North Sumatra now receives more tourists than any other Indonesian province except Bali and Yogyakarta, and the main interest lies in the rugged central highlands, the homelands of the Batak who arrived over four thousand years ago and evolved almost completely in isolation from the rest of the island, developing languages and cultures that owe little to any outside influences. The Batak are divided into six distinctive ethnolinguistic groups, each with its own rituals, architectural style, mode of dress and religious beliefs. Many Batak have been exposed to Western education since Dutch missionaries arrived in the early 1800s, and as a result the Toba Batak people in particular are amongst the most educated, powerful and richest minorities in the country today.
The hill station of Berastagi , part of the Karo Batak territory, and the many waterside resorts around beautiful Danau Toba - Southeast Asia's largest lake and the spiritual home of the Toba Batak - throng with tourists every summer. The province also features the hugely popular Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at Bukit Lawang , just a couple of hours' drive from the provincial capital of Medan , an entry point from Malaysia, as well as the surfer's mecca of Pulau Nias . Bukit Lawang, Berastagi, Danau Toba and Nias form such a perfect diagonal route across the centre of Sumatra that most tourists bypass Aceh province to the north, but here you'll find Gunung Leuser national park , the largest in Indonesia, and the picture-perfect beaches of Pulau Weh .
Major gateways into Indonesia are also provided by the west-coast port of Padang and the islands of Batam and Bintan in the Riau Archipelago, between the Sumatran mainland and Singapore. Travellers entering Sumatra through the Riau Islands can transit in the prosperous city of Pekanbaru before heading north to Medan and Danau Toba, south to Bandar Lampung, or west to picturesquely located Bukittinggi , the heartland of Minang culture and a major tourist destination with a thriving travellers' scene. Nearby, Danau Maninjau is developing plenty of low-key lakeside guesthouses. Most travellers rush between Bukittinggi and Java, with perhaps an overnight stop in the city of Bandar Lampung or, better, in smaller, quieter Kalianda nearby, but in between sprawls the Kerinci-Seblat national park , with plenty of scope for trekking and the isolated Mentawai Islands , 100km off the west coast of Sumatra, and home to some very traditional groups of people.