Don’t head the warning
It all starts with the Lonely Planet guidebook for Indonesia. The writer paints a bleak picture of Medan by telling the reader that it is “consistently at the top of the worst cities in the world list,” among backpackers. To be fair, the writer does go on to defend Medan by saying if you give it some time it does have its charm. By this time the trip planner has already gotten it in their head that they should expect the worst.
Indonesia itself is not necessarily a part of the main backpacker trail of South East Asia. With it being such a sprawling nation of islands of various sizes it doesn’t usually come on the radar as a budget destination since it will take a few flights in order to get a proper feel for the country. The ones that do make their way to Indonesia generally stick to the tourist hot spots of Bali and Java.
Even though Sumatra is the largest island in Indonesia it still hasn’t seen the influx of tourism that the rest of the region experiences. This works in the favor of the the traveler who wants to get a little bit of a break from the typical backpacking set up. If you fly into any city in South East Asia, whether it’s Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Siem Reap, you’re bound to find yourself making your temporary home in an area that caters to the vagabond with cheap guest houses, tour agencies and the outdoor table clothed diners serving buckets of Heineken for the tourist. You have Kao San Road in Bangkok, China Town in Kuala Lumpur and just about everything you need in any town of major tourism significance. This is where Medan begins to set itself apart.
Medan, admittedly doesn’t have the tourist infrastructure that its counterparts in Thailand and Malaysia have. Most flights into Medan arrive late in the evening so the backpacker is already on a fatigued and heightened alert. When you arrive at Polonia airport you are greeted with unfriendly customs agents, criminal money changers, and shouting taxi drivers looking to overcharge you for a short trip to the “backpacker area.” Let’s be honest though, there is no backpacker area in Medan but there are a couple of guesthouses next to the Grand Mosque. Most tourists, upon first arrival, end up paying about 50.000-100.000 rupiah ($5-10) for a taxi ride that should cost less than half that (I know because I was one of them.) They don’t tell you at the airport that you can just walk outside the gate and pick up a becak (pedicab) for about $1.50. This is where it all starts to go wrong for people because they argue with the taxi drivers, don’t get the price they want, get into the taxi and then head to a hotel. When they get there they’ve already felt as though they’ve been ripped off so it’s not a good start. But so far this is nothing unique to Medan as every airport, bus or train station in the world has the potential to rip off new arrivals. It’s nothing that should cause anyone to look down on Medan.
Big City Annoyances
So then what is it that people dislike so much about the city I’ve grown to appreciate? Another constant complaint I hear is that it’s too noisy and there is too much traffic. Well, it’s a big city with millions of people so you’re going to have traffic jams. I’ll admit Medanese are far too liberal with their horns and it does get on my nerves from time to time but it’s the culture here. The horn is a sort of extension of their voice and is used for everything from impatiently sitting behind a car who doesn’t see that the light changed green to just saying hello to a friend they saw walking by. The roads themselves are a tourist attraction in Medan and people from all over Indonesia who travel to Medan say that the city is especially dangerous for driving. Good thing I learned to drive a motorbike on these roads.
Why the tourists are wrong
So far I’ve given the reasons why people say they can’t get out of Medan fast enough but why are they wrong to feel this way? There is a common answer that most travelers reply with when asked why they travel. It’s usually to experience new things that are authentic to different cultures. Of these new experiences it’s trying new foods and meeting people that top the list of priorities. Medan offers both of these in abundance and many who flee Medan because of a few hassles are missing out.
If you consider food to be the most authentic way to understand a culture then Medan is the most important city in Indonesia. It’s the culinary capital of Indonesia as declared by Indonesians themselves and people as far away as Papua know this fact. While much of the food in Medan may originate from other places such as nasi padang from the Minang people of West Sumatra and Ayam Penyet from Java, it has become perfected in the North Sumatran capital city. You go to Bali to visit the Hindu Temples and relax in under the sun. You go to Jakarta to see the bustling cosmopolitan life. You see the rest of Java for culture, dance, tradition and temples. But when you ask an Indonesian why they go to Medan their response will no doubt be, “to eat.”
There are all kinds of interesting street foods to try throughout the city. Highlights include sate padang, rendang, ayam penyet, soto Medan, and an assortment of bakso, (meatballs in a noodle soup) all reinvented in Medan. There is no shortage of proper restaurants either. For more info: Food in Medan
Travelers always talk about looking for that unique experience and getting to learn about a culture through the “non-touristy” aspects of their traditions. Well, Medan offers that to anyone willing to look for it. So when I hear backpackers at guesthouses in the tourist areas around North Sumatra say that Medan is a “sh*thole” and they couldn’t get out of there fast enough I try to get them to go back and try the food. Sometimes they come across as somehow more enlightened because they think they can recognize a bad city when they see one. To those people I just say, keep eating your banana pancakes and gado-gado and leave the delights of Medan to those who don’t scoff at a few minor inconveniences.
Walk anywhere around the city any time of day and you’re going to hear people shout “Hello mister!” This isn’t the “Hello my friend!” of a shop keeper trying to get you to enter their store and buy a soveneir either. This is a genuine greeting from someone who is just happy to see you walk by, whether it’s a student, an old woman, a police officer or construction worker. You get the sense that their day was just a bit more interesting because they saw you. And, if you have the patience why not stop and chat with someone? Adult men are the least shy and if you sit down at any number of road-side tea and coffee stalls you’re bound to have someone sit next to you and ask you some questions. You may even be offered a drink and a kretek (Indonesian clove cigarette that is commonly smoked by men here).
After adult men it’s usually the children that are the most daring to approach a foreigner. You’ll no doubt run into a group of high school girls who cautiously approach you on the street asking to practice their English with you. One or two may be daring enough to speak while the others stand behind them giggling and blushing. After the conversation is over and before you say good bye it’s time for the photo op. Indonesians LOVE to take photos and Medan is no exception. Just snap a few photos, make some funny faces and enjoy it! It’s a lot of fun.
If you have a good sense of humor and a positive attitude these encounters with Medanese can be incredibly rewarding. Medan does not have many westerners and because of this you’re treated special when they meet you. One friend of mine coined the term “limited edition.” to westerners. You could be invited into the home of a local for dinner or asked to join them for tea at a warung (small restaurant). Don’t be shy either, there is no reason to be suspicious of these offers. That being said, you should still have your common sense vigilance going anytime you’re traveling but don’t keep yourself so guarded that you miss out on unique experiences.