Medan – a City of Surprises

Postcard from Medan

by Djoko Nademhopi


People often ask me what Medan is like. The general perception is that it is grimy and boring with nothing to do. Well it’s not like that.

I was on the plane home when I met three Malaysians who just had a golfing holiday in Medan. Not knowing what ‘a hole in one’ is or vice versa, I could not engage in golf talk. Anyway, I asked how it went. “Fantastic!” they chorused. Why all the way to play golf? The greens fees are cheap and the caddies are something else, they told me. Apparently, the caddies here are females. There must be more to golf than hitting a white ball and chasing after it in Medan. There are at least three golf courses around the city.

Medan is like that, full of surprises. It’s not just a hustling bustling city where the roads are forever macat (jammed) and nowhere to go. Medan has a lot to offer if you look for it.

It used to be a staging point for Danau Toba and Nias which is one of the best surfing spots in the world but these days tourists are increasingly spending more time in Medan.

Depending on what your interests are, there are museums, mosques, cathedrals, heritage buildings, restaurants and street life – plenty of street culture.

There are even art galleries whether you are a serious collector or just want a pretty picture to hang on your wall. Of course the art scene is not as vibrant as in Bali, Yogja or Jakarta but Medan is by no means a cultural desert.

The word “Medan” means a field, a padang. In this case a battlefield where the Acehnese fought the Deli Malays from late 16th century to the early 17th century.  It’s quite peaceful these days; the only ‘fights’ are political as each party gears up for the presidential election next year.

From a backwater Medan has grown to be the third largest city (population 2.1 million) in Indonesia. The wealth is conspicuous as more and more high rises pop up all over the place and shopping complexes are chock-a-block. The mansions here are tourist attractions – huge and ornate monstrosities with Grecian columns and Florentine embellishments.

But it’s not just skyscrapers and brand new mansions, Medanese also realise the importance of heritage and there is an attempt by both the public and private sector to preserve colonial buildings like the General Post Office. The old town hall has been incorporated into the architecture of the Grand Aston Hotel.

While there is grime – don’t expect Singapore clean – there is little crime. But having said that there has been a recent spate of bag snatching. However, Medan Police Chief Snr Comdr Nico Afinta said that Medan is still a safe place for tourists.

Like in any big city one has to take commonsense precautions with one’s property. Shootings, bag snatching and muggings are relatively rare; much depends on the area – generally it is a safe city.

The new airport at Kuala Namu is about 1.5 hours by taxi to Medan and 37 minutes by train according to the operator. The train station is right by the airport and it costs IDR80,000 (RM22) to Medan. It takes you right into the heart of downtown Medan opposite the spanking new Centre Point Mall and Kariba Hotel.

Taxis cost anything from IDR130,000 (RM36) to IDR200,000 (RM55) depending on your haggling skill. Taking a taxi brings you right to your destination and can take four passengers (if you do not have too much luggage) it can be cheaper than the train. (The current exchange rate: RM270 to IDR1,000,000).

Taxis in Medan are both metered and non-metered. The Executive (white) and Blue Bird taxis are metered. The boarding fare is IDR20,000 (RM5.50) for the first 10km. They are generally very clean and the drivers very polite. Avoid non-metered taxis.

There must be at least one hundred hotels in Medan, from posh establishments like JW Marriot, Grand Aston, Santika Dyandra, to cheaper ones like Grand Swiss-Bel, Grand Angkasa, Tiara, Danau Toba International and budget hotels. With the recent spate of power cuts it is best to avoid the budget hotels, which probably do not have generators.

There is no shortage of choice when it comes to food. Because of Indonesia’s ethnic diversity you can get Sundanese, Padang, Aceh, Minang, Batak, Betawi and even Malay cuisine (if you look hard enough, the Malays are a very small minority in Medan and I think in Indonesia, as a whole). Each region has its own unique flavour and it will take more than a weekend to try them all.

Street food is plentiful from bakso, to ayam penyet to soto to nasi uduk, mie aceh and more. They are cheap and tasty if you don’t mind mingling with the locals. There are also Chinese restaurants but also Chinese hawker food if you don’t want to spend too much. I can think of only one Indian resto (restaurants – Indonesians are prone to shorten words). And if the chilies have got to your guts by the third day take bandrake tea and you will be right as rain again.

The electrical outlets are different from Malaysia’s so bring your attachments if you want to charge up your phone or use your tablet.

Medan is an experience rather than a sterile showpiece. Soak up the atmosphere and get into the local culture if you want a good time. The people are friendly and helpful and may even show you places not in the guidebook if you ask them. As long as you are good at haggling you won’t get scalped too much; the rule of thumb is to half or one third the opening price depending on what you buy and where. The mall shops normally have fixed prices.

In the next postcard we will look at some places of interest. Meanwhile for tourist information contact:

North Sumatera Tourist Office

Jln Ahmad Yani 107
Tel: +62 061 452 8436.
Opens from 8am to 4pm

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