BootsnAll Travel Network

Down the Spine of Sumatra: Aceh and the Gayo Highlands

Despite it’s reputation as being well and truly out in the wilds of Sumatra, Banda Aceh was a modern town, full of western conveniences brought by, or at least in order to cater to, foreign NGO workers in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami.  In leaving the city behind we were heading down a far more adventurous road. 

There were, in fact three roads out of Banda Aceh.  We’d taken the eastern costal road from Medan on the way there.  Sections of the western coastal road still hadn’t been repaired following the tsunami.  The third option was the one took on our journey south: the mountain road right down the centre of Sumatra, through the region known as the Gayo Highlands.

 Kumara chips

Deep fried crispy vegetables were a specialty of Aceh, including these beautiful (and tasty) kumara (sweet potato) chips

The bus ride to our first stop, Takengon began comfortably enough.  The first couple of hours were covered on the trans-Sumatran highway, and the kilometres clicked by fairly quickly.

 Chips of all sorts

As noted earlier, fruit and vegetable chips of all sorts were common in Aceh (I especially liked the banana ones.)  While we thought these containers and bags of chips near the bus station were big, they were puny next to the huge piles for sale out on the main highway

Acehnese women on the road 

Acehnese women on the road.  Though all of these ladies wore hijabs, we’d been surprised at how open and liberal Aceh seemed in comparison to what we’d been told to expect there

Things got a bit trickier once we turned south onto the mountain road proper.  First we made a short but astonishingly lengthy detour so that one of the passengers could drop something off at his boarding school.  Next the road quality started to deteriorate.  Then it started to rain.  And finally darkness fell.

The minibus sped on through the darkenss, alternately blazing along the few straight sections of roadway and crawling up the much more numerous switchbacks.  At one point we stopped entirely where a cargo truck had stalled in the middle of the 1.5 lane wide road, halfway up a steep hill.  Eventually I got sick of waiting in the blaring Indonesian electronic music and cigarette smoke of the microbus and helped, along with 8 or 10 others to push it up the hill and clear the road.  This little outing cheered me immeasurably, and so I was in pretty good temper when we finally arrived in Takengon.

With the help of the microbus driver, who kindly took us to a few different hotels while his onward passengers ate, we checked into the Gayo Land hotel, whose name made it clear that we were now well and truly in the Gayo Highlands.

The next day we took a walk around Takengon and its suburbs.

Some observations:

The people.  This part of Sumatra saw very few tourists, and we were something of a cause for excitement wherever we went.  They might not have been quite as enthralled as the people of Bangladesh, but they were certainly more vocal.  Wherever we went, we heard the refrain that would be our more or less constant companion for weeks to come: “Hello Mister!”  The Gayo people all seemed quite happy to see us, but few spoke any English beyond this one phrase.  As if to illustrate how much of a “stock greeting for all foreigners” it really was, Sarah regularly was greeted “Hello Mister!” when walking around town on her own.

Kids at school in Takengon 

I loved the brightly coloured (and practical!) school uniforms that children in Takengon wore.  We passed several schools on our walk.  At each one the choruses of “hello mister!”s followed us down the road until we were out of sight

Typical Gayo house

A typical Gayo house.  Pretty ones like these were in the minority in Takengon, but somehow the town still managed to charm

The surroundings.  Takengon was set on a 26km long mountain lake.  It didn’t have the spectacular colour, or the jagged peaks that many other alpine water bodies boast, but was still very pretty.  On the way up to Takengon, the darkness yielded occaisionally to show us that we were travelling through a mix of natural-looking jungle and decidedly un-natural pine plantations.  The land around town was pretty much all covered by the latter.  While this detracted significantly from the prettiness of the hillsides, the access roads into the plantations afforded us the opportunity to climb up onto the hillsides and get a bird’s-eye view of the town and lake.

