Sumatra is separated from Java by the Sunda Strait, a mere 24km wide. The Straits of Malacca that separate the island from the Malay Peninsula and Singapore is not much wider, making Sumatra closer to its international neighbours than it is the rest of Indonesia. The Straits serve as the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans; the same trade route used by those early Arabic, African, Indian and Chinese traders and later by the Portuguese and Dutch spice traders. These days, a quarter of the worlds trade goods pass through the Straits each year, making Sumatra one of the most strategically important locations in the world.
Given a population nudging 50 million and such a colourful history, it should come as no surprise that Sumatra has some of the biggest and oldest cities in Indonesia. If you’re coming from Java, Bandar Lampung will likely be your first city stop and it’s a good place to get your bearings. From here, Sumatra’s major roadway spans northwards traversing the eastern lowlands through Palembang and Jambi. The former was founded in the 7th century on the banks of the Musi River and once had so many canals, the Dutch dubbed it the “Venice of the East”. Whilst most of the canals have gone, the historic area of Seberang Ilir on the north bank is worth a look.
From Jambi you can head west into the highlands to the Kerinci Seblat National Park or continue on through Pekanbaru and eventually touch the coast at Medan, Sumatra’s largest city. It’s short on attractions but as one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it’s a veritable tasting plate of the world and a must for food lovers.
From Medan, the trans-Sumatra highway hugs the coastline all the way north to Banda Aceh, Sumatra’s westernmost city but most travellers deviate instead to Lake Toba and the Karo highlands or the Gunung Leuser National Park.
On the west coast, it seems that all roads eventually lead to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra and a favourite among tourists. Once a main harbour for the Dutch East Indies, the old Dutch town and harbour area of Pelabuhan Muaro is chock full of elegantly decaying Dutch colonial buildings, colourful fishing boats and canoes. The city also serves as a gateway to the Mentawi and Bungus Bay Islands and the pleasant Padang highlands around the city of Bukittinggi.
A vast network of minor roads cross the Barisan mountain range, hug the west coast and traverse the lowlands connecting cities, towns and villages. However, many are poorly maintained, narrow and winding so although the distances can seem small, be prepared for long, tortuous and at times hair raising journeys.
Another thing to be aware of is that after years of civil strife, Sumatra’s northernmost province of Aceh became a special region of Indonesia in 2002. The status gives the provincial government increased autonomy from the central government in Jakarta and paved the way for the introduction of Sharia based laws reflecting the conservative Islamic beliefs of the Acehnese. Whilst Sharia laws are only applied to Muslims, travellers in Aceh should be mindful of their behaviour and dress conservatively. Kissing in public, relations between unmarried couples and homosexuals, alcohol and gambling are heavily frowned upon.