Bukit Lawang: Somewhere Special

Gunung Leuser National Park, SumatraSumatra’s biggest draw card must be its orangutans, as this is one of the few remaining places that we can see them in the wild. This extraordinary yet highly endangered species has been given a sanctuary in Gunung Leuser National Park for which the jungle town of Bukit Lawang provides an easy access point. Bukit Lawang is also the site of the orangutan rehabilitation centre, which is where captive orangutans are taught how to become wild again so they can enter the jungle when they feel ready. The town is home to a feeding station that is frequented a couple of times a day by just about any hungry orangutan. Most visits to Bukit Lawang will include a visit to the feeding station because it is where you have the best chance of seeing orangutans close up. However, when there is a lot of fruit in the jungle, fewer orangutans will feel the need to drop by and eat so there is still no guarantee you will see them.

Most visitors to Sumatra will fly in to Medan, its largest city, and from there to Bukit Lawang is a three-hour journey by private car, or a slightly longer trip by local bus. If you take a private car, be warned! The hassling is likely to start early as the driver will surely have a friend or a cousin or a friend's cousin who is a guide or owns a hotel that they will recommend. Bukit Lawang's main industry is tourism and competition is as high as the locals’ persistence. You will need strong nerves if want to look around and decide for yourself and if you do, you will find a good selection of hotels built along the river that will seem luxurious compared to the rest of Sumatra. You'll even be able to get a shower instead of the traditional Indonesian baths that can remain full of water all day and offer buckets to pour water over yourself.

In fact, Bukit Lawang delivers what tourists want: good accommodation and a great choice of restaurants in a heavenly location. The choice of food is varied and adapted to tourist tastes, although small local eateries with cheap curries can also be found. A few of the guest houses also run cooking classes, so you can learn to make your very own nasi goreng. There will be signs out indicating if cooking classes are offered, or just inquire where you are staying. For some more hardened travellers Bukit Lawang could be a little too touristy. The atmosphere is still relaxed, however, and the natural beauty of the area gives the right feeling of being somewhere special, but very comfortable. 

The further up river you stay, the closer you are to the entry into the park and the feeding station. The orangutans are fed twice daily at regular times and visitors can pay to go and watch. Care must be taken to keep at a reasonable distance from them and flash photography is not allowed. You need to cross a river by boat to enter the park, though the boat trip over is actually a canoe attached to a rope which gives a short but exciting ride with the possibility of getting wet! A short uphill walk later and you'll be shown a video, after which rangers are available to give you information about the orangutans and rehabilitation program. 

Orangutan feeding station

The other option of seeing orangutans is to arrange a jungle trek. This can either be combined with a visit to the feeding station in one day, or you can find a guide to take you on a trek of either one- or two-day journeys, with an overnight camping experience as part of the latter. Longer treks can also be arranged. Guides are plentiful in Bukit Lawang and they will follow you everywhere until you agree to a trek. Be very firm if you aren’t interested, or you will find the same guy pops up on every corner. I took a day trek and was able to see several groups of orangutans, so spending longer in the jungle does not necessarily mean more orangutans, though it likely means more mosquito bites! The guide on the trek was very informative about jungle plants and animals, as well as traditional life in the jungle. It is important not to stay too focussed on seeing orangutans as there are many other species to be enjoyed, including gibbons and Thomas leaf monkeys. Fortunately, orangutans move so slowly that when you do see one, you'll be able to get a good view. It is great to watch the young babies learning to move from tree to tree with their long limbs. The day trek typically has lunch included, which was a delicious nasi goreng in my case. All in all, the guides provide a very professional and enjoyable experience. 

As the orangutans are the main reason to come to Bukit Lawang, a few days' stay is usually enough to satisfy most visitors. One final activity worth trying is to hire a rubber tube to float down the river. The river is fast flowing and gives you a great ride back into town. Some people chose to finish their trek with a ride on the river, or you can hire the tube from town, walk upriver and then float back. However, be warned that the current is very quick and rather strong so weak swimmers should wear a life-vest and go in a group; the tubes can be overturned easily and there are many stones that could cause potential injury. With the right amount of care, however, this is a very fun activity.

The bottom line is that a stay in Bukit Lawang has a lot to offer: fun, relaxation, good food, gorgeous scenery and one of our closest and most loveable animal relatives to visit. If you are very lucky, the leaves of the jungle may shuffle softly to get your attention while you are sitting in a river-side cafe, sipping a fresh tropical juice. And when you stop to follow the sound, an orangutan may appear. She may be building her nest for the evening in a tree-top, or she may come down to the river and take a drink of water just across from you. With a view of nature like that, watching the nature channel will never be the same again.

About the Author

Megan Morlok tries to make travelling a part of life. She has lived in six different countries and hopes her job as an English teacher will take her on one long working holiday around the world. As a nature lover she tries to find natural beauty wherever she goes, but also enjoys experiencing the local culture of the people.

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