If you travel to Southeast Asia, you cannot return without seeing orangutans in the wild. Where about? Borneo (Malaysia) and Bukit Lawang in Sumatra (Indonesia) are the most common places. We decided on the most natural option, where animals have minimal contact with people and where there are fewer tourists. Let me explain how this works: In order to get to the jungle, you have to fly to Medan and hire a driver to take you to the jungle which takes 4 hours. And yes, it is totally worthy.
This was one of the destinations that we considered discarding while planning our trip to Southeast Asia since we did not have much time, and there are no guarantees that you will see orangutans.
Bukit Lawang is not a Zoo or even a reserve, where animals would otherwise be confined to the passing tourist having a fun moment. Bukit Lawang is a jungle owned by the animals, sometimes you go and have the fortune of seeing them, but other times you are not that lucky. This is, in my opinion, the only ethical way to see wild animals.
HOW TO GET TO BUKIT LAWANG – THE ORANGUTANS JUNGLE
You can do it either via public transit or by hiring a driver with your own accommodation.
HIRING A PRIVATE driver
As we were arriving late at Medan we asked the hotel where we were staying in the jungle to come and pick us up. The taxi fare is 600,000 IDR (about 42 €). If you want to review our travel budget, you can find the breakdown here.
BUKIT LAWANG – MEDAN BUS
With more time, we ventured with public transit on the way back. Our trekking guide accompanied us by motorcycle to the bus stop as it was about 10 minutes by car and more than half an hour on foot.
The bus station was no doubt the worst I have ever been to. Apart from all kinds of animals, there was an unbearable smell. But, we were in Southeast Asia and we came knowing what that meant.
To get to Medan Airport from Bukit Lawang, you have to first take a van-sized bus that stops at every village on the way. It takes approximately two hours to get to Binjai where we would make a connection. The price of this bus is 18,000 IDR (approx. 1€).
Once there, you have to take another bus to the Medan airport that costs 30,000 IDR (2 € approx.), and it takes two and a half hours. Our bus broke down halfway and we had to wait for another one to arrive, so in the end, it took another hour but luckily we still had a lot of time to catch the flight.
RENTing A CAR
Under no circumstances would I recommend that you drive, because I have never seen such bad drivers. The traffic we saw when passing through Medan also doesn’t help with the case.
OUR ARRIVAL TO BUKIT LAWANG
As we arrived at Bukit Lawang, they gave us the warmest welcome we have ever received in our lives. The town, which has probably no more than 20 wooden houses, came out from their cabins and shouted: “Welcome to the Jungle!”. It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
Our hotel, Rain Forest Guest House Bukit Lawang, was at the end of the town. Directed by Nella, a charming woman that made us felt at home since the first minute. We reserved the suite with private bathroom for 5€. Without a doubt, this was the cheapest hotel where we also received the best treatment. I had been talking with Nella since I made the reservation because I didn’t find enough information online to arrange our adventure (+62 813-6219-9018 or [email protected]), so when we finally met, it was like we already knew each other. I will tell you more about our hotel at the end of this post.
PREPARING FOR THE TREKKING TO SEE ORANGUTANS
As we arrived, we sat on the wooden porch with our guide the next day to go over what we should take. He also told us the different activities we could do even though we had already made a reservation for what we wanted (two days trekking and coming back via tube rafting). I’ll leave you the price for different activities here. Our tour cost 70€ per person.
In this same rain forest, you may be able to find tigers, bear, rhinos and even elephants (these are all the species you could find), but chances of that are much lower with a 2-day tour. To maximize possibilities of seeing them, you may want to hire the 5 days trekking tour, which takes you way deeper into the jungle. Anyhow, there are no guarantees that you will see the animals because they are in complete freedom here.
Keep in mind that you will need a permit to enter the jungle. If you arrive in Bukit Lawang at night and will be going to the jungle the following day, pre-arrange with your guides by sending them a copy of your Passport over email so they can sort it before you arrive.
Two days TREKKING through the BUKIT LAWANG jungle to see orangutans
The next morning, with our backpacks prepared and ready to go to the jungle, we first had an amazing breakfast: banana and chocolate shake and pancakes.
