupiah.

If you want to get the maximum, you’ll need to look for a machine that has a sticker saying 100,000 on the front. This means it gives out 100,000 rupiah notes, and usually has a higher maximum withdrawl than those with the 50,000 sticker.

It is possible to withdraw multiple times from the same machine, but keep in mind your bank may have associated fees.

TOP TIP: Sign up for a free Wise account to manage your money while travelling! We use this all the tie and would be lost without it.

Wise allows you to send money in various currencies, convert between currencies, and even offers a credit card that works throughout Sumatra (with the exception of Aceh).

Click here to get your Wise account set up today.

ATM in Sumatra

Do I Need to Tip in Sumatra?

Tipping isn’t a  hard and fast rule as you’d find in the United States, but there are some situations in which it is expected – and a nice thing to do.

It’s not really necessary in accommodations or restaurants, but if you feel like doing it, go for it.

If you enlist the services of a local guide in your travels, we do recommend tipping. Often, this is the only form of income for the guides, and it can be hard for them to make enough for their families to survive – particularly as Sumatra is not a thriving tourist hub.

You can tip as generously as you like, but as a guideline, we suggest a minimum tip of 100,000 – 150,000 to your guide if you do a half or one-day trip with them.

In some areas, the staff at your guest house or the restaurant you eat at may be working there without a wage (or below minimum wage). With limited employment opportunities in small villages, this is their opportunity to learn English and learn the skills that will help them get a job later in life.

If you find they’ve been helpful, entertaining, or just generally awesome (as most are) feel free to give them a tip. The same goes for drivers.

What is Sumatran Food Like?

Rice and mixed vegetables on a banana leaf and brown paper

In general, Indonesian food is fresh, tasty and spicy, spicy hot – and Sumatra specialty dishes pack just as much punch!

Rice and noodles are staple foods, mixed with a variety of vegetables, meats and egg. Food ranges from curries and stews to nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay.

The most famous Sumatran dish is rendang – a slow cooked beef dish that is unforgettable!

In many of the bigger restaurants and hotels in the tourist spots, you’ll find a pretty good variety of Western food, but once you’re out of the city, you’ll be hard-pressed to find so much as a loaf of bread.

Dairy is scarce here – so prepare yourself for a holiday without cheese and milk (again, unless you stick to the tourist areas).

The most common meats used in cooking are chicken and fish. Beef is available, but not readily so; again, you’ll find it in tourist areas and bigger cities.

Muslims are not permitted to eat pig products, so you may struggle to find pork in some areas; however, it’s still around.

Top tip: If you have a slightly delicate stomach that can’t handle spicy food, simply ask for “tidak pedas” (not spicy) dishes. They will still be full of mouth-water flavours, just without the eye-watering kick!

Can I Find Vegetarian or Vegan Food in Sumatra?

As a vegetarian living in Sumatra, Carly has never had a problem finding meat-free meals. 

Tofu and tempeh are readily available at all the warungs, and there’s a wide range of veggies to keep dishes hearty and filling.

Being vegan is just as easy: because dairy isn’t a commonly consumed food type, you’ll have no trouble avoiding it. Eggs do tend to be thrown into most dishes though, so make sure you specify “tidak telur” (no egg) to make it clear.

Enjoy a coconut milk-based curry, tofu sambal (tofu and rice with rich tomato sauce) or Gado Gado  – a delicious peanut satay dish served with tofu and veggies (and often eggs).

The more off the beaten path you get, the more fresh and tasty the food is. Head to jungle areas and experience amazing jungle food – eat banana tree curry and jungle ferns – it doesn’t get much better than that!

Our Top Sumatran Food Recommendations

Our favourite treats in Sumatra are pergedel – a delicious sweet potato cake found at most places – and gorengan. 

Gorengan is a mixture of different battered and fried things, such as bananas, vegetable fritters, and tofu.

We also highly recommend trying ayam semur (chicken in a tasty soy curry) and traditional beef rendang.


Can I Buy and Drink Alcohol in Sumatra?

In many areas of Sumatra, beer is readily available. There’s often only one type on offer, but luckily, it’s an extremely good one!

Bintang is the brew of choice wherever you go. You might find some other offerings in popular areas, but Bintang is the cheapest and tastiest – in our humble opinion! We love it!

If you’re after spirits, your best bet is to bring them in duty-free; however, the airport only allows one 500mL bottle, so you’ll have to make it last!

You can buy spirits and wine in some areas – major supermarkets in Medan and selected other spots throughout Sumatra – but again, these are usually pretty pricey.

Your best bet? Ask a local guide – they’ll know the best way to get it.

A gentle word of warning: be mindful of where you are. Stricter Muslim areas such as Aceh (including Pulau Weh) and Padang do not permit the consumption of alcohol. It is not sold (at least not openly) and is quite difficult to get.

