Bukit Lawang is a small village which offers the best chances of seeing orangutans while still being close to accommodation and food facilities. It is an absolutely charming village that you will undoubtedly fall in love with.
I arrived to Bukit Lawang at 11pm at night in a massive thunderstorm without accommodation… my bad. But even I managed to get some dinner and a nice room to stay in for only $10 AUD at that late notice! I would recommend finding accommodation when you arrive, but try to arrive during the day. That way you can do a bit of ‘shopping’ to see which accommodation meets your needs for the right budget. There are plenty of great hotels for super cheap, usually about $10 AUD per person per night. Make sure they have either a fly net around the bed (to prevent mosquito bites) or very well sealed windows and doors. You can always ask to see the room before you agree to take it.
Most of the hotels have a restaurant/ café attached with extensive menus and plenty of vegetarian options. They are open for breakfast lunch and dinner and will usually only close when the place is empty. Definitely treat yourself to some Banana Pancakes for breakfast, either with chocolate or condensed milk.. Yum! Gado Gado is also a good dinner choice (vegetables and rice in peanut sauce), as is Mei Goreng (fried noodles) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice). Almost all restaurants also serve more adventurous Indonesian dishes (DEFINITELY ask for the chef/host’s recommendations!) and more western style dishes like burgers. Don’t worry, you won’t go hungry around here! The food is always very well priced, so you can afford to eat at a new restaurant for 3 meals a day every day! Great to try some new dishes!
Most restaurants turn slowly into bars later into the night. My favourite of which is the Jungle Tribe. While Bukit Lawang certainly isn’t a drinking or partying destination, the locals know how to have a good time. Since a lot of places don’t have wifi everyone turns to each other and makes the good times roll. Most places have a guitar that gets pulled out and the locals will enjoy having you join in! Bonus points if you know how to play/sing any Oasis covers, because for whatever reason Oasis is still damn popular in Indonesia. Why? No body knows. But if you can belt out a half decent rendition of Wonderwall, you’ll make some instant friends for life. So settle in, grab a beer, and get to know the owners over a few good songs. If you are lucky, they might teach you the ‘Bukit Lawang’ song, which is essentially Jingle Bells with way better lyrics.
Jungle Trek. How many people can say they’ve hung out with an orangutan? I’m one of those lucky few, and you can be too! Organise a tour through one of the locals, usually your hotel will offer good prices. Then pack a bottle of water and get ready to sweat it out as you do some jungle trekking! It is extra fun if it’s been raining a bit and you can ‘jungle ski’ as the locals say, which involves hanging on to vines as you slide down in the mud. And yes, it is as much fun as it sounds.
Your tour guide will take you through the jungle, and since most of the guides grew up in Bukit Lawang, they have incredible knowledge about the animals that live there, and how to find them. Within half an hour of climbing up into the jungle, we had seen a black gibbon, an orangutan and claw marks from where a honey bear had climbed a tree. The next hours that followed where absolutely incredible as we found countless Thomas Leaf Monkeys (they stand out from their mohawk like hair style) which are only found in Sumatra, and many more orangutans, including one with her little baby in tow. The guides are very respectful of the wildlife, and extremely good at spotting animals and mimicking their calls. The tour includes lunch, which is eaten in the heart of the jungle (you may have to pack up your food several times if any hungry orangutans come by asking to share your food!), and is finished by floating down the river back to the village in a giant tube! This was definitely necessary after getting so hot and sweaty after tackling the jungle and was extremely refreshing.
Hopefully you won’t get to meet the jungles most famous lady, Mina (Meena?) the orangutan. We were warned the previous night before departing into the jungle by our friend who owns the Jungle Cafe that we should stay clear of Mina as she is one mean monkey. So you can imagine our fear when suddenly 2 other girls and their guide come running down a hill towards us yelling ‘Minaaaaaa! Ruuuuuuuuuun!’ and we see a huge orangutan on all fours following them! Luckily our quick thinking guide ran in the opposite direction, with a backpack full of bananas in the hope that Mina would follow him. Luckily she did, and a half hour later after wandering around with the other guide we had run into, we found him passing her banana after banana, smiling and winking at us. He ushered us past her and we went as quick as possible! Phew. Our guide caught up to us after he managed to escape Mina! That night when we told our friend that we had seen Mina, he laughed and showed us a huuuuuge scar from where Mina had lunged at him and latched on and he and the other guides had to punch her to get her to let go! ‘I didn’t want to show you this last night in case it made you not want to go on the Jungle Trek!’ he laughed.
Although our trek was quite the experience, you must not miss out on this incredible adventure. It was absolutely amazing to get up close with so many wild animals, and I thoroughly enjoyed sliding through the jungle mud holding onto the vines!
The Bat Cave was a great experience as well. We attempted to do a DIY style tour by finding the cave ourselves. Luckily one of the guides of the bat cave found us wandering around lost and took us to the entrance. For a small fee you can hire a guide (they are necessary, you need a torch to get inside and it’s a big cave, I don’t think they will let you in without a guide, once you get one the cave is free). The cave was beautiful itself to explore, and the tiny little bats made it even more special! Bats may scar some people, however these bats are very small, and look like little mice with wings essentially. It is beautiful to hear them calling to each other and fluttering about. Besides bats, their are also some species of birds and a few insects. Don’t let the animals put you off though, it is absolutely delightful to climb through the cave and see the light cascading in through the rocks.
The Local Markets are held every Friday next to the bus station at Gotong Royong, which is about a 20 minute walk from Bukit Lawang. We luckily had a local friend who wanted to buy a pet fish from the markets who was happy for us to come along with him. The markets were a great way to interact with the local community and see what foods and goods the locals buy.
Tubing and Swiming is always a lot of fun in Bukit Lawang, seeing as the town is nestled next to the river! The river can get quite strong in points so make sure you are a confident swimmer if the current looks intense. If you talk to some of the locals, they’ll probably be happy to show you were to get tubes and how to walk further up the river to tube back down.
The Indonesians are extremely friendly people, return this and you are bound to make some friends!
Remember to not only respect the people, but the local wildlife. Listen to your guides to have incredible experiences with the animals.
Bukit Lawang suffered a terrible flash flood in 2003, evidence of the destruction can still seen around the village. Over 200 people were killed and so many lost their homes and businesses. It would be hard to find a local here who hasn’t been affected by the flood, so remember to be respectful if it comes up in conversation.