The suburbs of Takengong from above

The suburbs of Takengong from above.  It was interesting to observe (and frustrating to navigate through) the wide swathes of agricultural land that were interspersed amongst the town and its suburbs

Dugout canoe

A dugout canoe near the lake



Barbecuing sate was an art in Takengon.  A plateful of sticks were served with delicious sweet-hot peanut dipping sauce, rice and a yummy, salty peanut based soup

Me and my roti bakar

Me enjoying some roti bakar.  The dish consisted of a whole (small) loaf of white bread that was sliced along its axis, filled with chocolate and caramel sauces, covered in margerine, pan fried, then topped chocolate flavoured condensed milk and sprinkles.  Healthy? No. Tasty and fun to watch the preperation of? Yes. 

Perhaps the best part of Takengon was eating dinner there.  Starting around 18:00, the bus park near the centre of town turned into one giant food court.  Carts, tents and tables were set up around its fringes and locals (plus us two tourists) converged to lounge in the low-lying chairs and consume such delights as Mie Goreng, Sate, Roti Bakar and most importantly:

Kopi.  Indonesia is famous for coffee (to the point that Java, the most populous island is synonymous with the drink.)  And many people reckon that the best coffee in Indonesia is grown in Aceh province.  Which of course meant that we drank tons of it while there.  From plain Kopi (a couple of tablespoons of fresh, finely ground coffee in a glass with boiling water) through Kopi susu (mixed with sweetened condensed milk, probably the most popular serving style) all the way to Kopi Telor Kocok (Mixed with a meringue-like mixture of beaten egg and sugar.  Sarah pronounced it the best coffee she’d drank since leaving New Zealand!

Sarah with coffee

Sarah with her beloved coffee plants.  As in Laos, coffee in Gayo wasn’t grown on large plantations.  Instead each family had a small plot of bushes that they would work, eventually pooling their crop with neighbours for distribution

We were kind of sad to leave our bus park food court behind, but eventually we picked up stakes and headed south for the town of Ketambe.  Our ticket was astonishingly expensive for the 172 km journey (120 000 Rupiah each, just the same as the 600km journey from Medan to Banda Aceh.)  The reasons for this soon became apparent:

1. It was a looong trip.  Over 9 hours from start to finish, with only one lunch break to ease the suffering of the poor Indonesian girl seated next to us, who became horrendously carksick on the winding mountain road.

2. There wasn’t a lot along the way.  While tiny settlements were common near the start and finish of the journey, there weren’t many places to pick up or drop off extra cargo or passengers.  And in the middle section, where the road passed over the highest of the mountains, there was no sign of human activity at all.

3. The road was TERRIBLE.  The bumps, twists and turns, potholes and transmission-straining hills must have been very hard on vehicles.

The road to Ketambe

The view from the road to Ketambe.  Despite the crawling slowness of the microbus up the hills, the bounciness of the trip made it tough getting photos of the views out the window

Despite all this, it was a beautiful drive, taking us past beautiful little Gayo villages, over lofty mountain passes, and through huge tracts of beautiful, primeval looking jungle of the sort that the name “Sumatra” invokes in almost everyone.

Cloud forest

The road took us up the mountainsides and into the misty wonders of the Sumatra’s cloud forests

In the end, despite the length of the journey, neither Sarah nor I had any real complaints (except for maybe the lunch stop, at which about the only food options were bony deep fried lake fish, rice and fish broth.  At least it was cheap…)

And at least it got us to Ketambe.

Ketambe was a tiny village near the south end of Aceh province.  It really consisted of little more than a half dozen guesthouses lining the road near the Alas River.  The reason it’s anything more than one of the tiny settlements mentioned earleir is nearby Gunung Leuser National Park.  The national park consists of almost 8000 square kilometres of thick jungle, towering mountains (up to 3 381m) and fast-flowing rivers.  It is one of the last remaining habitats for Orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinoceroses.

Pak Mus guesthouse

The Pak Mus guesthouse, our pretty, comfortable home in Ketambe

Cacao drying

Not only did Aceh province produce coffee, cacao was also a common crop.  As with the coffee, each family would have a few trees that they’d grow, harvest and dry the beans from

Sarah and I went for a walk in the jungle, and within a few minutes of leaving the road were surrounded by thick trees, the buzzing of insects, and the roar of the river far below us.  Within about half an hour we came to another road where Sarah turned off and headed back to town while I carried on further into the forest.  The trail was a difficult one.  It was muddy, slippery, steep and blocked by numerous fallen trees.  But four hours spent in the jungle rewarded me with sightings of deer, hornbills (large jungle birds with bizarre, deformed-looking bills) and several types of monkey.  It also rewarded me with several leeches hanging on to my ankles, which I flicked off with disgust as soon as I’d realized they were there.  Between the leeches, the difficult terrain and the omnipresent steam-bath humidity, I’d decided that a multi-day jungle trek was not in my future.

