Language & Culture on Lake Toba

Language

Indonesian is the most widely spoken language on Lake Toba, along with Batak. Billboards, signs, and posts are 90% Indonesian and 10% English. English is spoken by airport and hotel staff, but not the local people. Indonesia is a former Dutch colony, and English is a privilege to modestly-educated young generation. No other foreign languages are in use around Lake Toba.

You will need the help of translators (most likely your guides) if you would like to converse with local people on the streets or the various tourist attractions.

Drivers do not speak English, either. But, by experience, they would understand basic instructions such as “pull over,” “turn left,” “make a U-turn,” “let’s go.” If you travel in a group, hire an English-speaking guide (available, costing around Rp250,000 or US$ 20/day) to maximize your tour experience. Chinese-speaking guides are also available. The cost varies between Rp 250,000 and Rp 500,000/day. Contact your travel agents to book them in advance. Other language-speaking guides (e.g., French, German, Korean, Arabic, Spanish) are not available or difficult to find.

Culture

Lake Toba does have a spectacular culture (see People and Culture on Lake Toba), but this section is concerned with local norms you need to observe to avoid unnecessary hassle when interacting with the locals during your trip.

Some points to keep in mind:

  1. Follow eastern culture on Lake Toba. For example, use gestures and indirect languages when asking for help or conveying criticism. But compared to their Javanese counterparts, Bataks are more straightforward in expressing their feelings.
  2. If you are a “bule” (white Europeans, Australians, Americans), then you may notice that people treat you a bit better (more respectable, etc.) than they do to non-bule. This is because they think you are generous.
  3. People are not familiar with standing in line. Be patient when you are in a line, and someone pops up in a hurry and gets straight to the front in line. Remind him/her politely, although most of the time it won’t work.
  4. Greeting in Batak is “Horas” (pronounced “Ho-ras”). It means ‘how are you doing.’ You can say this when you are meeting a Batak whom you know or have met before (e.g., your guide, travel agent, or storekeeper near your hotel.)
  5. Avoid touching a person’s head, even kid’s.

One thing we can guarantee: local people will welcome you with genuine hospitality. Language barriers could limit the treatment to gestures. If you don’t understand them, just smile and raise your hand a bit to show respect. If you notice good things people are doing, give them thumbs up!

Alcohol and Smoking

Alcoholic drinks and cigarettes are widely available and consumed. If you are 18 or above, you can buy them at convenience stores like Indomaret and Alfamart, too. There are no-smoking marks at public places or where applicable. These include airports, hotel’s public indoor facilities, and offices. All domestic flights and public transportation are also non-smoking.

A maximum of 1 liter of alcoholic beverages and up to 200 cigarettes (or 50 cigars or 100 grams of tobacco) per passenger are allowed by customs upon arrival in the country.

Religion

Lake Toba inhabitants are predominantly Protestant Christians. Churches are easy to find in all locations. Muslims are the largest minority, representing approximately 25% of the population, followed by Catholics. Mosques are available in every town, i.e., Parapat, Balige, and Berastagi.

See also Internet, Phone, Electricity on Lake Toba.