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Lake Toba
Jewel of the highland

Lake Toba (Danau Toba), with it's mystical island Samosir, forms the heart of the beautifull, usually rough Toba Batak highlands - a giant caldera high in the treeless mountains mountains of northern Sumatra. The lake was formed about 100,000 years ago after a giant eruption. This biggest lake of southeastern Asia measures 100 times 31 kilometer and coveres an area of 1146 It's also the deepest lake in the world, it's exact depth still is not known, but is for sure deeper than 450 metres.

Oddly enough the lake does not fullfill it's job as irrigational system for the rivers which mouth in it; all the water from the environment flows to the coasts. The thick layer of fragile stone of the Toba explosion has formed a steep border around the lake, which blocked all earlier irrigation. The water surface of the lake is 906 metres above sealevel, but has probably been 150 metres higher. Thousands of years ago the water of the caldera flooded in the southeastern corner and eroded the soft stone layer. The water cut it's way through spectaculair ravains with steep sides and over the Siguragura, Harimo and Tangga falls to create the river Asahan.The waterlevel dropped again over the recent history, a good explaination is not found.
Picture: Tongging
The homeland of the Toba Batak, of which Danau Toba forms the centre, consists of five regions: the island Samosir, the Uluan (upstream), a fertile area along the southeastern lake banks between Prapat and Porsea, where the river Asahan mouths in the lake; Habinsaran ('the east'); of the Toba word binsar which means 'sunrise'), a very accidented, mountainous area around the upstream river of Kualu; the Silingung valley in the southwest and the Hombung area west of the lake. Everywhere there is enough water, there are ricefields, broken up by Toba villages with their characteristic houses, churches and graves. The vulcanic soils are remarkably fertile and the Toba highlands have been inhabited for centuries.

Berastagi to Prapat

The main road towards Toba from Medan runs through Pematang Sianter and the Simalungun Batak areas. The picturesque small roads over the Karo plateau from Berastagi, close to the northern border of the Toba caldera, does enjoy a bigger popularity of busses and individual travellers. This route is longer, but also much more interesting.

Fourteen kilometer south of Berastagi, is Kabanjahe ('Ginger garden'), the lively district capital in the heart of Tanah Karo, surrounded by ricefields and gardens. Here the highways from the Alas valley in Aceh and the road to Medan merge. 24 kilometer more south the road reached the northern border of the Toba basin near Merek, from here a small road lingers downhill towards the bank, along the spectaculair Sipisopiso ('Like a knife') falls. This comes out of a cave at the edge of the plateau and falls for 120 metres into a small, wild river. A viewpoint offers a splendid view over Tongging village at the banks of the river.

From Merek, the road runs to Prapatm close to the border of the old caldera, the lake and the bald mountain slopes of Gunung Singgalang (1865 m), just north of the village Seribudolok ('Thousand peeks'). A turn to the left leads to Bangunpurba, in the plantation belt along the eastern coast. Fifteen kilometer ahead is Tinggi Raja with a number of terraces, hot sources and a small but interesting flora.

Back on the road that brings you to Prapat, about 40 kilometer after Seribudolok, a road on the right. This road lingers down towards Haranggaol at the lake, a picturesque marketplaces which is known for it's garlick. On Mondays and Thursdays there is a ferry to Samosir and there are hotells, canoo's and speedboats with fishing equipment.
This is the area of the Simalungun Batak with the nice village of Pematang Purba (eight kilometer past Seribuluk), once the residence of the ruler of Simalungun. The wooden palace was built around 1810 in the style of a traditional adat house. It has been restaurated and repainted in the traditional colors red, black and white, and is now in use as a museum. However the earth and bamboo walls have disappeared, the old entrance tunnel can still be zeen. The raja and his twelve wifes lived in the main building; the dark furniture gives a good picture of the royal power. From here an old path leads to the lake. With a guide, you can also visit the closeby Marjanji tea plantation.

Five kilometer past Pematang Purba, near Tigarunggu, a turn leads to Prapar over a bad but picturesque road This follows the forested ridge and offers a view over the lake. At a small crossing in Simarjarunjung is a restaurant with a magnificent view.

Near Sipintuangin, three kilometres ahead, a turn leads to Tigaras, a market place at the lake as well, and also a connection to the ferry to Samosir. The main road takes you to Huta, to reunite with the road towards Pematang Sianter to Prapat.


