(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, April 2015)

Karo Batak

I am in love with Lake Toba — the scenic splendour, the Batak traditional architecture, the colourful big-toothed people.
Last month I had occasion to visit Berastagi — a three-hour drive from Medan’s new airport, in the middle of the famous Batak Karo tribal areas — 50 miles north of Lake Toba and at the feet of simmering Mt Sinabung. I was in Berastagi to attend a Karo Jazz concert, and a birthday celebration for my friend Murni Surbakti, the Batak Karo songbird.
We stayed at the impressively 1980s retro Mikie Holiday Resort which is a combination of the worst of Disney World Hong Kong and Bellagio Las Vegas.
It was Chinese New Year, so the place was full of cute Medan-Hokkien Sino-Indonesians — that ancient and unique community who eat their body-weight in fried food every day.

Charming  courtesy hostesses at Mikkie Holiday Resort, Berastagi.

Mikie Holiday is fabulous because it is located equidistant from the ‘Telasonika’ BBQ Pork Café, centre of the known universe, and the road to Lake Toba via Tongging, and it has whack-up breakfasts in the Cantonese casino-inspired dining hall. There are Javanese-Medan (Jadan) masseuses too, who sing like canaries about goings-on in the highlands.
But I digress.

Tomb decoration, Ergaji village, Karo.

Traditional Batak Karo house in Dokan village.

The first morning, we drove 30 minutes south to the heritage village of Dokan, where fine handsome traditional houses still stand in a loose arrangement at the centre of the picturesque village.
After Dokan we got sidetracked by a wedding in full swing in the nearby village of Ergaji. It was a real treat: all the ladies were dressed in colourful Batak Karo costumes, replete with the giant peaked hats for which they are famous. The men wore Bronco Bill outfits, folded Javanese sarong worn neatly over the shoulder as scarf. The bride and groom were dancing in the centre of the packed Jambur community hall, serenading each other to Celine Dion songs, while relatives lined up to press bills into their palms. It was Wizard of Oz meets Midnight Cowboy.

Bride and groom dance to Celine Dion music at Ergaji wedding.

Batak Karo guests at Ergaji wedding.

From Ergaji we drove to the Semalam Resort to meet Murni and her gang. The resort, which sits on the caldera above Lake Toba and Tongging village, is kind of ridiculous — ugly modern architecture set in a well-maintained park — but does offer drop-dead views, and decent local food at its view-side eateries.
Waterfall villas and luxury rooms are available, but I recommend that adventurous tourists drive the extra 20 minutes down to the lake edge to Tongging tourism village, as we did the next day.
The evening’s Karo Jazz entertainment at the spiffy Grand Mutiara (Big Pearl) was sensational — Murni in great voice, surrounded by all her extended family of hombres and female-wrestler sweetie-aunties who were thrilled to finally see the songbird in action. The Bataks are to Indonesia as the Welsh are to Britain.
The audience comprised a busload of tragic Haji from Malaysia who bolted for the door as soon as they saw the sensuous Murni shimmy and shammy. A thin sprinkling of Berastagi’s jazz music-lovers was there too — it was fun.
Travelling around Indonesia you never know what you’re going to find — which is half of the fun.

Karo Batak songbird Murni Surbakti at Karo Jazz night.

See video: http://youtu.be/VLLgOAYM3Sk

•   •   •

The next day, a Sunday, we stopped first at a Batak Christian church, to admire the fashion and to join the singing, and then drove the scenic road down to Tongging where any number of grilled fish cafés begged for our custom.

Medan Sino-Indonesians at Lover’s Leap. Semalam Resort, above Tongging.

We chose the ‘Sitopsi’ because it had a dining pier that jutted out into the lake, and a losmen attached — for the requisite post-prandial siesta. The food was excellent: Nila fish grilled to perfection, grilled aubergine, and the usual cah kangkung. They even had cold beers!
After our siestas we had a swim in the lake, some excellent coffee, and then were off around the lake edge to visit the village of Silalahi, one of the most remote Lake Toba Batak villages.

View of Lake Toba from Tongging.

The 30 minute drive was blissful — just amazing views and charming fishermen villages.
Silalahi itself is like an old Hawaiian village at the beginning of the 20th century, on a lake and surrounded by impossibly green hills. The mix of traditional and colonial houses is delightful. The one road is lined with traditional houses — some set off small squares with colourful tombs to one side. The architecture of these sopo houses is a mix between the Batak Karo and the Toba Batak styles.

Silalahi village.

Silalahi Traditional house

Decorative detail on Silalahi traditional house.

From Silalahi we drove straight up the caldera side and back to Berastagi — it took only 90 minutes.
This is the best way to experience Lake Toba (but not Samosir Island of course) as the drive from Medan to Prapat, the traditional Toba viewing point, is now congested — Prapat itself is ruined.

Fish for sale, Silalahi.

•    •    •

On our last day I watched the Academy Awards on HBO in my room — oh the wonder of Indovision — and then visited the old village of Sinulingga outside the regional capital of Kabanjahe. In the Lingga Museum just outside the village I discovered a 1952 photograph of what the village looked like (see photo below).

1952 photograph of Sinulingga village.

Today there are only two or three sopo houses left but the charming village is well worth the detour.
From a local guide I learned of the past Hindu regions (thus the Siwaite names); in fact, many of the villagers consider themselves descended from Brahman priests!

Sopo house in Sinulingga village, Karo.

For a day by day description See videos : Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

BATAK KARO ADVENTURE DAY 1: http://youtu.be/GqcjxiH5isc
BATAK KARO ADVENTURE DAY 2: http://youtu.be/0y7EX6VT-qY
BATAK KARO ADVENTURE DAY 3: http://youtu.be/0DiIaWOkJig

Kabanjahe and Berastagi are just big market towns, the former more populous as it is the regional capital, and also because of its strategic position between the east and the west coasts of Sumatra. Hundreds of trucks of superb vegetables leave each night for Medan, Indonesia's third biggest city. The Kabanjahe regency was once the centre of a powerful Hindu Kingdom, with links to Majapahit East Java in the 15th and 16th centuries.
It’s fascinating to read F.M. Schnitger’s Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (O.U.P. 1989) and read about the Hindu and Malay dynasties of Sumatra from the 6th to the 19th century.
Tragically, most of the Malay sultans, particularly in the nearby Sultanate of Langkat, were brutally murdered during the first communist insurrection after independence, and their palaces razed.
Very, very few remnants of North Sumatra’s Hindu past remain — a few statues, the old Hindu fort at Mesjid Tua Indrapuri outside Banda Aceh (see last month’s diary), and some walled city remnants (Srivijaya) and quite a few candi temples, mostly of Buddhist origin.


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