Soaring mountains, a flawless coastline, pristine tropical islands and dense jungle home to exotic animals and ancient tribes: Sumatra has a long list of attributes. It is these sorts of mental images that entice many travellers to this wild region of Indonesia.
In Sumatra’s north, well beyond the nation’s capital Jakarta and some 3,000 kilometres north-west of tourist haven Bali, Indonesia can be found in arguably its rawest and most diverse form. It is for this reason that it tends to attract a different sort of traveller than those on the southern islands of Bali and Lombok.
Many of these intrepid tourists find themselves charmed by Northern Sumatra's largest city, Medan. More than 400 years old, this metropolis bears only passing resemblance to the more famous of Indonesia's cities like Yogyakarta, Denpasar and Surabaya.
Medan has been influenced by the Chinese, Indians and the Dutch at various points in its history and, as a result, has a truly eclectic culture and an ethnically-diverse community. Walking through the city centre it feels as though you are experiencing many cultures all at once.
There are contrasts to be seen everywhere. Indonesian ladies in conservative Muslim dress wander past shirtless Chinese men working on a Taoist temple. Southern Indian curries are served on banana leaves alongside a tiny Buddhist shrine on a wide boulevard lined with grand Dutch colonial buildings.
An understated mosque shares a street with a gaudy palace made for the Sultanate of Delhi which boasts aspects of Italian and Malay architecture. In Medan’s markets, you can find Javanese vendors selling Indonesian food, Chinese businessmen with stalls filled by electrical products, and tribes people displaying their handmade wooden crafts.
Medan is a teeming city with a varied populace. The one glaring omission from this picture is the faces of curious tourists, who are a rarity here. This is a travesty, as there are few cities in South-East Asia more intriguing and engaging.
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It also is a city which benefits from a huge amount and variety of street food stalls. Whether you are loading up for a long day ahead at breakfast, refuelling at lunch or capping your day with a meal, Medan’s cuisine is strikingly tasty.
The hub of the city’s street food scene is Jalan Selat Panjang in a narrow alley near the Medan Railway Station – a neat transport facility which offers a modern and efficient rail connection to the city’s new airport.
Jalan Selat Panjang rouses once the sun starts to set and many of its vendors are ethnic Chinese. They serve up some classical Chinese fare like hokkien noodles, dumplings and chow mein, together with variations of the Sumatran cuisine, which is famously spicy.
About 10 per cent of the Medan population is Chinese and the city has several beautiful Chinese temples, including the enormous Vihara Gunung Timur. Believed to be the largest Chinese temple in Sumatra, it attracts a steady flow of worshippers who kneel before its array of statues, incense smoke wafting above their heads, as they say their daily prayers.
Sumatra is, however, a predominantly Muslim city and the most important religious site in Medan is also its most spectacular structure, the Raya Al-Mashun Masjid.
Also known as the Great Mosque of Medan, it is a truly majestic building. Blending architectural styles from the Middle East, Spain and India, it is decorated with light blue wall tiles, complicated stone carvings and lofty, ornate ceilings.
The range of influences in its design is a reflection of the diversity of Medan itself. This beguiling city offers visitors an insight into an array of cultures, both Indonesian and foreign.