Prapat stretches over a small rocky peninsula on Danau Toba, and expanded towards the south against Ajibata village. Before the war is already was a popular tourist destination, but in the recent years new hotels were built rapidly.

The old Prapat Hotel, which views over the harboir, was known in the entire Dutch Indies in the time of the colonial time. The first President of Indonesia, Soekarno, was kept prisoner for a few months in Prapat, together with Haji Agus Salim and Soetan Sjahrir.

You can play tennis, waterski, rowing and explore the lake with a speedboat. The climate is very flat: many flowers have colors year-round. Shops sell Batak fabrics, woodcarvings, ceramics and much more. Real searchers can sometimes even find a real piece of antique around here. Too bad the sellers are kind of pushy. The local market offers a veriety of fruit and vegetables. The local mango, which is known as kueini, has an interesting taste but does not taste as good as the harum manis of Eastern Java. In the inmediate environment of Prapat some geological formations can be found. A little more south, in the valley of the Naborsahon, some beautiful terraces show that the level of the lake used to be much higher.


Samosir, the giant, dry "Island of the Dead" in the middle of Danau Toba is a grim reminder of a second powerfull eruption, about 30,000 years ago. In that time, a secundairy peak formed, which split later, and came back down again. The eastern part now forms the peninsula of Prapat and the shores until Porsea, and the western border of Samosir. The island measures 45 by 20 km, and originally was a peninsula. It only became a peninsula after the Dutch arrived and dug a canal across the small piece of land of 200 metres in 1906. This action seemed to have a lot to do among the local population, because they thought the island would slip away towards the middle of the lake and simply dissappear.

The eastern coast of the island rises steeply from a small bank towards a central plateau with an altitude of 780 metres. This gradually descends towards the southern and western coast of the island and is scattered with small villages which dangerously lean against the rock, and cross ravains.

The Samosir plateau mainly is clear rock, with some scattered forests, swamps and a small lake. There is a road parallel with the shores of the island, but this can be bad at certain points, with a number of bad bridges in the southwestern corner. From Pangururan, the kecamatan-centre at the western side, a bridge connects the island with mainland Sumatra. The road ascends to an altitude of 1800 metres after that. Here, the village of Tele offers a good view over the lake and the island.

During the northeastern monsoon (September until January), a strong wind usually arrived from the high altitudes, the alogo bolong or 'big wind'. This produces waves of over one metre high, which can made traffic over water very hard. Local ferries, most of the time overloaded with freight and people, can be lost during these storms. Earlier the Batak used big tree-trunk canoos (solu) made of a single tree to cross the lake. Noaways only very small canoos are used.

F.M. Schnitget, author of 'Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra', visited Samosir in the 1930's and described the adathouses, stone graves and coffins of no less than 26 villages. Looking for these villages is hard, because many of the names have been changed since them; others were abandoned and some of the stone sarcofagusses were removed from their original location. Outside the paved roads time and patience are an important factor to find the graves. But for many people a visit to Samosir is no more than a quiet ferry fare to Tomok, where the most famous of all Toba Bakat sarcofasussus are just on a few minutes away from the pier.

Gate to Samosir

Prapat maintains a regular ferry service to Samosir, a journey of less than one hour. Boats also depart from Haranggaol and Tigaras at the Simalungun-shores in the north, but they are less frequent.

The two most important places on Samosir are Tomok, a traditional village with beautifull stone sarcofagussus and houses, and Tuktuk, where many hotels and restaurants are located. In Prapat you can also hire a speedboat for a journey around Samosir, two to three hours.
In Tomok, already known as 'the Gate to Samosir' for years, the visitor is greeted by a row of stalls which sell a big variety of Batak handycrafts: traditional ulos-cloths, Batak calenders and music instruments (under them the traditional two-snared violing, the harwad). There are small hotels and restaurants in the neighborhood.


Just a little of the shore, covered up in a bamboo forest under an old waringin tree is the most famous sarcofagus of the Toba. This giang grave monument is made from one stone and dates back until the early 19th century. It belongs to a king of the Sidarbuta clan. A big singa-head is carved out in the front, a mythological creature, half buffalo half elephant. On the saddle-shaped roof is a womans-figure, probably an paranggiran which is used during sacrificional rituals. It is most likely the wife of the deceased clan leader.

