In a Nutshell: Orangutan are native only to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The village of Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, Indonesia provides a comfortable, year-round accessible gateway to visit wild Orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park. Here is the ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ in making a visit to these Great Apes!
Lets face it, Orangutans are incredible. They are one of four species of Great Apes and share a mindblowing 97% of our human genetic code. Consider that! To see these intelligent beings gracefully carve through the heights of the rainforest is not something you’ll forget. Although a tempting alternative, a visit in captivity just doesn’t do this majestic animal justice – not when they yearn for jungle freedom.
But, at first glance, seeing Orangutans in the wild isn’t exactly easy.
These stunning creatures live (selfishly!) as natives only to Indonesia and Malaysia, amidst the rainforest jungles of the islands of both Borneo and Sumatra. This makes Orangutan reasonably inaccessible to the average tourist. Both locations closely verge upon being adventure tourism.
But luckily, there is a saviour — one hidden gem not yet overrun by tourists, where its cultural integrity remains and the rainforest jungle village lifestyle has prevailed through eco-tourism and a fundamental mutual respect between man and Great Ape, beneficial to both.
The village is Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, Indonesia and it’s likely your most suitable opportunity to see Orangutans in their natural habitat.
Why Bukit Lawang?
Bukit Lawang is the perfect platform. It provides a comfortable gateway to the jungle at Gunung Leuser National Park. The locals are fantastic, they live and breathe Orangutan and their expertise is invaluable to sightings, with a focus on their survival. Nobody wants to leave disappointed, and it’s clear the people here have a great understanding of tourist expectations.
Almost guaranteed sightings
Look; I’ll be honest, nowhere can offer a 100% guaranteed chance to see wild Orangutans. Many factors come into play and a bit of luck doesn’t go astray either, but I can assure you that Bukit Lawang will certainly maximise your chances.
During my three day stay, including an overnight trek into Gunung Leuser National Park, we spotted 14 Orangutan, including a large dominant male and two mothers carrying babies. All images taken in this post were from the jungle trek, including the feature image!
The outskirts of Gunung Leuser act as a rehabilitation launch-pad and as such; semi-wild Orangutan are never far away, they even respond to human calls deep into the jungle. Guides have perfected it. Give it ten minutes, and descending from the great depths, amidst rustling and audible cracks will appear an Orangutan, leaving snapped branches in its wake. Just fantastic! The gist I got from the guides was that this is a fall-back option in the case truly wild Orangutan haven’t been spotted.
Rest assured; you’ll leave with your expectations fulfilled. This alone makes Bukit Lawang such an important recommendation to those wanting the same experience.
Accessibility to many
Although a village that hasn’t strayed far from its roots, tourism certainly has shaped Bukit Lawang. Some lodging offers facilities that make it more accessible to the less adventurous at reasonable prices. English speakers, running water, western style toilets, regular power, Wifi, excellent 3G access and western food varieties can be found in Bukit Lawang if required. This is by no means the norm here; however it’s available if you need it.
Isolated, yet reachable
No bush-bashing through the thick untraversable jungle, time bogged in mud pits or frustration felt from irregular river crossings at the mercy of ‘Indonesian time’ — you can get to Bukit Lawang the same day you leave Medan city or airport. A day in an air conditioned vehicle, thankfully, because Medan is essentially a living, breathing sauna.
Depending on traffic (Medan traffic is hell) and the weather, it’s about a four-hour bumpy and dusty trek down dirt roads. Eventually, it expands into rich green dense jungle and fields laden of palm plantations. You’ll dissect local villages, wave at a lot of people and witness rural Sumatran life. Great stuff.
Unfortunately, deforestation has taken its toll and wild Orangutan numbers continue to dwindle, both in Sumatra, and Borneo. Ironically, imposing upon their natural habitat as an eco-tourist is now positively stagnating this decline — it’s building tourism value that’s providing asset protection to many of the Orangutan remaining, allowing safe zones for those that have been rehabilitated. Indonesia isn’t exactly known for its environmentally-friendly progression, so this is a great consolation.
What to expect?
Orangutans. Seriously, this may sound stupid, but for every person to visit neighbouring Borneo with the explicit intention of catching a glimpse of an Orangutan, there is one that leaves without a sighting. Time, energy and money spent on trekking can be quickly drained along with your hopes and expectations when you consistently come up empty.
Most lodging in Bukit Lawang employs local educated guides to organise treks into Gunung Leuser National Park. They are passionate, knowledgeable and have usually grown ingrained to the law of the land. They will organise and front rainforest trips that are tailored to your requirements.
