Visiting Indonesian Sumatra had always been on our bucket list. We wanted to see orangutans in the wild, whom you can spot even on a one-day trek to Gunung Leuser National Park which you can start in Bukit Lawang. While we generally prefer going trekking on our own, doing it here in the jungle without a guide would be unreasonable knowing that you are to deal with wildlife and you can expect an aggressive behaviour from animals that you may spot on your way. We opted for a 2-day trekking including sleeping in a tent, food, 2 guides and a tube rafting back to Bukit Lawang. We met 5 orangutans on the first day, some of the guys from our group saw one more creature swinging from a tree to a tree somewhere in the distance when they woke up early in the morning on the next day:) It’s easy to fall in love with orangutans at first sight;) You can find detailed information on our trekking and myriads of photos in the below post.
Prices for trekking to Gunung Leuser National Park are in general overrated. All travel agents in Bukit Lawang claim that the price is the same everywhere and indeed each of them offers theorically identical offers. For a one-day trekking they quote a price of 45EUR per person, for 2 days – 80-90EUR, for 3 days – 115EUR, etc. The price for a 2 day tour that we were interested in included: 1. guide, 2. guide’s permit to enter the park; 3. visitor’s permit to enter the park; 4. food including breakfast, lunch, dinner and fruit, snacks; 5. overnight stay in a tent in the jungle near a waterfall in which you can bathe; 6. tube rafting on the way back to Bukit Lawang (they always say that the last mentioned activity costs 10EUR and draw you attention to the fact that they offer you a discount so you will pay ‘’just’’ 80-90EUR / person and not 100EUR – it’s a standard talk everywhere..). The overall price seems to be a rip-off! How much in fact can you bargain for this tour? That would be the best to have a walk and check various travel agencies in Bukit Lawang in the evening just before 6pm, when they already have gathered some people for trekking for the next day (they need a minimum of 3 people, so having a full group defined for them can make it easier to bargain for 2 additional people) or catch some guy in the street (there are plenty of those who offer trekking literally for half price even for a ‘group’ of 2 people only). You should not pay more than 50EUR per person for a 2-day trek but be prepared that most of the places will tell you that you can not beat their price.
Personally we think it is better to opt for 2-day trekking (rather than just for a 1-day tour) as there is nothing more charming and beautiful than waking up in the wilderness near a waterfall and a stream, where crazy animals can be heard around. We were woken up by 2 monkeys making love in the stream in front of our tent 🙂 The rest of the animals made a lot of noise around trying to steal food from the guys who were cooking it for us in their makeshift kitchen. Moreover, you could see some monitor lizards passing through the stream, but they were not approaching our tent, which was literally open 24hours so any animal could hop into it.
On the 1st day we set off at 9am from Bukit Lawang and first we had a 40-minute trekking slightly up through the garden with local plants and a rubber plantation. Some local people there, like in Papua, love betel (indonesia pinang, beetlenut), which they chew and then spit around with a red-coloured saliva, the fruit also leaves a red&bloody colour on the teeth and the lips:
Then the guide announced that we would enter the jungle right away, but we would not be following the main trail because it was being busy on that day ( it was Sunday), as many local people were on that trail at the weekend. That was a red flag for us, especially because this excuse why we were walking through the bushes was repeated to us 2 more times. We are 90% sure that none of us was arranged the tourist permit to move around the national park. We did not even pass through the official entrance gate and all the time we were following a strange ‘route’ – yes – it was wilder, but it was evident that the guides were moving cautiously and uncertainly when we were in the jungle and especially when they saw some other groups in the distance. You always have the right to ask the guide to show you his permit and then to show your own one that he was supposed to arrange (and it’s good to do it especially at the beginning of the trek) – we did not do it at the beginning, and then we skipped that.
We were pleasantly surprised by many things during this trekking tour; but not by the knowledge of the guides, because we didn’t learn a lot about orangutans, the main guide wasn’t professional smoking cigarettes every 20 minutes. We had expected him to share with us many interesting facts and stories. We were impressed with just how many animals we could see (we only did not see gibbons or Sumatran tigers – the latter was seen 6 months ago, it would be a miracle to see that one) and with the amazing food to which we were treated and a spartan but climatic accommodation in a magnificent corner of the jungle. The pace of the trekking was really sloooow , really; but anyway right at the beginning of the trek the majority of people in our group looked totally wet because of the huge air humidity. After 1.5h of trekking we had a break for some energy boost in a form of fruit. We were given bananas, mangoes and tangerines. During the break first monkeys visited us, typical macaques. They sensed the food. One of them was quite big:
A moment later when we continued the trekking we saw the first orangutan on that day hopping high in the distance high from a branch to another one, and yet another, which soon approached us and stopped quite near. One of the guides gave it some fruit. This individual was a bit aggressive. We were told to keep the distance.
The guides taking groups to the jungle communicate with each other during the trekking and if anyone sees an orangutan nearby, other ones know more or less where to look for it. Our 2nd encounter with orangutans was thanks to this arrangement. In the jungle there is a large family of orangutans and we soon were told about Jackie, a female orangutan who was nearby with her kid. The guides and local people consider her to be extremely friendly. We were also told that she had the habit of grasping someone’s hand, she would approach a human being, but she would not harm anyone. She came with a baby and another family member. Jackie approached me and grabbed my hand. It was incredible to experience such an intimacy with this animal and it’s difficult to express my feelings at that moment. The time stopped for me then – that’s for sure, I will never forget it.
