The orangutan has always been my favourite animal. As a student, I spent many hours procrastinating with YouTube videos of them having baths and playing with puppies (skip to 0:58. You’re welcome), and even longer fantasising about giving it all up to go work in an orphanage full of them. Am I the only one?
Since these cute, intelligent, yet critically endangered creatures may cease to exist as little as twenty years from now, just one look into their big brown eyes is enough to break my heart.
Meeting one of our distant ginger cousins in their natural habitat has always been high up on my bucket list. So when we learned that the only two places left in the world you could still do this was on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, we added it to our Asian itinerary immediately. We chose to search for orangutans whilst trekking in Sumatra, due to the islands proximity to mainland Southeast Asia, it’s accessibility via air, and because Sumatra had such a wild, almost dangerous allure.
After the comfortable beaches and party spots of Thailand and the modern metropolises of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, rugged and raw Sumatra screamed unabashed adventuretime.
We were very unsure about what to expect when flying off the well-trodden path and into the Sumatran jungle, so I thought I’d write the most detailed guide I could for anyone wanting to visit for themselves, made up of our own first-hand experiences.
Where to see orangutans in Sumatra
Sumarta is the Western-most island in the Indonesian archipelago, and it’s huge.
The best way to spot some of the 7300 wild orangutans in Sumatra is by heading to the Gunung Leuser National Park to the north of the island. One of three UNESCO protected rainforest areas in Sumatra, it not only homes our ginger cousins, but a few elusive Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos.
Inside Gunung Leuser National Park lies the village of Bukit Lawang. The eco-tourism industry is built along the banks of the Bahorok river here, so most visitors organise their treks upon arrival. It’s such an idyllic, peaceful little pocket of an otherwise wild island. With no roads, thick rainforest canopy in all directions and friendly, laid-back locals, it’s easy for backpackers to get stuck there like we did.
Long-suffering Sumatra is no stranger to the wrath of Mother Nature. A flash flood completely flattened the village in 2003, killing hundreds and wiping out every business along the river. Of course, us visitors shouldn’t fear this happening again; the chances are miniscule. But remember that despite how cheerful it seems on the outside, the village is in many ways still recovering from a huge tragedy. The people of Bukit Lawang have more or less relied on the stream of eco-tourists passing through as their main source of income in order to rebuild their lives.
So respect their jungle, and all who inhabit it!
Getting from Medan to Bukit Lawang
Most orangutan-spotters will fly into Sumatra’s smoggy capital city, Medan, from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore… and will want to get out as soon as possible, or avoid visiting it altogether. Due to Matt accidentally booking our flights back out of Sumatra and on to Jakarta in Java for a day later than he meant to, we we had no choice but to bed down in the uninspiring city for two days. There is no backpacker ‘scene’, hardly any notable sights, and absolutely no hostels meaning you’ll have to shell out on a hotel and make your own fun. Sorry, Medan 🙁
Keep your eyes peeled on Skyscanner for some excellent AirAsia deals – we flew from KL to Kualanamu International Airport in Medan for around £40/$62 US/$80 AU – much cheaper than a flight across to Borneo.
Bukit Lawang is around 70km West of Medan’s Kualanamu Airport, but a drive there can take up to six hours. Sumatran roads are beautifully wild and complicated.
Although many eco-tourism lodges will happily organise a private pickup for you from the airport, this will set you back around 600,000 rupiah ($45/£29), so we chose to use public transport. I highly recommend braving this journey independently too, since it turned out to be one of the most moving and memorable ones we had!
Providing that you arrive at Kualanamu Airport during the day, you’ll be able to get a bus from Medan to Bukit Lawang quite easily. Turn right from the arrivals gate at Medan airport and look for a bus heading to Binjai. It will take around two hours to reach Binjai and cost 30,000 rp (£1.50/$2 US/$3 AU). The Sumatran scenery out of the window is jaw dropping: verdant country, rolling mountains and ramshackle, colourful messes of villages.
