Sumatra: Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang, in the Bohorok region of Northwest Sumatra, is about 96km from Medan, which can take around 3-4 hours by public bus. Partly destroyed by a flash flood in 2003, caused by illegal logging, the area has since been rebuilt with many hostels and guesthouses set along a picturesque river.

I arrived at the bus station in Bukit Lawang and was then taken to the area with hotels and hostels. On the way we drove past acres of oil palm plantations, listed as one of the threats to the orangutan population in this region. I had never seen such large plantations, and the oil palms are huge trees themselves so it was a fascinating sight.

Bukit Lawang is well set up for backpackers and tourists who want to trek in the Gunung Leuser National Park and see the orangutans or just chill out by the river. It is certainly a beautiful area, but the tourist infrastructure makes it more expensive than “normal” places. I was taken to Rain Forest / Nora’s Homestay, which seemed really nice so I checked in there. I got a nice room with comfy double mattress, mosquito net, hammock and river view for Rp. 40,000 per night. The bathroom was shared with three other rooms.

Pretty much everyone who comes to Bukit Lawang is going to do a trek, for anything from a few hours to several days, and this means that when you arrive people will try to sell you one. It is compulsory to have a guide in the national park and there are many. The published rate for a 1-3 hour trek is Rp.180,000, which includes the required permit for entering the national park (Rp.20,000) and a camera permit (Rp.50,000) as well as some fruit. A two day trek costs around Rp.700,000 including the above plus meals. You can choose to raft back down the river, on an inflatable rubber ring, for an extra fee. There are various places you can go to without a guide, such as a bat cave (Rp.5000) and to the feeding station where you will need a national park permit and camera permit if you want to take photos. The orangutans are fed twice a day here.

Being on a tight budget I chose the three hour trek and set off with my guide; Monang, at about 9am the following day. We crossed the river and walked through a rubber plantation towards the national park. This being market day, the collected rubber had been bound together in box shapes and was being carried down to be sold. I had seen rubber being tapped before but had never seen in its solid but raw state. My guide told me that people from factories come to the market on Fridays to buy the rubber.

Newly harvested rubber

Newly harvested rubber

Then we entered the national park area and there was a sudden change to real forest, thick with vines, foliage and every size and shape of tree and plant. Monang, although young at 19 years old, turned out to be an excellent guide, showing me many different trees, plants and animals throughout the trek. He had grown up in the area, left school at 15 because of a lack of money (his mother had passed away and his father disappeared so he lived with his gran). He learnt the ways of the jungle from his uncle, also a guide. He showed me the tree that produces betel nuts, chewed by old women throughout Southeast Asia, and the tree whose bark contains quinine, used as an antimalarial. It tasted very bitter! I also saw many fruit trees, the tree that gives us cloves, and learnt lots about the uses of many plants for food. At one point he picked up an enormous black ant, which he pressed up against a leaf so it released its weapon, foul-smelling ammonia. Within half an hour in the forest we saw a Thomas Leaf monkey, a small-ish creature with fairly long striking fur on its face. About an hour after that, with lots of telephone communication with the other guides in the forest, we located our first orangutan, a large male. It was simply breathtaking to see this large orange furry beast swinging around in the trees, not more than 20m away from me. We watched him for a while and I took photos. Then he moved off and we continued to walk.

The forest paths were small and steep, sometimes overgrown and often slippery. Monang was very helpful in showing me which plants and trees to use as handholds and where to put my feet. We soon spotted a group of three smaller orangutans up in the trees and stopped to watch them from a suitable vantage point. I hadn’t necessarily expected to see one orangutan on this short trek, never mind several, and it was amazing to see them in their natural habitat.

Walking on, or rather up and down while sweating profusely – it was steep and I often found it tiring and difficult – we came upon the most amazing sight yet. A mother orangutan was carrying her child in the trees. Apparently the child was around one and a half years old. As we watched it moved away from its mother and practised swinging between trees on its own. The mother looked on, making occasional noises at her child. We watched for a long time and I took more photos. This orangutan mother had a name, Suma, and was one of the orangutans that had been released from captivity, therefore classed as semi-wild. It was like being in a nature documentary. I was surprised that she was not disturbed by our presence at only about 5-10m away, probably because she is used to humans from her time in captivity.



Once I had had my fill of orangutan watching, we moved on, trekking through the forest beneath its thick canopy – no need for suncream here – looking at the natural wonders around me all the time and being taught so many interesting things. We descended back to river level and stopped at a small waterfall to eat some fruit. From this point on we wouldn’t walk uphill again. We walked across some fairly open land, having left the forest and then crossed the wide but shallow river on foot. The rocks on the river bed were slippery under my bare feet and I was pleased that Monang had already carried my bag and shoes across for me. Arriving on the other side in soaking wet trousers we followed the river path and arrived back at my guesthouse. I was exhausted but thrilled to have seen not only the orangutans but also the forest as a whole. I have been in forests many times in many countries and climates and not matter how many photos I bring back, they simply cannot capture the feeling of having the living forest all around, on all sides, below and above me. Although expensive, the trek, which turned out closer to five hours than three, more than lived up to all my expectations. Seeing orangutans in the wild is a truly remarkable experience.

I spent the rest of that day resting, though disturbed by the man using the chainsaw about 20m away from my guesthouse. There seems to be a lot of building work taking place at Bukit Lawang now, and it does spoil the tranquil setting. With this in mind, I decided not to spend an extra day there chilling out, and the next morning I checked out and left for Berastagi.