Orangutans in Bukit Lawang: Meeting The Real King Louie
Located in Indonesia, in middle of nowhere on the island of Sumatra, Bukit Lawang is known for being one of the two places in the world where you can see orangutans in their natural environment. Incredible, right? Even though, we normally don’t go for the obvious things to do and we try to avoid pricey tours, we thought this was an opportunity difficult to resist and something everyone should have on their bucket list. This said, amazing experiences are usually expensive and this wasn’t an exception.
A more than bumpy ride from Medan to Bukit Lawang
To get to Bukit Lawang, we first stayed in Medan for a night and then took a shared minivan to the small town in the jungle. I just want to add that we’ve had some of the worst experiences with public transport during our stay in Indonesia and this minivan ride was one of them.
This guy... I mean this guy was just NUTS. He didn’t seem to be falling asleep like many other drivers we had in Indonesia but he was definitely on some sort of a racing frenzy which just got worst when we reached the road outside of town. His van was clearly in poor condition: Some seats were not attached to the chassis, the cushions were old and uncomfortable and we could see the road through the floor. Driving at high speed on narrow roads full of potholes was a freaking nightmare. Trains are so awesome in Indonesia!
What to do in Bukit Lawang...?
Anyway, first very stressful stage completed. We had booked a room for 2 nights in a guesthouse close to the sanctuary; an area of 8,000 square kilometers of jungle has been turned into the safe home for 7,500 of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans.
At last, it was time to book our tour to see the amazing orangutans; but not without hesitation...
The problem? I had a bad bad cold. Oh boy, I suppose everyone who travels has had moments like this where there’s nothing left to do then to miss out or power through. So much pressure! In the end, I just couldn’t let Joris and myself down and we booked the tour hoping that the next day I would feel a bit better.
There were 3 tours to choose from: 3 hours (Too short, so might not be able to see the orangutans), a full day (Plenty of time to do a trek in the heart of the jungle and spot orangutans and other animals) or spending the night (No, thank you!). I think it’s needless to say we chose the full day. The next day, after a good breakfast and feeling enthusiastic, we left with our guide (another one joined us later) and only three other people into the jungle.
Seeing orangutans in the jungle
Not to bore you with the details of my health that day, I’ll just say that my nose was runny and my throat was painfully dry and at the end of the day I was beaten but proud because even though we had another misfortune coming up, this still was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done and it was worth all the extra effort.
The climb for the first half an hour was steep and tough but the terrain gradually evened out and then the exciting part started. We were impressed by how our guide was able to cruise through the jungle and take us in the right direction. He was definitely experienced and knowledgeable which gave us a chance to learn more about the sanctuary and its inhabitants.
What a treat it was to finally see the orangutans. What incredible animals; the way they move, their long shiny brown fur and intelligent eyes; the way they swing from tree to tree with a gracefulness you wouldn't expect. It’s sad to think that they are an endangered species.
As we walked deeper into the jungle, we were lucky enough to see 3..., 4 more! An amazing experience when we saw a young orangutan. In his curiosity, he approached a group of other people hanging from a tree only a few inches away. His mom stayed a few meters behind watching carefully from another tree.
Meeting King Louie
Just when we thought this was the highlight of our jungle tour, there he was, a massive full grown male orangutan chilling on a jungle swing. It was King Louie from The Jungle Book! We watched him sit on his ‘throne’, commanding the space around him. He was the boss. We took pictures and then saw him slowly move away and even accept a left-over piece of watermelon from one of the guides. It couldn’t get any better than that.
A while later and it was time for lunch. The guides brought fresh fruit and a meal of nasi goreng (fried rice). It was time to sit and relax and chomp on the delicious food wrapped in banana leafs.
We reached a clear space in the jungle but the air felt different, more dense. As we were having the first bites of our meal, the sky turned darker and... oh oh, rain! Because we had no where else to go, we searched for shelter under some trees and hoped it would stop soon. “Nom, nom, nom!”, as we got more and more wet.
