Sumatra Island is located in the Malay Archipelago, which is the largest group of islands in the world. It consists of over 17,000 islands, including the Sunda Islands of which Sumatra is the second largest in the chain and sixth largest in the world. It is an oblong shaped island with approximately 473,480 square kilometers of land mass, of which 25,000 square kilometers was declared The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra in 2006. The area is comprised of three separate and distinct national parks.

The island is subdivided into provinces. The Aceh is far to the north, with the Northern Province just below it. Then comes the Western Province, and beside it on the east coast, is the Riau Province. Below them is Jambi Province on the east side, and the small West Coast Province of Bengkulu. The large Province of South Sumatra is next, with the Province of Lampung below it on the southern tip of the island. These are the eight Provinces that make up the main island of Sumatra. Off the south eastern edge of the South Province of Sumatra are two other islands that are the Provinces of Banka and Belitung.

History of Sumatra

The island was first colonized in 500 BC. The Kantoli were the first known inhabitants, and they ruled until they were replaced by the Srivijaya, in the 5th century. The Srivijaya had a strong culture. They dominated the area by utilizing their maritime power to spread their influence throughout the nearby islands. Palembang was once the site of the Srivijaya Buddhist Monarchy. It was from here that they spread their influence, and taught the Malay culture through Nusantara.

The Srivijaya Empire began to lose influence, and failed altogether when it was conquered by the Southern Indian Empire of the Chola. It was late in the 6th century and early into the 7th when the Srivijaya were losing their sway not only physical power, but religious influence as well, because at this time traders from Arabia and India were bringing the Islam religion to their shores. By the time that the famous explorer Marco Polo arrived in 1292, the country had officially converted to Islam, and had become part of the Samudra Kingdom.

The Samudra Kingdom fell to the Aceh Sultanate. This remained the governing power in Sumatra until the 20th century when they were challenged, and eventually overcome by the Dutch. It was then that Sumatra, under the governing hand of the Dutch Trading Company, began its tenure as a provider of oil, rubber and peppers, for the greater European and Western countries as well as Japan and the continental Asian Orient.


Sumatra is home to approximately 20% of the entire population of Indonesia, with a total population of about 50 million. The vast majority of the population, about 87%, is Moslem. Their largest city is Medan, it is located in the Northern Province, and has over 2 million people living in an area of just over 265 square kilometers. The next largest city has nearly twice the land mass and half the population, it is called Palembang, and it is located in the Southern Province.

The population is a highly diverse group with many ethnic cultures. Many share the same or similar traditions, and many of their over 52 different languages are related. Language groups are generally split up by geographical regions. People in the middle and the southern side of the island, generally speak languages originating from Malay, while actual ethnic Malay is spoken on the east coast. The highlands of the north are populated by a group of people called the Bataks, and the northern coast is still populated by the Acehs. In the inner cities the most common language is ethnic Chinese.

The island is also home to the rare Sumatran Orangutan, which is smaller, and even rarer than its cousin, the only other species of Orangutan, which is widespread in Borneo. Also among the rare species that make Sumatra their home, is the Sumatran Tiger and the Sumatran Rhinoceros. Both of which are so rare that casual visitors to the island are not expected to even glimpse one of the animals.


Sumatra was once called by the Sanskrit names of Swarnadwīpa and Swarnabhūmi, which mean “Island of Gold” and “Land of Gold”, respectively. These were probably given because of the large gold deposits that are found in the highlands of Sumatra. The highlands are a range of mountains known as the Barisan Mountain chain. They run roughly the entire length of the island, and are called the backbone of Sumatra. The chain is punctuated by an active volcano named Mount Kerinci. Sumatra is part of the geological formation called the Pacific Ring of Fire. This distinction gives Sumatra some of the most powerful earthquakes recorded, and is most probably responsible for the existence of the great Sumatra Fault that runs the length side of the island, just off the west coast.

The long history of volcanic activity has left Sumatra with very fertile soil, and its geographical location endows the island with ample rainfall and yearlong moisture. Except for in the higher elevations, Sumatra is warm and was once covered by a tropical rain forest. They have lost nearly 50% of their natural rain forest and almost the same amount of their natural tree cover in just the past 35 years. This massive depletion is in part what has caused so many of the unique plants and animals of Sumatra to now be facing extinction. It is also what caused the Sumatran government and other interested organizations to make 10 different national parks on the island, and to set aside 25,000 square kilometers as The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra.

