Stranded in a Jungle Paradise During COVID-19

A wild orangutan in Sumatra.

Ever wondered what happened to those who were stuck abroad during the COVID-19 outbreak? This is the story about how a couple ended up in the jungle paradise of Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. Find out what happened when their travels were cut short and they ended up living in the jungle for three months!

When we arrived in the small village of Bukit Lawang in Sumatra, we didn’t expect to still be here three months later!

A couple look out into the jungle in Bukit Lawang.
When Jeff and his girlfriend arrived in Bukit Lawang they expected to stay three days not three months!

The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing when we arrived at the end of March 2020. Countries in Southeast Asia were slowly closing their borders around us and our return flights to the UK were soon cancelled without warning!

It could’ve turned out to be one of those travel horror stories we’ve read so much about. Fortunately for us we were trapped in a jungle paradise surrounded by beautiful nature and incredible wildlife.

A traveller walking through Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.
The author Jeff, explores Bukit Lawang during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-virus travel plans

Indonesia was supposed to be our last destination before we returned to the UK. We had already explored parts of Southeast Asia since December and were looking forward to exploring a new country.

Our original Indonesian itinerary was to start in Sumatra, then Java and finishing in Bali where we had hoped to treat ourselves to some relaxation (travelling isn’t always easy, you know?)

We only pencilled in three days in the small town of Bukit Lawang before moving on to our next destination. However, in those three days the government announced that all tourist sights would be closed and no visitors would be allowed into the country!

Bukit Lawang Indonesia.
Bukit Lawang shut up shop during the three days we visited.

When our flight back to the UK was cancelled a week later we decided to wait and see if tourism would open up if we waited. How long could this virus stick around for, right?

Travelling during a pandemic

We were in Thailand when we first found out about the virus at the end of January. A friend of ours, from the UK, posted something on his social media account about ‘coronavirus’. We had no idea what it was, or the effect it would have on world travel.

There was really nothing to indicate that the virus was a major cause for concern as there were still tourists everywhere. However, the more we travelled, the more we saw the virus in the news and on social media. 

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The number of tourists also dropped as we travelled to more countries. More and more people were wearing face masks and we could feel that the local’s attitudes to tourists were changing.

Laos was the country where we started to feel the decline of tourists. Even though there were still some tourists around we’d occasionally have tourist sights all to ourselves.

We had no idea that every country in the world would soon be closing their borders!

Why Bukit Lawang?

To see orangutans, of course!

There are only two places left in the world where wild orangutans can be seen. Sumatra and Borneo. We thought Bukit Lawang, in Sumatra, would be a better choice as it looked less touristy. 

Bukit Lawang is a small village set up for tourists and is a bumpy five hour car journey from the nearest airport in Medan. The village is situated on the banks of a powerful river and is surrounded by rainforest on all sides.

The beautiful scenery of Bukit Lawang.
The beautiful scenery of Bukit Lawang.

Bukit Lawang lies on the border of the Gunung Leuser National Park, home to semi-wild orangutans. A feeding platform was the main attraction before being removed some years ago so the orangutans could become less dependent on humans.

We were lucky enough to go trekking into the jungle a day before the government closed the national park. I think we may have even been the last tourists there! 

Trekking in Bukit Lawang.
Trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park the day before the lockdown.

What was life like in Bukit Lawang during lockdown?


If our flights weren’t cancelled then we’d have returned to the UK and then had to deal with the lockdown measures. Not to mention the fact that we’ve seen photos in the news of what the UK classed as ‘lockdown’ (a thousand-odd people on the beach, anyone?).

So we feel better protected from the virus here. Although the government hasn’t put the country into lockdown, it’s still not possible to travel between cities and no one can visit Bukit Lawang from outside the local area.

Bukit Lawang river.
We felt safe in Bukit Lawang due to lockdown measures.

Most of the guesthouses, shops and restaurants have been closed since March. The only accommodation open are the ones that host the ten or so tourists still stranded here.

This has given us a rare opportunity to connect with the locals in Bukit Lawang. The guesthouse we stay in is family run and we have been able to visit their homes in the local village. We are their jungle brother and sister as it’s known in Bukit Lawang.

We were even invited to Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan celebrations.) Something that tourists rarely get a chance to experience.

Enjoying Eid in Bukit Lawang with our family.
Enjoying Eid al-Fitr in Bukit Lawang.

(This is a photo of us in traditional attire during Eid al-Fitr. We are with the parents of Leli, the owner of the guesthouse we’re staying in.)

Surviving In The Jungle

Living in the rainforest isn’t always easy, but it’s something we’ve grown to love during our time here.

The best part being surrounded by wild nature is that we never know who we might meet when we go for a walk. We’ve met a variety of monkeys, huge monitor lizards, tiny (and huge) frogs and even a snake once or twice.

We only have to sit on our terrace for ten minutes before a macaque (sometimes a whole family) walks past us. We’ve even started to name some of them!

By far the best encounter we’ve had was just across the river, a few metres from our guesthouse. A mother orangutan and her son were just chilling on the other side. We walked across the river, making sure to keep our distance, to see that mother was also carrying an adorable few-week old baby!

Stranded in Sumatra, Indonesia during COVID-19
Nature has come to life during lockdown, especially in Sumatra!

With all the incredible wildlife around us, it’s easy to forget that, somehow, we’ve become the parents of  two adorable cats! Funnily enough, they show up mostly around meal times!

Of course, we are in the rainforest so we try to get back before the thunderstorms arrive in the late afternoon! The intense storms regularly knock out the electricity and water supply. That’s jungle living for you! 

A monkey on the roof of the hut below us.

So what’s next?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we will be able to visit the rest of Indonesia like we planned. There are reports that tourism may be opening up soon to local tourists but with new measures in place.

There is still a huge risk of getting the virus in Indonesia and the chances of a rise in cases is surely going to increase with local tourism.

Orangutan in tree
Bukit Lawang was an epic place to spend lockdown and one we’ll never forget!

After a long wait we’ve decided, with a heavy heart, that it’s finally time to try and go back to the UK. 

When this is all over, we will return to Indonesia to carry on what we’ve started. And you can bet your ass that we’ll pay a visit to our jungle brothers and sisters in Bukit Lawang!

Jeff Yip | A Life of Y

Jeff always knew that there had to be more to life than finishing university, getting a good job and starting a family! So after uni, he left the UK on a trip of a lifetime and hasn’t looked back since. Since then he’s been to 49 countries, 6 continents and seen all 7 world wonders.

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