Set up in the 1970’s as a conservation area, Bukit Lawang has evolved and grown into something much bigger, a tourist mecca for those hoping for an elusive encounter with wild orangutans.
Sandwiched between rubber and palm oil plantations the Gunung Leseur National Park is shrinking and Sumatran orangutans are considered critically endangered. As well as our closest cousins, the orangutan (the name means man of the forest, in Bahasa language) you may well spot gibbons, peacocks, hornbills, and the mohawked thomas leaf monkeys, as well as the more common long-tail macaws. A few incredibly endangered Sumatran tigers and rhinos roam the jungle too, but you’re more likely to win the lottery than spot them as they are elusive and hide deep in the jungle.
Realistically, Bukit Lawang has become a microenvironment of day trippers and backpackers hoping to get a shot of an orangutan on a half day trek, the jungle is busy and the orangutans are semi-wild, due to the feeding station not far from the village.
Taking an overnight trek is an enjoyable way to see the jungle. If you have a good guide, and you’re keen to trek on the steeper, harder trails it’s possible to get away from the other groups and feel more isolated. The overnight camping is both fun and a memorable adventure, potentially a highlight of your South East Asian trip.
The majority of people take a one night two day trek, involving around six to eight hours walking on the first night, 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 the wildlife.
There are also some fantastic riverside lodges to relax in for a few days post trekking.
Rules Of The Jungle
- Do not go any closer than ten metres to the Orangutans
- Leave no trace and remove everything from the jungle, including cigarette butts & organic waste.
- Respect the animals, do not talk loudly, smoke or joke around and especially do not feed them.
- Do not enter the jungle if you are sick – Orangutans can catch human diseases which can be fatal, especially in infants.
Furthermore, in order for guides to respect the wildlife you should be very vocal about their behaviour – if you see something you disagree with, speak up and make them aware. It’s possible to report inappropriate behaviour to the Indonesian Guides Association.
Tourism has become a double edged sword on this village and national park area, on one hand it’s a driving economic force, which keeps people directly employed working in the tourist sectors, when they could quite probably be working as loggers and on palm oil plantations.
On the other, it’s undermining the very reason this ecological sanctuary was established – to help preserve the wild orangutan population! In my experience, some of the guides are not acting in the best interests of the animals and encourage feeding the orangutans in the hunt for tourist tips. This obviously makes the orangutans dependent and if, for example civil war broke out in Sumatra tomorrow many of these great apes may not be able to adapt without the tourism and associated feeding.
There are of course, guides who have more integrity but in my experience still would not ‘speak up’ as such, against the behaviour of other guides even with prompting from our group.
Treks can last from a half day wander in the national park, to an overnight or up to three, four and five days.
The price can vary depending it on whether you book a guide through your hotel, or privately.
We found ‘Jungle Eddy’, recommended by a guesthouse in Lake Toba & a few travellers we met along the way - was a good guide. We think he genuinely cared and with some business partners was privately buying land surrounding the national park to help prevent deforestation.
Bring your own bottled water, some snacks might be worth packing, especially if you ask for harder trekking and overnight campers should bring water purifying tablets – after the bottled water is gone, you’re on to boiled river water.
For a more back to basics experiences, I’ve heard great things of Ketambe, another camp within the Gunung Leuser National Park area. It’s generally quite a bit more expensive as a trekking base and without the infrastructure of Bukit Lawang but the Orangutans are considered wild here and no feeding takes place.
Tangkahan, within a day trip distance from Bukit Lawang is home to elephants. There is the option to wash and also ride these magnificent creatures. A day trip including transport will likely cost over one million rupiah. Make sure you’ve read up about elephants and the ethics of riding before going on any trip.
The options are vast, with many basic backpacker crashpads close to the entrance to town and the guides office and further up river are a number of great, relaxing places to stay if you have a few days to spare after your trek to just enjoy the tranquillity and sounds of the jungle.
- Garden Inn, ran by a well travelled Indonesian, who speaks fluent English & French. The rooms are good value (try and get an upstairs) the balconies are great and the restaurant serves very good quality, well priced food.
- Green Lodge & On The Rocks also have good reviews.
There are no ATM machines in Bukit Lawang (closest is 50KM away in Binjai) so bring as much cash as possible, although if necessary it may be worth asking at the higher end hotels if they will charge your card for cash, but this is likely to cost between 5-10% in fees.
What to eat:
The village of Bukit Lawang has a huge amount of choice with all places offering a relatively similar menu of Sumatran, general Indonesian dishes and western options. The food hygiene levels are high and it’s all very much geared for western palates. Garden Inn had a cracking (and cheap!) restaurant, which had an daily special menu option, ‘family food’ - a generally spicy, simple local dish homemade dish packed full of flavour.
Whilst you’re in the area (and Sumatra in general) make sure you eat some tempeh, a type of fermented soy cake, similar to tofu. It goes great with sambal.
Getting in & out:
Air-conditioned tourist buses are popping up between popular tourist destinations in Sumatra, the price is greatly inflated compared to local travel, but is often a bit quicker, moderately more comfortable and more likely to be filled with likeminded tourists. The local buses run from Medan all the way to Bukit Lawang, ask around in Medan (somewhere around Pinang Baris bus station) tuk-tuk driver should be able to take you.
Local buses will drop you around 2km outside of the town at the bus station – tuk tuk’s will take you the rest of the way for around one dollar per person.
When leaving you need to make your way back to the bus station, where you can either get a local bus back to Medan and then on to other destinations. If you’re heading to the airport you 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 about an hour in a brand new coach which leaves around once an hour until the evening. Another option could be asking around at the hotels for a tourist minibus.
- The serene environment of Lake Toba is a tourist bus away. Read more about Lake Toba here.
- Berestagi, if you haven’t had your fill of trekking is only a few hours away and the new Airport in Medan will take you to Bangkok or KL on an AirAsia flight where you can connect with pretty much anywhere in the region.
About the author: Ben Turland is a keen traveller who is currently eating and photographing his way around South East Asia and writing about his experiences both on his own website and for us as an ambassador. You can follow more of his writing on his personal blog.