In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
A pack of ferocious traffic roars for as far as the eye can see, caged in by frantic avenues of crumbling architecture. An urban haze and relentless heat intermingle and the air thickens throughout the day. This is Medan, and it isn’t the scenic hotspot that its other Indonesian destinations have come to be.
But despite its frenetic cityscape, Medan is at the start of virtually all Sumatran adventures, as well as at the end and possibly a few times in the middle. Although on the map you could easily draw a neat line north to south that links the delights of orangutan spotting in Bukit Lawang, volcano climbing in Berstagi, and lake relaxation in Samosir, the underdeveloped road network in Sumatra makes transfer journeys through Medan faster than trying to travel as the bird flies.
The result is that most people tend to spend time in Medan without really knowing about what’s worth exploring here. Though most have their sights set on Sumatra and treat the city more as a stop-off point, don’t write off Medan without giving it a chance, as there is enough here to warrant an interesting afternoon of meandering through the old quarter lanes and alleyways while marveling at the contrasting architectural styles. Though any trip to Medan will almost certainly be coupled with a visit to Sumatra and might not be a bucket list destination in and of itself, visiting this city is somewhat of a necessity. So don’t let the opportunity pass to get a taste of its charms.
Tjong A Fie and Tip Top
Begin your urban adventure with a visit to Tjong A Fie’s Mansion, a century-old Chinese townhouse that easily rivals the Blue Mansion in Penang in terms of architectural magnificence. A major highlight here is that, unlike the mansion’s Malaysian counterpart, you are completely free to independently wander around Tjong A Fie’s Mansion, taking your own time to absorb the decadence of a bygone era through the dusty antique furniture and faded black and white photographs.
Almost opposite the Chinese mansion is the Dutch bar Tip Top, which has changed little since being established over eighty years ago, and still uses the charmingly dated Art Deco logo. For some old world nostalgia head in for a drink, or alternatively make your way north up Kesawan Road to 061 Bistro to see how the younger generations have shaped the corner of a historic building into a cozy gathering spot with a stage for comedy and live music.
Either side of Kesawan Road are fascinating urban enclaves that reflect the motley mix of cultural influences on Indonesian society. A number of colourful Chinese merchant houses can be found along and around Jalan Hindu, as well as a bustling market and a few towering Dutch architectural gems that have sadly fallen from grace. A number of cheap and tasty eateries serve up Hokkien Mie – a delicious melee of fried noodles, eggs, shrimp squid and sometimes pork brought to Sumatra by Chinese immigrants.
A very different atmosphere engulfs Jalan Perniagaan on the other side of Kesawan Road. Here you’ll also find a number of attractive Chinese merchant houses, but the colours of the buildings pale in comparison to the bright and vibrant products on offer. This pocket of Medan’s old quarter has a decidedly more South Asian or Middle Eastern personality, with several carpet shops and many more clothing shops offering dynamic and energetic fabrics. The food market offers delicious chicken sate, which they grill for on demand.
If you try all this and still remain unimpressed, then on the other side of the train tracks awaits one of the great Indonesian urban institutions: the shopping mall. Like all of Indonesia’s fanciest and most glistening shopping centres, walking into the Centre Point Mall is like stepping into another reality. Observe as the trendy young Medanites throw around their seemingly immense disposable incomes. This might also be a good opportunity to stock up before heading off into the wilderness of inland Sumatra- you’ll find everything you need here from state of the art camera equipment to high quality walking gear.
Make the most of your stop off in Medan before exploring incredible Sumatra with in-depth Indonesia itineraries with day tours in this often overlooked destination.