Orangutans in Sumatra – Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang with Kids – Indonesia with Kids

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The first time we saw orangutans in Sumatra, we knew it wouldn’t be our last. In fact, we were already planning our second visit soon after our jungle trek was over. Jungle trekking in Bukit Lawing is one of the most memorable experiences we’ve done in our travels. In fact, I’m sure that seeing orangutans in Sumatra is something we will talk about for years to come. Here are our tips for a jungle trek in northern Sumatra.

Orangutans in Sumatra – Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang

Many of the orangutans in Sumatra live in North Sumatra near the border with Aceh Province. Across the river from the village of Bukit Lawang is a wildlife preserve. There’s also a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Sumatra. With the help of a guide, you can take a jungle trek into the conservation area and see the orangutans of Sumatra for yourself.

Interested in seeing wild Sumatra orangutans yourself? In this post, I’ll detail the jungle trek and what jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang is like. I’ll also talk about seeing the orangutans in Sumatra in the wild, as well as recommend other things to do in Bukit Lawang.

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Getting to Bukit Lawang: Jungle Trekking in Sumatra

Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle trek in Bukit Lawang

If you want to see wild orangutans in Sumatra, you’ll probably have to log some travel hours. Bukit Lawang isn’t the easiest place to access for most people. On the other hand, if you’re already in Southeast Asia, it’s not that difficult. For example, we make both of our visits to Sumatra while we were based in nearby Penang island in Malaysia. Flights from many places in Southeast Asia are quite short and easy to Medan, the capital of Northern Sumatra.

  • Penang to Medan: 45 minutes
  • Kuala Lumpur to Medan: 1 hour
  • Singapore to Medan: 1 hour, 20 minutes
  • Bangkok to Medan: 2 hours
  • Kuching to Medan: 3.5 hours
  • Ho Chi Minh City to Medan: 4 hours
  • Kota Kinabalu to Medan: 4.5 hours

The Drive to Bukit Lawang

Ok, so now you’ve arrived in Medan. You still have a ways to go to reach the orangutans of Sumatra. Medan is a big city, and not a very scenic one, either. Besides, you still have another four-hour drive from the airport. Past jungle villages and palm oil plantations you’ll ride further from the city and closer to the wildlife reserve. We suggest having a driver waiting for you at the airport. Arrange it through your hotel in Bukit Lawang. For around USD $60, a driver will meet your family at the airport and take you all the way to the village.

Arriving in the Bukit Lawang (Pre-Jungle Trek)

Once you reach Bukit Lawang, most drivers drop you off on the road next to a path that leads to the village. You may then have to walk through the village as the road is too narrow for some cars. This path runs past some souvenir shops and then along the river. There are occasional steps and hills, and the path can be muddy or slippery if it rained lately. The last time we visited, some of the hotel staff asked if the kids wanted to hop on the back of a motorcycle while we walked. They happily agreed.

Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang: The Orangutans of Sumatra

Male Sumatra orangutan - Indonesia with Kids: An Epic Education

So you’ve made it to Bukit Lawang and you’re ready for some jungle trekking to see the orangutans of Sumatra. Good for you. You’re in the right place. However, before your jungle trek starts, let’s run through a few tips for getting the most out of your Sumatran orangutan experience.

These Orangutans are Semi-Wild

This is an orangutan refuge area. Most of these orangutans in Sumatra were released here, but they live in the jungle on their own. Many guides feed them so they have become tame and expect the presence of humans.

Choose Your Guides Carefully

Bad Guides. Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

You’ll have no problem finding a jungle trekking guide in Bukit Lawang once you arrive, so we encourage you to wait until then. Booking a jungle trek beforehand will probably cost more and you will be unsure if the guide will meet your needs.

Unfortunately, many of the jungle trekking guides in Bukit Lawang now feed the orangutans in Sumatra all the time. They do this to ensure that their customers (ie. you and me) will get to see the orangutans. But this causes all sorts of longer-term problems. If the orangutans of Sumatra continue to feed off of the guides, they’ll become dependent on them. In addition, they’ll also get too comfortable with humans. They’re already like this now: they’ve been known to grab someone and demand food. This is no good.

The Longer the Jungle Trek the Better

If you really want to be in the Sumatran rainforest, then take an overnight or multi-night jungle trek. You’ll camp in campsites and get further from the village. Here you’ll still see lots of wildlife, but it’ll be even wilder. This is best if you truly want to see the home of the orangutans in Sumatra.

Cover Up During the Jungle Trek

Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang — Bukit Lawang with kids — An Epic Education

I suggest covering up your arms, legs and elsewhere for a few reasons. Firstly, a thin layer of clothing is better sunscreen and mosquito repellent than any cream or spray (better for the rainforest, as well).

Secondly, remember that Indonesia is a Muslim country and the northern part of Sumatra (close to Aceh province) is even more so. Ladies, you can wear a bikini or short-shorts if you want, but dressing modestly here is recommended. You don’t have to cover your hair.

