How lucky are we all to have the opportunity to visit Bukit Lawang, the gateway to Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park, which nearly 6,000 orangutans currently call home.
Proclaimed as a critically endangered species, it is hard to face the harsh reality that our beautiful red-headed ancestors may not survive this inhuman world. In fact, with the current deforestation rates, they could cease to exist in less than 10 years time. Some might say that this is the best opportunity to see them while you still can. But we prefer to think of our decision to go in search of the orangutan as a reason to see first hand, learn and share the devastating truths – that we are all contributing to the end of their survival. Whether we like it or not.
To do this in an ethical part of the world where the treatment and safety of wildlife are paramount and locals understand more than ever that they need to work and protect and save their “King of the Swingers” was a crucial factor in our decision to choose North Sumatra. The added bonus being, that the orangutans found near in Gunung Leuser National Park are no longer living in a sanctuary but have either been rehabilitated and released back to their home (a legally protected one at that) or have grown up in their natural habitat without knowing a life of captivity. And that makes us feel as warm and fuzzy as an orangutan’s hairstyle.
Imagine our excitement at having the chance to observe the “”People of the Forest” interact with eachother and their surroundings. There is always a dreaded fear that our mere presence can do more harm than good. We have had personal experiences of seeing tourists take part in wildlife tours thinking it is a ticket to a petting zoo, and a great chance to grab a selfie or feed an animal up close. We cannot agree or condone such actions and will continue to scream the words “OBSERVE, DO NOT DISTURB!”.
And so we did our research. Is it possible to transform into a jungle-hiding, nosy-ninja. Can we find and follow an ethical guide into a world that we should not play a part in and if so, are we contributing to the disgraceful behaviours of animal tourism?
Thankfully, we write this blog feeling more knowledgeable, more in touch with nature, more aware and even more passionate about animal welfare than before. Some might disagree and we love those who do. And after a successful jungle trek where we got to witness our red-headed cousins live a carefree life, those memories and that experience will forever be etched into our minds and hearts. We are also extremely grateful that our decision to enter the jungle meant we could share the facts and figures with those who follow us on social media. Many people who were so unaware of the facts, also had a personal connection with seeing orangutans in the wild, even if it was through the screen. And are now armed with the information to make the changes we must all consider making.
We have been excited to write this blog. And we hope it brings some informative insights into what you can and should expect when jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang. While constantly questioning and ensuring that your morals of never disrupting an environment to which you are nothing but a guest come first and foremost and that you can experience an adventure through the thick jungle depths while being the responsible traveller we should all aim to be.
From Medan Airport to Bukit Lawang
Generally, the starting point for most trips to Bukit Lawang for a jungle trekking tour is at Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport. Depending on what time you arrive in Medan, you can either spend the night in the city and travel onward to Bukit Lawang the following morning, kip in the airport (which is what we did and had a great night’s sleep and free WiFi), or head straight for public transport to start your budget conscious and adventurous ride to the jungle.
From The Airport to Medan City Centre:
For those heading into the city to spend a night, you can either take the DAMRI public airport bus to the city centre bus terminal or arrange a taxi directly to your accommodation. If taking a taxi, we highly suggest connecting to the airport WiFi and ordering a GRAB as it will be cheaper and hassle-free. For any other taxi service make sure to negotiate a total price (as opposed to per person) before agreeing, and avoid the taxi metre if possible.
From Medan city centre to Bukit Lawang, you will need to make your way to the Pinang Baris bus terminal which is 8 km outside of the city. We heard there are small orange public buses that travel from the city to the bus station, alternatively, take a GRAB. When you arrive at Pinang Baris bus terminal take note of the following – it’s just a heads up!
