Planning to visit Orang Utans in Sumatra? Bukit Lawang is the perfect place to do so. We tell you everything you need to know.
The number one reason to visit Sumatra is the possibility to spot Orang Utans in the wild. This is only possible in two places in the world: in Brunei and in Sumatra. Bukit Lawang is the most popular place to do so in Sumatra.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
The biggest city and nearest airport is Medan. From there it is a few hours ride along palm oil plantations to Bukit. While it is possible to go there by public transportation, we recommend going by private means of transport.
Take into account that although the distance is quite short, around 100km, the ride lasts around 4 hours. If you arrive early enough at the airport of Medan, you can take a Grab to Bukit. This option is ok in terms of prices if you are traveling in a group of 2 or more.
Otherwise, it is more convenient to spend the night in Medan or near the airport and get your hotel to organize a shared shuttle. The price should be around 100-150.000 rupiah per person.
If you go to Bukit Lawang from another place, such as Banda Aceh or Berastagi, you should arrange a shared shuttle. Just ask at your hotel, they can surely help you.
Where to stay in Bukit?
Bukit is very very touristy. A few years ago the small town was hit by a large flood where several people died. It has since been rebuilt and the area around the river is cluttered with hotels and restaurants. Nevertheless, it didn’t lose its charm.
The village is located in the middle of the jungle, right next to a national park. It is easy to look for accommodation once you are there, although we recommend booking shortly in advance, for example by checking out last-minute prices on booking.com.
We stayed at the Jungle Tribe Guesthouse at the end of the village. It is right next to the gorgeous river in a quiet location. You can go for a swim there or relax in a restaurant of the Jungle Tribe. While the whole town often suffers under power outages during heavy rains, this part of the town is ironically also affected with short water supply under heavy rains (since wood and debris may hinder water to come through the pipes). This is also the charm of the village.
TIP: When you go to Bukit, make sure to bring enough cash, since the one exchange office offers really bad rates.
What to do in Bukit?
The town in the middle of the rainforest is built next to an idyllic river. You will definitely want to go for a swim there just like many locals do, especially kids. There is also a bat cave nearby. You can visit it for 20.000 rupiah, which includes a torch and a guide. The cave is nothing out of extraordinary, but might be an option to see if you have a couple of hours to spare.
Have a chat with the boys at the entrance there, they are very nice and curious about foreigners. If you have some change in foreign currency, you might want to give it to the one who collects foreign money J. But obviously, everyone comes for the Orang Utans.
Visit the Orang Utans
Visiting Orang Utans in the wild promises an extraordinary exotic experience. Orang Utans, which have been held as pets, have been released here in the 80s after the government made it illegal to keep them in households. Some of the Orang Utans in Bukit are therefore semi-wild, meaning that they have been kept at homes and got therefore used, humans. Those orangutans have been initially fed and showed how to build nests, get food and pretty much survive without human help. The official feeding spot has now been closed and they now rely on themselves.
Their offspring, however, live now totally wild in the rainforest. Orang Utans usually don’t harm people. They also don’t have the urge to flee the scene as soon as they see humans. Most of the time they can’t be bothered unless it’s getting too crowded which happen during high season (June to August).
Orang Utans, meaning people of the jungle, can grow as old as humans. There is still one case of Orang Utan, which never learned to find enough food to bring through its babies. The rangers decided to feed this exemplar whenever she is raising a newborn after a few of its offspring died.
There are a few examples, where tourists raise their eyebrows. For instance, a few buildings are built with concrete in the jungle, which serves as an observation station. One can ask if that is necessary to be in concrete, which seems to be vandalism to nature. Your experience will also very much depend on your guide, which is obligatory to have.
We were really lucky with ours. He gave a tiny bit of banana to an Orang Utan we saw with a newborn. Obviously, you are not supposed to feed them, so they don’t learn to depend on humans for feed, but he said that this treatment will help the newborn since it wasn’t fruit season. One could question that, but fact is, that he was very much concerned about the national park, he picked up litter whenever he saw some, questioned the practice of building with concrete in the rainforest, the many tourists coming during high season, telling people to be quiet when they are near Orang Utans and wait with their questions for later. Never had we the impression that Orang Utans are regularly fed or that they couldn’t survive without human help.
All in all the park leaves the impression that it’s very well maintained with a healthy and raising population of Orang Utans.
Tours to see the Orang Utans, Monkeys and More
Hiking tours in the rainforest to see orangutans is pretty much the reason to come to Bukit Lawang. Wherever you are staying in the village, your hotel will sort you out. You will find out that the prices are very high (not only for Indonesian standards).