Jungle Trek Shoes

What kind of shoes should you wear for jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang? Many people recommend wearing hiking boots on any jungle trek, and I respect that. Then again, hiking boots are so big and heavy and we traveled carry-on only for both trips to Sumatra.

We just didn’t want to carry something so big. Keiko and the kids wore sneakers and I wore a pair of Teva sandals. I saw people wearing flip flops, but I wouldn’t recommend that. You need something secure on your feet and preferably with a grip on the bottom.

Jungle Trekking is Tough (But Some Kids Can Do it)

Indonesia with Children. Sumatra with kids. Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang with Kids

The village of Bukit Lawang is relatively flat and easy to navigate. Our Jungle Trek wasn’t. Seeing orangutans in Sumatra required some work. A jungle trek into Gunung Leuser National Park means steep hills and possibly slippery rocks. At certain points, the trail was so steep that we had to hold onto tree roots and branches to climb it.

This jungle trek isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. My kids were 7 and 11 the first time we did it and they loved it, but there were a few sketchy moments for all four of us where we slipped or had to take a break.

After the Jungle Trek, Return by River

tubing. Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

raft. tubing. Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

Most guides offer the option to finish the one-day jungle trek by rafting back to town. You must do this. After a long, hot morning jungle trekking, riding and splashing in the cold river is a true pleasure. It may cost a bit more but it. is. worth. it.

Bring Plenty of Water (But Meals Usually Provided)

This jungle trek is through the hot and humid jungle. It used our whole body, too. The guides may bring water, but pack plenty for everyone in your group yourself, as well. On each of our jungle treks, the guides provided lunch: fried rice wrapped in banana leaves and loads of fruit.

Check with your guide if lunch is provided. Some guides can accommodate dietary restrictions, but most know very little about that.

Beyond the Orangutans of Sumatra / Beyond the Jungle Trek

Thomas Leaf Monkey. Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

The main reason we visited Bukit Lawang twice was for the jungle trekking. We wanted to see the orangutans of Sumatra as much as possible. However, there is more to Bukit Lawang than jungle treks and orange apes. Here are a few other great things to see and do in Bukit Lawang.

The Other Wildlife

In addition to seeing wild Sumatran orangutans up close, we also saw lots of other Sumatran wildlife. Local guides put us right in front of a variety of animals. We saw monitor lizards, wild peacocks, and a variety of primate species. There were macaques, Thomas Leaf Monkeys and of course the ginger-haired giants themselves.

A few days in Bukit Lawang means close encounters with lizards, butterflies and tropical birds and monkeys. And if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon the orangutans of Sumatra themselves. They’re one of the most fascinating (and increasingly rare) species on the planet.

The area inspires lots of great conversations with kids. You can talk about the ecosystem, sustainability, and photosynthesis. You could also discuss environmental topics such as the effects of tourism and the encroachment of palm oil plantations.

The River: Swimming, Rafting & Tubing

Bukit Lawang River Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

Bukit Lawang has a great spot for swimming (rain/water levels permitting), and an even better spot for rafting. The local rafting method is not with a raft at all, but with a number of large inner-tubes tied together.

The hike up the river and subsequent ride down are easily achieved with children elementary-school age and up. Not interested? Then you could just spend an entire afternoon (like we did) jumping in and out of the current. There are many places to swim in Bukit Lawang, but we preferred the bend in the river right in front of the Jungle Inn.

The Caves: Bats, Swallows, and Climbing

Bukit Lawang Caves entrance — Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

Jungle trekking is full of adventure, but the nearby caves are also a great place to explore. You won’t find the orangutans of Sumatra here, but there are hundreds of bats hanging and sparrows nesting here. The entire area isn’t too deep or closed-off — sunlight was always visible.

Like a jungle trek, there are some spots that are steep, slippery or otherwise tricky to navigate. With this in mind, be careful. With a guide and some careful, deliberate steps, even our then-7-year-old managed the most treacherous bits.

Use the Cave Guide with Kids

Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

As I mentioned in a previous post on Bukit Lawang with Kids, we thought it might just be a 5-minute walk on a paved path. That’s why we hesitated at first to pay the “guide” sitting near the entrance. He just looked like some dude hanging out near the front of the caves. Yet the interior was much more challenging and involved than we expected. In fact, we spent over two hours in and out of holes in the ground. In the end, we were very grateful to have the guide with us.

Bukit Lawang: Before and After the Jungle Trek

Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

So now you know about jungle trekking to see the orangutans of Sumatra, and you know about all the things to do in Bukit Lawang. Here are a few tips on Bukit Lawang, the town.

Beware of Macaques

We find most primates to be adorable, funny or at least interesting to watch. But beware of macaques. Whether we’re in Langkawi, Penang, Ubud, Lombok or Japan, our experiences with macaques have been less than ideal. They have a dangerous mix of intelligent and bravery.

They are not afraid of you. In fact, they are not afraid to jump in your lap, hiss, grab the cookies out of your hands and then leap to a nearby roof. There, they will sit and eat your cookies — all while looking you straight in the eye. We love the orangutans in Sumatra. We do not love the macaques of anywhere. Respect them? Sure. But we are wary. You should be too.