Our guides were Andy and Walter aka “the Jungle Guys”, a couple of very cool guys that made this experience unforgettable and they helped us learn a lot! Together with me and my cousin, there was a German girl called Philine and a Dutch guy called David. And so, the six of us head towards the jungle at 8 in the morning, with water and a change of clothes inside our backpacks.
In addition, two other guides went ahead of us to prepare the campsite where we would be staying that night.
We first explored the Bukit Lawang town on our way to the jungle, which we didn’t see when we first arrived since it was late in the night. The town is near the jungle, you just need to cross a river to go into it.
getting inside the jungle
At this point, we were not yet prepared to see any wild animals, but we saw a group standing to watch a Wrangler Viper rolling between the leaves.
This snake specie possess a poisonous venom capable of killing a human in less than an hour. It is very hard to find one as is, let alone so close to town.
This trek was very different from what we experienced at the Penang National Park. There were more people in Bukit Lawang while it was just me, my cousin, and the jungle in Penang National Park. However, Bukit Lawang was much more of a JUNGLE, which is a plus. More lianas, trees, branches, roots, and no path to follow. It is very important to go with a guide since there’s no path at all.
In terms of difficulty, the route at the National Park in Penang was flatter but longer. In Bukit Lawang, we had to climb, jump from trees, and slide from slippery ramps filled with mud. However, we did not feel nearly as tired.
FIRST SIGHTING OF orangutans in SUMATRA
We saw the first orangutans within the first hour of trekking, long before we expected to find anything. I can’t explain how it feels. They are so incredibly similar to us!! Their gesture, appearance, movements and all…
I felt like an intruder in their jungle. They weren’t bothered by our presence, and I could only feel thankful for being able to live in that unique moment.
It was a mom and her two-year old baby. The guides explained to us that orangutans are very independent animals, they travel alone and are very territorial. In fact, you will find one single orangutan in each “zone” of the jungle. The only times where you see more than one is when you find a mother and her child, or during mating season.
Mothers take care of their children until they are approximately 5 years old. In that amount of time, they teach them everything: how to climb trees, what to eat, and they even help them find their own territory.
lunch at the jungle
After this first encounter, we kept walking until we got to a quiet area in the forest where we sat and had lunch.
I don’t know, maybe it was the environment, or maybe it was just really delicious, but what we ate while in jungle tasted heavenly. We had rice with veggies, tomato, cucumber, and tortilla, and fruit for dessert!!!
ORANGUTANS IN DANGER OF EXTINCTION
The guides told us that during the 80s and 90s, the jungle was in danger of being destroyed by the palm oil industry. Massive lumbering provoked by this industry ruined the jungle´s ecosystem. Presently, there are 7,000 orangutans in Sumatra.
A rescue center was established to protect this animal. Here, they aid and take care of sick and orphaned orangutans until they are capable of going back to the jungle. Additionally, they operate an alimentary platform, where many orangutans go to receive additional portions of food since they can’t obtain it from a clearly sickened jungle.
Besides the Palm Oil Industry, poachers who hunt and capture orangutans to sell as pets or for zoos are another danger to the specie. This often ends with the mother being killed.
I don’t want to be too repetitive, but please STOP VISITING ZOOS. You are funding this filthy business each time you pay to enter one.
INHABITANTS OF BUKIT LAWANG
THE ORANGUTANS OF BUKIT LAWANG
During that day, we had the opportunity to see orangutans on several occasions. The orangutans of Sumatra moved around by hanging from trees because there are tigers in the Bukit Lawang Forest. However, in Borneo, the orangutans walked on the ground as they do not have predators.
The one from the picture above was a male. His size was impressive and especially noticeable because he got very close to us. It is very easy to identify the male ones – just look at his beard!!
This one is a young female orangutan who got closer and asked for food. She even got down from the trees to pick up the fruits offered by one of the guides. You can watch the video below.