Flora, Fauna and Indigenous Species

On the higher mountainsides in the north of Sumatra the unique Sumatran Pine flourishes. Within the dense rainforest grow the Rafflesia arnoldii, and the Titan Arum, the world’s largest flower and the world’s largest unbranched inflorescent flowering plant.

Sumatra is the 6th largest island in the world, but it is still an island, yet it is home to an astonishing 580 different bird species, and a 102 different species of mammals. These include several that are indigenous only to Sumatra, such as the previously mentioned Sumatran Tiger, the Sumatran Rhinoceros and the Sumatran Orangutan, as well as the Sumatran Elephant, the Dhole, the Malayan Tapir, the Malayan Sun Bear, the Sumatran Striped Rabbit, the Dayak Fruit Bat, and the Sunda Clouded Leopard. In addition to all of these spectacular animals, Sumatra is home to around 300 freshwater species of fish.

Current Exports

Thanks in part to the Dutch Trading Company, Sumatra has found that they can sustain a comfortable level of profitable exports. They continue to trade in oil, both petroleum and palm oil. The unique two-part oil trade helps to moderate both from trying to monopolize the land. Too much development for one, would ultimately harm the production of the other.

Coffee has become one of Sumatra’s largest exports, if not the largest. They produce more than one kind. In the highlands, in the cooler air, they grow Arabic coffee, while in the lower valleys they grow Robusta. To further diversify, the Arabic coffee growers process their beans differently to help reduce acidity and give the resulting brew a heavier body of flavor.

Other agricultural exports still include rubber, and pepper as in the early years, but since then other products have found a way to be cultivated and exported. Those include peanuts, ramie fiber, tea, sisal, tobacco, betel nuts, kapok, and copra. Sumatra also exports some vegetables, such as various roots, rice and corn. Sumatra finds its primary markets in Japan.

In addition to gold, Sumatra also has silver, which is no surprise as silver is generally found in the vicinity of gold, in addition you can find coal, tin, natural gas, and bauxite in the mountains and on some of the smaller islands.


One cannot visit Sumatra without visiting at least one of their 10 national parks. Most of the parks have their own specific attractions. For instance if you are interested in seeing one of the rare Sumatran Orangutans then, you should plan on going to the Gunung Leuser National Park. It is located on the boarder of the provinces of Aceh and Northern Sumatra. Sumatra also offers Kerinci Seblat National Park which is located, of course, on Mount Kerinci, for those that want to see an active volcano up close. The island also offers miles of beautiful white sand beaches for relaxing, or some of the best surfing in Indonesia, also available are highland lakes, and lush green valleys walled by towering cliffs, and of course there are the rain forests. These attractions can be enjoyed from the insides of a chartered plane or helicopter, or from ground level in the form of day trips, back-packing and hikes.

Sumatra is very proud of their various export and manufacturing businesses. Tours of local farms, plants, manufacturing processes and factories are also available in some areas. Much of their industry begins on a local scale, and is therefore readily available to be seen in most any province.

For those that have little interest in roughing it in nature, the larger cities have attractions of their own. Nearly any coastal city on the east, north and south sides of the island will offer boat rides to any number of destinations, including Singapore on the island of Malaysia. In addition, Jambi, is not only the site of Sumatra’s largest archeological dig, but it is also the home of the Matahari department store.


Cultures can often be best experienced by outsiders through food. It is not just the eating of something different, but the different methods of preparation, the variety of tastes that come naturally, the presentation of the food, the methods in which different dishes are consumed and the general ceremony that comes with the meal. All of it speaks volumes about a culture. In Sumatra there are many cultures in each province and many provinces from which to sample.

The most famous truly Sumatran dish is called nasi padang. This is a white rice dish that is traditionally served with many different toppings or curries. One very popular rendition of nasi padang involves beef that has been slow cooked in spices and coconut milk, until the milk is nearly gone. This gives the beef the full flavor of the spices, and makes it very tender and juicy.

Islands | Travel | Indonesia

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