Orangutans and trekking
Long a mainstay of the North Sumatra tourist trail, Bukit Lawang, perched astride the Bahorok River and overlooking a magnificent stretch of Gunung Leuser National Park is all about two things—orangutans and trekking.
Best approached from Medan, on the way you’ll pass though vast palm oil plantations for hour upon hour, a journey which only works to heighten the initial wow factor of seeing the forest of Gunung Leuser National Park, but you’ll simultaneously shed a tear at the realisation that all the palm oil you just drove through was probably once forest like what you are now looking at. Home to a mixed population of rescued and re-released, and wild orangutans, this protected forest is hemmed in by the palm plantations and in visiting you’re making a personal and financial contribution which does help support the local community, the continued protection of the species, and the jungle.
In the past, the easiest way to observe the orangutans was to visit a feeding centre where the apes would be fed twice daily, but the feeding centre no longer operates and so now the only way to see orangutans is to do a trek into the park. Treks vary from half day tasters to five to seven day expeditions to destinations as far away as Berastagi, but most casual visitors go for a one day, one night, or two night trek. These treks are often combined with tubing back down the river—saving you the walk back and delivering a different (and refreshing!) vantage point from which to appreciate the forest.
Just about every man and his dog can either organise or at least point you in the right direction of a trekking outfit, but it is important to note that not all treks and trekking guides are made equally. Some operations continue to feed the apes in order to let you get that much sought after selfie and groups can be large—over a dozen to a group. These operators should be avoided. The best way to avoid finding yourself in a situation not to your liking is to ask around for other traveller experiences and meet and talk with the guide beforehand. There should be a guide briefing the night before which will give you the opportunity to address any concerns you might have.
As with much of North Sumatra, peak season in Bukit Lawang is late June through August, coinciding with European summer. At that time reservations can be prudent as the best accommodation can often be booked well in advance (also expect room rates to edge up a bit). These larger crowds also make for a lot more people tramping around the jungle. While that may not dissuade some of the wildlife, you will encounter more, and larger, groups while on your trek, which is not always desirable. This period is also the best of the region’s dry season, so expect warm and often dry weather.
A better period to aim for is the shoulder season, so in the months before and after peak season. North Sumatra’s wet season is roughly November to March, so aim for April and May or September and October. Bukit Lawang remains open through wet season, though by all accounts the trekking can get muddy, messy and far more challenging—you will need boots and industrial strength leech proof socks.
On weekends Bukit Lawang attracts a fair number of domestic tourists, rolling in from Medan and elsewhere in the region—expect a bit more noise from the limited nightlife over weekends.
Bukit Lawang abuts the northern banks of the Bahorok River, with Gunung Leuser National Park running off to the south. If you are arriving by bus, you’ll be dropped at a field which doubles as a bus station. You could walk to the village from here, but it is a long walk and ojeks will run you into town for a small fee. If you have booked your accommodation in advance, many will pick you up from here–this can be a good idea as it will help you avoid the often extremely persistent touts.
Once in the village a footpath runs along the northern bank of the river with a series of suspension bridges crossing over to the southern bank. When looking at the river, most of the foreign-focused accommodation, restaurants and bars runs off to your right, on both sides of the footpath. Just keep walking. The last place close to the village is Jungle Inn, but there are a couple of places further up river.
There is no ATM in Bukit Lawang proper, so bring cash with you (foreign exchange services are available). For medical services, head to Medan.
The ramshackle village that runs along both sides of the bend in the river isn’t the most attractive of set-ups. Tragically in 2003 a flash flood blamed on deforestation caused by illegal logging decimated the village, washing away much of the village and killing at least 80 people. Since then Bukit Lawang has rebuilt, but it retains a half built feel and much of the accommodation leans (often literally) towards the rustic, which people will find either charming or off-putting depending on their point of view. In all but the fanciest of digs, cold water bathrooms, often with bucket flush loos are standard and the cooler evenings make air-con superfluous.
While most of the accommodation is on the north side of the river, there are a few spots, with more going in, on the southern side and outside of high season a reservation in advance is not really necessary. In high season however, especially July and August, rates increase as availability decreases, and especially for the more “upmarket” digs, having a reservation, often well in advance, is a very good idea.
