Perched on the Bohorok River, Bukit Lawang lies next to Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 2.5 million hectares of tropical rainforest are famously home to the Sumatran Orangutan and a variety of other endemic wildlife. It is the only place on earth where rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans can be found living in the same ecosystem.
Most travellers head here to take part in the fantastic jungle trekking, hoping to witness one of the orangutans that Bukit Lawang is renowned for. Once they’ve snapped a couple of photos, they typically set off on their bumpy journey back to Medan. Those that stay longer realise that Bukit Lawang has so much more to offer travellers.
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Things To Do in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia
1. Trek to see the Orangutans
It goes without saying that the number one, best thing to do in Bukit Lawang is trekking. After all, for many, this is the experience of a lifetime… See wild orangutans swinging through the canopy, observe the beautiful mating dance of The Great Argus pheasant, or watch a troop of macaques play by a cascading waterfall.
Witnessing the vast amount of wildlife that calls the rainforest home is a breathtaking experience that you will remember forever. Like many other Indonesian animals, much of this endemic wildlife is rare and endangered. Therefore, it is imperative to travel responsibly through Bukit Lawang and make eco-conscious choices that will benefit the entire community (both humans and animals alike!).
Sandwiched between rubber and palm oil plantations, Gunung Leuser National Park is rapidly shrinking. The effects of deforestation and loss of habitat mean that Sumatran Orangutans are now considered critically endangered species. As such, choosing the right trekking company is really important, not only to get you the best experience possible but also to ensure their protection and preservation.
Treks can last from a half-day wander in the national park, to an overnight stay, or up to three, four and five days. The price can vary depending on whether you book through your hotel, or privately.
The majority of people take a one-night, two-day trek, involving around six to eight hours of walking on the first day, camping in the jungle and spending the morning swimming and relaxing before tubing back to town on the river. It’s also possible, (and usually cheaper) to hike back, giving you double the amount of time to spot wildlife. There are also some fantastic riverside lodges to relax in for a few days post trekking.
If you have a good guide, and you’re happy to take on steeper, harder trails, it’s possible to get away from the other groups and feel more isolated. Obviously, the longer the trek you book, the greater the chance of escaping the crowds and spotting more wildlife.
Also read: Amazing Sumatra itineraries.
Responsible Orangutan Trekking Tips
It is important to be a responsible traveller while in Gunung Leuser National Park in Bukit Lawang. Follow these important rules and you’ll be on the right track!
- Stay at least ten metres from the orangutans.
- Leave no trace. Take all your litter home, including cigarette butts & organic waste.
- Respect the animals. Do not talk loudly or smoke near them. Most importantly, do not feed them.
- Do not enter the jungle if you are sick – orangutans can catch human diseases which can be fatal, especially in babies.
- Minimise your use of plastic whilst in Bukit Lawang and also when travelling in general. Do your bit and buy a filtered water bottle instead of buying endless plastic water bottles.
- Be vocal about the behaviour of your guide. If you see something you disagree with, speak up and make them aware. Report inappropriate behaviour to the Indonesian Guides Association.
Remember! Tourism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a driving economic force, which keeps people employed in tourism, while the alternative is often logging and grafting on palm oil plantations. However, it is also undermining the very reason that Gunung Leuser National Park was established – to help preserve the wild orangutan population! If you see a guide feeding the orangutans to get tourist tips, don’t stay silent!
If you’re unsure of how to find an ethical company, read more about sustainable jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang. You can see trips by South East Asia Backpacker’s recommended trekking company, Sumatra Orangutan Discovery here. For full disclosure, it is important to mention that I actually run this company, alongside my Indonesian husband Tesun. Although I am biased, I can tell you that we take our ethical responsibility very seriously and always put sustainability at the core of everything that we do.
2. See rare jungle flora
The rainforest is not only home to exotic wildlife, but there are an incredible variety of plants and flowers here too. A couple of the most impressive that it is possible to see on a trek from Bukit Lawang include the Rafflesia and the Titan Arum. The Rafflesia produces the largest individual flower on Earth! The Titan Arum (official name Amorphophallus Titanium), is the tallest flower in the world and is also hidden in the jungle.
If you opt for a Rafflesia Flower Trek, you’ll be taken out of Bukit Lawang to a neighbouring village called Batu Katak. Your expert guides will use their local knowledge to take you deep into unspoilt jungle to see the incredible Rafflesia (Rafflesia Arnoldii) firsthand.