Once in Binjai, the bus stop you need to get to in order to reach Bukit Lawang is a five-minute motor-becak (Indonesia’s answer to a tuktuk) ride away. Haggle a driver down to as close as 15,000 rupiah as you can and squeeze in.
The tiny, brightly painted mini-van which took us from Binjai to Bukit Lawang for a mere 15,000rp was quite the experience: about the size of a normal car, only decked out with benches along each side, and filled with a huge group of pleasant locals who all shuffled up to accommodate us. Another family squeezed in through the sliding side-door and onto the floor of the van, and we set off. Since Sumatra is a Muslim country, a cute old lady reached out to pull my scarf back over my shoulder, which had slipped out, and patted me on the shoulder, smiling shyly. If you’re anything taller than 5″8, prepare to have to duck for hours, and to stink of cigarette smoke, since we soon learned that many people smoke in Indonesia, all the time, even in extremely confined spaces.
The drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang taught us a lot about the island. Since it was the Eid celebrations on the day we arrived, the traffic in every village and town we passed through moved at snails pace. Hundreds of cheeky kids attacked our windowless vehicle with water guns.
And, in order to reach the tiny national park which acted as one of the only safe havens left for Sumatra’s orangutans, you will pass through thousands upon thousands of acres of palm plantations and areas of deforestation – a sad reminder of just how endangered Sumatra’s rainforests really are. According to my research, there is just 2.5 million hectares of protected rainforest left in Sumatra, compared to 6 million hectares of palm oil plantations. By the end of 2015, this could have risen to 10 million hectares.
The main thoroughfare on the Bahorok river is a short walk or drive away from Bukit Lawang’s bus station. But if you email your guesthouse in advance to notify them of your approximate arrival time, they can send an employee to come and pick you up.
Where to stay in Bukit Lawang
We stayed in Green Hill Guest House which I can’t recommend enough. It’s owned by Andrea, an inspiring lady from my neck of the woods (Hartlepool in the UK!). A team of friendly local lads help her to run the place. They act as knowledgeable guides on your trip into the jungle by day, and entertainers by night with their guitars and folder full of Oasis and Bob Marley lyrics.
The wood cabins are overlooking the river a dream. They’re raised high off the ground and built entirely with natural materials to give it a treehouse feel, with balconies complete with hammocks and views of the river and jungle. If you’re lucky, you can see wild orangutans swinging about whilst you sip on your Sumatran coffee.
The rate for a budget room with no balcony or bathroom is 100,000rp (£4.75) per night for two people. We spent a few nights here to save money before upgrading to one of the nicer treetop bungalows, with our own bathroom, balcony and mini-mezzanine chill-out area, for 200,000 each (pictured above).
It’s best to book as far in advance as possible, since Green Hill only has five rooms, and fills up quickly. There are plenty of other budget guesthouses in Bukit Lawang though, such as Jungle Inn Guesthouse and Juniah, and all offer similar facilities and room rates.
Don’t expect hot water showers.
Trekking in Bukit Lawang: What to expect
A trek through Gunung Leuser National Park can be anywhere between one to four days long. The most popular for adventure travellers and backpackers is the two-day overnight trek which can be organised at any reputable guesthouse in town, and encompasses a night spent camping out in the wild.
These kind of treks cost around 1,000,000 rp per person (£45-50), based on a group of just two people. However, if you team up with another couple, and go as a group of four, you can half that price.
I’d recommend spending a night in the jungle, since it offers a much higher chance of actually spotting a wild orangutan, which can take hours and a lot of patience. And you have to be really, really quiet.
The chances of meeting one are pretty high, but it’s sadly not guaranteed. Luckily, we saw ELEVEN!