Blue fruit

Before spotting these berries in the Sumatran forest, I thought fruit this colour only existed in the minds of soft drink and candy manufacturers

Meanwhile, Sarah, in heading back earlier had set herself up for the best wildlife experience of all… guest entry follows:

Orangutangs are beautiful creatures, but they lack the subtlety or grace that would make them majestic. As I was walking back along the main road to the village I heard a bashing and crashing in the trees next to me that I initially thought must be a troupe of at least 30 monkeys. I peered up into the top level of the trees to discover a large, ginger creature climbing from branch to branch, oblivious to the amount of noise she was making or me standing 10 or so metres below. I then noticed another face a little further back into the forest, so it wasn’t 30 monkeys but instead 2 orangutangs making such a din. I stood by the road for about 20-30 minutes watching them, much to the amusement of the locals driving by on their motorbikes. One of the orangutans was very large, they both had brilliant red fur, fat bald bellies, hands (not paws) on all four limbs and faces that looked amused by something. Eventually they moved back off into the forest where i couldn’t see them (but could still hear them) and i continued back into town with a similarly amused look on my face.

I can scarcely believe that that was only her second guest entry in almost 5 months!  Anyhow, back to our regularly scheduled musings:

The jungle 

The Sumatran jungle.  I wish I had some exciting wildlife photos to show you or something, but since Sarah didn’t have the camera when she met her orangutans, and since all of my sightings were brief or distant, this is about all you get of our jungle adventures

My leech bites

My leech bites four hours and several washes later.  Leech “saliva” contains an anticoagulant which means that their bites bleed freely long after the loathesome creatures are gone (these two bites came from leeches that found their way up my boots, under the elasticized bottoms of my pants, down my boots again and then bit THROUGH my socks)

In addition to interesting homonid apes in Ketambe, we also met some interesting humans.  The first was a Belgian named Claude.  Claude wasn’t quite a native, but he was close, as he’d spent four months out of each of the past eight years living in Ketambe with his Indonesian boyfriend.  We chatted with him for a while one morning, and he turned just about every observation  we’d made about Aceh on its head.  We’d thought of the Acehnese as generally happy, easygoing people.  It appeared to us as though, despite its reputation, religious strictures were much less stifling than in many other muslim countries we’d visited.  According to Claude, however, behind their smiles most Indonesians were miserable and frustrated.  And the imams held almost infinite power, crushing the curioisity and thoughts of most Indonesians under the weight of religious oppression (a trait he said was shared by his strictly Catholic portion of Belgium.)  We were unsure of whether we’d completely misread our host people, or if this was just stereotypical expat-angst.

One other interesting person we met was typical of a type that inhabit many of Sumatra’s tourist towns but was (happily) almost absent from Aceh province.  We met him when we wandered down to the Alas to watch preparations for the Indonesian national whitewater championships that would be starting in a few days time.  He made every effort to be helpful, suggesting where we should lodge, camp, trek, eat, etc. etc.  He always ensured us that it would be “very cheap!” and while he provided none of these services himself, the somewhat smarmy, touty fellow always had a friend or relative who did.  After having him arrange our overpriced lunch and having him tail us around the riverfront, we finally managed to make our escape.

Given that I’d decided against doing an extended jungle trek, there wasn’t much reason to stay in Ketambe longer.  It was nice, but not quite nice enough to sit around doing nothing for a few more days.  However Danau Toba, 150km or so to the southeast was said to be an ideal place for this sort of thing, and it was there that we headed next.