Although Westerners are sometimes given a free pass for this kind of thing, we suggest it’s better to abstain or drink it quietly in the privacy of your guesthouse if they have it on offer. 

Beer Bintang

What is Tuak?

Tuak is the local drink of choice. It’s known as “palm wine” although has very little in common with actual wine!

Fermented from the fruit of a palm tree (different from the palm oil trees), it can be a potent brew and may take a little getting used to. I’m told that after your third glass, it grows on you, but I’ve been unable to get through even one, so I may never know!

Tuak is super cheap and often purchased in plastic bags and drunk by the village men by the jug load.

A beer glass filled with tuak (light brown/cream liquid)

Healthcare in Sumatra

Bring your essential medications with you, but ensure they are in containers labelled with your name and bring a copy of your prescription, just in case!

If you do run out, there are pharmacies (apoteks) in most areas that might be able to fill your script, but don’t count on it.

You can buy things like cold and flu tablets, paracetamol and bits and pieces at the Indomaret (like a local 7/11 – there’s one on every corner in populated areas) or even small local shops, while antibiotics, creams, and other medicines are available at apoteks – often without a script, which comes in handy.

Medical centres and hospitals vary by location – check out individual location guides for specifics.

The bigger towns and cities will have hospitals that provide quick, efficient and affordable service. We have personal experience at  Siloam and Columbia in Medan; the basic service is affordable and fast. But bear in mind that if you wind up needing to stay at a hospital or require surgery, the costs will add up very qiuckly.

Outside of the big cities, you’ll find the odd small clinic or local hospital.

The most common complaint of travellers will be tummy upsets. Drink only bottled or thoroughly boiled water. Pack some Immodium tablets (or buy them at the local pharmacy). Charcoal tablets called Norit can be found almost everywhere and work wonders for a bout of diarrhea!

Image of a Norit box and bottle, with small black tablets

What Languages are Spoken in Sumatra?

There are 52 unique languages spoken throughout Sumatra. From Acehnese in the far north to the Minangkabau in the south.

Luckily, almost everyone you meet can speak Indonesian, and in many tourist spots, most people have a good grasp of basic English, with many speaking it fluently.

In fact, the main tourist spots boast guides that know a mind-boggling array of greetings and common words in many different languages that they’ve learned from visiting guests. 

Although many people you meet will relish the opportunity to practice their English with you, they are so appreciative if you know even a few words and phrases.

We recommend making an effort to learn even a smattering of the language to forge strong connections and show respect to the places you are visiting.

Pack a mini Indonesian dictionary in your backpack, make sure you’ve got Google Translate at the ready, or take time before you travel to learn from a smartphone app.

I tried many different apps and learning methods, but the one that really helped me become more fluent was “Duolingo.” 

Cultures in Sumatra

Batak Toba dance

Like Indonesia itself, Sumatra is bursting with different cultures. Each region may have one or more “cultural groups” with totally unique languages, or even different cuisines, music, dances and customs.

From the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mentawai people from the Mentawai Islands and the uniquely isolated culture of Nias Island to the six different Batak tribes throughout Sumatra, there is a plethora of different cultures to appreciate and uncover – far too many to go into any detail here.

What they generally have in common, however, is their strong sense of community, generosity and welcoming nature.

What Visa Do You Need for Sumatra?

At the time or writing, there is no free visa entry into Indonesia.

Instead, 72 countries are eligible for a VOA – Visa on Arrival in Indonesia.

This is easy to obtain; simply visit the VOA desk at whatever airport you use to enter Indonesia, pay 500,000 IDR (you must have cash with you, but often they do accept foreign currency), and you receive your 30-day entry.

As of 2023, there is a fantastic new option – an E-VOA  (electronic visa). This has the same rules as the 30-day VOA, but you can apply online before you head to Indonesia, and you can also renew this online.

This is a great alternative to buying your VOA when you arrive, as you don’t have to worry about fitting in multiple trips to immigration offices to extend for another 30 days during your trip!

Here’s the official Indonesian government website for applying:

If you’re planning to get the most from your 30 days and stay right up until the last day, bear in mind that the day you arrive in Indonesia counts as day one, and you must leave no later than day 30. Don’t get it wrong and assume it’s a month-long visa; you’ll have to pay a fine for every day you overstay.

Most ports of entry require proof of onward or return travel. Every time I’ve flown into Medan airport (and everyone I know of) has been asked for this. So make sure you’ve got your flight out booked and ready to show immigration.

If you don’t like to plan and don’t know exactly when you’ll be leaving Indonesia (or from where), buy the cheapest flight you can find (from Sumatra, it’s usually the Medan to Kuala Lumpur route, which you can often buy for around 300,000 IDR) – or book a ticket that you can alter or cancel.