This fella came really close to us, but stayed in his tree. He stared into our eyes for minutes on end, apparently every bit as curious about us as we were about him. His face was so serene. About twenty metres behind him, his family were building a nest. His baby was stood up just like a human on a tree branch, turning from side to side and using her hands to move sticks into a pile. I couldn’t believe the dexterity of her movements – it was like watching a child playing with toys.
The national park also offers the opportunity to spot other wildlife, such as the black gibbon, the even more elusive and beautiful white gibbon, and the adorable Thomas Leaf monkey.
The trek itself isn’t too demanding, and we managed it without any formal hiking gear. We just wore trainers and cotton trousers to protect our legs from insect and (extremely rare) snake bites. There are a few short, steep uphill climbs that will leave you out of breath, but just as many downhill bits too. Also, since you won’t – and shouldn’t – be with a large group, you can move at your own pace and stop wherever you like to view the wildlife.
However, Gunung Leuser wasn’t our first jungle trek, and we’d spent five months prior to it in acclimatising to Southeast Asia’s humidity. Those who have flown in specifically for the orangutan trekking may need to drink a lot more water than we did!
Lunch and dinner should be provided by the guides (check before you leave Bukit Lawang). Ours was simple yet tasty nasi goreng with fried egg, followed by all the fruit we could eat.
After a good seven hours of scrambling about in the rainforest, we began to descend a pretty treacherous slope towards the banks of the river where we would spend the night. It soon began to resemble a slippery, muddy cliff face, which we pretty much had to abseil down using vines. If your guides decide to take you this route, go slow, embrace it, and expect plenty of scraped knees and swearing.
It was here that we came under attack from a pretty irate siamang (above), who wasn’t the least bit happy about us walking past his tree. He backed us into a corner, swung off his vine onto the bank, and had a long stand off with Ando, our awesome guide, who thankfully got us all past safely. Moral of the story? Seriously, invest in a good guide who knows how to deal with wild animals.
The campsite was basic, but idyllic. Right on the banks of the Bahorok river, we were treated to a huge cookup by a friend of Ando’s who helped coordinate the trip, and endless games of the backpacker card game, ‘Shithead’. Don’t expect a lot however: it’s a ‘make your own fun’ kind of night.
The ‘tents’ aren’t actually proper tents either; they’re crude shelters fashioned from wood and plastic sheeting, so if you’re a terrible sleeper like I am, I’d recommend packing some sleeping aid pills!
The second day didn’t involve any more trekking. After breakfast, we swam in the river, then tied three inflatable tubes together and rafted down the rapids back into Bukit Lawang. This was so much fun, so make sure your trek will be using this method of transportation back to town before you go!
Where to spot orangutans: Borneo or Sumatra?
The only reason we were considering visiting either Borneo or Sumatra in the first place was to see the orangutans who inhabit the two islands. Budget wouldn’t permit us to visit both, so we chose Sumatra for the following reasons:
- Sumatra is cheaper to fly in and out of from major airports like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
- If Java is your next port of call, you can travel south through Sumatra and hop there by boat.
- The orangutans are more ‘wild’, giving you a more authentic experience. I’ve read and heard that the orangutans you see in Borneo are only semi-wild and are viewed on feeding platforms.
Orangutan Trekking in Sumatra: Do’s and Dont’s
DO visit Bukit Lawang between the months of April to September, since this offers the best weather for trekking and the lowest chance of rain. Although the thought of seeing an orangutan using a giant leaf as an umbrella does seem incredibly cute.
HOWEVER. The closest you can get to shoulder season (the very start or end of the peak-time to go), the better, since June, July, and August will mean the jungle is full of loud groups of trekkers and tourists, which ruins the feel and scares the orangutans away.
DON’T talk or shout loudly whilst trekking.
DO your research before you decide on a guide. You’ll be spending the night alone with them in a jungle, and relying on them to defend you from dangerous animals (ie. angry monkeys who might try to bite you), so they have to be properly licensed, trustworthy, responsible, and educated about how to read animal body language and how to interact with the orangutans. Most reputable guesthouses such as Jungle Inn and Green Hill provide the most knowledgeable and ethical guides.
