A little village with a lot of history; Bukit Lawang offers jungle treks, orangutans and a place to kick back and chill.
We arrived in Bukit Lawang in the coolness of a jungle evening after a long but uncharacteristically uneventful drive up out of Lake Toba and back through Medan. We had booked our taxi the night before and so had a smooth 9am departure to allow for the eight hour drive ahead of us.
Upon arriving in Bukit Lawang we were immediately approached by several people who helped unload our bags and offer advice on where we should be staying. No one is wearing any kind of official uniform and so we were initially skeptical about following them or taking their suggestions on where to stay, but ultimately our fears were unwarranted. We had been given the name of a place to stay already, Batu Mandi, and one of the men was happy to walk us through the village to where we needed to go.
The area from where we were dropped-off to our guesthouse, was mostly just a sprawling collection of guesthouses and restaurants which had been built up around a river and up into the jungle. We had been told about some evening entertainment where locals and travellers came together with live music in the background, but we didn’t see any of it upon arriving. We were led over a long wire held bridge and down several worn down tracks which wove through guesthouses and tall vine-wrapped trees. Eventually it opened up on to a well kept garden with several rooms overlooking a garden of fruit trees and the constant rolling rumble of the river in the background.
The man, who turned out to be one of the National Park guides, helped us negotiate a room price with the owner and let us settle down before we were ready to discuss what we wanted from our time in Bukit Lawang. It turns out the guides work on a system of rotation and cycle through guiding, assisting and welcoming new arrivals at the gate. They earn commission through setting you up but you don’t have to worry because the National Park sets the prices of the treks at an agreed upon flat rate which is shown to you before you make your decisions on what to do. There are treks of varying lengths and costs depending on how far you want to venture in to Gunung Leuser National Park. Time constraints set us to a two day hike with a return back to the village through an hour long rafting trip down the river on the second day. Happy with our decisions and feeling comfortable with our conversations and interactions in Bukit Lawang, we retreated to what would be the second most uncomfortable nights sleep of our trip.
The beds at Batu Mandi are so uncomfortably soft that it’s impossible not to roll into a dip in the middle of the mattress, and despite our affections for one another it didn’t lend itself to a wonderful sleep. Our shower too was a let down, we’re more than unaccustomed to cold showers but combining that with poor pressure and too small of a bucket and you can expect at least a grumble. Doing our best to ready ourselves and pack as little as possible into one bag for us to take on the trip, we still managed to be up and ready at 8am. This allowed us to enjoy a breakfast made memorable with a giant fruit platter full of fresh fruit directly from the garden of Batu Mandi. We wouldn’t recommend sleeping here but if you can make the time it’s worth eating here for the delicious fruit and peaceful garden environment.
Our guide for the trip, a kind man named Rasta, met us at Batu Mandi after breakfast and showed us the way to the meeting point where we joined with the rest of our trekking group. The group, made up of a couple from the Netherlands and an older well-traveled man from Germany, exchanged pleasantries and we started off on our trek into the jungle. Immediately the hike tested our fitness as we climbed quickly upwards, using vines and roots to pull ourselves up into the humid green density. Mosquitoes buzzed at us through out trek and we were happy to have remembered our bug spray to fend off against the worst of their attacks. We couldn’t have walked for much longer than half an hour before we got to see our first orangutan, remarkably well hidden up among the foliage of a single tree. Only his head popped out of the dappled green palm leaves, peering down on us with caution as we gazed up at him in fascination. The guides teased him out of his hiding spot with the promise of fruit and its small orange head grew into an impressively sized young adult male orangutan.
I keep wanting to capitalise the word orangutan as they are such incredible creatures, their eyes convey so much understanding and intelligence as they weigh you up. Orangutan is derived from the Indonesian words ‘Orang’ meaning person, and ‘hutan’ meaning forest. Our guides told us a myth where originally the orangutan were children who were sent off to live in the jungle because they misbehaved, these children then became the people of the forest, the orangutan. Around Bukit Lawang the guides know many of the orangutans by sight as they were a part of the rehabilitation project when it was still open. The rehabilitated apes are known to wait in certain areas for food from the guides, some even known for being aggressive in order to get more food. Ask a guide about ‘Neena’ and they’ll laugh and share a story or show a wound from one of their encounters with the famously aggressive female.
After the adult male we were lucky enough to see two adult females with a child each. Orangutans are normally solitary animals but it seemed as if they had come together in order to let their kids play with one another. The two females kept a wide berth of each other, one obviously more dominant that the other in its movements. Our trek took us up and down several strenuous hills and intermittently we’d run into different orangutan; one was known to hold on to tourists until they were fed, another famous for recently giving birth down at the nearby camp, each orangutan baring its own tale. The guides were awesome and as well as imparting knowledge of Sumatra and the jungle, had story after story of their time with the orangutans. Our most memorable encounter must have been with Neena herself who imposingly swung down out of the jungle as we walked along a gently sloping ridge. Her two children sat further back in the trees as she expectantly grabbed mangoes and bananas from the guides who put themselves between us and the aggressive mother.