Bring Books & Games

Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

When the rain comes, you don’t want to be in it. It’s a massive torrent that may last for hours. That7s when you sit under a roofed restaurant or hotel deck, have a juice or beer and hang out. Nap in a hammock, read a book or break out the travel version of chess, backgammon or scrabble. Uno cards come in handy, as well. So do sketchbooks and journals.

No ATM in Bukit Lawang

Bring enough cash or double-check that your accommodation accepts credit cards. The nearest ATM is miles away and you’d need to hire a driver to take you there.

Power & Wifi are Unreliable

Bukit Lawang is modernizing, but power and internet are not universal. They’re also not reliable in the best of circumstances. Bring backup power if you need it.

Not Much Hot Water

Many places have little or no hot water, so prepare for some cold showers.

Food Is Basic, But Fruit is Great!

Bukit Lawang with Kids. Tropical fruit. Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

As mentioned earlier, most of the restaurants here serve a few rice and noodle dishes. I saw signs for pizza in one place, but we didn’t try it because it was 10x the price of heaving plate of nasi goreng (fried rice). That said, fruit is cheap and plentiful. Eat all the fruit.

Clothes Dry Slowly

There are laundry services near the touristy part of town, but we washed (rinsed?) our clothes ourselves in the river, only for them to never really dry. The humidity is so high in Bukit Lawang that there’s nowhere for all that moisture to go. This was even more extreme when we visited in January — technically outside the rainy season but we got soaked a few times and our sneakers stayed squishy and stinky until we returned.

Cheap Food and Accommodation

Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

For what you get in Bukit Lawang, it’s a pretty reasonable place to experience the wild. There are few posh places to stay (perhaps the Eco Lodge qualifies). That said, we don’t mind low-end, and found a number of options within our range. Some of them were very clean.

The area is building up, so quality accommodation (and a rate hike) could be on the horizon. Having said that, I still think that a family of three or more can stay here pretty cheaply. Many places have family rooms or can drag a mattress into a double room for a little extra. Most hotels can arrange a jungle trekking guide to see the orangutans of Sumatra for you, as well.

There isn’t that much variety in the food and drinks available in Bukit Lawang. A few curries and variations of rice and noodle dishes, mostly. However, there is plenty of fresh fruit, fresh juice, and cold Bintang beer.

Relaxed, Kid-Friendly Atmosphere

Mosquito-free afternoon by the river Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

At the time of writing, Bukit Lawang remains a (fairly) sleepy outpost in the rainforest. The locals still smile, say hello and possibly ask if you want to go trekking or tubing. We haven’t encountered anyone pushy or aggressive at all.

There’s only one path through town. Aside from the occasional scooter or steep road incline, it’s safe for kids to run ahead. The sounds of the river and acoustic guitars were the main sounds we heard on our first visit, but that’s changing. There are more tourists, better infrastructure, and more dependable electricity all the time. , So don’t be surprised if you hear more pop songs from speakers.

Our kids were welcomed everywhere. I noticed a few party-hardy backpacker types (and the smell of ganja here and there). That said, Bukit Lawang remains free of the frat-party excesses that ruin places like Vang Vieng for families like mine.

Shockingly Few Mosquitoes!

Mosquito Nets Orangutans in Sumatra - Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang Indonesia

Sure, you’ll see bugs of all kinds during a jungle trek. Mosquitoes are part of that. However, compared to many places in Southeast Asia, we were able to avoid the worst of mosquitoes. This one comes with a caveat: there are places and times when you’ll find more or fewer mosquitoes in Bukit Lawang. Yet even in the worst season and area, they are only a mild nuisance. What’s more, there is virtually no threat of malaria, dengue fever or other bug-borne nastiness found in some corners of Southeast Asia. Of course, this could change. your jungle trek to see the orangutans of Sumatra, check the latest information.

Here’s the general rule: you should expect some mosquitoes during the wet season (Oct-March). But aside from a handful in the jungle, we only ran across them on the east side of town. A nearby rubber plantation may be responsible.

In our experience, the further up the river (and the closer to the river) you go, the fewer mozzies you deal with. For example, we sat around in swimwear playing chess and cards all day without a single bite. Extraordinary. If you’re eaten alive like my wife and kids are, this can be a huge factor in your day.

Have You Seen Orangutans in Sumatra?

Have you been on a jungle trek? Did you see orangutans in Sumatra? Where did you go jungle trekking? How was the experience? Do you have tips for seeing orangutans in Sumatra? Tell us all about it in the comments!

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book a hotel in Bukit Lawang using our links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help you make the most of your time in Bukit Lawang and enjoy seeing orangutans in Sumatra.

Comments

  1. Mubeen Naqvi says:

    Hello, It is a very informative article. Thanks for writing such a great blog.very nice and informative article. It is very informative and helpful.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Can’t wait to get there in April. Thanks for the tips. Pru

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