Set up in the 1970s as an off the beaten track conservation area, Bukit Lawang in Northern Sumatra has evolved and grown into something much bigger. Today, it is a tourist mecca for those hoping for an elusive encounter with wild orangutans.
Sandwiched between rubber and palm oil plantations, the Gunung Lesueur National Park is rapidly shrinking due to deforestation and due to loss of habitat, Sumatran Orangutans are now considered a critically endangered species.
Today, travellers head off on a 1-day to 1-week trekking adventure in an attempt to spot these (semi) wild creatures…
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 micro-environment 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. So is it still worth the visit? If done properly, YES, absolutely.
Trekking in Bukit Lawang
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. Obviously the longer the trek you book, the greater the chance of getting away from the crowds and spotting more wildlife. The overnight camping is both fun and a memorable adventure, potentially a highlight of your Southeast 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.
Responsible Trekking Tips
It is important to be a responsible trekker whilst in Gunung Lesueur National Park in Bukit Lawang and we advise you to follow these five important rules…
- 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 actually catch human diseases which can be fatal, especially in baby Orangutans.
- Minimise your use of plastic whilst in Bukit Lawang and whilst travelling in Indonesia as a whole. (Indonesia’s enormous waste problem cannot be denied). Do your bit and buy a filtered water bottle instead of buying endless plastic water bottles.
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.
How to choose a responsible trekking company
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. For more tips on what to look for in a trekking company see this section of our Bukit Lawang Trekking Guide.
Recommended Trekking Company in Bukit Lawang?
Sumatran Orangutan Discovery is run by ex-backpacker Ellie (originally from Wales) and her husband Tesun (from the local area). The team run a variety of eco-friendly treks into the jungle to spot orangutans and other wildlife and their tours are designed in the most sustainable way possible.
Hostels in Bukit Lawang – Where to Stay
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.
- EcoLodge Bukit Lawang – Located right by the river and the entrance to the jungle where you can set off trekking, this popular lodge gets great reviews. Clean rooms, good food and friendly atmosphere.
- Back to Nature Bukit Lawang – As the name suggests, this hotel feels like you are living in the heart of the jungle! A bit of a walk to get there, but totally worth it for nature lovers!
- Green Lodge Tangkahan – Surrounded by nature, another friendly place that’s great value for money for backpackers.
- On The Rocks – Climb 270 steps to this hotel but the view is worth it! A project of passion and a unique and amazing place to stay in Bukit Lawang.
Tip: At the time of writing, there are no ATM machines in Bukit Lawang (closest is 50km away in Binjai) so bring as much cash as possible. 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.
Volunteering at Bukit Lawang Trust
Bukit Lawang Trust 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 indeed with crafts lessons.
In the afternoons, volunteers work alongside two 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 here at the Trust. 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 to volunteer. Additionally, all volunteers must stay for a 60 day placement, so that children are not continuously unsettled by changing teachers. They ask volunteers to fund raise $106 US per week for their stay which covers the cost of their food, accommodation, transport to and from Medan Sirport, as well as their visa sponsorship and training. 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 to continue paying their local Indonesian staffs’ wages and to continue providing free education, alongside transport to and from school, for many children here.
If anyone visiting Bukit Lawang wishes to support the trust, they hold weekly Pub quizzes, one on a Tuesday at Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking and the other on a Thursday at Sumatran Orangutan explore. Both of these quizzes take place at 8pm. The free fitness classes here at the Trust include aerobics at 5pm on a Monday, Aerobics at 9:30 am on a Wednesday, Kickbox at 5:30pm on a Wednesday, Yoga at 5pm on a Thursday and running club at 6pm on a Friday.
Food in Bukit Lawang
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 pretty high and it’s all very much geared for western palates. Garden Inn has 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. And, be sure to try the local seasonal fruit such as rambutan and lychees.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
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.
Where to go next?
- 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.