On the Orangutan Trail in North Sumatra: A Complete Guide to Bukit Lawang

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Sumatra is one of the most underrated destinations across Southeast Asia, possibly the world! Despite being one of the largest Indonesian islands, it is nowhere as popular as the neighbouring island of Java or the world famous Bali. After all these years, Sumatra is still relatively untouched, and that, in my opinion, is partially is where its appeal lies, and the reason why I just cannot get enough of this magnificant island.

Today, there are only two islands in the world where the critically endangered cousins of humans – the Orangutans, can be found, and Sumatra is one of them. With approximately 7,500 of its native species (the Sumatran Orangutans) remaining, meeting these great apes in their natural habitat is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Mum and baby orangutan enjoying some quality time together

So read on to know how you can meet these majestic creatures for yourself and what to expect.

How to get there?

To begin your jungle adventure, you will need to make your way to Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage protected site and home to the Sumatran Orangutans. The villages of Bukit Lawang and Ketambe are two entry points that can be used to enter the national park. My choice was the village of Bukit Lawang, which is more easily accessible and a mere 4 hour drive from Medan, the capital city of Sumatra.

Click on the map to see the route from Medan to Bukit Lawang

There are direct flights from Singapore to Medan on full service airlines like Singapore Air as well as budget carriers such as Jetstar. You can request your guesthouse in Bukit Lawang to help you arrange private transportation from and to Medan (I did that and it was extremely convenient).

What to do?

At the bare minimum, there are 2 things that you absolutely cannot miss during your trip

Jungle Trekking

Trekking at Gunung Leuser National Park where you can find orangutans in their natural habitat (I was lucky enough to see atleast 6-7 of them).

It’s hard to find the right words to describe this experience. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to observe these primates up close in their home territory – playing and swinging from tree to tree, communicating with each other and just going about their daily lives.

Given that orangutans and humans share over 96% of their DNA, theoretically it wasn’t even a surprise that their behaviour was so similar, but actually seeing it in action left me amazed!

Along the way, I chanced upon a mum and baby orangutan nearby, and had the luck of observing them for a while – which included the baby troubling the mum for attention, him getting scolded for being naughty and finally, watching them cuddle together for an afternoon nap. One thing you must never forget while walking through the forest though – this is their home and you’re the visitors.

Just hangin’

While the orangutans are the main stars, you will also come across other unique animals in the forest (for example, the thomas leaf monkeys, wild gibbons) and distinctive plants, most of which are rather fascinating and endemic to the island of Sumatra.

For the jungle trek, you can opt for a day trek or stay overnight for one or several nights. Due to time contraints, I did a day trek, but if you like camping in the wild, then I’d definitely recommend staying overnight (some of the other guests at my guesthouse did that, and they seemed to have had a great experience!)

The 1 day jungle trek involves about 4-5 hours of walking through plantations and forest (uphill and downhill both) – anyone with a moderate fitness level should not have an issue

River Tubing

Riding downstream on the Bohorok River from the campsite of Gunung Leuser National Park back to Bukit Lawang. Yes, that’s right – each person gets their individual inflated tube, and the tubes are then strapped together by rope. The river current does the rest, taking the little tube train downstream, all the way back to the village! Not only is this ride rather exhilarating, it’s convenient too – saving you the trouble of walking from the forest back to the village.

Tubing from the forest back to the village via River Bohorok
Tubes storage enroute

River tubing is usually included in the jungle trek package (day treks as well as multi-day treks)

Besides exploring the tropical forests of Sumatra, if you have time and/ or are keen on community based tourism, here are some activities you could try out:

Where to stay?

Bukit Lawang may be a small village, but it it has no dearth of accommodation options as it’s a popular base to enter Gunung Leuser National Park. I stayed at the Jungle Inn, and would recommend it to anyone planning a trip here! It is definitely one of the nicer guesthouses in the area.

Don’t believe me? Check out Jungle Inn on Tripadvisor here

Welcome to the Jungle Inn!

The property is located at the farthest corner of the village, overlooking the river and with splendid views of the forest and surrounding hills (you can sometimes see orangutans swinging around on the other side of the river too).

Here are some of the things you can expect during your stay at Jungle Inn:

  • Large and well ventilated rooms
  • Clean toilets (hot water is available and some even have bathtubs)
  • Riverside cafe with great food and views
  • Live music sessions at night
  • In-house massage service (on demand)
  • All inclusive jungle treks and other activities
  • Transportation to and from Bukit Lawang

Sumatran coffee and freshly made food at the Jungle Inn cafe

To set some realistic expectations – you are going to be at the base of the jungle, so don’t expect 5 star luxury here. My biggest concern upon check-in was that my room didn’t have an air conditioner (tropical weather and stuffy rooms aren’t exactly the best combination). But to my surprise, the room was airy and I didn’t face any issues with the heat and/or humidity during my stay.

More importantly, what isn’t available in terms of opulence is more than made up with spectacular views and service.

Spectacular views: The property is in a strategic location with some of the best views – not just from the riverside cafe, but also from individual rooms. For instance, my room was on a hilltop with a private balcony (hammock and seating area included) overlooking the river and forest on one side, and a private waterfall on the other.

Service: The staff at the Jungle Inn is incredibly helpful and friendly. Each and every one of them went out of their way to ensure that I enjoyed my stay.

Going off grid

How to plan this trip?

Once you’ve booked your flight to Medan, the easiest way to plan this holiday is by contacting your guesthouse to help you make arrangements.

If you’re planning to stay at the Jungle Inn, you have 2 options available:

  1. Book accomodation only. Request for any add ons such as transfers to/from Medan, or daily activities separately
  2. Book a complete package inclusive of airport transfers, accomodation with breakfast and activities

If you are short on time like I was, then my recommendation would be to take a 2N/ 3D package with the guesthouse, inclusive of airport transfers, accomodation with breakfast, a day jungle trek with tubing, as well as a massage. Click here to view the itinerary and costs of this package.

Longer packages are also available and they can be customised as per your preference (e.g. visiting a local village, an elephant camp or anything else that you might specifically want to do). The Jungle Inn team has been running these tours for years, and provide legit licensed guides (absolutely mandatory for wildlife tours).

Interested in staying at the Jungle Inn? Contact them here

Important Notes

  • Please confirm before your trek that the guide is licensed. Going with an unlicensed guide is not permitted.
  • While trekking in the jungle, don’t touch or try to play with the animals. These are wild animals and you never know how they may react.
  • Ensure you carry some cash with you – Bukit Lawang is relatively small and everyone doesn’t accept cards
  • Most cafe/ restaurants in town close relatively early, so make sure you have sufficient time to grab dinner
  • Don’t forget to carry sunscreen, mosquito repellent and a good pair of shoes

Your trip to Bukit Lawang can also be combined with a visit to Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Click here to know more about this natural wonder of Sumatra.

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