DON’T settle for any of the touts who will jump on you the moment you arrive at the Bukit Lawang bus station, offering cheap orangutang trekking tours.
DO Bring plenty of cash. There are absolutely no ATM’s in Bukit Lawang, the closest one being a half-hour drive away in Bohorok. We stupidly budgeted ourselves with only enough Indonesian rupiah to last us three days, fell in love with the place and decided to stay for a week, so had to take a becak to Bohorok. Great ride out, though.
DON’T touch or feed the orangutans, nomatter how close they want to get to you (and they will come pretty close). These fellas are extremely endangered and vulnerable. Their insides aren’t built to digest biscuits and crisps, and more importantly, they aren’t vaccinated against human illnesses.
DO cover up if you’re female in order to respect religious tradition.
DON’T sunbathe, swim, or tube in the river in just a bikini.
DO keep your balcony doors and all windows locked while you go out for walks, dinner, etc. It’s not theft (at least not the human variety) you have to worry about here, since Bukit Lawang is a peaceful place which relies solely on tourism to keep afloat. It’s monkeys! A group of macaques ransacked our room one day whilst we were having lunch with some friends, ate all of our precious Timtams, and disturbingly, my dirty laundry 🙁
DON’T forget super-strength insect repellent and a torch.
DO while away the hours, meet friends and enjoy the views at Jungle Hill cafe, right on the river. Their pizzas are surprisingly authentic (I have no idea where the owner manages to find real mozzarella, but she uses it liberally!), and their nasi goreng (egg fried rice with veg, garlic, ginger and spices) was the tastiest I found during my seven weeks in Indonesia. Their beef rendang curry is also a treat.
Tony’s Restaurant is also a cool, cosy backpacker hangout which serves up woodfired pizzas. Does anyone else think it’s odd how you can find woodfired pizza everywhere in Sumatra, and it’s all pretty good?!
DON’T expect your dinner to come within an hour of it being ordered. Patience, child. This is Sumatra.
DO try to get used to hearing Bob Marley play everywhere, all the time.
AND DO make time to visit Bukit Lawang’s orangutan feeding platform.
Bukit Lawang’s Orangutan feeding platform
The feeding platform usually operates twice daily – once in the morning and once mid-afternoon. Ask your guesthouse for the times. The wild and semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans are lured onto the makeshift wooden planks with food. A dusty hill facing it has been transformed into a mini-ampeteatre, and there’s no fencing or netting separating the audience from the monkeys.
We decided to head here after we’d already completed our trek, since we wanted to come face to face with the orangutans for the first time in the most magical way possible.
But I’m so glad we decided to trot down to the feeding platform a day or so later anyway, since it allowed us to get even closer to a few, and even spot a tiny little baby!
In fact, mumma and baby swung in for a feed right over our heads, and once they’d had their fill, they jumped right into our seating area to get up close with us! If it hadn’t been forbidden to touch them, we could have shaken hands.
Excluding the cost of the jungle trek, our budget per person per day for Bukit Lawang was only around £7. This included sleeping, eating well, and beers.
Once we upgraded to the fancier Treetop Bungalow in Green Hill, this was pushed up to about £12 a day.
Bukit Lawang has so much more to it than the chance to spot orangutans. We befriended so many unforgettable people there and adjusted to a whole new pace of life whilst swinging around in hammocks, drinking Bintang and playing cards with them all day.
Because of this, picturesque Bukit Lawang became the biggest surprise on my whole trip, and my second-favourite destination (losing out on first-place to Sapa in Vietnam).
I hope this guide has been helpful enough to encourage those of you heading to Indonesia to go pay our distant cousins in Bukit Lawang a visit. After all, we’re on borrowed time with them.
Has anyone else ever had a close-encounter with a wild orangutan? Where?
What other destinations in Sumatra have people visited, and did they surpass your expectations?