As the capital of North Sumatra, and Sumatra’s largest metropolis, Medan is experiencing a renaissance and offers far more than most travellers would imagine.
It’s just a two hour flight from Bangkok to Medan—less time than flying to Hanoi, KL, or Singapore—making it the closest entry door into Indonesia for Bangkok residents. And it has now been almost two years since direct daily flights on AirAsia, linking Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport to Medan, in North Sumatra, first began. So why not venture across the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait to immerse yourself in the “other” Suvarnabhumi, the “Golden Land”. This ancient Sanskrit name was given to the wide island of Sumatra, as gold was once found in the jungle covered terrain.
The gold resources have been long depleted, but Sumatra’s enduring prosperity was found in other commodities—namely oil, gas, tobacco, pepper, rubber and coffee—and all these resources attracted European powers in the early days of the 19th century. The British and Dutch fought with each other to assure their influence on the island, but it was finally the Dutch who claimed the upper hand over the island, following the Treaty of Sumatra in 1871. Modern Medan, as it can still be seen today, started from that time.
Medan was chosen for its perfect geographical location, at the confluences of two rivers, and because of its proximity to the Strait of Malacca. In 1863 the local ruler, the Sultan of Deli, gave a tobacco concession to Dutch merchant Jakob Nienhuys. With his partner they created, in 1869, the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Dutch Trading Company). From its headquarters, prominently set in the city centre of Medan, the company managed its monopoly tobacco concessions in ten estates, but also constructed the first Sumatra railway and even a hospital. As tobacco production has almost disappeared today in North Sumatra—replaced by palm oil and rubber plantations—the grand 1919 classical Deli Tobacco headquarters is probably the last testimony of tobacco wealth. Home to the Indonesian Plantation Entrepreneurs Association, its ground floor is now being converted into a museum dedicated to Deli tobacco history while its grand structure, crowned by a dome, overlooks Medan old city centre.
Wealth turned Medan from a sleepy village into a sophisticated cosmopolitan urban centre. Plantations attracted emigrants from China, Malaya, and Java Island, while the Dutch, British, French, Swiss, Germans, and even Polish all bought land for plantation properties. An affluent European lifestyle developed, giving Medan the nickname of “Paris of Sumatra”. From that period, Medan still has two dozen imposing European style structures. Worth seeking out are the Post Office (built in typical Dutch Art Nouveau style), the classical former City Hall (today part of the Grand Aston Hotel), the nearby Bank of Indonesia, the old Nederlandsch-Indische Handelsbank (Bank Mandiri today), and the aforementioned Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, also built in Dutch Art Deco style.
Cosmopolitan Medan is to be discovered in many buildings as well, including the old Juliana Building, formerly home to British trade company Harissons & Crossfield and today headquarters of real estate company PT London-Sumatra. Its Victorian style façade was made from granite imported from Scotland. Meanwhile the former residence of a local administrator, now the Standard Chartered Bank, has a distinctive French influence. Even Poland left its legacy in Medan, as evidenced by the district of Polonia—where the old airport used to be—which was named after a Polish count. A residential district, Polonia has a wealth of Art Deco style villas including the amazing Saint Elisabeth Hospital with its commanding steeple—a pure legacy of the Amsterdam School of Architecture. Polonia also has many churches, of which Immanuel Church is architecturally the most interesting.
To feel the idea of Medan being the “Paris of Sumatra”, any visitor should stroll along Kesawan, once the city’s most prestigious address. Like many other historical commercial boulevards in Indonesian urban centres life deserted the street, leaving it to the most impoverished classes of the population. The street has been neglected for many decades, with many houses in need of urgent repair. Some steps are now being taken to bring back some of the glory to the boulevard, and a clean up campaign and a beautification program have been implemented. “Too little, too slow” some would probably say, however it is a step in the right direction, as Indonesia starts to now rediscover and re-evaluate the legacy left by Dutch.
They are still many architectural jewels to discover beyond the crumbling neglected façades, including Tip Top Restaurant. It certainly lacks the sophistication of a modern upscale restaurant, and remains a typical eatery, which has barely changed since it opened its doors in 1934. Guests continue to seat in venerable art deco chairs around dark wooden tables, while food and drinks are served by waiters in traditional uniforms. Photos on the yellowish walls show how Tip Top looked some 70 years ago. Local fashions have changed but the vintage atmosphere here remains intact.
One not-to-be missed attraction is the Tjong A. Fie Mansion, the residence of a wealthy Chinese man, transformed today into a museum exhibiting the lifestyle of a wealthy Medan-Chinese family. Until the early 2000s, the house was still inhabited by the descendant of Tjong A. Fie. Twenty years ago, the last member of the family was a piano teacher and the mansion’s huge living room was a classroom with a piano standing alone in the sparely furnished space. No piano exists today, but wonderful furniture and pictures of a by-gone era are on display to see.
Tobacco concessions brought wealth to many in North Sumatra, including the Sultan of Deli, who benefited largely from concession royalties. The Sultan moved Deli’s capital to Medan in 1891 and built—to assert his power—a magnificent neo-Moorish palace. Mamoon Palace is perhaps the best testimony of the magnificence of the Sultans during the colonial time. The palace is open today to the public, and shows the lavish living standards of the local rulers. Rooms are decorated in a mix of Moorish and European styles, inspired by neighbouring British Malaya.
Masjid Raya, the Grand Mosque, is another magnificent example of this Moorish-European influence. Nothing was too beautiful for this religious structure, built between 1906 and 1909. The mosque is decorated with marble from Italy and Germany, while stained glass windows and the main chandelier came directly from France. The mosque can be visited by the public, but modest/decent clothing is requested to be worn.
Many houses are now under renovation as Medan starts to realize the appeal that its historical architecture could have for tourism. It is part of a larger movement, set in motion in recent years, which is turning Medan into a more sophisticated city—under the influence of Indonesian decentralization and raising living standards for locals. Over the last five years, glitzy shopping malls have opened their doors, such as the brand new Centre Point Mall and Ring Road City Walks. International hotel chains are also now moving into Medan, Hilton being the latest addition. Finally, a brand new airport with an express train—the first of its kind in Indonesia—and new highways show that Medan is turning into Sumatra urban centre.
But for those who want nothing more than to escape the buzz of this city of two million inhabitants, the popular tourist destination of Lake Toba is just a three to four hour drive away. Surrounded by extinct volcanoes, it is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world, stretching over 100 km. Home to Batak ethnic communities, the area offers pristine landscapes, exceptional flora and fauna, as well as beautiful traditional wooden houses with their distinctive elongated roofs, which give houses the shape of a boat.
Perhaps local gastronomy would be the weakest point of a Northern Sumatran holiday experience, although there are some great restaurants serving a delicious Minang spicy food—product of an ethnic group living in neighbouring province of West Sumatra who are well-known all across the Indonesian archipelago for their flavourful but tongue-burning cuisine. A common taste sense shared with Thailand.