We’d had some epic travel days already, and this was to be no different.  The day started with a bemo (kind of like a covered pickup truck with two parallel rows of seats along its sides) to Kutacane.  Once there we wandered around a bit looking for the ATM to replenish our Rupiah (it turned out to be inoperative.)  This was followed by the discovery that buses no longer ran to Sidikalang, from where I’d planned to reach Lake Toba.  Instead we needed to take a looong, roundabout route via the towns of Kabanjahe and ‘Siantar.

Rice paddies on the way to Kabanjahe 

Rice paddies on the way to Kabanjahe

The road to Kabanjahe was generally a lot better than the ones we’d travelled on in the highlands, but it still had plenty of bumps, ruts and otherwise inconvenient bits.  As in our previous journeys, the discomfort of the ride was mitigated by the lovely Indonesian countryside along the way.  This time churches had replaced mosques (we’d left Aceh and entered a primarily Christian area), volcanoes had replaced more “conventional” mountains, and unbroken agriculture had replaced the jungle, but it was a lovely trip all the same.

A church and a bizarre “upside down” rainbow 

A church and a bizarre “upside down” rainbow.  While there were still Muslims in the Christian regions of Sumatra (and vice versa) the adherents of each religion kept very much to themselves, to the point of living in segregated villages (religions did, of course, mix in larger towns and cities)

Mt. Sinabung

Mt. Sinabung.  Indonesia has dozens of very active volcanoes, and is one of the “hottest” countries in the Ring of Fire

We finally arrived in Kabanjahe, and were immediately hustled onto the “last” (no idea if it really was) bus of the day down to Siantar.  I inquired if there was time for me to run off to the town’s one ATM, within sight of the bus park, but was informed that the bus was leaving straight away.  It did, but after ten minutes of travel stopped for almost half an hour in an irrational traffic jam.  What with the speed of Indonesian buses, we always knew it might be past sunset by the time we reached ‘Siantar and the jam sealed our fate.  When we finally arrived it was well after dark, and we dragged ourselves to the Flora Inn, the only hotel near our dropoff point, and gratefully set our bags down, happy to be done our day’s 12 hours of travel, if not quite all of the journey to our destination.

Eggs of all descriptions

Eggs of all descriptions at the Takengon market

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4 responses to “Down the Spine of Sumatra: Aceh and the Gayo Highlands”

  1. Pamela Fuge says:

    Thank you so much for writing about your trip from Banda Aceh through to Takengon, Ketambe and Kutacane. It brought back so many wonderful memories for me as I did virtually the reverse trip in November 2006 by myself. And without any bus mishaps. I must be the luckiest traveller in Indonesia when it comes to bus travel.
    I too, stayed at the Gayoland Hotel and always suggest it to travellers and the lovely photo of Pak Mus’s bungalow made me so homesick for him and his huge family.
    I spent 8 wonderful days with them as well as going on a 2 day trek with Pak Mus himself.
    Just love your photos and I will be putting up this link on the many travel forums I frequent answering questions for travellers planning on spending time in Indonesia.
    Well done.
    Pamela. ( pPamela on the travel forums.)

  2. Llew says:

    Hi Pamela,
    Many thanks for your kind comment. I love knowing that people enjoy reading the ‘blog.
    Aceh was our favourite part of Sumatra, and the last real “adventure” on our trip.
    Hopefully our experiences there willbe useful to others yet to come 🙂


  3. Rama says:


    Thank you for the pictures of Takengon and interesting travel story at Gayo Highland. It is always interesting to read how a foreigner think about the people. I am a native Gayo and was born at Takengon.

    As I spent my childhood there, i know how it feel to have leech bite, the post bite is itchy. I hate this vampire….:)

    I also miss the night food court at Takengon. I could not find such thing in Hamilton–where i study now–or in Auckland even in summer.

    Cheers again for the stories.

  4. Peter Longhurst, Cairns Aust. says:

    Engaged a Gayo fellow who is a tour operator in Bali. I’d not heard of the Gayo despite 3 years work in Indonesia. Hanafi and I discussed the Batak who live in similar country further south in Sumatra; a smart guy, his thoughts about of the Batak differed from what I’d read; despite their different Muslim – Christian faiths they may be ancient cousins.
    Judging from my talks with Hanafi the Gayo are practial and compromising in their attitude to Islam and the modern commercial world.

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