NOTE: We have heard horror stories about the “mafia” hanging about the Pinang Baris bus terminal. They will try to charge you extra and they may follow you onto the bus demanding payment up front. Apparently, they are notorious when it comes to tourists and unfortunately they also intimidate locals enough that you might find yourself battling them without any help or intervention. Wear headphones, pretend you do not speak English, ignore and walk straight to your bus – do anything to avoid these guys. Place your own bag on the bus, do not accept anything from anyone or even make eye contact. They won’t hurt you in any way but will use intimidation tactics to exhaust your patience. Stand your ground, do not hand any money to anyone but the bus driver and only WHEN you arrive at Bukit Lawang. Never pay up front. They will eventually give up, but quite possibly drive you mental before they do.
Instead, try to avoid this bus terminal altogether and head 600 m north towards the junction. Here you will find the ‘Toko Roti Mawar’ (Mawar Bakery) and should see some small orange busses parked outside. Find the driver and board the bus from there.
We ourselves didn’t have any hassle and decided to avoid Medan City like the plague! We travelled directly from the airport to Bukit Lawang which was cheap and hassle-free. Here is how we did it:
Step #1 From Medan Airport to Binjai:
Exit the airport via departures and follow the signs for public transport heading to the right. You should see the parked orange ALS Antar Lintas Sumatera bus, or mention “Binjai’ to any of the drivers.
The ALS bus leaves every 45 minutes or so usually on the hour, and costs 40,000 MYR (€2.50). We caught the 8 am bus and it arrived in Binjai at 9.30 am. Try to take an early bus if you can, the aim is to reach Binjai before 6 pm, and do leave some contingency time for traffic and pickups. Also, this bus is freezing so bring a light jacket, socks or something to keep you cosy.
When we reached Binjai the bus dropped us at a small ALS bus terminal next to a restaurant. Leave the bus terminal and take a left past this restaurant. Walk straight until you reach the main junction and follow the main road around towards the ‘Binjai Supermall’.
No doubt locals will know exactly where you are looking for and will point you in the right direction. Just remember to decline EVERY offer of taxis, rickshaws and tuk-tuks. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that you need to go to another destination for the bus, however, if you arrive here after 6 pm, you may have to.
Cost: 40,000 MYR (€2.50)
Step #2 From Banjai to Bukit Lawang:
When you reach the mall, facing the main road with traffic flowing left, stand near the tall Matahari sign, outside the motorbike shop. There will be a line of tuk-tuks waiting for people to get off the bus.
Keep an eye out for the small orange P.S (Pembangunan Semesta) bus, it is more like a minivan – 5 rows of about 3 seats per each row. It is cramped, there is no A.C and passengers can smoke on it but if you catch it early in the morning, (we jumped on the 10 am one) it shouldn’t be too packed.
It’s really important to note that you don’t pay the driver until you arrive at Bukit Lawang. No matter what anyone tells you! All in all the journey from Binjai to Bukit Lawang took about 2.5 hours and cost 15,000 MYR (€1).
From the bus terminal in Bukit Lawang, it is a 1km (15 minute) walk to the river where you will find all the guesthouses. You can also take a tuk-tuk for around 10,000 MYR (€0.60).
NOTE: You don’t need to pre-book accommodation as there are plenty around. In fact, if you don’t you might be able to secure yourself a better deal as locals will approach you at the bus terminal to sell tours and offer accommodation options. Do, however, check prices on Booking.com beforehand so you have a rough idea of the going rates. Maybe take note of the names of any cheap accommodation available.
We got ourselves a tour and accommodation combo deal, but when we originally checked online, there were basic double rooms with a fan, private bathroom (cold showers) and slow ass WiFi for only €2.50 a night (I shit you not!).
Cost: 15,000 MYR (€.60)
Time: 2 hours
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Jungle Booking – Trek in Bukit Lawang:
Just like the accommodation, you don’t need to pre-arrange your tour. Unless you want to organise accommodation, tour and private transport with the same tour guide that is.
Nearly every second person and his granny is a tour guide in Bukit Lawang and there will be plenty of options and guides to choose from.