Want to stay longer than 30 days? It’s not too complicated to stay for 60 days. 

Your VOA can be extended for a further 30 days for a total of 60 days in Indonesia. Factor in several visits to an Immigration office at least a week before your first visa runs out.

If you overstay, you’ll be fined one million IDR for every extra day.

If you want to spend more time in Indonesia, you can either fly out after the 60 days is up, then re-enter and purchase another VOA.

Alternatively, there are “B211a Tourist” visas that allow you to spend up to 6 months in Indonesia. You must apply for these using an agent as your sponsor.

Is Sumatra Safe?

Overall, Sumatra is a safe place to visit. The people are generally friendly, welcoming and protective of tourists.

However, we always recommend people invest in travel insurance, regardless of where they are heading.

We recommend SafetyWing for flexibility and affordability.
Click here to check out their plans and prices.

The usual rules apply — as with all over the world — big cities are not the best places to go out at night, particularly if you’re travelling solo. Be cautious when exploring in Medan, even in the daytime — don’t carry your bag or mobile where it’s visible; snatch and grabs by passing motorbikes are common.

In the city, be polite but firm when approached by friendly locals. Be wary of stopping for a chat; many people will be generally interested in you, as they don’t see many foreigners, but there are opportunists (as with anywhere), so best to say hello and keep walking.

Don’t hang your phone or camera out the window of the car to take photos – you may “lose” it.

If you’re riding on a scooter, store your bags and valuables under the seat, do NOT wear them. This is a good general rule wherever you go.

Don’t flash your money around. Keep your “big money,” the pretty red 100,000 notes stashed somewhere else, and the “smaller money” in a separate place for making regular purchases. 100,000 is a lot of money in Sumatra and will be noticed — especially a wad of it.

General travel tip worldwide: don’t always carry all your money, passport and credit cards with you. If your bag gets stolen, you’re in trouble. Keep emergency money and a spare credit card stashed back in your hotel room. Always store money in a few different spots.

Smaller villages tend to be very safe places. People are respectful, and your belongings SHOULD be safe. But take normal precautions as you would at home.

If you’re travelling by scooter, it’s better to wear a helmet. Although there’s not much police presence in smaller villages and the attitude is pretty relaxed, you could face a fine if the police decide to pick on you that day. Plus, there are some crazy drivers and roads, to better to be safe than sorry. 

Need more info? We have a comprehensive blog all about Is Sumatra Safe just for you!

How to Buy a Local SIM Card in Sumatra

Telkomsel sim card

On arrival to Sumatra (or anywhere in Indonesia), you can buy a local SIM – although it’s not as straightforward as it once was! 

Before you can use a local SIM in your foreign phone, you need to register your phone/SIM using your passport.

You can only do this at a Telkomsel Grapari shop, so make sure you visit one at the airport or in a bigger city before heading off on your travels.

There are a few providers, but the most widely used option with the best service is Telkomsel.

A new SIM can set you back between 30,000 IDR to 70,000, depending on the data and pulsa included.

When you buy your SIM, you can also buy data or calling/texting bundles. 

Prices vary, but as an example, right now around 5GB of internet data costs about 35,000 IDR.

How to Top Up Your Data and Credit (pulsa).

Visit any vendor and give them your number to buy a data package or pulsa. Prices and promotions vary in different times and places.

Alternatively, download the Telkomsel app to your phone so you can quickly see how much data and credit you have.

Dos and Don't When Travelling Sumatra

Sumatran people pride themselves on being polite and respectful – to each other and tourists. Therefore, most of the dos and don’ts are based on politeness.

If you do forget some of these, it’s not the end of the world, and you won’t be chased out of the village; just general guidelines to help you respect their customs.

  • Don’t use your left hand when shaking hands, high-fiving, giving or receiving money or items. Why? Indonesians use their left hand to clean up after going to the toilet. Even though they obviously wash their hands after, the left hand is considered to be “dirty” and it’s very impolite.

  • Don’t touch anyone’s head! This includes ruffling the hair of cute little kids. It’s not polite and may cause offence!

  • Don’t put your feet on tables or chairs or touch people with your feet.

  • Don’t go overboard with kissing, touching, and public displays of affection. Depending on where you are, a little peck  may be okay, but keep it at that.
    Sumatran people believe this should be kept private. Even Indonesian TV shows are not allowed to show people kissing – even a light peck. Particularly important in strict Muslim areas such as the Aceh province.

  • Don’t be offended or shocked if people ask you quite personal questions. They are generally interested in you and want to know how old you are, if you’re married, if you have kids and everything else.

  • Do take your shoes off when entering someone’s house. Often, you’ll notice shoes outside a shop or restaurant too. Do as others do in this case.