After a typical Indonesian lunch of Nasi Goreng and a plentiful variety of local fruit, we started our trek towards our home for the night. Down past a small river and up over a hill with a couple more orangutan expecting their fruit delivery, we eventually started the final descent to the river and our final destination. The trek isn’t too bad, there’s certainly strenuous parts as you go up and down sloping jungle as you make your way across but anyone with middling fitness shouldn’t have a problem. Nevertheless our legs were weary by the time we hit our campsite in the late afternoon and it was a welcome site by the time we arrived. The camp had very basic amenities, the beds were thin mats on a concrete floor and the toilets nothing more than a hole in the ground. The guides were very hospitable and we were joined by another group of trekkers who arrived shortly after. We spent the rest of the daylight swimming and stretching our feet before we were gathered together for a tasty dinner selection of Indonesian basics. A short evening of jungle games and tricks from the guide kept us entertained until the weariness of the day guided us to our rubber mats for the night.
Sleep was difficult, our hips couldn’t make an impression on the concrete floor and the thin blankets were a layer short of being effective against the cool night. As night deepens, so do the sounds of the jungle. Insects and the sounds of nocturnal critters fill your ears and they keep you company until you finally manage to drift off into another 45 minutes of uninterrupted sleep. We woke up the next day bright and early with the sun seeping warmth back into the jungle valley. As we ate breakfast a troop of macaw monkeys came brazenly down the hills to take part in our morning rituals. They hopped deftly over river rocks, clambered over one another and flung themselves from tree branch to roof top. They had clearly done this before and knew the benefits of hanging around the smell of fried breakfast sandwiches and strong black Sumatran coffee.
We left the macaws behind and let our food digest while we walked up the river to a small feeding waterfall. The ice cold water helped reinvigorate the day and shake off the weariness of the previous day. By the time we got back to the camp the guides had constructed impressive makeshift rafts by tying together numerous large black inner tubes. We tied up our shoes and the guides wrapped our belongings in layer after layer of thick plastic as we prepared for the trip down the river and back to Bukit Lawang. We boarded our vessel and waved our goodbyes as the guides pushed us out onto the river while singing the now infamous Bukit Lawang jungle song. The hot black inner tubes nursed the warmth from the sun as we splashed down the cold river on our way back home. At one point we watched in fascination as a monitor lizard slid down off the side of the bank and slipped off downstream into the current. We passed numerous other guides with at least two big tubes on their back, making their way back up the river to resupply the camp for the next bunch of trekkers arriving that day. Forty-five minutes later and we passed under familiar bridges and landed at the final concrete dock and the end of our journey in the Indonesian jungle.
We spent the rest of that day eating and drinking as we let the previous days adventure settle down into our minds. We half-heartedly explored the surrounding area, hoping to find an atmosphere to join in on for our dinner.We were left disappointed and instead settled for a nearby restaurant with patchy wifi and a tasty looking menu. We were joined by our German trek mate who showed us the power of an excellent camera with some truly excellent photos of our trek as we briefly relived the memories of the previous two days. Weariness overcame our need to socialise and an early night in a different room, but equally uncomfortable beds, ended our last in the jungle village of Bukit Lawang.
Batu Mandi fruit platter – excellent value for money.
An encounter with the infamous Neena in the middle of our trek – actually just ALL of our trek was incredible.
Our excellent guides – thoroughly enjoyable and well informed, Rasta and the rest of the crew made sure we were never bored and that we learned constantly.
Batu Mandi beds.
Jungle floor beds.
Getting In and Out
As far as I know you can only get in to Bukit Lawang by road.
We took a Raja taxi for 190,000 Rupiah from Lake Toba which was hassle free. These can be organised through your guest house, a tourist travel agent or call them directly.
Friends of ours took a public bus for a great deal cheaper, I believe around 20,000 from Medan, but said that the experience was scary as the road into Bukit Lawang is riddled with potholes and the bus itself was piled high with chickens and children as it flung itself along the patchy road.
Getting out you can organise a taxi with a private driver for 400,000. You can tell your private driver to slow down and this might help some of those who suffer from road anxiety (me). The guesthouse can also organise a seat on a tourist minivan for 120,000.
You can also take a 10,000 Rupiah tuktuk to the bus station and a 20,000 Rupiah public bus back to Medan.
Pack light on your treks, it does get cooler in the evenings but you really don’t need much more than a warm jersey and some water in your bag.
Batu Mandi was too expensive for what they offered. We paid almost 75,000 Rupiah each for a night. Try instead a place like Wisma Bukit Lawang Indah which apparently can be noisier but you can get beds for 50,000 Rupiah a night.
Places do take bookings online and it’s probably better to do so to avoid being stuck with expensive options.