You have the choice of a full day trek right up to a 4-day jungle trek (and more should you wish!). We went with the Two Day, One Night Jungle Trek and loved every single minute. The only regret was not staying for longer to head deeper into the jungle.
No matter what guide or what agency you go with, all tours have a fixed price. There seems to be a local pricing agreement and a rotation system to reduce competition and give all guides an opportunity to earn. A great shout really!
You can search for guides on Facebook, enquirer through your accommodation, wait and be approached or visit any of the offices around Bukit Lawang.
Prices (as of January 2019) are as follows:
€45 – One Day Trek
€80 – Two Day Trek
€110 – Three Day Trek
€155 – Four Day Trek
If you want to return to Bukit Lawang by tubing down the river (do it, it’s such a laugh!) there is an additional charge of €10 per person. We think it is so worth it and the perfect ending to the jungle trek adventure.
20% Jungle Trek Discount:
In good news for all our lovely Ungraceful readers, we have arranged with a local guide to offer you all a 20% discount on any jungle trekking package of your choice.
All you have to do is contact Anton Sitorus to arrange. You do not have to book in advance or pay upfront, you can wait until you meet him at Bukit Lawang instead and organise it all in person.
All you have to do is screenshot or save the image below and show it to Anton when booking.
The best way to contact Anton is through Facebook, via Whatsapp, or pop down to the Wisma Leuser Sibayak Guesthouse (along the river) and ask the lovely staff there to contact him for you.
Whatsapp: +628 137 640 4778
Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking Tips:
Here we share a few tips to make the whole jungle trekking experience a little easier for you. From what to pack to sourcing a guide, what to expect and things to consider.
Find A Reputable Guide:
It is inevitable we are going to start with this one. Whether you decide to avail of our 20% discount and book with Anton, or go a differnet way, do make sure you source a reputable guide.
All guides that lead a jungle trek must be fully licensed and carry their Tour Guide License/I.D. Never hesitate in asking to see this proof of I.D, any decent guide should be willing to show you.
It is also important that you ensure your guide will not interfere with the wildlife and instead show great care and respect for the jungle. Anton arranged for Mona (request him!) to bring us on a trek, and we have to say we were more than blown away by his understanding, knowledge and love for the jungle.
He made sure no rubbish was left behind, not even a banana skin, not once did he approach any of the animals and he made sure our safety was paramount at all times. He also has an eagle eye which means he never misses a trick or a monkey!
The easiest way to suss if a guide is willing to break any ethical rules is to ask him! Play dumb, express an interest and ask if it is possible to get up close and maybe even feed an orangutan. If the guide is willing to let this happen to bag you as a customer, walk the hell away! Find someone who will not permit this behaviour whatsoever.
Everything is done in cash and there are no ATM’s so make sure to work out your costs for whatever tour you’re going on bearing in mind this will include accommodation and food. Then set aside cash for accommodation, food and transport outside of the trekking days.
Worst case, some hostels will offer cash back for ridiculous prices or a driver will offer to bring you to the nearest town. We met too many people who came to the jungle with nothing but their debit or credit card and had to spend a small fortune to spend even more money booking. Come prepared.
What To Pack:
Jungle trekking is something you can feel underprepared for and so end up bringing a lot more than you need. Even with one night in the jungle, we worried if we had all that we needed and had concerns we would leave ourselves stuck – like, c’mon it was one night and we know too well how to travel with very little so why it all of a sudden became overwhelming… let’s just put it down to the excitement.
Again, we only went for two days and one night and so if you do go for longer obviously you may need to pack more!
It’s easy to assume you will need top-notch trekking shoes for this adventure. You might be surprised to see that not even the guides themselves wear what you would consider trekking shoes and may even discourage you from wearing the thickly padded hiking shoes you probably paid a fortune for.
The trek isn’t as strenuous as imagined but obviously, it being the rain forest, the biggest concern is when moisture meets humidity which means sweaty or wet feet – never an enjoyable feeling. What you want is grip, comfort and something at least semi-waterproof. There is a possibility you will wade through and cross rivers so footwear that is easily removed is ideal.