3. Do a night hike
It may not be everybody’s cup of tea but night trekking is an incredible way to experience the rainforest in a completely different way. After dark, the rainforest comes alive with the sound of insects and other creatures unknown, providing a thrilling chance to see nocturnal animals unbeknownst to the day trekker.
Animals commonly seen at night include various snake species, slow lorises, wild cats and civets. Do not attempt to do this unguided – to do so would put yourself at risk and impact the wildlife. Instead, choose a reputable company that puts safety first.
4. Visit a meditation centre in the jungle
For those looking for some enlightenment or rejuvenation, consider embarking on a meditation trek. These popular treks into the Gunung Leuser National Park are coupled with a night in a remote meditation centre. The meditation centre is completely off-grid, set in an isolated location. It takes around one hour of hiking to get there.
Run by a wonderful local couple, those who embark on this trek can enjoy an early morning sunrise meditation led by a certified meditation instructor. This is then followed by lunch at the viewpoint restaurant overlooking the jungle, before setting off to trek back to Bukit Lawang.
5. Take part in a cooking class
You’ve probably travelled halfway across the planet to be here, so why not use this opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture?
To learn a skill you can take home and share with your friends, consider taking part in a cooking class. Traditional Indonesian food is varied and exciting, made up of a blend of exotic spices and herbs.
Cooking classes can be found around town or booked through various agencies. Many tours include a jaunt around the local market where you can practise your Bahasa Indonesian and learn how to select complementary vegetables and spices.
6. Head out on a traditional village tour
If you love food, you could also look into booking a traditional village tour. These tours take you around rural Indonesian villages to see the traditional way of life firsthand.
You will visit rice fields, rubber plantations, palm oil plantations, cacao plantations and various other agricultural sites where your guide will demonstrate the harvest techniques. You will also get the opportunity to visit local families who still make brown sugar, tofu and tempe in the traditional Indonesian way.
7. Visit the plastic-free market
Every Sunday, there is a plastic-free market held at Landak River, a 20-30 minute walk from the village of Bukit Lawang. This wonderful eco-friendly market consists of an array of small wooden stalls lined up along the riverside, each one hosting a different kind of traditional Indonesian food. The food contains no additives or MSG and only natural colours from flowers and plants.
Some of our favourite dishes include es cendol, a sweet iced dessert that contains green rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup and ayam kampung, literally meaning ‘village chicken’. This free-range, organic chicken is served fried or barbecued with chilli sauce, cucumber and tomato.
8. Try your skills at Takraw
If food isn’t your thing and you still want to get stuck into the culture, join the locals in an energetic game of Takraw, also known as kick volleyball. This team sport is often played on dusty fields under the shade of palm trees and acrobatic skills come in handy!
9. Have a sing-along
Indonesians are famously musical people and it feels like every guy in the village can play the guitar or at least hold a tune. A wonderful way to pass an evening is to grab a seat and join the locals as they pass the guitar around and have a sing-along.
If you happen to be in Bukit Lawang over the weekend, there are a few live music venues worth checking out. Saturday live music at Thomas Retreat or chilled acoustics at the newly opened Aussie Inn both come highly recommended.
10. Indulge in a massage
After a long and exhausting trek, it’s good to take some time for self-care. This also allows you to appreciate the laid back vibe of Bukit Lawang.
For the ultimate experience in relaxation, book an Indonesian massage to detoxify your body and relieve your tired muscles. While there is not a massage centre in town as such, massages can be booked through various companies.
An experienced therapist will often carry out the massage in your hotel room, bringing everything necessary. Karonese herbal oil can usually be purchased on request for that extra luxurious experience.
11. Experience a jungle sunset
No one should miss the chance to see the sunset over the jungle. Grab a cold can of Bintang or purchase a coconut (no straw please!) and make your way to the river’s edge where you can sit back on a rock and watch as dawn sets in over the rainforest.
12. Do some arts and crafts
As you wander through the village, you will no doubt notice the many handicrafts and carvings, beautifully made by local craftspeople. From reclaimed wood carvings to coconut earrings, there are crafts to suit all tastes.
If you want to take part in a crafting workshop, this can easily be arranged by talking to the owner of the craft stall or you can contact the various agencies around town to arrange a workshop for you.
