A day-trip to North Sumatra’s Toba Lake

Covering 1707 square kilometers, Danau Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and the largest volcanic lake in the world. In the center of the lake lies Samosir Island, home of the Toba people, one of five Batak tribes native to North Sumatra. With its lush greenery and its relaxed, sleepy atmosphere, Samosir makes a great escape from the busy lifestyle I normally experience in Medan. Some friends and I decided to get away for a day-trip back in February, to relax on the shore and learn more about Batak culture.

A stone face carving stands in the courtyard of a restored traditional village in Simanindo. This complex, once the home of an ancient king and his wives, has been converted into a museum on Batak Toba culture. Visitors can view artifacts, tour houses, and watch women weave ulos, the traditional Toba fabric. We hoped to also catch some traditional dancing in the courtyard, but the dancers informed us that not enough tourists had shown up to make it worth their time.

Wooden masks adorn the walls of Batak homes in the Simanindo museum village. The masks are decorated with designs in red, black, and white, representing the tree parts of the cosmos in Batak spirituality: red for the human world, white for the world of good spirits, and black for the world of dark spirits. In the past, masks like these were used for ceremonial purposes, including dances and funeral rites.


A local man casts a line on a quiet Saturday afternoon.  Fishing is still a major part of life for the people of Samosir Island.

A man carves a traditional boat outside his home near Ambarita village on Samosir Island.

The famous “stone chairs” are a centerpiece of the traditional village in Ambarita. Originally built for meetings of village elders, the chairs are now known as the location where villagers were tried for murder. If found guilty, defendants would be ritually cannibalized, signifying their loss of human status. Nowadays the stone chairs are a tourist attraction, complete with many guides who are happy to tell sordid tales of the chairs’ gruesome past.

About the author: Catherine Brist is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Medan, North Sumatra. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with a degree in English literature. Before joining the Fulbright program, she participated in the Critical Languages Scholarship program in Malang, East Java, during the summer of 2011.

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