I travel with sandals and a pair of runners, Luke has hiking shoes and flip-flops. So we decided to suss what the guides were all wearing and follow suit. Best decision we ever made! We bought ourselves what are known as Kampung trekking shoes – they are extremely popular in Malaysia and you will notice all the guides around Bukit Lawang sporting them. These shoes are perfect for jungle trekking!
Similar to football boots, some come with studs on the bottom which allow for grip, the fact that they are made out of one piece of rubber means they are waterproof, they dry easily and are pretty much indestructible (there are no seems to burst!). Obviously, rubber means sweaty feet so best to wear with socks.
The good news? You can buy them in Bukit Lawang for 25,000 MYR (€1.25). Pop over to the small markets that face the river, close to where all the guesthouses are, and pick up a pair. They may not look like much, but we have since used ours to hike up volcanoes and walk long distances! We have dubbed them our SMMs (Sister Mary Margarets, since they look like shoes a nun would wear).
#2 Food and Water
The guides will supply water and plenty of it, but let it be known to those who travel cautiously that the water supplied at camp is boiled spring water. Now, we drank it and all of us were fine. Remember, the guides do not want you getting sick. However, we understand that not everyone will feel comfortable drinking this water and so it is best to bring your own.
We brought three litres of water between the two of us and guzzled it all. So if you don’t plan on drinking any of the boiled water, you might want to bring three litres per person (this is for a two-day trek!).
Food wise, don’t bother bringing any, not even a snack. You will be well fed! What we do suggest however is your own cutlery. Pick up a takeaway fork from your hostel or local restaurant to bring it with you. Lunch is usually eaten with your hands and even with hand sanitizer, it isn’t all that pleasant.
Honestly? All you need is deodorant, mozzie spray, sun cream, some hand sanitizer and toilet roll. I brought baby wipes with me to give my face a lil freshen up but the river is ready and waiting for you.
All you need are the clothes you are wearing on the day and a light outfit for the second day – shorts and a t-shirt will do! Do bring a swimsuit! Not only is it so nice to have a quick splash when you reach camp, but handy for tubing back to the town. Your can hang your swim suit out to dry.
It won’t get too cold at night but temperatures can drop and I was certainly glad I brought an extra pair of leggings with me. To be honest, any extra layer will do. Long skirt, sarong, it’s just for the evening time while sitting at camp – it was literally to keep my legs warm (and mozzie free!).
All in all, I brought a swimsuit, leggings, an extra pair of socks for my rubber trekking shoes, a pair of shorts and a fresh t-shirt for the second day.
Keep the bag light!
Again, this is the rain forest and even in the dry season, it can rain. We travel with ponchos and so it was no burden to bring them. A black bag, a cheap poncho from one of the market stalls or be a badass and endure whatever weather conditions the jungle throws at you, but bring a spare pair of dry clothes for the night time!
#6 Plastic Bag
Not ones to encourage the use of plastic, and so only if you have one to spare (or something similar) it is handy to keep any damp or severely sweaty clothes separate from your gadgets and dry clothes in your bag. Considering it did rain and we crossed a river, we were glad we got use from the plastic bag we had been carrying around for so long. It stopped our bags from stinking!
Speaking of gadgets we brought our camera, phone and a power bank. We have waterproof phone covers and while they are not exactly needed, it did come in handy as we could keep our phones close to us in case we spotted any wildlife (we had no pockets). We also got some nice videos of us tubing back to the town. If you want snaps while tubing, you will need a waterproof cover or camera!
What To Expect:
And lots of it! We were told that we would be well looked after on our tour, but never did we expect to be rolling around the jungle bellies full of some of the best food we’ve had in Indonesia – with plenty of vegetarian options too. Do give advanced notice if you are vegan!