Some jungle rain never hurt anyone
We had seen the weather forecast for that day and it looked good but apparently it’s not rare to get a surprise shower in the jungle. The guides were prepared and they quickly put our belongings in large a bag. The other couple in our group, Belgians Vanessa and Luk, outsmarted us by bringing disposable plastic raincoats. Why didn’t we think of that?!
The rain didn’t stop. In fact, it went from bad to worse.
The tour was over sooner than planned. It was time to leave and go to the closest shelter. We walked as fast as we could over the now slippery jungle floor following the guide carrying the big plastic bag. I was amazed by how that guy managed to effortlessly navigate the paths while carrying a big heavy bag full of stuff.
The rain was pouring down mercilessly and it was so much it was obstructing our vision. And what about the people who booked a tour to stay the night in the jungle? Yikes!
Finally! We reached the shelter... “Wait, is this the shelter?” Ok, so it was more like a broken down wooden shack with no doors and missing half a floor; but I suppose in cases like this you could call it a shelter because it had a roof. It was also the first time we saw a small leech and it was sucking MY blood... I was able to slap that one off (Yes, there were more later).
We waited for around half an hour, eating fresh pineapple and trying to stay warm. The rain wasn’t stopping any time soon, so the guides went to get some improvised ‘umbrellas’; big leaves from plants in the jungle. Orangutans use them to shelter when it rains too. Luk thoughtfully offered me his raincoat and he and Joris held the giant leaves over their heads.
Escape from the jungle
Once more we had to rush through the jungle, over slippery mud paths trying to cross paths that had turned into rivers. The few times we had to cross them, the water came up to our waist and we really felt the current pulling us over. All part of the adventure you might say...?
Along the way, more of us had small leeches that the guide helped taking off using his nail to detach the sucker. It’s a strange experience. You get a little burn and after it’s removed it feels a little bit itchy. Then a bit of blood comes out for a minute or two. After that, a little red spot stays on your skin for weeks.
Leech bites are more unpleasant than dangerous and they can be safely removed by hand. Contrary to general belief, you shouldn’t actually use fire or other substances to kill them because this will make them regurgitate, risking getting your wound infected. Also, only a small percent of people have allergic reactions after a leech bite.
And so, after a half an hour sprint that felt like hours, we were back at the guesthouse safe and sound. One last leech removal from Joris’ leg and ribs and we were ready for an unfortunately cold but welcome shower...
After this, we can imagine a little bit how it must have been for colonizers and explorers to fight their way through a dense, unknown jungle, encountering many obstacles including heavy rains and diseases, bugs and poisonous plants...terrible! In comparison, our experience was much more pleasant and thanks to our guide we didn’t get lost or scared.
Definitely worth it! Just be prepared for some exercise and a big adventure!
How to get to Bukit Lawang from Medan Airport
We flew into Medan from Kuala Lumpur and then took the bus and minivan to Bukit Lawang right away because our flight arrived around 11.00am. The total travel time is around 3 – 4 hours:
From Kuala Namu Airport take the ALS bus to Binjai. 60,000 rupiah (fixed price but could've gone up by now).
Get off the bus at the bus stop in Binjai and walk to the mall. Ojek driver will come up to you and say you have to go the the minivan station. That's possible too but not necessary. In case you want to do that it shouldn't cost more than 5-10,000 rupiah You can catch the orange minivans to Bukit Lawang on the road right in front of Binjai Supermall mall.
Agree on the price right away. They'll try to get 100,000 per person but for locals it's far less. We managed to bring it down to 30,000 per person.
Where to book a tour in Bukit Lawang
Every guesthouse will take you on a tour so it's really easy. Maybe picking the right one is tricky because a good guide makes all the difference. We recommend taking at least the full day tour because you get a lot more value for money that way.
We were very pleased with our tour from Ida Guesthouse. A small group and two nice guides that taught us a lot about the jungle and took care of us when it started raining like crazy. Leech removal included!