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Rough southern Batak highlands

The districts of Northern-, Central- and Southern Tapanuli roughly cover the southern part of the province, one thirds of the total area. In the north thei border at Danau Toba and in the south to Riau and Western Sumatra. Northern Tapanuli is inhabited by the Toba Batak.

The Mandailing Batak and the Angkola Batak live in the southern areas. Many of them converted to the islam in the 19th century, this under big pressure of the Minangkabau Paderi-warriors. The area is rough, but picturesque, with north-south valleys from Bukit Barisan and a widening coastal area in the southeast.

There are three main roads through the area. East of the mountains the trans Sumatra route crosses the plantation belt south of Tebing Tinggi until Rantau Prapat and Kota Pinang, to go inland over the dry, hilly Padang Lawas plateau towards Padang Sidempuan, which is known as the local market place, after that.

Another two roads lead towards Padang Sidempuan, from the Toba highlands via Tarutung. The one follows the Batang Toru valley along Pearaja and Sipirokk and ends at the eastern coast near Pagarutan. Another, nice route descends towards the western coast near Sibolga.

The route along the eastern coast

Some fifty kilometres east of Tebing Tinggi, an interesting detour from the main road towards the coast near Tanjung Tiram ("Cape Oister"). This village, with it's fish market and sand beach, is at the mouth of a river past Labuhan Ruku and is the location of a 19th century Malay harbour which is known af Bogak. You can hire a boat to the fishermens island of Pulau Berhala, a three hour journey from the mainland.

Straight south of Labuhan Ruk, near Limau Laras, is a palace, the former seat of the Malay ruler. In the early 19th century this was an important centre for the gold-, and silver songet- weavery, a tradition which is still used in some isolated villages.

Much more south, near Kota Pinang, the main road leads towards inland near the River Barumun, through the enormous Padang Lawas ('Great Plain') area. Along the upstream of the river are the mysterious remains of the old Panai principalty, which became famous because of F.M. Schnitget's romantic explorations in the 1930's. This area was an important, old crossroads, and offered access to precious tree resins in Bukit Barisan and gold in the south. Panai is named in an Southern Indian Tanjore inscription, being conquerred by the Tamil Chola in 1018.
Most of the remains is concentrated around Gunung Tua in a dry rain shadow area with distinctive savannah-kind vegetation. The most impressive are the three masonry candi or biaro (from the buddhist name vihara, monastry) in Bahal near Portibi, east of Gunung Tua along the banks of the River Barumun.

This candi with their buddhist associations probably date back to between the 10th and 13th century. Too bad the sculpturers used the soft vulcanic stone, which eroded badly over the centuries. Bahal I, with it's sculptured masonry panels, is repaired badly over the last years. Other places offer even less, however some parts still show what kind of temple it once was.

The route through the Toba highlands

Tarutung, south of Soboroborong, is the governmental centre is the district North Tapanuli. In the village of Pagaran is the remarkable sarcofagus of Datu Ompu Panonson Lumban Tobing. Following Barbier, this coffin has been replaced at least three times because is would bring bad luck to the owners.

The route from Tarutung south towards Padang Sidempuan takes you along Sipirok, a village in the shade of the active Gunung Sibualbuali (1820 m), and is known for it's weavings and ceramics. In the nearby Padang Matanggi Dutch military objects can be seen, built for the defence against the Paderi in the years after 1830. From Sipirok a road runs towards the northeast towards Sipogu along a excavated, burned forest that was once buried by an eruption of Gunung Sibualbuali. Tor Sibohi has a forest park with hot sulphur sources and a new hotel.

The western coast

The western coast of Northern Sumatra, with it's small coastal plain, steep hills and deep bays, is one of the most beautifull parts of Sumatra. The 66 km long road towards Sibolga from Tarutung follows the Silindung valley through deep ravains and dense forests and akong 1200 u-turn turns. The city of Sibolga is the governmental centre of Central Tapanuli and an important seaport for steam boats and ferries on their way to Nias.

This is the western gate to the Tabak highlands, with a view on the remarkable Tapanuli Bay (tapian nauli, 'nice beach'). The city is known for it's fish and seafood, andthe bay is scattered with islands. The biggest, Pulau Mursala, has very clear waters and a rich sealife. The English had a trading post as Pulau Puncung Kecil, closer to the mainland, from 1756 until 1824. From here, the first Europeans entered the Batak highlands in 1820.

Pantai Pandan, a traditional fishery village on 11 km south of Sibolga, has nice beaches with shadow-creating coconut-palms. Precious stones, shells and coral is being sold from small shops.

Barus, 65 km north of Sibolga, is the location of an old harbour, and already known since the 6th century among the Arabs as Fansur of Pancur. Barus had an international reputation as the source of campher of good quality (kapur barus. Numerous islamic graves from about the 14th century proove that the city was the centre of the islamic science. In 1668 the Dutch founded a trading post; a good conserved colonial fortress from the 19th century is now being used by the local police.

North of Barus, near the mouth of the river Batang Garigis in Lobu Tuo ('Old Village') a Tamil grave pillar from 1088 was found . The inscription, written in Tamil Grantha (locally known as palawa), reminds of the activities of a trading guild of the Tamils, known as 'the 1500 swami's from Ayyavole'. It'now being displayed in the national museum in Jakarta.

They also found another, not yet decoded inscription from the Tamil. From Barus a road takes you towards the Dairi (Pakpak) highlands, via pakkat and Dolok Sanggul. Just besides the road, bear Sijungkang, is a deserted village with islamic Batak gravestones in black, white and red and a remarkable statue of a woman on an elephant.

Last revised on December 17, 2011
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