Along the trek you will stop for some snacks; a leaf decorated with beautifully presented tropical fruits. Lunch consists of rice, vegetables (cucumber, tomatoes), topped with a fried egg and served with prawn crackers.
When you arrive at camp, usually there is some tea and biscuits served. Dinner will be a bed of rice served with different dishes from vegetable curry and omelette to potato cakes, tofu and tempeh (tofu bean cake). Breakfast is an omelette club sandwich and lots of tea!
Just remember never to leave any food lying about, give all your rubbish (even your fruit skins) to back to the guide and try not to carry food with you. There are fearless monkeys about!
We are misleading you here a little. Spending the night camping isn’t going to offer any luxury and comfort, and if you thought it would – you are mental. The camps are well set up to hold off any unpredictable weather. Some will have tents placed under or in a wooden shack; others will be a flatbed of raised mud, covered with a tarp, yoga mats and blankets.
The blanket is light and may smell funky from the moist air while the pillow quite flimsy. So yeah, let’s just say your back might need a good crack and a decent stretch in the morning. But sure camping out is half the fun and it’s only for one night so embrace it!
OK, so the whole point of the trek is to observe some orangutans in their natural habitat. And while it is never guaranteed to see any, you would have to be extremely unlucky to float through the national park for two days without spotting even one!
Because some of the orangutans are semi-wild (they were once held captive before being rehabilitated and returned to the jungle) it means that they call certain areas within the jungle their home, and the guides know exactly where to look. So no doubt they will find them.
Across the two days, we saw seven wild and semi-wild orangutans in total. Two of which were within the first hour of our trek. We saw a large male, some females, the infamous Mena and a mammy and baby combo. It was incredible.
There are other monkeys and wildlife roaming around the jungle, some without fear, so stay with your guide, do not hold onto or carry food and never ever approach a wild animal. You are a guest in their home. So hands off, be respectful and leave it exactly the way you found it.
#4 Meana The Misunderstood
A quick tangent in terms of wildlife.
Of all the possible orangutans you might come across, it is pretty much guaranteed you will meet Meana. The guide may warn you of her abrupt nature as she has been known to be quite aggressive towards humans. She was once a captive animal, mistreated, rehabilitated and released. Over the years, she has come close to any visitors who stop to gawk and because of this, she was fed too many times by both dumb guides and idiot tourists. In our opinion, that means the tourists and guides were aggressive towards here, not the other way around.
A quick search on Youtube will show you Meana holding on to foreigner’s arms demanding to be fed. Or grabbing hold of bags and items. It’s a shocking watch and when we did watch it, we had only sympathy for Meana.
Your guide will know her. He may even call her. Ours didn’t and instead, we crossed her path where she happily sat under the watchful eye of her baby. Mona, our guide, told us to keep our distance. He stood in between us and her, locking eyes and making it known that we were not to approach her, and she was not to approach us. She didn’t, but we did pass another group who flaunted their photos of us. Posed with Meana, handing her bananas and getting selfies. It disgusted us and we immediately lost interest in them and only wish we asked for the guide’s name.
Don’t be a dick. Please. If you see her, observe her beauty and grace. For she may be called Meana the Meanie, but we know her as Meana the Misunderstood.
It’s inevitable and although they are gross it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. They may be tiny but they are easy to spot and remove. Our guide had the most on him, and between us two we found no more than five or so.
You could bring leech socks but as we always say if you make it impossible for them to attach to your legs, they will find somewhere else to leech off of. And dunno about you, but we’d prefer to keep them on the lower part of our body!
Don’t worry; they won’t spoil your trek.
If you opt-in for the tubing, which we highly recommend you do, know that all your stuff and equipment will be safe and sound. The guides provide large waterproof bags, two for the entire group. They will then strap them safely onto the giant rubber tubes.
The tubing itself is thrilling. Two large rubber rings tied together, one guide at either end steering with nothing but large bamboo sticks. They place netting and yoga mats in the middle of the ring so it’s more of a seat, and is quite comfortable! You will get wet, there will be bumps and splashes but it is honestly such fun. I have a fear of open water and still, I found my adrenaline pumped self buzzing with laughter.
