Sumatra was once known as Swarnadwipa, the Sanskrit term meaning “Island of Gold,” for gold deposits found by the
island’s first settlers, members of the Hindu empire of Srivijaya, who arrived in the 7th century. Over the centuries, other
groups would try to claim this tropical paradise for their own, beguiled by its striking volcanic Barisan mountain chain, with peaks averaging over 610m (2,000 ft.). The highest peak rises over 3,658m (12,000 ft.) in the middle of the range. The mountains make a majestic backdrop for its lush rainforests, home to exotic animal species like tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros. Sumatra has the distinction of being both the largest island in Indonesia and the sixth-largest island in the world. Despite its geographical significance, it is less touristy than better known islands like Bali and Java , making it
more of a bona fide getaway.
Although Hinduism dominated its early history, Islam began making inroads here during the 13th century. The first Europeans to settle were the Portuguese, who staked their claim in the 1500s. They were followed by the Dutch and English about a century later, and the Dutch influence can be seen in the architecture in the capital city of Medan. The Dutch struggled with the native Atjehnese, a Muslim tribe, in sometimes bloody battles. Another chapter opened during World War II, when Japanese forces commanded the island from 1942 to the end of the war. The island won its freedom from the Dutch in 1950, and was officially declared part of the Republic of Indonesia, but that did not spell an end to conflict; the Atjehnese led a rebellion in 1958, and tensions still sometimes flare up. Another factor to consider is the devastating earthquake that hit the island in October 2009. At press time, thousands were believed dead or missing and many buildings were leveled. It’s best to check on the current situation before planning a trip.
Once on the island, you could do worse than spend a day or two discovering the city of Medan and its environs. Medan is in North Sumatra, a province resplendent with rainforests, jungles, volcanic lakes, and lovely beaches. The town is notably home to the Museum of North Sumatra, which houses prehistoric artifacts that reflect the island’s changing leadership: Buddhist statues share space with weaponry and Arabic gravestones. Nearby Maimoon Palace is another example of the island’s history. It was built in 1886 by an architect blending Asian, Western, and Middle Eastern influences. Gang Bangkok Mosque—the oldest mosque on the island—is also worth a visit while you’re in the Medan area.
Be aware that Medan is a major port, home to more than two million people. If you want to get away from the crowds, I recommend renting a motorcycle or car and taking in the island’s natural glories beyond this port. Sumatra’s flora and fauna outside this hub make for breathtaking sights. The island is home to 10 national parks, including 3 that are listed as World Heritage Sites. You can climb smoking volcano craters in the town of Berastagi, or see an orangutan in the rainforest canopy of Bukit Lawang. The rainforests host unique species including the Rafflesia arnoldii, the world’s largest flower—just one of this island’s rare treasures.