There are also more modern graves and stones, under them the ancestral seats from 1950, covered with moss and a modern sarcofagus from 1979. The adat houses are in a row at the other side, the back towards the lake and the very important rice sheds at the front. They are decorated with leave motives, painted in the holy Batak colors black, white and red, and their traditional ijuk (palmfibre) roofs are replaced with currogated iron.

The small peninsula Tuktuk Ni Asu ('Peninsula of the Dogs'), just north of Tomok does have sand beaches and dozens of hotels with cheap accomodation; a flourishing holiday place and Samosirs answer to Kuta Beach on Bali. On Pulau Pasir of the coast is an old coffin.

Four kilometres north of Tuktuk over a small road is Ambarita, a nice village with old stone walls on which used to be tight pagar or sharp bamboo fences. Inside are seats and modern statues, the work of Siallagan, about 1960. Don't believe all the stories they make up about this village.

About 19 kilometer further north is Simanindo with it's richly decorated house of Raja Sidauruk. It is currently in use as a museum. Visitors can see a traditional tortor-dance and the sigalegale-puppets, also including a lively gondang sabangunan-ensemble. The sigalegale (big wooden puppet) was used for people which died without having children. The images would be used as stay for the spirits of ancestors. The usage of this has only appeared just over a hundred years ago in the Balige-area. The rocky island of Pulau Tao has a shallow bay and a small hotel.

Harangmalau, about two kilometer past Simanindo, is the northeastern point of Samosir. Nearby are Situngkir and Sialangoan, with the remarkable graves of the capital Sihaloho. One of the coffins is decorated with a buffalo-head in relief. The part above the buffalo head with a boraspati ni tano, the holy lizard, and a much used symbol of luck.
A few kilometer ahead, past Parbaba, is Suhisuhi, with an old sarcofagus and a number of modern graves. More south, towards Hutaraja, are five old sarcofagussus from the Simarmata-clam. The one of Raja Ompu Bontor is located in Hutaraja itself. In front of the house of the village head a small statue marks the spot where a young girl was sacrificed when the house was built. Human sacrifices were fairly common in the early times. For this, an innocent victim was killed; it's spirit would change in an allmighty protection spirit.

Another five kilometer ahead is Pangururan, the governmental centre of the subdistrict, with a bridge as connection to the main land. Just over the bridge a small road on the right leads to a popular hot source on the slope op Gunung Pusuk Buhit (1981 m), the holy mountain of all Batak. It is said that the ancestral father, Si Raja Batak, descended here. The main road acsends towards Tele, 900 metres above the lake, with a very nice view over Samosir.

South of Panguruan the road follows the coast until Nainggolan and Sungkean. Just north of Sombolon, near Pansur Duggal (probably the Pancur from Schnitger), are three modernsarcofagussus and a number of old urns. On the slopes above Simbolon is the sarcofagus of Raja Ompu Silo Simbolon with the remarkable statue of a woman with her arms under the singa. Near Huta Godang, close to Nainggolan, is the old sarcofagus of the Parhusip-clan. Sipinggan and Huta Na Bolon also have important sarcofagussus.

South of Tomok

Just south of Tomok, a small road brings you from the coast to the Samosir Plateay (1689 m) , with a nice view over the lake. After that it follows the peak of the plateau due south. The village of Parmonangan houses a copy of the Situmorang-clan house. One side has remarkable woodcarvings: four female breasts and an entire woman with her hands in the air. From here the roads leads towards the south, towards Onan Runggu.

For a change, also watch the coast south of Tomok from a boat. This area is rich of nice small bays with white beaches and picturesque villages. Rows of low stone pillars along the coast near Panjomuran and Pagar Batu indicate the location where once were the boat houses for the giant Situmorang war canoos (solu). With this, the Batak attacked neighboring villages. From Pagar Batu a path leads towards a terrace on the plateau. Once there was a village. Just a number of lesung batu or stone grinders remain. Close to the southeastern tip of the island, near Sitamiang, are decorated concrete graves, in the shape of miniature Toba houses.

From Prapat to Porsea

The Uluan area, south of Prapat, also has fascinating villages and graves. From Prapat, a secundary road crosses Ajibata. It ascends against a slope and offers a nice view over the lake. Small villages with nicely decorated adat houses are from the road in bamboo forests; too bad most 'loose' decorations are looted for trade.

