This incredible place is home to a highly respected orangutan sanctuary, which is very popular with backpackers from around the region. My trip to Bukit Lawang also adds to my adventures to what I reckon must be the three of the most remote pieces of primary rainforest in all of Indonesia: Komodo National Park and Tangkoko National Park.
I made my way to Bukit Lawang as part of a small group with Expedition Jungle (whom I recommend wholeheartedly) and it was a 4 hour private mini bus journey from Medan. There are plenty of options to travel to Bukit Lawang. Along the way there is some beautiful scenery, easily superior to anything you will see in more touristy parts of Indonesia like Bali. However, there are many flooded roads and innumerable potholes in these roads, and it makes the journey a very haphazard affair! However, I felt safe enough in the hands of some local guides who were part of my tour group. Although I was travelling solo, on this expedition I was with two other young couples, so I was kind of the odd one out, but it didn’t feel that way as everybody was super-friendly!
The scenery on the way to the orangutan scenery was utterly spectacular. The sounds of the jungle were captivating, if a little frightening, but our small team trod carefully to the feeding platform awaiting us at Bukit Lawang. Depending on what time of year you arrive in the Gunung Leuser National Park, the rivers flowing here may be at extremely high levels, which can make your adventure wilder. The rains in the wet season also makes any potential trip north to the elephant camp at Tangkahan all the more difficult.
Almost everyone will come to Bukit Lawang for the sole reason of seeing the orangutans. There are rehabilitation centres here, but also many of these orangutans live in the wild, one of only two places in the entire world where they still roam free – the other place is in Borneo. Much of their habitat is being destroyed so it is a good opportunity to see these amazing creatures in the wild before they become extinct (expected to be within 20 years). It was a pleasure to see them up close and personal. I sometimes have reservations about getting close to them, as they are supposed to be allergic to some Human germs, but we were with a very good guide who seemed very professional.
It costs 150,000 Rupiah per person to attend the orangutan feeding sessions at the sanctuary. That is on the expensive side, so you may wish to skip the feeding session altogether and go on a jungle trek, where you will probably see the orangutans anyway. Feeding sessions last for an hour (a morning session and an afternoon session), and if you want to bring a camera, that will be another 50,000 Rupiah!
The Sumatran orangutan can live up to 50 years and can grow to about 4.6ft. Compared to their Bornean cousins, Sumatran orangutans are thinner and have longer faces, plus their hair is longer with a slightly more pinkish colour. Wild Sumatran orangutans are also known to be extremely clever, and they have been observed using branches of leaves as an umbrella to shield themselves from the monsoon!
Not everybody comes to Bukit Lawang to see the orangutans – and certainly not everyone will want to pay the extortionate prices to feed them. In fact, I met many people who had been here for around 2 weeks, and they were just enjoying the food, drink, and merry atmosphere of the place. As long as you don’t mind jungle accommodation (and magic mushrooms), then you could really make Bukit Lawang your home, as there is plenty to do here apart from seeing the orangutans, as I found out myself!