Only have one day to see Orangutans? Check.
Overnight, camping with monkeys and tubing the river? Check.
Want to spend seven days living off the grid in the jungle? Check.
One thing is for sure; they want you to see Orangutan! This assurance helps to justify your travel here.
Other things to expect in Bukit Lawang are:
- Orangutan rehabilitation feeding platform – About 10 minutes stroll, you can make your way up to see semi-wild Orangutans descend twice daily for a feed.
- The bat cave – Dark, claustrophobic and bats…so many bats.
- Monkeys – Including beautiful Thomas Leaf Monkeys.
- Relaxation – The village has a laid back atmosphere, locals are lovely and the trickling sound of the river prefaced by the sounds of the jungle seem designed for afternoons spent reading.
- Swimming – Right outside your lodging, popular with the locals too.
- Tubing – The river has low-grade rapids, and it’s heaps of fun.
- Waterfalls – They can be reached during hikes, perfect for a ‘traditional massage’ as the locals would say.
- Mosquitos – As certain as day turns to night. Bring repellant.
How do I get there?
- If you fly into Medan, you’ll now fly into the new Kuala Namu airport. It’s the same distance (30km) from Medan as it is from Bukit Lawang direct.
- There is no accommodation at Kuala Namu airport (2015), so either stay in Medan overnight or head straight to Bukit Lawang if you have time (private car takes 4 hours).
- Private, air-conditioned vehicle from Medan or Kuala Namu to Bukit Lawang is about $40 USD one-way, split between a couple, or fellow tourist, it’s not bad value.
- Tourist Buses (Mini-van) run from Medan, Berastagi or Lake Toba very regularly. From Medan, they cost about $10 USD each but only run if filled.
- Local Bus is possible and very cheap ($1 USD) from Medan. It will be crowded, slow and questionably safe with no air conditioning.
- Booking online isn’t possible for most lodges. I recommend just turning up. The locals will pounce on the opportunity to lodge you, as you will likely jungle trek with them too. Don’t be afraid to say no initially and take a look around, Bukit Lawang is only a twenty-minute stroll one side to the other and has a range of accommodation.
What time of year?
- You can expect to see Orangutans all year round; this is an enormous advantage in visiting Bukit Lawang.
- The weather in Sumatra is tropical, so expect it to be hot with a possibility of rain all year round – even during ‘dry’ season.
- Orangutans can be seen closer to the ground between April and November, as the trees are fruiting.
- Torrential rains occur primarily in the ‘wet’ season between October and February.
- The ‘dry’ season is accepted as being between March and September.
- Tourism peak is between June and August.
- I went in March. It was quiet and as you can see, there was no shortage of Orangutan!
- If possible, try to avoid Indonesian public holidays as it will be far busier. Weekends generally see higher occupancy too.
How much will it cost me?
- Cost varies, as you’d expect. However, I found that price was firmly correlated with quality. Remember this.
- My trek was offered through my lodging; it cost $75 USD. This was on the high side.
- It was a two-day, overnight trek into Gunung Leuser National Park including knowledgeable English speaking guides, meals and camping facilities. Tubing down the river back to Bukit Lawang is catered with appropriate waterproofing. You’ll have your camera remember. It’s essential.
- For many lodges, the price fluctuates based on the time of year and you can usually haggle. June-August (high tourist season) is usually busiest and most expensive.
- You may be offered similar overnight treks on paper for less, through other lodging or the guides you’ll be approached by in the village. This is fine, but ensure they are an official guide. Regardless, some shortcuts may be taken on quality; this could be as simple as the gear, less catering or a less hospitable camping location. Just be aware.
- Bukit Lawang is small. Reputations are built in Bukit Lawang. The friendly and communal atmosphere allows you to get to know many guides before commitment, use this opportunity if you are unsure!
Before visiting; remember these:
- There will be mosquitoes, lots of them. Bring mosquito repellent.
- There are no ATMs. There is also no means of electronic payment. At all. Get as much money as you think you’ll need in Medan, then take some more just in case. You’ll need to pay for accommodation, guides, food and possibly a tip, maybe a souvenir.
- It’s illegal to trek alone, or without a guide. Not only that, it’s incredibly dangerous, stupid and irresponsible. Entering the rainforest without a guide or proper equipment will almost certainly result in disorientation, heatstroke or potential injury. Don’t come to Bukit Lawang with this in mind.
- On that note, ensure you have travel insurance.