Last off the rank in the village proper, enjoying a magnificent setting on a bend of the Bahorok River, Jungle Inn offers excellent accommodation well suited to the traveller with a bit more budget and the staff are friendly to boot.
The oversized, tiled floor rooms are very smart, with four poster, mosquito net shrouded beds and have plenty of windows to let the light flood in. Bathrooms are like nothing else we saw in Bukit Lawang, with plentiful garden features, hot water, Western fittings and some are partly open to the sky. Decks are spacious and many of the rooms enjoy outstanding views across the river to the jungle—guests we spoke to talked of seeing an orangutan in the forest directly across from their room the morning of the day we wandered through.
As mentioned staff are especially welcoming and friendly, happy to spend a significant chunk of time showing us multiple rooms and then sitting down to chat, at length, about the trekking services they provide. As with the rooms, the sprawling cafe area enjoys excellent views and tumbles down to a small garden area.
If Jungle Inn fits with your budget, look no further. Reservations are essential in high season—check online for discounted rates.
English Indonesian run Green Hill Bukit Lawang offers a selection of simple rooms, some with an excellent view of the forest, running up the slope of the hillside on the northern side of the Bahorok River.
The largely wooden rooms are spacious but simple, fan-cooled with a mosquito net shrouded bed, a cupboard and a good sized deck for enjoying the view. As with many offerings at this price point, the attached bathrooms are cold water (the surfer-style shower is frosty in the morning) and have bucket flush loos. Be sure to keep your room locked to keep the macaques at bay and don’t leave anything on the veranda as they’ll nick it—we lost a t-shirt! Rates start at 200,000 rupiah. The ground floor, two level cafe and common area is a good spot to meet other guests and chat with the friendly staff and knowledgable owner Andrea. Food is good and the drinks are beautifully presented.
Green Hill offers well respected trekking services and has a second property (they call it the Kuta Langis Ecolodge) in what used to be an oil palm plantation around thirty minutes away by scooter. While simple, this spot offers spectacular views across the wilds of Gunung Leuser National Park and can be used as a trekking base into a far less busy section of the park. They generally only use it if you’re doing one of their treks in that part of the park, but it is possible to stay there on a full board basis—perhaps just what you are looking for to finish that novel. Packages start at 1,200,000 rupiah including transfers (by scooter) from Bukit Lawang.
Green Hill does not work with online booking agencies—you’ll need to contact them directly to make a reservation.
More at the budget end of the stick, Rainforest Guesthouse is another long running option, delivering rooms well attuned to those travelling on more of a budget, and it makes the best of its riverside location.
The rooms here are set in a few two storey buildings scattered around the grounds and, while they certainly value functionality over charm, they’ll do at a pinch for a night or three. The cold water bathrooms are simple, but the one we saw was clean, if, like the room, a bit on the dark side. The main selling point though is the riverside setting where a long sala has a few table settings within along with some hammocks slung at one end—ideal for losing a day with a good book while the river slides by.
For the standard, the room rates (starting at 50,000 rupiah with shared facilities, 75,000 rupiah with private bathroom, better rooms for 250,000 rupiah) are very reasonable and this is a good fit for budget travellers. Out of season a reservation should not be needed, but in season could be prudent as this is a long-running and popular spot. Staff were friendly and happy to show us around. There is a small restaurant on site, though we didn’t try the food.
Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
Much like the accommodation, the food and drink scene in Bukit Lawang runs along much of the river, with many places offering traveller standards including Indonesian basics, pasta and even pizza.
For typical Indonesian food you are best to head down to around the market area, while the more comfortable foreigner-orientated places tend to be over the rise away to the west, away from the hubbub of the village. Unfortunately some guesthouses have built right on the river obscuring the view—it is a shame that development was not kept to the off-river side of the pathway which runs along the bank of the river.
A few standouts include Eriono Guesthouse which has a smattering of Bukit Lawang takes on Thai fare, and Waterstone, for its excellent position right by the river (if you have cat allergies be warned there are about 76,000 resident furballs here). Waterstone also has rooms up top starting at 150,000 rupiah.