  • Do shake hands when you meet someone new — or even someone you already know. You might notice that after the locals shake hands with you they will touch their hand to their chest as a sign of respect — showing that you are welcomed into their heart. (Remember right hand only!)

  • Do dress respectfully. In general, the Sumatran people dress conservatively. They don’t see a lot of foreigners, and even cleavage gets blurred out on the telly! The few tourist areas e.g. Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba are a bit more laid back, but most places it’s best to not be too risqué.
    Unlike Bali, it is not acceptable to walk the streets or ride a scooter in a bikini – anywhere. If travelling to strict Muslim areas, girls should wear long skirts or pants and T-shirts or long-sleeved shirts. Guys should not wear singlets. Be respectful and aware of the customs and cultures you are visiting, and dress accordingly.
    As a female traveller who has done a lot of solo travel in Sumatra, I prefer to cover up as much as possible to avoid unwanted attention.

  • Do accept food or drink if it’s offered to you. Again, not the end of the world, but people are trying to welcome you and show you kindness, so it’s respectful to accept when you can.

  • Do be prepared for the toilets! Most of Sumatra features squat toilets. There will be a bucket full of water with a smaller scoop inside so you can manually “flush.” Fancier toilets feature the good old “bum gun” — a water pistol fitted to a hose that power cleans your butt. Pro tip: always give a test squirt aimed at the floor first to determine the strength of the bum gun and avoid disaster.

  • Generally there wont’ be toilet paper – the waste systems aren’t equipped for it. If you feel the need to wipe, dispose of the paper in the waste basket provided. Tourist areas will have western loos that flush, if you’re lucky.
Squat toilet

Essential Words and Phrases

Many Sumatran people will know one or two English words, most commonly, “Hello,” “How are you,” “Where are you from,” “I love you,” and “Thank you.”

It’s only polite for tourists to learn one or two also.

Here are our top 10 words and phrases to use when travelling Sumatra:

  • Yes = Ya
  • No = Tidak
  • No problem = Tidak masalah or Tidak apa apa
  • Thank you = Terima kasih
  • How are you = Apa kabar
  • I am fine = Kabar baik
  • Excuse me = Permisi
  • Where is the… = Di mana
  • My name is.. = Nama saya …
  • What is your name? = Siapa nama anda?

Sumatra is a traveller’s dream, and there’s truly something for everyone. If you want snorkelling, diving, or relaxing on a beach, trekking through a jungle, scaling a volcano or simply exploring new cultures and cuisines, you’ll find it here.

Anything we’ve missed? Reach out to us and let us know! Happy travels!

Your Essential Sumatra Travel Toolkit

TRAVEL INSURANCE: An absolute necessity whether you’re travelling for a week, a month or a year. For flexibility and affordability, we highly recommend SafetyWing.
Click here for SafetyWing plans and prices

MONEY MANAGEMENT: Grab a free Wise account to easily store and switch currencies, send money all over the world, and withdraw from ATMs throughout Indonesia. We would be LOST without this amazing tool.
Sign up for a free Wise account

FLIGHT FINDER: Nothing beats Skyscanner for sourcing the best flights to, from, and around Sumatra. Filter your search according to the cheapest or fastest options. We use this every time we fly.
Find flights with Skyscanner

BOOKING ACCOMMODATION: We always use when we travel throughout Sumatra and beyond. Easily find your ideal guesthouse, hotel or resort.

NEED HELP? Looking for guides, drivers, or any other travel advice? We’re always happy to help.
Email us – even if just to say hi!


We create all our content for free, to help travellers like you have the time of their lives in this amazing place. If you’d like to support us to keep creating Sumatra content, you can make a small, one-time donation at the secure link below. Terima kasih! (Thank you!)

These blogs are awesome too - have a read!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Servanel

    Your blog is awesome! Thank you very much for the time and the heart you make in. Very difficult to find such informations about Sumatra, until I found this website.
    I wanted to come in Sumatra in september 2020 and, thanks to your advices, choosed to come to Batu Katak <3
    Unfortunately, we'll have to wait till 2022 now (I don't hope 2021), but I patiently wait by reading you again.
    You two seem to be such beautiful persons.
    (ps: sorry for my english, I'm french)

    1. Carly

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment! We are so happy that our blog has been able to help you research Sumatra and choose where to visit; that’s exactly why we created it – because it can be so hard to plan a trip with not much information out there! Sorry you had to delay your trip to Batu Katak, but we’re happy to hear you still plan to visit when it’s possible. Batu Katak is such a special place – we’re sure you will love it! And maybe (hopefully!) we’ll see you there, or somewhere else in Sumatra when it’s safe to travel again. 🙂

Share your thoughts with us