- If you do hurt yourself, medical care is limited. Nurse, doctor and pharmacist will be the same person.
- Bring good walking shoes. Seriously. The trek is hilly, awkward and slippery – you’ll need grip, even on a single day trek.
- Bukit Lawang does have power. But it also has regular power outages. Bring a USB recharging block or spare battery for your camera.
- Bring a torch.
- There’s a tiny internet cafe in Bukit Lawang and some of the lodges have Wifi. However, the 3G coverage is fantastic. Data is cheap in Indonesia, consider getting a local Simpati sim card in Medan. It served me well.
- Bring swimming gear, take it on your trek. You’ll have ample opportunity to swim – even right outside your lodging.
- Do not hike in cotton. Trust me.
- Keep your belongings safe. Not from humans, but from monkeys. Bukit Lawang is in the jungle – if you leave your lodging door open, you’ll have a monkey infestation and likely no underwear for tomorrow.
P.S – Have you visited wild Orangutan elsewhere? How does it compare? Let me know in comments below – I’d love to hear about your experience!
Elliott- thank you for the info. Trying to decide between Sumatra or Borneo for Orangutan sightings in the wild. 67 and 26 yr old females. Me in so-so shape and my great niece in great shape so this enters in the decision also. We have only a couple of days to make this happen.
We are leaving Komodo Islands on Oct 11 headed to a place yet undecided to see the Orangutans.
I’m starting to feel coming to Sumatra might be the simpler trip. We are headed on to Phenom Penh from wherever we decide. If you have any thoughts, sure would appreciate them. Thank you!
Hi Vicki, I’d say Bukit Lawang will be your best bet, especially due to your time limitation. Medan is easily/cheaply accessible from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore so getting there and then back to Phnom Penh will be a breeze. There is no boating to reach Bukit Lawang so you can plan your schedule fairly reliably. I’d highly recommend at least two nights in Bukit Lawang. Aim to arrive into Medan by flight early, hire a driver to Bukit Lawang, spend the day getting to know the village and organise a trek. Trek the next morning, overnight in the jungle, return via the river and then head back to Medan by hired driver. If you can’t get a late evening flight, you’ll have to stay the night in Medan (I recommend d’primahotel Medan – the train station is in the same building so it’s perfect for morning transit). For lodging in Bukit Lawang, I stayed at ‘Thomas’ Retreat Bukit Lawang’. His contact is on his website and he responds to calls or text to organise stays and treks in advance, which will be an easy option for you with short time. Hope this helps!
Elliott- thank you! Your very concise thoughts on all this sure helps with organizing a trip. I think Sumatra may be our way to go with time limits, etc
Sure appreciate you and “Happy Traveling”! I’ve been to 87 countries and gonna add a few on this trip. Love experiencing our great big crazy world!
Nice write-up on Bukit Lawang, came across it while writing my recent post on the palm oil industry and visiting orangutan sanctuaries… in answer to your closing question, I’ve been to both Bukit Lawang and Sepilok. I think hiking near Bukit Lawang is the better experience, but they do great work at Sepilok and it’s well worth visiting if in Malaysian Borneo
Most helpful piece I have found so far! Thank you. Can you tell me the name of the place you stayed and tour guide you went with?
Hi Nat, glad it’s helped out! I stayed at ‘Thomas’ Retreat Bukit Lawang’. Thomas and his staff were fantastic. I didn’t have anywhere to stay until the day, so I shot him an email while on the road to Bukit Lawang and he had replied within that window, even ensuring one of his staff was prepared to meet me at the drop-off point in the village to show me the ropes. It was easy. If you aren’t picky about accommodation and aren’t visiting on a national holiday, arriving without any plan may be fun and you can pick between the guest house owners when you arrive, they tend to hang around the drop-off point for new arrivals. If you arrive early in the day, maybe hang out at some of the lodging bars and have a beer before committing to anything. It’s super chilled out in that village, you’ll see what I mean!
I seriously adore your writing style Elliot, it started with the DMZ article leading to Orangutans. It’s absolutely impossible for me to hold myself from incessant reading haha. Pictures are splendid and clear. The guide provided here is exhaustive, honest and well explained. Hardly have I come across travel blogs, where people share even minuscule details.
Anywise, Keep up the good work!
Hi Charlotte, I love this kind of comment, thank you very much! I struggled to plan my trip to Bukit Lawang initially, as information was scant, so if this guide can help those have the same wonderful experience I had during my visit, then it’s all worth it!