Just a stopover city was my initial thought about Medan. With more than two million residents, Medan is Indonesia’s fourth largest city and the nation’s largest city outside Java. Had it not been due to my visit to Lake Toba, I wouldn’t have intended to make any trip to Medan. However, that thought evaporated quickly as I entered the city and headed to Kesawan Square where my hotel is located. Kesawan Square is actually Medan’s old quarter where both newly painted and dilapidated Dutch colonial buildings dominate the sight everywhere you look. If you have read my earlier post on Bandung, you might remember some old colonial buildings at Jalan Braga (Braga street) which I mentioned in the post. Well, Kesawan Square seems to have twice as many old buildings!
However, it’s not just Dutch buildings that you can find at this place. Due to its geographical location in the northern part of Sumatra, Medan has always been a melting pot for people from all over Asia. Traders from China and India have been interacting with Malay rulers and indigenous Batak people since long time ago. This has led to the mélange of cultures which is reflected in mixed architecture, lively daily traditions and scrumptious foods in the city.
From Kesawan Square, it is an easy fifteen-minute walk to Istana Maimun (Maimun Palace, occasionally also spelled Maimoon Palace) and The Grand Mosque, both are the most notable heritage of the once powerful Sultanate of Deli. But more on those on my next post.
Speaking of interesting things, there are some unique sights in Medan which I witnessed for the first time ever in my life. The first is betor (an acronym for becak motor, or motorized rickshaw), one of the most popular means of transportation in Medan, where the driver sits on his motorbike at one side and the passengers sit in the rickshaw at the other side. A brilliant idea I must say considering the benefits of this compared to other rickshaws in Java where the driver must pedal the rickshaw himself (though the latter is much more energy efficient, aka petrol efficient, but it surely is less time efficient).
The other fun thing that I encountered was a public fitness center at Merdeka Square, just north of Kesawan Square. When I walked through the square actually my intention was finding a shortcut to get from one side of that place to other side of it without having to go in circle on the pedestrian walk. However after walking inside the square for a while I began noticing some odd-looking yellow structures scattered around the place. Not long afterward, I saw someone who’s using one of those things for walking in a very similar way to a model of a body-trimming tool commercial which I saw on television. That was the moment when I realized what those really are. A little walk further I saw some other men doing exercise at other ‘machines’. It’s quite funny seeing people do things that I usually only see at gyms. Such a thoughtful idea from local government to provide free exercise tools for its people, isn’t it?
In my previous company I had quite a lot of colleagues who come from Medan. They are very proud of the cuisines in the city and you cannot argue with them about it. Seriously, they are that proud! But my short visit to Medan did prove this. For my only dinner I went to a small alley just behind Kesawan Square where hawker-style foods are abound. I picked a place which is owned by Indian people (probably they are in fact a family). After some discussion, my friend and I ordered martabak mesir (literally Egyptian martabak, but I don’t think this one has anything to do with Egypt) which comes with authentic Indian curry and pickles, teh tarik (literally pulled tea, owing its name from the method used to prepare the tea by pouring a mixture of tea and condensed milk back and forth between two small containers in order to create a thick froth on top of it) and roti tisu (literally tissue bread, which is basically a very thin pancake or crêpe rolled over to create a monstrous towering look) generously sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese and chocolate granules which easily melt while the pancake is still hot. What a satisfying dinner indeed!
All in all, Medan is actually worth a visit when you’re around North Sumatra for visiting Lake Toba, Nias Island or other towns, rather than only staying in the airport to wait for your flight out of the city.