Intrepid Travels, Travel Tips

Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia (Orangutan Village)

Bukit Lawang

Wild orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park

Bukit Lawang

So I bid farewell to my travel buddy after sharing some final beers at ‘5 Barrels’, one of the few remaining half decent pubs in the tourist hell-hole that is Kuta, Bali. We were sorely tempted to toast the holiday with an 18 year old Macallan spotted perched upon the top shelf, shining down upon us like a silver thrupenny bit, but at 6,000,000 (£350)/nip, we sadly took a rain cheque and made do with an Asian Strongbow and some peanuts. I discussed my plan to reach Bukit Lawang, a tiny village buried in the depth of the jungle on the remote island of Sumatra by the following evening, which would prove to be a bit of an arduous undertaking. A far cry, it would prove to be, from the beer pong, hookers and motorbike mayhem I was currently immersed within, but I really couldn’t get out quick enough.

So early the next morning I got my first flight to Battam, somewhere near Singapore (which took around 2.5 hours) and then a connecting flight which departed almost the instant I touched down and scrambled through the transfer desks. This flight wasn’t much more than an hour, and so I soon found myself out on the tarmac of Medan, Indonesia’s second largest city, after Jakarta.

Sumatran rainforest from the sky

Although it is easy enough to be pointed in the right direction for a mini bus to the station and then a public bus onwards for budget travelling, I opted this time to splash out on a Grab, Asia’s answer to Uber, to avoid wasting a night in the capital. There does seem to be a degree of Taxi Mafia prevalent in Indonesia, and Uber is not exactly made welcome wherever I’ve used it.  Grab drivers have often ended up in fisty-cuffs with local hawkers for the job. However they are a whole lot cheaper though, so worth using if you can handle the potential drama.

Grab and Uber are also largely unlicensed in Indonesia, and so it wasn’t perhaps the brightest idea for a single girl to be hopping into an unlicensed vehicle to go on a 5 hour journey into the deepest depths of the jungle, and perhaps considering the bus would have been the more sensible, albeit longer option. But I was tired. So, having temporarily taken leave of my senses, I met the driver in the parking lot and under the hot midday sunshine we battled a new price in-front of a gathering bemused crowd of fellow drivers munching on fruit and snacks. 350,000 Rupiah was finally agreed, the original taxi having since been cancelled (another story).

It took 2 hours to fight through Medan’s hellish perpetual traffic jam, and finally, as the city thinned out, the buildings were replaced with coconut trees, smoke with butterflies, and the roads turned to dust tracks, we begun to creep closer to the edge of the forest. But…

Palm oil plantations

Unfortunately, it was no longer a forest.

Instead we passed mile after mile, hour after hour, wall to wall, leaf to leaf of …Palm.

The palm oil industry is a monster in Sumatra and Borneo, the single main factor in the alarming deforestation and destruction of the irreplaceable jungle, and the unique and diverse species who live there (many sadly now facing inevitable extinction). It is worth considering avoiding palm oil products due to its catastrophic effect on the environment.

Logging trucks escaping the jungle with their steals

So further and further we rumbled along the dirt track which became increasingly rough going. Unpaved with huge potholes you could lose your granny down, and choc-a-block with logging trucks hauling the innards, the soul and the spirit out the jungle. The endless stream of these foreboding trucks was rather disconcerting and difficult to watch, making their way from the heart of the jungle, clogging up the narrow roads with chainsaw massacred jungle veins.

Whenever we ground to a halt, however, local villagers peered into the car, wide eyed and curious about this peely-wally tourist, who in turn, peered back at them with similar curiosity. And their faces fell into huge welcoming smiles and light hearted chuckles, as they thrust lychees and ripe passion fruit towards me, and I warmed to the spirit and the soul still fighting for existence despite the carnage upon Mother Nature. Time crept past and the sun began to set like a big red tomato, to be swallowed up greedily by the ravenous appetite of the mountains, and we were left with nothing but darkness by the time we reached Bukit Lawang, 5 hours later.

Bukit Lawang town centre

The driver got lost trying to find my hostel but stopping to get bearings we were immediately surrounded by travel guides, all desperate to know where we were going, presumably to try to befriend me into signing up for a trek before I’d even set foot in the village. However they all abandoned ship when one guy miraculously pulled an A4 sheet out his pocket with my full name written neatly in large capital letters. I was slightly confused how this guy knew who I was – was this some kind of weird party trick? However it turns out he worked for the hotel and was expecting me, so, rather hesitantly, I followed him blindly along a pitch dark path by the riverbank to reach the Rainforest Hostel, some 200 yards along the bank. I was shown to a basic (mattress on the floor) but clean and very cheap (50k Rupiah) private room and within minutes I was falling asleep to the sound of the river perpetually drumming the heartbeat of long forgotten Sumatra soul into the surrounding jungle.

After the flood in 2003 the village has had little support to rebuild

Bukit Lawang is a charmingly ramshackle jungle village, some 90 kilometers northwest of Medan, situated at the eastern side of Gunung Leuser National Park. The village consists of a cluster of shacks with corrugated tin roofs scattered along the bolder clad banks of a fast flowing hypnotic river. An orang-utan sanctuary was set up here by a Swiss organisation in the 1970s to attempt to rehabilitate orang-utans captured from the logging industry. The rangers were trained to teach the orang-utans vital jungle skills to enable them to reintegrate into the forest, and provided additional supplementary food from a feeding platform. However, within the last few years supplementary feeding has ceased as the orang-utan rehabilitation program has been deemed a success, the orang-utans having been fully rehabilitated, and the jungle (or the remaining part of) is now at saturation point, so the sanctuary no longer accepts new orphaned orang-utans.