22 kilometer from Prapat is, left of the road, the village of Hutagaol of the Manurung-clam, and some kilometer ahead is the small village of Lumban Simariasonak of the Sitorus-clam, 8 kilometer more south, they house some of the best examples of adat houses in traditional Uluan style, with animistic and human decorations in woodcarvings. Luban Tabu is on the monumental care list.

The area south of here, around Porsea, irrigates Danau Toba in the sixty-metre-wide Asahan river towards the east. The river flows with other smaller rivers from the north (Aek Mandosi) and south (Aek Bolon). Together they form a very fertile plain, covered with flourishing villages. The road which runs through the Asahan valley, turns left about three kilometres before Porsea. One kilometre ahead, at the right side, there is a group of very nice villages, under them Lumban Kuala. Here is a very nice sarcofagus which belongs to Raja Pabalubis of the Manurung clan.

Hydroelectric plant

The road runs towards the Asahan valley in a steep descend. The river cuts through the small ravain with vertical walls of 250 metres high, which are cut out of the soft vulcanic stone. Here is the Inalum hydroelectric power plant, the biggest of it's kind in Indonesia, which produced 500 mW power and electrolysed 225,000 tonnes of aliminium every year. The complex, which was built by the Japanese, was finished in 1975 and cost over 2 bilion US dollar. A special permit which is needed to enter the terrain and the roads around it, can be obtained at the office of Inalum.

Past the power station near Siguragura the ravain changes into a small street through the mountains. There the river descends 200 metres over the Sampuran Harimo (Tiger fall) and the Tangga Fall, into the Tangga-valley. Formerly, the southern slopes of this valley could only be reached by a number of small stairs, therefore the valley is named tangga, stairs. The road descends further to the Asahan plantation area along the coast, and adds to the road to Medan near Bandar Pulio.

Southern lake bank

The shores of Danau Toba south and west of Porsea are scattered with fertile sawah's and villages. Laguboti, along the Aek Simare between Porsea and Balige, is known for it's woodcarvings and statues. In Sigumpar, just west, is the grave of I.L. Nommensen, the German missionary which converted almost the entire Toba Batak population on his own at the end of the 19th century.

Near Huta Gunjang, about 6 kilometer south of Laguboti over an unpaved path, are the big ruins from fortified villages with siol walls and entrance tunnels on an altitude of 1650 metres. They were abandoned a long time ago and have hardly been investigated upto now. With clear weather the view is very good, but it can be foggy and cold over here as well.

Balige, an important market place at the southern shore of the lake, 65 kilometer from Prapat, is known for it's fabrics. The city does have a big pasar, built in the traditional Tapanuli-style, and a monument, decidated to the last Batak priest king, Sisingamangaraja XII, and to general D.I. Panjaitan, which was killed in Jakarta in 1965, during the communist coup. The city has two museums: the Balige Museum and the Sisingamangaraja XII Museum. The last houses a collection of objects which are related to this national hero, which is burried in Soposurung.

Noawadays Balige knows several Batak festivities, like Pesta Horas and Pesta Pantai Lumban Silingong, on which the locals often practice traditional sports. Five kilometer west of Balige, a turn to the left leads to Adian Nalambok near Gurgur, with a pension on the hill. Near Jonggini Hutta, just off the main road, is a grave hill and a statue of a horseback rider of Raja Pangalitan of the Nababan clan.

From Siborongborong, about 20 kilometer past Balige, a small road towards the north takes you to Muara, along the southwestern shore. This small village with Malay houses is ruled by the twin hills of Dolok Sikke (1092 m) and Dolok Sitoruna (1153 m). Muara, lit. 'rivermouth', views over the bay with the same name and the big island Pulau Sibandang. Nearby is Sosorugan, with an interesting modern grave monument in the shape of a traditional house. A little more south, on the village square of Huta Na Godang, it the famous horeback riding statue of the founder of the Siregar clan, with his wife. In other villages in the environment, like Balaian ni Guru and Lumban Tikkatikka, a number of fetish relics can be found.

Past Muara, along a deserted bay surrounded by high hills in the southwestern corner of the lake, is Bakkara, the former seat of the mystical Batak priest kings, the Sisingmangaraja. The village is surrounded by stone walls and other witnesses of it's warrior past. The last ruler, Sisingmangaraja XII, was killed during a small flare of violence with Dutch troops in 1907, after 30 years of guerrilla war in which he got a god-like reputation among his people. The Dutch entered the are in 1878 and burned dozens of villages in the battle that followed on that.

Last revised on November 10, 2011
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