For a really eco-friendly experience, don’t miss an organic soap making class or natural fabric printing session.
13. Give back to the community
Bukit Lawang Trust is a non-profit organisation that was founded in 2003, after the devastating flood in Bukit Lawang. They provide free education to the local community, often focused on conservation. Their morning Kindergarten classes are run by local Indonesian staff, although they often have volunteers help out on their weekly litter-pick and with craft lessons.
In the afternoons, volunteers work alongside local Indonesian staff, to provide free English and conservation classes to over 200 children from six different local villages in the area. Most evenings they run free fitness classes too. They are also in partnership with ‘Days for Girls’ and thus deliver regular workshops on female health and help to provide safe and sustainable sanitary products for women in poverty.
Would you like to volunteer? All volunteers require a DBS check. Additionally, there is a minimum time commitment of 60 days, so that children are not continuously unsettled by changing teachers.
Local staff are permanent and the managers who teach many of the lessons are also here long term. As the centre relies entirely on donations, they rely on fundraising activities. Read more about volunteering with them here.
Where To Stay in Bukit Lawang
The accommodation options are varied in Bukit Lawang, with many basic backpacker crashpads close to the entrance of town and the guide’s office. Further upriver are a number of great, relaxing places to stay if you have a few days to spare after your trek. Take this opportunity to enjoy the tranquillity and sounds of the jungle.
- Garden Inn – Ran by a well-travelled Indonesian who speaks fluent English & French. The place offers good value (try and get an upstairs room if you can), the balconies are great and the restaurant serves very good quality, well-priced food.
- EcoLodge Bukit Lawang – Located right by the river and the entrance to the jungle, this popular lodge gets great reviews. It is a good launch point for jungle treks. The rooms are clean, the food is good and the vibe is friendly.
- Green Lodge Tangkahan – Surrounded by nature, this is another friendly place that’s great value for money for backpackers.
- On The Rocks – You’ll need to climb 270 steps to this hotel but the view makes the effort worth it! A passion project and a unique place to stay in Bukit Lawang.
Tip: At the time of writing, there are no ATMs in Bukit Lawang (the closest is 50 km away in Binjai) so bring as much cash as possible. If necessary, it may be worth asking the higher-end hotels if they will charge your card for cash, but this is likely to cost between 5-10% in fees.
Food in Bukit Lawang
When it comes to food, the village of Bukit Lawang has a number of restaurants with most offering a relatively similar menu of Indonesian dishes, Sumatran specialities, and western options. The food hygiene levels are pretty high and it’s all very much geared for western palates.
Garden Inn has a cracking (and cheap) restaurant, which offers a daily special menu option of ‘family food’. Generally spicy, these simple homemade dishes are packed full of flavour.
While you’re in the area (and Sumatra in general) make sure you sample some tempeh, a type of fermented soy cake, similar to tofu. It goes great with sambal. Don’t miss the opportunity to try the local seasonal fruit too, look out for rambutan and lychees in particular.
How To Get to Bukit Lawang
Air-conditioned tourist buses are popping up between popular tourist destinations all over Sumatra. However, prices are greatly inflated compared to local travel options. The main advantages of tourist buses are that they are a bit quicker, moderately more comfortable and more likely to be filled with like-minded tourists.
The local buses run from Medan to Bukit Lawang. You can also ask around in Medan (somewhere around Pinang Baris bus station is usually a good bet) and a tuk-tuk driver should be able to take you. Local buses will drop you around 2 km outside of town at the bus station whereas, tuk-tuks will take you the rest of the way for around a dollar per person.
When you leave, you’ll need to make your way back to the bus station, where you can get a local bus back to Medan and then on to other destinations.
If you’re heading to the airport you’ll need to take a local bus to Binjai and make it clear you need to be dropped at the ALS bus station. From there, it’s around an hour on a coach which departs approximately every hour until the evening.
Where To Go Next?
- Lake Toba: The serene setting of Lake Toba is just a tourist bus away!
- Berestagi: if you haven’t had your fill of trekking yet, Berestagi is only a few hours away.
- Medan: The capital of North Sumatra, Medan is a melting pot of culture just waiting to be explored. The airport in Medan can take you to Bangkok or KL on an AirAsia flight where you can connect with pretty much anywhere in the region.
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