Jungle Inn, right at the end of the stretch before the long walk to Kupu Kupu also has an excellent riverside location, though we didn’t try the food there (if it is anywhere near as good as their rooms, you’ll be set). Back in the village, try Nifrita, which offers cooking classes—ideal for that lazy extra day in Bukit Lawang.
On the far side of the market, past the largest of the suspension bridges, are two bars which are well situated for a sundowner, Cave Rock Cafe and Terimakasih Bar—expect reggae and a social vibe.
Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
Cave Rock Cafe Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang.
Eriono Guesthouse Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang. T: (0813) 6121 9238 http://www.erionoguesthouse-bukitlawang.com/
Jungle Inn Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang. https://www.jungleinnbukitlawang.com/
Nifrita Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang. T: (0813) 7015 3542 https://nifrita-restaurant-and-cooking-cllas.business.site/
Terimakasih Bar Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang. T: (0812) 6486 7589 https://terimakasihbukitlawang.wordpress.com/
Waterstone Jalan Orangutan, Bukit Lawang. https://www.facebook.com/Waterstoneguesthouserest/
As mentioned above, the main attraction for most travelling to Bukit Lawang is to trek into Gunung Leuser National Park both to see the magnificent forest and for the chance of seeing wildlife, including orangutans.
Every man and his dog can arrange a trek, which come in all flavours from half day wanders to anything up to seven day treks, but not all treks are made equally and, if you are after a quality experience, it really does pay to do your research carefully to select an operator that will deliver the goods you are after.
Trekking in Bukit Lawang is, by Indonesian standards, a bit pricey and rates are set by a local cooperative of guides (dare we say mafia) who are very apt at steering you towards a product which may not be what you are after. Most importantly, if you arrive in Bukit Lawang with no set plans, you need to work hard to avoid the touting freelance guides who will “claim ownership” on you and negate any deals you try to do later with your guesthouse of choice. We cannot stress this strongly enough, ignore all touts. All of them. Tell them you have already booked something to make them leave you alone, then decide at your leisure.
Trekking rates generally work on a minimum of three people, so single and double travellers will have to pay for three people. Expect to pay roughly 400,000 rupiah per person for on a half day trek, full day 900,000 rupiah and two day 1,900,000 rupiah. Individual travellers will need to pay for three people (there is some scope for negotiation—for instance, we paid 1,000,000 rupiah (rather than 1,200,000 rupiah) for a solo half-day trek including tubing) or join another group). These prices should be all inclusive—including park admission, food and drink.
We did a half-day trek with Green Hill Bukit Lawang and it ticked all the boxes. The guides were excellent, their attitude to the wildlife and the forest was spot on, and they did a terrific job of finding a tremendous amount of wildlife for the short time we were in the park. We were extremely lucky in what we saw given the short period of time we spent in the park, seeing eight orangutan (including three babies), long tailed macaques, white handed gibbons (very lucky to see these!), rhinocerous and great hornbills, great argus pheasant, silver leaf monkeys, thomas’ leaf monkeys and a gigantic freaking squirrel (not its official name!). Even our guide was surprised at just how much wildlife we saw.
On the other hand we met other travellers who happily showed us a video of them feeding an orangutan and getting way too close, the guide egging them on in the background—this is not ok.
A typical half or one day trek will give you three or six hours in the jungle, with lunch and then tubing back to the village. The tubing was a surprisingly highlight for us and certainly beat more walking! Longer overnight treks involve camping and it is worthwhile to be fairly specific in your questions regarding where you will walk to. Multi day treks are also possible, walking to as far away as Berastagi (5 days ish) but if your primary purpose is to see wildlife, a one or two day trek should suffice. Obviously the further you go into the jungle, the better the jungle is and the less likely it will be that you will encounter other groups—both desirable outcomes.
While the trekking is not overly demanding, it is quite hilly, muddy and slippery, and you will need some fitness to do the trek. Trekking boats, or at least fully enclosed shoes, are a good idea, as is mosquito repellent and leech-proof socks. You will sweat. A lot. Guides will be able to give advice on other gear you may need depending on the trek you are doing.