Entering the jungle

Tourists slowly found their way to the sanctuary in trickles over the years and Bukit Lawang in time became a firm favourite on the intrepid backpacker route, now one of the most popular spots to visit in Sumatra. In 2003, due to illegal logging, the village was swept away with a torrential flood, sweeping downstream, described as a 20 foot ‘tidal wave’. The flood swept away virtually the entire village, taking with it mosques, bridges, market stalls, homes and killed over 200 people including tourists. It has been very difficult for the village to rebuild given the very limited government support and high poverty in the area, and the emotional and financial loss has been incredibly hard for the community to come to terms with, however there has been some basic regrowth, and the banks are once again dotted with guest houses and market stalls, and the community are to be found once again congregating en-mass along the riverbanks of an evening, living their idyllic jungle life.

Local cheeky chaps

Monkeys hang out on tin roofs and peer curiously in through windows, whilst occasionally an orang-utan can be spotted venturing down bravely to drink or bathe by the river bank. The call of the gibbons can be heard in the evenings as the sun sets softly; joining the chorus of crickets and geckos, and the village really does ooze a truly magical organic feel.

I spent a number of days here, soaking up the atmosphere, writing from my hammock, and taking lazy walks in the hot afternoon sunshine, only to cool down with a splash in the river. It is the perfect place to while away a few days if you are looking for some peaceful relaxation. This is no party place however, although the locals are very keen to include tourists to join with them around a riverside fire and enjoy a barbeque or a beer of an evening. There is one party a week, on a Saturday night, currently at Thomas’s hostel, across the rather precarious bridge. There, the young men from the village gather alongside backpackers to watch a local band perform various popular covers, from The Beastie Boys and Nirvana to Ed Sheeran, and Bob Marley. Any single western girl is immediately swamped with a seemingly never-ending line of young men keen to get together. And although harmless and polite, it can be a bit tiresome if you just want to watch the music, so be warned…

Relax on sunny river walks

So the reason to be here is of course to meet the orang-utans and other fine jungle treasures. It is almost 100% guaranteed to see these incredible ‘men of the forest’, no matter which duration of trek you opt for. So being somewhat lazy, I chose the shortest trek, 3 hours costing a fixed price of 35 euros. For 45 or 55 euros, there are 2 or 3 day treks available, which is much better value for money. Much longer treks can be arranged easily with a guide. And many tourists opt to finish their trek with ‘rafting’ for a quick fun return and cool down after days in the hot jungle. (‘Rafting’ consists of a series of large rubber rings tied together and steered with sticks as they glide down the rapids.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer abundance of nature we saw during the 3 hours. I had joined up with a group of 3 who were doing a 2 day trek and I would leave them later to return to my guesthouse hammock. We firstly happened upon a rehabilitated mother orang-utan and her 3 year old child, who showed off his newly acquired acrobatic skills to his delighted audience, just feet above our heads, whilst she sat supervising lazily some distance away. After 15 minutes or so of tree swinging, cartwheels and general showing off, she summoned him to follow as she made her way back into the depths of the jungle. Leaving us with big happy smiles, and a million leafy photos.

Forest Acrobatics

We wandered further along and 10 minutes later we were approached by a huge male, fully wild, orang-utan emerging from the trees, who happened to be passing through on foot. We froze silently to the spot and allowed him to choose his path. He came up, rather close to us to investigate curiously; we gently backed away on instruction from the guides. The orang-utan made another slow move in our direction, and I was aware I was within his long arm reach as I backed away even further. This guy was the size of a car, he was an entirely wild animal (the guide informed us this one had never been rehabilitated) and I could clearly have been squashed like a bug in an instant. However, he just sat down, relaxed amongst us, scratching his bum and begun munching on a handful of leaves, occasionally looking up with big brown eyes. Then, after a while, he got up and walked off. It was utterly magical and my heart was beating in my throat.

Further on we were lucky enough to catch a whole family of very shy and elusive gibbons, a peacock, and a huge cobra. (the latter luckily slithered at speed into the undergrowth. My guide was visibly excited. He explained he had almost died from a cobra bite as a teenager, and spent a week in a coma. However because he survived, he now believes he is immune to the cobra and they fear him, which is why, he surmised, the cobra chose not to attack us. I was very dubious of his reasoning here, but extremely thankful the cobra was as scared as me, as the medical facilities in Bukit Lawang consist of little more than a first aid kit..)

Baby Face

I found the Bukit Lawang guides on our trek to be very informative, interesting and clearly proud of their forest and its treasures, however shop around for a guide you are happy with and don’t feel pressured to take the most pushy. There are hundreds of guides and only a few dozen tourists at any time so it can be a bit overwhelming. Follow the guide’s instruction and don’t get too close to the animals, although mostly gentle giants, some of the orang-utans (one famous girl in particular, Mina) have been known to stalk and attack humans. Given that some of these animals spent years in horrendous conditions in captivity, it is no real surprise, so be careful.

Bukit Lawang is a truly magical place, and well worth the arduous journey. Experience it and help keep this pocket of jungle protected and safe from logging.

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