#7 Tour Groups:
It is a minimum of three people on a trek. So if you are flying solo or a couple, you will be teamed up with other people, unless you are happy to fork out and pay the same price as three people would pay. If not, you will be teamed up with others but note that there are never more than six people in one group. We didn’t actually come across any group that had more than four. Ours had four which was the perfect number.
So you need not worry if you have enough people or if you are on your own. It is also quite easy to roam Bukit Lawang and actually join a group so you can meet them beforehand. Either way, the best ice-breaker in the world is when you all finally see an orangutan. An experience shared, a little bond formed.
There will be other groups with other guides and you might pass them once or twice during your trek or passing the camps but that is about it. We did visit in January, which is low season so don’t hold us to that.
For any non-Irish readers, we don’t mean the type you smoke. Craic meaning “a laugh”. Expect a laugh, expect a thrill, expect some excitement and expect a truly memorable experience. We made some really good friends on the tour, with who we still keep in touch. Our guide Mona was fantastic, our chef and tubing master, Alan, had such a great sense of humour. We went in making it all about the orangutans and really didn’t expect to leave with more than just that experience. If we could do it all again, we wouldn’t – why? Because we would want it to be exactly the way it was. Same group and same vibes.
A final note to wrap this up and we only bring this up because it happened to us – a lot! There is a possibility your guide, hostel owner or a random local might offer you weed. The majority of the guides smoke, and they may possibly smoke at camp. If you are a family or have kids don’t worry, they won’t even attempt this! It is more so with backpackers.
Do as you will with this information but please remember that Indonesia holds some of the strictest laws against drugs. There may be zero cops in sight in Bukit Lawang and the jungle might offer you safety but just be mindful and smart. There were plenty of people smoking around the town and on the trek. If you choose to do it – our last preachy moment of the blog we promise – please remember to stub it out and bring the smoke butt with you. Do not flick it away!!
That is all.
Leaving Bukit Lawang
Depending on your next destination, whether it’s back to Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport or onward to Lake Toba, the three main options for leaving Bukit Lawang are by public bus, tourist bus or private hire.
Bukit Lawang To Medan City / Medan Airport:
#1 Private Hire
For the private hire option, it is best to shop around for prices and maybe see if anyone from your trek or hostel is willing to split costs. We heard prices can start from 350,000 MYR (€21) – we don’t know if that is per car or per person.
#2 Public Bus
For public bus, you could bypass Medan city entirely and take the small orange P.S (Pembangunan Semesta) bus to Binjai for 15,000 MYR (€1). Buses leave every half hour from 6 am-7 pm. Some locals hanging around the bus station may try to quote you more, just remember to only pay the bus driver when you arrive at Binjai. Tell the bus driver “Kualanamu airport” and he will know exactly where to drop you off. From Binjai take the A.L.S Antar Lintas Sumatera bus straight to the airport for 40,000 MYR (€2.50). This journey takes around 1.5hr-2hr.
If you want to head straight back to Medan city, stay on the P.S (Pembangunan Semesta) bus the whole way to Pinang Baris bus terminal.
Feed An Ungraceful
Dear lovely reader….
A cheeky little note to mention that while our blog is our baby, we do this for the sheer passion, love and want to help others to travel the routes we do and in ways that we do it – the scabbiest way possible! We don’t make an income from the blogging, there is no sponsored content or #ad going on with us – instead we work to earn a very small but helpful income by providing low cost websites, teaching English online and, being scabby!
Between all the adventures, photos, laughs and disasters, is the note-taking, sourcing information, researching options, making mistakes and, well, more disasters!
So for whatever mental reason you feel like you would like to support what we do, you can! Simply #FeedAnUngraceful today by either donating the price of a cuppa tea or becoming a sponsor of our blog and adventures on our Patreon account.
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