While it is unlikely you would come to Tangkahan directly from Medan, it is nevertheless an area that you can add on to your exploration at Bukit Lawang. What Tangkahan has that its neighbour to the south doesn’t is the possibility of ecotourism and the famous elephant camp.
The distance from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan is around 20km. The journey north to Tangkahan on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park is only possible by taking a private 4X4 vehicle, as there is no public transportation between the two small towns. I have always loved the rainforest, and much of it in Sumatra is protected, so in a small way you can be sure that you are participating in sustainable tourism. I went on a 3 day tour with Expedition Jungle, and although I was travelling solo I still joined a couple of couples for this tour into the rainforest.
I stayed at a place called the Jungle Lodge, which research had showed me beforehand was the best place to stay in the Tangkahan area. Overlooking the Buluh River, this lodge is very good value for money (I paid about 160,000 Rupiah per night for 2 nights), and as long as you understand that facilities are very basic in the jungle you will have a great time sleeping under the canopy. I even had a balcony, which scared me a little in the evenings, as I didn’t know what would crawl in when I was asleep!
As we ventured further and further into the jungle on our trek at Tangkahan, we were all becoming more and more enchanted by the scenery and topography. The clearwater streams (seemed more like rivers to me, but our guide insisted they were just streams) with green foliage all around, while a cacophony of noise emanating from the rainforest added to the isolated atmosphere we were facing. Some of us even white water rafted down these “streams” as part of the tour (which you can also do at Bukit Lawang in tubes and kayaks).
The jungle here at Tangkahan is home to gibbons and macaques. As usual, just as in other places in Asia, the macaques were always up to no good, and they are attracted to human presence in their quest to find food. Many monkeys here now avoid hunting naturally, as they now know there is a consistent flow of tourist traffic passing through the jungle where they may snatch a piece of fruit. Tangkahan is also home to Thomas Leaf Monkeys, which have small heads, medium-sized bodies, and long tails. These were among my favourite primates from the area, although we didn’t see too many.
There are also countless water monitors crawling along the jungle floor and in streams wherever you look. The largest one I saw must have been around as long as a man, but they are usually uninterested in human presence. Luckily, there were no snakes to be seen, although I am sure I must have walked dangerously close to a snake at one point, as it’s inevitable in a thick jungle like this one.
The main reason we all came to Tangkahan was to see the reputed Elephant Sanctuary here. I was quite amazed that the 8 or 9 elephants that lived in this camp were actually working elephants, rather than just here to give rides to the tourists. The elephants are actually “guards of the jungle” and are actively on the lookout for any illegal activity in these parts, such as logging or poaching. I had the opportunity to ride the elephants, but declined, although I did enjoy washing them with the rest of my group. They are such gentle creatures (and the elephants, too! Ha!).
So how did this trek through Gunung Leuser compare to my later trek through Tangkoko over in Sulawesi? Well, I think I preferred this one, as I have a bit of a soft spot for Sumatra, plus this was my first ever major jungle expedition – and everybody remembers their first time!