The Intriguing Culture of Samosir Island

Asia, Indonesia

Picturesque View of Samosir Island

North Sumatra, especially around Lake Toba and Samosir Island, has been known as the place where Batak people, or simply Bataks, come from and flourish. Physically, Bataks are quite different from other western Indonesians (although to foreign eyes they all look the same). They have distinct jaw and skull structure which can be explained as their ancestors are neither from Mongolian nor Siamese tribes. Bataks have also been practicing their own unique rituals combining ancient animism with Christianity. They go to church every Sunday but at the same time they (especially the older ones and those who live in remote areas) venerate banyan trees as they are believed to be the tree of life from which all living creatures came from. Despite nestled by Muslim kingdoms: staunch Acehnese to the north, matrilineal-Muslim society of Minangkabau to the south and Malay kingdoms everywhere else in Sumatra, Bataks (or most of them) have been devout Christians since the introduction of the religion by European missionaries in the 19th century.

Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, Bataks were infamous for their cannibalistic tradition – devouring the flesh of slain enemy and those who were found guilty. However they were anything but primitive since they had already developped an advanced writing system and culture. The cannibalism had long gone. What remain in the island are churches, ancient tombs, traditional houses and very friendly people who will greet every foreigner visiting their beloved island.

As I found myself riding a motorcycle to visit some historic places on Samosir Island, I constantly had to make some stops just to take some photographs of the majestic landscape laid before my eyes. Rolling clouds over towering hills, green and yellow rice fields, a waterfall, colorful churches and tombs, and of course, the view of Lake Toba are some of the most alluring things that I witnessed during my exploration of the island on a motorbike.

All Natural

Rice Paddies

A Church on The Top of A Hill

A Colorful Tomb

Another Tomb Decorated with Batak-Style Roof

Water Buffaloes

A White Goat Enjoying His Time

Nevertheless, I encountered a cultural shock which I didn’t anticipate at all. As an Indonesian and having grown up in Indonesia, meeting with different people from different cultures and languages have been part of my life. Despite the language diversity, I have never had any difficulty nor misunderstanding to order a cup of tea everywhere I travel within the country. Teh which means tea is the word that every Indonesian, from the northern tip of Sumatra to the easternmost point in Papua, understands. Or so I thought. When having a breakfast at Tomok – a small town just south of Tuk Tuk – with my friend, Robin, who came with me on this trip, we ordered a cup of teh manis, or tea with sugar, for drink. Then the woman at the food stall brought a glass of warm water. My guess was she would come back with some tea bags or dried tea leaves and sugar. She did come back, but she brought napkins and toothpicks instead. Then she asked the question “would you like some more tea?”. That’s when Robin and I stared to each other and agreed in silent that we just encountered a cultural, or linguistic to be precise, shock. It turns out for some people tea and sugar mean plain water. As we walked back to our bike after paying for the meal we laughed at that funny thing that had just happened to us.

The cultural shock only struck once, apparently, since we didn’t encounter any problem at all when having lunch at a restaurant which is recommended by Lonely Planet. I had a rather pricey but delicious barbecued local freshwater fish called Tombur. The fish was huge and the barbecue sauce was scrumptious. To balance the intense flavor of the barbecued fish, I had a very refreshing juice of terong belanda (Cyphomandra betacea or tamarillo) for drink. All in all, it was such a delightful lunch after wandering around the island and some ancient cultural sites on a motorbike.

Barbecued Local Fish

Related Posts: Lake Toba: Nature’s Wrath Turned Into Eden, The Legend of Samosir’s First Settlers, The King, The Missionary and The Trial Stone, Dance and Swing Until The Egg Breaks

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

36 thoughts on “The Intriguing Culture of Samosir Island”

  1. Pingback: Lake Toba: Nature’s Wrath Turned Into Eden « What an Amazing World!

    • They are. Actually other than those two, there are many more interestingly-shaped tombs scattered on the island.


