Medan is working hard at transforming its image from a glorified transit town to a bustling metropolis worth its salt. Since surpassing Bandung as the third city with the biggest population in Indonesia –trailing behind Jakarta and Surabaya– it has undergone a series of massive makeovers to shed the old skin of Melayu Deli. Gone are the in-town airport and most of the dilapidated buildings left from the Dutch colonization era in Medan. The sleek Kualanamu airport has replaced the old Polonia and new offices, restaurants, and hotels have sprung up in the area of past Dutch establishments.
The recent meteoric rise of Medan is catalyzed largely by the interest of out-of-town property developers in turning it into a thriving commercial center. Reflecting on Medanese’s appreciation of food and their diverse ethnicities, this development translates into re-inventing Medan as a foodie haven. Food is a serious business in town; more than three big eateries open up each month, each serving cuisines of varying origins. The culinary scene in Medan benefits from the cultural splashes brought in by the locals from abroad, making Medan a melting pot of foods.
So is the food the only reason to visit Medan, then? Well, it could be. But Medan is no one trick pony. Up its sleeves, you will find out that it has a lot of beautiful historical sites that you can explore with taxis, becaks or public buses, and paved sidewalks when you want to experience the city on foot. Plus, accommodations are abundant across the town, depending on your budget, and the climate is always nice for outdoor activities. If you want to escape from city life, natural attractions are also only a couple of hours away by car.
Next time when you are in town, consider spending a few more days to check out what Medan has to offer.
Take a peek into the local Chinese heritage by visiting Tjong A Fie Mansion (Jl. A.Yani No.97-99), the former residence of a Chinese tycoon done in a Victorian-Chinese style. When you are done, head to Jl. S.M.Raja to see the Grand Mosque and the Maimoon Palace, Medan’s most iconic Islamic landmarks featuring Malay, Italian, and Middle East influences. At the opposite side of town, there is Maha Maitreya Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in South East Asia located at Cemara Asri (Jl. Boulevard Utara No. 8). But if pretty buildings are not your cup of tea, make a trip to see –and feed– the crocodiles at Taman Buaya Asam Kumbang (Jl. Bunga Raya II No. 59), or some of the 5,000 birds at Cemara Asri’s bird park.
Head to Jl. Sei Deli No. 2D to get a taste of the famous Soto Sinar Pagi –shredded chicken or beef chunks cooked in heavily spiced coconut milk, served with prawn crackers and crushed chilies in sweet soy sauce—before 3 p.m. Or, try Tiong Sim noodles (Jl. Bogor No.7) –thin, handmade noodles topped with slices of barbecued pork, chopped springs onions, stuffed dumplings, shredded chicken, with sides of sour chili sauce and pork broth. For lunch, grilled pork from BPK Ondo (Jl. Pabrik Tenun No. 45) could be an option, which comes with pig blood and green chilies sauces, clear soup, and mashed cassava leaves. When evening comes, hit Jl. Selat Panjang, Medan’s Chinatown, or Pagaruyung Alley in Little India for lip-smacking Indian cuisine. Lastly, don’t forget to visit Tip Top (Jl. A.Yani No. 92), the oldest restaurant in Medan where you can still enjoy traditional Dutch cakes, ice creams, and a wide variety of dining menus in a colonial interior feel of the 1930s.
If you are looking for local traditional delicacies, Jl. Mojopahit is the place to go. There, you can find bika ambon, lapis legit, passion fruit and terong belanda syrups and, of course, every imaginable snack that you can make out of durian sold along the street. From Mojopahit, continue a little to the north to buy Bolu Meranti (Jl. Kruing No. 2-K/16), a popular rolled sponge cake with numerous kinds of filling. Remember to visit Pasar Ramai (Jl. Thamrin), where it has an excellent selection of tropical fruits, pickled fruits and vegetables, local pastries, hawker snacks and also your basic daily necessities. Drop by Sun Plaza (Jl. K.H. Zainul Arifin No. 7) when you want to shop some more — branded goods, electronics, and souvenirs.
For budget travelers, Wisma Sederhana (Jl. Selat Panjang No. 11C) and Hotel City International (Jl. Palang Merah No. 112A) are great options –strategic locations, clean facilities, Wi-Fi access– for a price around Rp. 200,000. Karibia Boutique Hotel (± Rp 250,000) at Jl.Timor Block J No.I –IV and Grand Sakura Hotel (± Rp 280,000) at Jl. Prof. Mohammad Yamin No. 41 M are superb mid-range alternatives. But if money is not a concern, splurge for a room in Grand Swiss-Belhotel (± Rp. 600,000) at Jl. S. Parman No. 217, Grand Aston Hotel (± Rp.700,000) at Jl. Balai Kota No. 1, or J.W. Marriot (± Rp. 900,000) at Jl. Putri Hijau No. 10.
With its open air atmosphere and casual dining style, Merdeka Walk is where Medanese of all ages gather to kick their shoes off, talk, and eat. Foods are variant and reasonably priced, and there are also live band performances on weekends. But if you crave for a more intimate setting, go to Macehat Coffee (Jl. Karo No. 20) for a cup of excellent java or Wak Noer –an oldie, colonial feel coffee shop– where you can order French pastries from Sam’s Patisserie next door to be enjoyed with a cup of in-house tea, civet coffee, or flavored beer. Dive into the nightlife with a visit to Entrance The Music Temple (Grand Aston City Hall, Ground Floor) to witness the performance of world-class DJs and show your moves on the dance floor.
6. Nearby Notables
Go for a green adventure at Taman Simalem Resort to breathe some fresh air, eat some organic produces, and bask in the extraordinary panoramic view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island. Visitors can also have a picnic at Riverside Place, see how ulos is made, as well as play outbound games. When you are bored, drive to Bukit Lawang to trek in the tropical forest and visit the orangutan rehabilitation center in Gunung Leuser National Park. On the way back to Medan, stop by Taman Alam Lumbini at Berastagi to see the majestic pagoda and wind down at the park.
Things to remember:
1. Always bargain when you are shopping at a traditional market –the sellers tend to hike up the price for foreigners.
2. Medanese are infamous for having no manners in driving –car or motorbike—nor the conscience to obey street rules, so pedestrians need to be careful.
3. Only use Blue Bird and Express for taxis as the others will resist the use of meter in keeping track of the fare. For becaks, negotiate for a fixed price before you get in.
4. Beware of pickpockets and grabbers when you are walking or using public transports.
Unedited version. Published in JPlus Sunday, 29 December 2013.
Words and photos are mine.