Many of you asked me if it was dangerous to be this close to the orangutans. According to the guides in the Bukit Lawang jungle, there are only two dangerous orangutans which are Jacky and Mina. These orangutans were raised at the rescue center since they were orphans. Having been used to humans, they see us as food suppliers. So, if you find them, they’ll want you to give them food. Jacky grabs you from the wrist and won’t let you go until you give her some bananas while Mina directly bites the excursionists until she gets what she wants. Our guide showed us a scar done by Mina. We didn’t cross paths with them.
There are other species apart from orangutans in the Bukit Lawang jungle. We had the luck to see other animals.
We were surprised by the giant ants which would crawl on us. Don’t worry about the size, they are totally harmless.
We also saw a Great Argust Pheasant.
We heard a band of toucans but we didn’t have time to take a picture of them.
We saw a southern pig-tailed macaque up close as well as the Thomas’s Langur, a monkey that only exist in this jungle.
CAMPING IN THE BUKIT LAWANG JUNGLE
After strolling through the jungle for 5 hours, we reached the campsite which was by the Riverside. There was a cabin where we put mats and blankets for sleeping and another that worked as a kitchen.
Before dining, we took a bath in the river. It was a perfect day and we couldn’t be happier than spending two days to do a trek in the Bukit Lawang jungle.
The dinner was delicious. They made us vegetarian dishes that were scrumptious. After dinner, Andy and Walter had some night-time games prepared (typical camping games you’d play when you are a kid).
Then suddenly something magical happened. The river turned on and millions of fireflies flew around us.
Being in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by incomprehensible sounds and grabbing fireflies with my hand trying to understand the secret of their light, is something I can’t describe. For me, the best part of being in Bukit Lawang was watching the river glow.
Maybe for someone who has already seen them, it might seem silly, but it was the first time I have seen a firefly in my life.
And with that amazing day, we went to bed, happy with all that the jungle of Bukit Lawang had given us.
GOING BACK TO BUKIT LAWANG
The following day we had a huge sandwich prepared as breakfast. Why is food in the jungle so so so delicious?
And we kept trekking to find more Sumatran orangutans during the trip.
I don’t remember exactly how many orangutans we saw between both days. I think probably eight or nine, many more than what we expected.
To go back to the town, our guides prepared a raft for us that we would use to go down the river. They call it tube rafting.
Here is a video of the whole adventure we lived at Bukit Lawang.
going back to the civilization
We arrived at the village with wet clothes and now in a hurry since we wanted to return to the airport by public transit. To do this, we had to catch the last bus that came at 5 pm. Nella, the owner of the Rain Forest Guest House Bukit Lawang let us took a shower and put our rafting clothes in the dryer.
Then, we had a little incident that I want to tell you to be careful about.
While my cousin was taking a shower, I was at the door talking to David (the Dutch boy) when a monkey silently grabbed my bag of dirty clothes and ran off. Luckily, he made some noise and we went after him until he released the bag. I almost lost my clothes!!
The monkeys know that we usually keep food in bags, so be careful if you don’t want it to be stolen by a monkey. Do not leave bags or backpacks unattended.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION OF OUR SOUTH ASIA TRIP
Although I have already said throughout the post that Rain Forest Guest House Bukit Lawang was the best hotel of our trip to Southeast Asia, what really made us love it was the following.
When we reached Yogyakarta, we noticed that half our laundry we did back in Bukit Lawang wasn’t there. When I wrote Nella, she got very upset. She explained that part of the laundry dried and the other part was still wet and is hanging dry at the hotel. When we picked up the clothes, they didn’t notice that they only gave us half of it. Without hesitation, Nella offered to ship my clothes back and she wouldn’t even let me pay the expenses. Another hotel wouldn’t even have cared. That’s why I repeat once again that Rain Forest Guest House Bukit Lawang is the hotel where we have received the best treatment. Here I leave the contact info of Nella again so that you can get in contact with her (+62 813-6219-9018 or [email protected]) or you can directly book through Booking. I hope to be sitting back on the porch of her hotel enjoying her pancakes very soon.
As you can imagine, after this first experience in Indonesia with the Sumatran orangutans in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, I am in love with the country.