Besides being a nature lover’s paradise, Bukit Lawang is the most magical little town buried deep into the Sumatran jungle. Getting to Bukit Lawang is not easy, especially if you are prone to motion sickness (LIKE ME), but it is incredibly worth it you want to see orangutans in their natural habitat. You can only see orangutans in SEAsia in 2 different places: Borneo & Sumatra. After much research, we decided on Sumatra, the less popular choice, and for that we were rewarded with a more authentic experience.
GETTING TO BUKIT LAWANG: I pre-booked our travel arrangements into the Sumatran jungle through Rinto Arian of: Orangutan Experience two days prior to our arrival. It is imperative you pre-book your trip to Bukit Lawang because the Sumatran jungle is a five hour, bumpy, unpaved car ride from the airport, and almost all orangutan trekking packages come with airport transportation. We flew into Medan, and were greeted promptly by Rinto’s nephew, Tomy, and his driver. We were starved upon landing, so he took us to the best spot for authentic Indonesian food. This was our first meal in Indonesia, and we LOVED IT!
After eating, we climbed back into the car, and made our way to wonderful Bukit Lawang. One piece of advice, BRING DRAMAMINE, wear a motion sickness patch, and pack GINGER root. Do all of the above if you think there is a possiblity you will get motion sick, because chances are you will! I did all of the above, and STILL got sick! As I mentioned, the car ride is about 5.5 hours long. The streets are intermittently paved, curvy, and rarely have stop lights or intersections. I believe we saw less than 5 stop lights throughout our entire commute into the jungle. We also saw two car accidents, so this will not be the safest drive you’ve ever taken. You will also want to make sure you are in the BEST possible health so you can look around and enjoy the views without getting dizzy. This was our first taste of “real Asia”, and I’m sure you are wondering what I mean by that. Well, in Asia, you quickly become use to sensory overload! The below pictures are a perfect example of what I mean by sensory overload:
As soon as we arrived in Bukit Lawang, tons of local kids filled the area. They were all waving, smiling, and so genuinely happy to see us! I gave a sigh of relief thinking I would have a short walk to our guest house, but I was sooo so wrong. The town of Bukit Lawang does not have roads. In fact, it only has dirt paths, and cobble stone side walks. We had a 20 minute walk ahead of us, and I thought I was going to keel over and die. Luckily my inner super woman came out, and we arrived without any stops to puke!
We stayed at Sam’s Bungalow which was included in our package with the Orangutan Experience. Our little guest house was exactly what we needed minus air conditioning, (which we desperately wished we had since it was very humid & hot). Then again, you do not go to the Sumatran jungle for a five-star western retreat. It simply does not exist.
The next morning we woke up, fueled our bodies with the most delicious fruit bread (yes, you read that correctly) pineapple pancakes, and local fruit! After breakfast, we began our 16-mile hike into the jungle with Tomy and Hendra, our guides. The hike is not for the faint of heart. It was tough, extremely muddy, and truly tested our athletic ability. At times, we had to pull our bodies up by holding slippery vines and jumping over small creeks. Yes, I fell once or twice, and Sean cut his hands. We prevailed, and were greeted with the most amazing, natural, orangutan experience. Seeing these gigantic creatures interact in their natural habit was indescribable. They are so big and graceful! Above that, they are so incredibly human like! Watching them swing from tree to tree, and interact with each other was magical.
We learned so much about these beautiful creatures. For example the word orangutan comes from the Indonesian meaning: Orang= jungle , Tan= people, so when we say Orangutan in English we are really saying Jungle People in Indonesian, which is truly what they are if you think about it. However, the Indonesian people do not call the orangutans, orangutan, they call them “mawa.”
The orangutans we saw in the Sumatran jungle are “Semi-Wild.” What do I mean by this term? 60 years ago Indonesia created a law making it illegal for Indonesians to have orangutans as pets. This caused a huge stir throughout the country because many Indonesians kept them in their homes as pets, or family members as they call it. Orangutans live to be the same age as humans, 70-90 years of age. When the law went into effect, the orangutans were released into the jungle; however, they stayed close to the river and their respective families continued to feed them. Now years later, the older orangutans (the ones in my pictures, who are not afraid of humans) have continued to live by the river, and are now having their babies. Their babies are known as “wild” since they never lived under human control. Additionally, 3 weeks prior to our arrival, Indonesia came out with another law prohibiting locals and tourists alike from feeding them. Now that there are 100s of babies, they want to teach the orangutans how to source their own food (leaves and fruit).
THIS IS AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FACT to remember if and when you make a trip to Bukit Lawang. Please be a responsible traveler, and only go with tour guides who abide by the law, and DO NOT FEED the orangutans while trekking! We unfortunately saw one guide feeding the orangutans, and it only teaches them to rely on humans rather than source their own food. I am extremely happy and proud to have chosen the Orangutan Experience, who put the orangutan’s health before feeding them, and allowing the tourists to get “cool pictures.”
After a long hike throughout the Sumatran jungle, we were exhausted, sore, and ready for a goodnight’s sleep. The great part about the trip back was that we did NOT have to hike the 16-miles to our guest house. We were able to white water raft back into town, and follow that up with a nice Bintang!!
I am in awe of Bukit Lawang, and everything it has to offer. If you want to get up close and personal with nature, and see orangutans, I highly recommend this journey! This was one of the most strenuous parts of our trip, so if you would like to do something like this, keep the right expectations in mind, and you will have an AMAZING time!
TIPS FOR YOUR ORANGUTAN TREK:
- Dress appropriately: we ordered ExOfficio shirts and bottoms with insect shield technology that helped prevent against mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers, and midges. Although pricy, they worked wonders! We did not get one mosquito bite, and saw many other trekkers re-applying mosquito repellant over and over. I wore these throughout my entire trip to keep the bugs away! I’ve also since worn them in FL. 🙂
- DO NOT FEED THE ORANGUTANS
- Listen to your guides, if they tell you to back up, then back up!! This happened one time when an orangutan began walking towards us. The guides ran up in front of us and created a barrier, so the orangutan would back up.
- Do not use flash photography. It blinds the orangutans.
- Prepare yourself: physically and mentally.
- Tuck your pants/leggings into your socks to avoid creepy crawlies getting into your pants.