Of course, the reason most people come to Bukit Lawang is to see the famous orangutan sanctuary, where you can observe the orangutans in a semi-wild environment, but this mysterious township on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park has so much more to offer. In fact, you could say it’s an adventure tourist’s paradise!
To begin my Sumatran backpacking circuit, I flew to Medan from Singapore and then made my way into Gunung Leuser National Park by minibus. The journey took upwards of 4 hours, but I am told that it can take longer than that in bad weather. The scenery was enjoyable along the way and I had 2 seats all to myself – although the state of the roads in Indonesia leave a lot to be desired.
Arriving at the camp at which I stayed, I immediately saw the wilderness in which you are now based – almost completely isolated from civilised world as we know it. The rivers in Bukit Lawang were sometimes dangerously high, as this was supposed to be rainy season (or the very beginning of it). Walking across rickety old bridges to cross the rivers and streams were nerve-racking experiences! I didn’t realise it at the time of my arrival, but these rivers and streams in and around Bukit Lawang play an important role in the lives of the local community.
I stayed at a camp at which I stayed was very basic. It was simply a row of tents deep in the rainforest. I was not looking forward to seeing spiders and centipedes during the night, yet I could not keep any lights on in my tent as it would simply attract the mosquitoes). The wildlife in Sumatra is amazing and varied, and I have enjoyed taking a look at what the island has to offer in terms of both flora and fauna. You could theoretically even see the Sumatran Tiger during your visit, although it is extremely unlikely – and thank goodness for that! The locals in the township of Bukit Lawang don’t seem to care much about the threat of tigers or centipedes – they are too busy either at work or at play for such serious concerns.
It is no surprise for a town that doesn’t really worry to much about creatures and insects, they promote tourism to what is known simply as “Bat Cave”. For those brave enough, it presents a pretty decent opportunity to explore a cave system (albeit a minor one), and as the name suggests, this cave is known for its bats! I found the air to be very cool in here, although at the same time I didn’t want to breathe in too much, in case a bat flew right into my mouth! For the kind of people that spend a while in Bukit Lawang, Bat Cave will be right up their alley. Adventure tourism is rife here (albeit in a very rustic way) and there’s something just so enchanting about waking up deep in the jungle, crossing a rickety bridge across swelling waters, and exploring a cave full of bats! You can’t do this in Europe!
A lot of the locals enjoy frolicking in the river. Although I saw many of them just sitting there doing their washing, and some even just reading a newspaper, many others were partaking in yet another adventure for which Bukit Lawang is well-known: tubing! As you can imagine, tourists are expected to join in, but it seems that we don’t need any encouragement, as most backpackers had already reserved their rubber ring for the day by the time I had woken up and ventured down to the river! Still, I was prepared to wait my turn – even if I was a little worried about what may be in the depths of the water…
What interested me most about Bukit Lawang and the surrounding areas was the sense of community. It was a real cultural experience to walk around the small markets, where the locals will sell their wares. Most people rely on tourism to survive, so you can imagine that there is a great eclectic mix of people who get on well with each other – the tourists needs the locals for somewhere to stay, and the locals need the tourists’ money! Every now and then, you will encounter something that is, perhaps, not part of your custom back home – such as a magic mushroom shop! In Bukit Lawang, these drug-like ‘things’ are just part of everyday life, and I am sure backpackers no doubt join in, allowing themselves to be transported to even greener places than Gunung Leuser!