Advice of finding a reputable trekking outfit Ethical operators will forbid their guides from feeding any animals (or birds or any other critters) and work hard to make sure you keep a safe distance from any orangutans you encounter. A significant number of the lumbering apes in Bukit Lawang have been rescued and reintroduced into the wild, meaning they are familiar with people and will get far far closer to you than truly wild ones would. They can get aggressive, especially when food is around, and guides do get bitten—these are not cuddle toys to sit next to for a selfie. Keep your distance.
Any legit operator should give you a safety briefing beforehand and also explain, in depth, the ins and outs of how to undertake a low impact trek. Look at the operator’s propaganda, especially their website (if they have one)—if there are photos of customers posing beside the apes, or feeding them, go find another operator. Ask after group size (smaller the better, though obviously more expensive) and make sure any trekking fee includes all fees, including the park admission fee (150,000 rupiah per day for foreigners). Again, if the operator says they know a secret way into the park, dodging the fee, find another operator.
Other activities The Bat Cave is a small cave system burrowing inside a limestone hill outside of (though still walking distance from) Bukit Lawang. Although there’s nothing in this three-room cave that you probably haven’t already seen before, it’s a pleasant enough trek out there and the cave entrance is rather picturesque.
Aside from jungle trekking, there are also options for village trekking where you visit local villages on foot to see how local people live. Cooking classes are another popular sideline attraction. Tubing (mentioned above) can also be done without the trekking park. The tubing is not done solo, rather you sit in a large inner tube, with two smaller tubes tied on—in each of which sits a guide to help steer you safely down the river. It is a beautiful (and refreshing!) way to spend a couple of hours and the walk up to the starting point offers some stunning views across to the jungle—keep an eye out for cheeky macaques!
The primary route to get to Bukit Lawang is from Medan and you can reach it by a once daily tourist bus, public bus, a train then a public bus or by private car. Once you are in Bukit Lawang it is possible to get onwards transport to a range of destinations, which may save you going all the way back to Medan to make a connection.
The daily tourist bus leaves in each direction at 08:00, takes 3-4 hours and costs 120,000 rupiah.
The public bus leaves throughout the day between 08:00 and 16:00 in each direction and foreigners should expect to pay around 50,000 rupiah for it, taking around four to five hours depending on traffic in Medan. In Medan it leaves from near Pinang Baris bus station where touts can be a very persistent problem, which makes the train option (see below) an attractive one. Buses do leave from the actual bus station, but they also wait for passengers a few hundred metres to the north of the bus station—look for vans with “Bukit Lawang” written on the windscreen—and you’ll get a faster departure from these vans than those at the bus station.
Trains run from Medan central station to Binjai—a small town located to the west of Medan. The trip takes about 45 minutes and costs 5,000 rupiah. From Binjai train station you need to get a bejak (it is not walking distance, bank on 15,000–20,000 rupiah in a bejak or use Go-Jek) to where the buses leave for Bukit Lawang—just tell the bejak driver you want to go to Bukit Lawang and they (should) know where to take you. If they don’t, the vans leave from beside a park called Tanah Lapang Merdeka Binjai to the south west of the train station—as mentioned, it is not a comfortable walking distance from the train station. The vans charge 50,000 rupiah for foreign passengers and the trip takes about three hours. The main advantage of this route is it allows you to avoid the touts at Pinang Baris bus station.
Private cars from downtown downtown Medan to Bukit Lawang should set you back around 500,000 rupiah for the vehicle and takes three to four hours depending on traffic in Medan. A share car will cost 120,000 rupiah per person, 190,000 rupiah to Kuala Namu International Airport.
To/from other destinations Tourist services run from Bukit Lawang to the following—not all these may run daily in low season—check with your guesthouse the day before to check it is running (some may require a minimum number of passengers) and to confirm you a seat.
Banda Aceh: 375,000 rupiah, departing 15:00
Berastagi: 170,000 rupiah, departing 08:00
Ketambe: 450,000 rupiah, departing 08:00
Lake Toba: 230,000 rupiah, departing 08:00
Siantar: 200,000 rupiah, departing 08:00
Singkil: 450,000 rupiah, departing 08:00