  2. When tea doesn’t mean tea . . .I like that. Great post. I think you’ve said this before, but you must be traveling for a few months now! Enjoy.


    • Actually I’ve been traveling on and off between work. My ‘real’ travel will be next month when I’ll go to Laos, China and Sri Lanka. Thanks!


      • Luang Prabang rocks if you can make it there. Wd love to see Sri Lanka, well, and China too. Happy travels


      • I have booked a place to stay in Luang Prabang. Well, judging from what you and others said about Luang Prabang, I guess I’ll have a really great time there!


  3. Lady Sparrow says:

    Batak people said their ‘future homes’ a.k.a graves must be better than the house they’re living in now. That’s why their tombs are great and unique…


  4. How interesting! – I never thought I would find tombs so colourful and interesting!!


    • Me neither. That was the first time ever for me seeing such colorful and uniquely-shaped tombs.


  5. Pingback: The Legend of Samosir’s First Settlers « What an Amazing World!

  6. Samosir looks so serene… I would imagine it’s the kind of place people go to get away from it all! Is that a tall waterfall in the first photo? And who would’ve thought the island was populated by a Christian tribe?


    • It is! When I was there it felt exactly like what you said: the place people go to get away from it all. Everything was so laid-back there (I think we will encounter such laid-backness in Laos). Actually I had to make some stops just to get the ‘right’ picture of the waterfall. It’s so beautiful and amazing! The story behind the conversion of local people into Christianity will be revealed on my next post (tomorrow or the day after:)).


  7. That is an interesting story! How many cultures and languages can be found in Indonesia? It sure sounds like a fascinating place and very beautiful too.


  8. Pingback: The King, The Missionary and The Trial Stone « What an Amazing World!

  9. Those tombs are unlike any I’ve ever seen in my part of the world. They’re so unique. Also, how did you enjoy your ‘tea’? 😉


    • That was also my first time seeing such colorful and unique tombs. The tea was unlike any other tea that I’ve ever had. It’s crystal clear and it tastes so…pure. Oh wait, it’s water! haha..


  10. Lovely images Bama! And very interesting history and landscape! Love that tomb! Are they scattered around the hillside?


    • Thanks Madhu! Actually they are scattered everywhere, from the hillside, the backyard, in the middle of rice fields, near the lake..they’re just all over the places on the island.


  11. Pingback: Dance and Swing Until The Egg Breaks « What an Amazing World!

  12. holongmarisisimalango 'Quuen virus GIB' says:

    i miss SAMOSIR….. i wanna go to my hometown …. 🙂


  13. wah, ini bener banget, saya orang Medan tapi pindah Jakarta waktu SD.
    dulu di rumah kalau mau minum air putih pasti bilangnya “mau minum teh”.

    glad you found about it because not so many people knew it. 🙂


    • Ohh, ternyata memang bukan cuma ibu itu ya. Saya waktu itu nunggu sampe beberapa lama, kirain si ibu mau bawa teh celup buat saya celupin sendiri ke dalam gelas. Ternyata… 😀


  14. Rena says:

    I’ve been to Lake Toba once. During the day, the lake and the surrounding villages indeed had that calm, serene and laid-back vibe. But when the night came, suddenly there was an intense mystical aura; I got goosebumps and couldn’t sleep well (which was a very rare occurrence). Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to properly explore Samosir Island; hopefully I can go back one day. I also encountered a ‘misunderstanding’ when I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Kabanjahe, on my way back to Medan. I ordered fuyunghai (egg foo young) and what was later presented to me was a plain telur dadar (I’m not even going to call it omelette!)


    • I don’t remember ever exploring Samosir at night, not because it was spooky, but rather because it was dark. Fortunately I’m not sensitive to such mystical aura, making my trip anywhere I go generally pleasant. 🙂 In my life the only time I found it hard to sleep was when someone played dangdut songs really loudly at 2 or 3 in the morning across the street from my old kost. It really drove me crazy!

      As for the communication problem, at least you still got something made from eggs! 😀


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