You have the option to do a one day hike or multiday hike, usually one night, two days (but can be up to a week). A two-day one-night hike will set you off about 90 Euro per person, a one day hike about 55 Euro. Yes, that’s a lot and even more so for Indonesia! Usually, they require a group of 3, but ask if they can organize a group for you if you are traveling alone or just the two of you. Usually, they also take groups of two.
Try to negotiate the price! With prices that high, there is plenty of room to be flexible. You will not get it for dirt cheap, that’s for sure, but depending on the length of the tour and group size, you can get it for 10 or 20 Euro less per person. By the way, we have been shown prices in Euro, this is why we write it here in Euro as well.
One day or multiple day-tour?
The one question you will need to answer is whether you want to go on a hike just for the day or for the usual multiday hike of 2 days, 1 night. The reason for spending a night in the rainforest is to have a higher chance to see orangutans. That being said, you are not going to double it, because the most hiking is done on the first day. One the second day you have the chance to go for another hike for another 3 hours or so or just relax at the river. We have been very lucky on the first day with plenty of orangutans and other animals, so we decided to just spend the morning by and in the river.
For an additional 10 Euros, you can raft back to the village. The raft is not crazy wild and also not on traditional rafting boats, rather on huge tires. We discovered on the way back, that the overnight camp is only a short walk from the village. The raft was fun, although do not expect a normal raft. You are just laying in one of the tires and are not actually rafting. Pretty much everyone decides to book the adventure with the raft included. Decide for yourself, if it’s worth to you. You can always try to negotiate a free raft back.
Can you go to the rainforest yourself?
It is not allowed to visit the rainforest by yourself. There is a park fee of 150.000 rupiahs, which your guide will pay – or also not, we are not sure whether it’s paid or not. There is not an official entrance office, so if you are tempted to go by yourself, let us tell you a story:
Some years ago a German father went to Bukit with his family. While his wife and older daughter stayed in town, he went with his baby into the forest. There are a few hikes, none of them are marked. If you are guided there, it sure is easy to understand where to go. If you are not, it’s rather difficult. This father got lost and after his wife announced him missing, all the guides of the town went to search him at night. Eventually, they found him in the pouring rain, underneath a tree holding his baby. The guides were angry with him, he was very much ashamed. End of story.
So we absolutely don’t recommend it. Also because you will miss out a lot. If you still go by yourself, make sure to bring a phone with a GPS signal. Download the app maps me and the map of Sumatra. Most hiking trails are marked. This way at least you won’t have to face the same destiny as this father (unless you run out of battery).
What to expect in the rainforest?
Orang Utans – one of three apes in the world
As mentioned before, we have been very lucky on the first day of our hike and very lazy on the second day. After less than 10 minutes hike we already saw an Orang Utan way up in the trees. But things got way better. We saw a total of 7 orangutans, one orangutan with a young one and one with a newborn baby. The most popular orangutan of Bukit Lawang is Mina – she is also the most aggressive one. Your guide will most likely tell you stories about it, how she bit people and even asks for a toll if you want to cross her path. We weren’t lucky enough to meet her so at this point we are not even sure if she really exists or if it’s only a story being passed on to tourists.
While seeing that many orangutans in such a short amount of time is rather lucky, you will definitely see different kinds of monkeys, among them longtail monkeys and the funny so-called punky monkey (the reason for it is the funny haircut).
While having lunch (the (in)famous fried rice) we also came across a beautiful peacock. First, we heard it only and our guide led us to see it – a rather unexpected experience and they don’t look anything like the ones we are used to at home. When the huge bird saw us, it didn’t try to get away as quickly as possible. The peacock followed our path and was probably confused about what we were looking for.
Yes, there are Baboons in the rainforest of Bukit! Yes, we saw it with our own eyes. Just like in the Lion King – almost. It was well hidden behind leaves so we didn’t get a nice picture of it and our guide told us not to get too near. They can be dangerous and harm people.
The night camp
We reached the camp quite early. At that time we asked ourselves if it would have been smarter to book a day tour only. The camp is well equipped with and tends for the tourists. It is built close to a river and monkeys are always nearby in hope for food. You do feel quite in the middle of the jungle, however, the day after you will find out that you are relatively close to the village.
Our guide explained to us the reason for that: Some years ago the tours were less organized and tourists were led deep in the jungle. Some people had accidents, injuries, and even heart attacks and needed first aid. This was obviously very complicated in the rainforest. So they decided to keep offering the tours, however in a safe area, where it’s easy to get help in emergencies.
The river near the night camp is also the one passing through Bukit Lawang. It is great to refresh yourself and go for a swim.
Have fun in Bukit Lawang!