Bukit Lawang with Kids: Jungle Trekking, Tubing and Orangutans

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This was our first time to Sumatra, Bukit Lawang with kids, but it won’t be our last. The flight time from Penang was about 50 minutes. Then from the Medan airport came a three-hour drive over rough roads as we moved further from the city and close to one of the last jungles that orangutans call home.

Bukit Lawang with Kids: Jungle Trekking, Tubing and Orangutans

Bukit Lawang with Kids: Jungle trekking, Tubing and Orangutans

Bukit Lawang with Kids

I’m still processing the trip and reeling from the workload that greeted me once we returned. I simply can’t wait, however, any longer to share some of the pics and stories with you.

Our first stop was a village called Bukit Lawang. Positioned directly across the river from Gunung Leuser National Park and an orangutan refuge, the town now exists on backpacker & trekker money. It’s a charming little village that seems to be more popular with Singaporeans and Sumatran locals than Westerners. There are places to buy cheesy T-shirts and knockoff sunglasses, but most of the village looks like the picture below.

Bukit Lawang road_Sumatra with kids

Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang with Kids

Guesthouses are relatively cheap (USD $15-40), which makes the trekking price (roughly USD $35-80) that much more appealing. And what trekking it was!

We chose a 1-day trip, but there were other options that included sleeping overnight in the jungle. We’ll definitely do that next time (we’ve already decided to go back).

Our 8-hour hike started after breakfast and took us through some amazing terrain. We saw gibbons, Thomas’s Leaf monkeys, giant ants and wild peacocks. And we also saw orangutans — seven of them throughout the day, including two babies.

Tough Hike In, but Easy Way Back

The hike was tough for all of us, and at times fairly precarious. Both kids hiked like champions, conquering steep inclines, slippery ledges and suffocating heat, despite the fact that we made them wear long pants & long-sleeve shirts (turned out mosquitoes and leeches aren’t a real problem in this area).

By the end of the trail, however, we were spent, our energy used up and our clothes soaked through with sweat, which made the trip home that much more fantastic. You see, for an extra 10 euro (approx USD $14 / JPY ¥1400) you can float back to the starting point in an inner tube on the river. Otherwise, you hike back.

This will possibly be the best value for money I have ever spent. Check out the flotilla the guides had waiting for us. All four of those tubes are tied together, and the guy center-right is water-proofing my camera bag with a couple garbage bags and bungee cord.

And then, after a quick river dip and some fresh pineapple, we were off. There were a few rapids, but nothing a family with young kids couldn’t handle. We got wet, but not overly so. In fact, I would have appreciated more splashing, but a quick flip over the side cured that.

So this is what most people come to Bukit Lawang for: jungle trekking, orangutan watching, and most recently (for the locals, anyway) tubing lazily down a river. But for us, this was only half the fun.

Exploring Bat Caves in Bukit Lawang with Kids

There are some bat caves on the other end of town. It’s around a 45-minute walk from our guesthouse perhaps, but totally worth it, and actually quite an adventure themselves.

When we reached the entrance, there was a guy sitting there, chain-smoking. He told us it would be 100,000 Rupiah (approx USD $8.45 / JPY ¥860) for him to guide the four of us through. I smelled a scam — that’s a lot of money for this part of the world. Besides, we’ve been to bat caves in Langkawi, Malaysia that were 5-minute strolls on paved sidewalks. I went with him at the end, thinking to help the local economy.

Wow, am I glad I did. We spent over two hours coming in and out of the earth, climbing over tree roots and spears of volcanic rock and squeezing through cracks that made me regret bringing my camera bag. Our guide helped the kids in tricky parts of the path, pointed out things we wouldn’t have noticed and generally made it a safer, more interesting day out.

Some caves were tiny. Others with massive caverns that smelled like guano. There was also one cave where swallows built their nests along the walls. This one was just below my eye level. I would highly suggest wearing a headlamp. Your hands are free to climb, maintain balance, and take pictures like these.

Bukit Lawang nest_Sumatra with kids

Adventure aside, we all really just enjoyed hanging out in Bukit Lawang. Unlike many Southeast Asian backpacker hubs, you didn’t hear much pop music blaring from shops catering to tourists. Instead, you hear guitars. When the local guides, cooks and other guesthouse staff weren’t working, they seemed to always be strumming guitars and singing.

Bukit Lawang dudes guitar_Sumatra with kids

At first, I thought it was for our benefit (“entertain the customers!”), but there were numerous times where we walked up on one or more guys just singing, strumming and enjoying themselves. Sometimes you’d have to interrupt them to get service because they hadn’t noticed you walk in. Our kids just started guitar lessons a few months ago, so the timing of our trip was perfect. Everyone passed the guitars around, and they taught our boy the chords to “Jungle Trek,” the local version of “Jingle Bells.”

“Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek, in Bukit Lawang,”

“See the monkeys, see the birds and see orangutan, hey!”

You get the idea.

Bukit Lawang Jamie guitar_Sumatra with kids

This makes it a very relaxed place to hang out. The porch of our room had a hammock the kids would sit and read in. Wifi — like the electricity — came and went, which was fine by me. The kids spent over a week without asking for an iPad, and it gave them plenty of time for books.

And the river you see in the background? That may have been our most favorite place of all. We spent hours there, just jumping off the rocks into the current. Occasionally, we’d have to stop because of wildlife. Around dusk every day a troupe of 30+ macaques crossed this path. Once, there were two massive monitor lizards that chased each other out of the bush right to our jumping spot. Were they fighting? Or mating? We didn’t want to get any closer and find out.

Bukit Lawang isn’t the easiest place to get to, and I hope it stays that way. If that three-hour drive wasn’t so arduous, then tour buses would come. But if you’re in Sumatra, — or anywhere near the region — I can’t recommend it enough to go to Bukit Lawang with kids.

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