After the meeting with Jackie and her family we stopped a bit further for a lunch. We got a delicious nasi goreng telur (fried rice with: egg, vegetables and shrimp chips) and a pineapple:
Then we went to a place where we were to spend the night in a tent. It was near a small waterfall and a stream, where a small camp with a kitchen was made. We bathed in a waterfall and then we were served with crackers, tea and coffee. Lots of little monkeys jumped around us up in the trees, there were 2 monitor lizards close to the stream, and an exceptional black-and-white monkey called Thomas’s leaf monkey came close to the tent.
After a moment we could see an orangutan appearing in the distance, which approached the waterfall. We ran to capture on our cameras another ‘shining star’ of that day 🙂
The guides said that sometimes it’s also possible to meet Mina, another wel—known orangutan in this area but it is one of the most aggressive orangutans, the total opposite of Jackie..
Orangutans eat lemon grass, durian, mango, pineapple, banana and more exotic fruit available in their natural habitat:
We had a really nice group: the majority were Czechs (4 people) and a German guy, Thomas, who came to Indonesia and Singapore for a business trip, while he lives in the Netherlands. We were laughing the whole evening together 🙂 We were talking about traveling, each of our comrades has had a lot of experience in that. Besides, another Czech couple, Bohnka and David, joined us and told us how one of the orangutans stole their backpack, which they just put on the ground for a moment and later it was damaged by the animal. The guide helped them get it back. It is best to keep all your belongings with you all the time and move at a safe distance from the animals. Listen to your guide and everything will be OK.
The dinner was delicious and organized in a romantic mood with candles put in a tent on the ground. We were having chicken cooked in various styles and sauces, fish cooked spicy, shish kebabs, tofu, potatoes, vegetables, rice, salads, and shrimp chips:
Then we got some fruit again, followed by peanuts, shrimp chips and ginger tea one hour later. We chatted until 23:00, and then we went to sleep. This is the tent that we slept in with 5 other people:
Next day in the morning we were woken up by crazy macaques and a leaf monkey that were making a lot of noise near our camp.
We were given tea, coffee and cookies. Then it was time for breakfast: we got a double toast with an egg, cucumber and tomato. Then we were given a moment for relaxation and in an hour we were served noodles soup (unfortunately the pasta was from instant soup ..), which was cooked in a pot with vegetables; then we were treated to yellow watermelons and pineapples (plenty of food at the beginning of the day!).
Then after a 20-minute trek we reached a river where we started the tube rafting moving back towards Bukit Lawang. Of course we got totally soaked but it was a great fun:
Our meeting with the orangutans was like a gem in our journey through Southeast Asia. It is impossible to describe the emotions that accompanied us on the first day of trekking. We had already seen orangutans a year ago when visiting the Singapore Zoo, but it’s definitely not the same experience (although the zoo is amazing and is created in the way it resembles the animals’ natural habitat).
What should you bring with you when going trekking?
– a flashlight
– a sleeping bag (in our tent we only had hard mattresses and, besides, it gets cooler at night, so it is worth taking it with you)
– 2 bottles of water
– wet wipes
– water shoes (or flip flops / sandals) for tube rafting
– a raincoat
– a mosquito repellent
– a sunscreen
Where did we stay in Bukit Lawang?
We booked a room at Ida Guesthouse via agoda.com. We spent the first night there, then went trekking and left luggage there and then stayed there again. For the first night we paid 8,50EUR for the room, and the next one came out for 5,50EUR for the room as there appeared a discount on agoda.com, so I used this opportunity 🙂 In general you do not have to book anything in advance In Bukit Lawang because there are lots of accommodation options there and the prices are similar everywhere, around: 100.000IDR /7,50EUR per room.
The food is really cheap there which is surprising as it’s a touristy place. The least you can pay is 12.000IDR/less than 1EUR for a dish.
How to get to Bukit Lawang?
Arriving at Kuala Namu International Airport near Medan we wanted to skip a visit to this city and go straight to Bukit Lawang. We got on a bus to Binjai directly in the airport for which we paid 40,000 IDR /3EUR per person, and then in Binjai we said the driver we wanted to go to Bukit Lawang and he showed us a mini-van which we had to take there. Watch out! They will quote 50,000 IDR /4EUR per person for the transport (all the people from our trekking group paid this price which in fact was doubled for tourists), whereas you should pay no more than 25,000 IDR / less than 2EUR per person! I told the guy who wanted to doublecharge us that this was not the real price and he had no choice than to charge us correctly. It is good to prepare and pay them the exact amount of money, because they often have the excuse that they do not have a change, so they need to keep the rest of your money …
If you need some accommodation in Medan near the airport (as you have no choice and you have to stay somewhere and don’t want to go to the city center), we can recommend you Kuala Namu Guesthouse (located about 14km from the airport), where you will get to by a shuttle bus for 20,000IDR /1,50EUR. We paid 150.000IDR /11EUR for a room with breakfast.