But the city isn’t totally deprived of charm. There’s the Masjid Raya, the more than one century old mosque with an exotic architecture, the Istana Maimoon, a palace built by a sultan that now a small museum, the old town with Dutch colonial building as also a touch of Chinese shop houses and Indian neighbourhood where you can make a break to the Indonesian cuisine.
But for me, what brought the biggest surprise and the most pleasant time in Medan was the visit to the Tjong A Fie Mansion, the house of a rich Chinese merchant, from the end of the IX century, build in a mix of European colonial style and a strong Chinese influence. The house is a mark in the cultural panorama of the city and the Tjong A Fie, that arrive at Sumatra as a worker, build a fortune with the trade of tobacco, tea, rubber and sugar, becoming and important figure in Medan supporting education, health arts and culture. The house, where his relatives lived until a few years ago, has a balanced energy that creates a special positive atmosphere… and is a quiet place in the busy center of the city!
With all these Medan is a kind of melting pot of cultures, where Indonesia met Malaysia and China!
What to see in Medan:
- Istana Maimoon also called the Sultan Palace build in IX century by the Sultan Ma’moem Al Rasyid. You can’t see much of the interior of the palace but is a nice place where you can chill and enjoy the local people dress up with sultan customs to pose for a photo nearby the throne. Ticket 5.000 Rp.
- Masjid Raya is free but you need to dress properly (no shorts, no naked shoulders, etc…) and the women must cover the head.
- Tjong A Fie Mansion is located in the old town that is the most interesting area to walk around in Medan, Ticket 35.000 Rp, which includes a guided tour.
Where to sleep in Medan:
The prices at Medan are higher that the usual in Sumatra, and as this city is not on the backpacker’s circuit is difficult to find a cheap guest house or a hostel.
The K77 Guest House is located a bit far out from the center but offers very nice and clean rooms as also a dorm, in a quiet alley in front of a mosque. In fact, cleanness is the word to describe this guesthouse where the owners are super friendly and provide a lot of information in a good English.
A bed in the dorm is 125.000 Rp and the breakfast is not included.
In a more central area there’s the Yap Hostel, just for women with a bed in a dorm for 75.000 Rp, but book in advance as is usually full, especially at the weekends.
Where to eat in Medan:
As there’s not much to do in Medan, the food could be a great entertainment if you need to stay a couple of days in this city and location close to Malaysian bring a new input to the Indonesian cuisine. As any big city, in Medan there’s a few “classic” that you must try!!
- Lontong Kak Lin… it’s a simple and humble eatery that serves lontong, a classic Malasian dish, that is a soup where the base is compressed steamed rice. I try the Lontong Sayur, a very rich vegetarian version of the original, that is served with egg, a few noodles, some tapioca crackers and lots of fry onion!! (15.000 Rp)
- Zulaikha Bika Ambon… bika ambon is an Indonesia cake and apparently Zubaikha is the place to buy it in Medan, judging by the number of people that come here on the last week of the Ramadan to buy several boxes of this cake before visiting the relatives during the Eid al-Fitr (the holidays that mark the end of the fasting). Bika Ambon is made from tapioca flour, egg, coconut milk and sugar, of course! After cooking it results in a dense and wet texture with a lot of thin holes… and less sweet than it looks like! A small cake cost 23.000 p and the big one 43.000 Rp… there are different flavor but I just try the “original”!
- Rumanh Makan Nasi Campau Hj Uni Emi… this restaurant is a reference in Medan for Nasi Kapau, the traditional Minangkabau cuisine, from South Sumatra.
- Merdeka Walk… street food everywhere after 5 p.m.
Despite these places there’s a lot of restaurants in Medan and is very easy to find masakan padang restaurants; due to the presence of a big Chinese community is very easy to find noodles, cooked in soups or stir fry.
If you are looking for a good supermarket where you can find top quality Indonesia products (is not so easy as we could imagine in a big city) the Brastagi Supermarket is the place!!! There’s a big choice of coffee and chocolates there!
How to move around Medan:
The city is big and with a lot of traffic but with a lot of public transport (angkot). At your guest house you can get information about the angkot numbers, as this is the best way to identify them, as the destination isn’t written most of the times. There are colours according to the destination. It isn’t difficult but you gonna need help. The traffic is intense so you can easily be stuck in a traffic jam.
Very popular are the bajaj, a kind of auto-rickshaw that can transport two passengers.
The best option, especially if you travel alone, is the ojek (moto-taxi). You can use the app service of GoJek or Grab companies, and a trip inside the city costs around 10.000 Rp… and is a good way to avoid the traffic jams. Usually, this kind of transport doesn’t go out of the city.
How to go from Medan to the Airport:
The closest international airport from the capital of Sumatra is the Kualanamu International Airport (also written as Kuala Namu), which is located more than 40 kilometers from the center of Medan. There are a few ways to reach the airport:
- Taxi: 150.000 Rp
- Travel Service arrange by the guesthouse/hotel: 200.000 Rp
- Train Rail Link: 100.000 Rp. It is the fastest option as it avoids the usual traffic jams of Medan. The train leaves from the Statsiun Medan close from the Merdeka Walk.
- Airport Damri Bus: the DAMRI (Indonesian state-owned public transit bus company) operates buses from Amplas Bus Terminal in Medan to Kualanamu International Airport. The ticket costs 000 Rp, in modern air-conditioned buses, and the trip takes less than 45 minutes, but it can be more depending of the traffic. It isn’t the fastest option but is the cheapest!
To reach Amplas Bus Terminal (located in the southeast part of Medan) you need to take one of the angkot (small local bus) that will cost you 10.000 Rp. There are many of these angkots that end their trip at the bus terminal but is better to ask someone on your guesthouse as the destination on this angkots is not clearly written on the vehicle, but to help they all have a number to make it easy to identify. Watch out that this trip to the Amplas Terminal can take you about 2 hours… depending on the time of the day and the distance that you are from the terminal!!!!