Beyond Bali: Exploring the Jungle in North Sumatra

Indonesia has so much more to offer than cheap resorts and beaches crowded with Australian tourists. We went north to the island of Sumatra to spend some time in the jungle with our hairy, distant relatives.

Destination: Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang, situated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is a relaxed tourist village built along the Bohorok River. Six hours drive from the nearest city, it is surrounded by dense jungle and sits on the border of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The village exists to accommodate the tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the orangutans who make their home in the wild jungle.

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While it is a tourist village, it is far from polished. It is remote and does not have reliable electricity or internet. Accommodation is fairly rudimental, with most buildings constructed using concrete and bamboo. No cars can enter the village. There is one walking path which winds through the village, lined with guesthouses, restaurants and a small clothes market. The majority of restaurants are open air, allowing for fantastic jungle views.

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Most of the village is clustered on the east side of the river, but there are a few guesthouses on the west side. These are a little further from the action, requiring guests to cross the river to access the restaurants on the east side, but they offer more privacy.

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The village is generally quiet, however in the wet season expect roaring tropical storms during the night. The rains usually ease off by the morning, giving way to beautiful blue skies and sunshine. Be prepared for intense humidity and bring plenty of sunscreen and mosquito spray.

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Activities

Jungle Trek

The absolute highlight of our trip was the jungle trek. We chose the one day trek, although the overnight trek with a rugged jungle sleepover was very tempting.

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Our tour guides were fantastic. They were very knowledgeable about the jungle and the orangutans.

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We were lucky enough to see at least seven orangutans! Some we saw high up in the trees swinging above our heads, but we also had the opportunity to see a few close up. They are magnificent animals, just beautiful!

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We ended the trek with a waterfall swim before tubing back down the river, which was incredible fun.

Click here to watch a short video of our trek, or here for a video of our rafting trip!

Landak River Barbecue

A few hours walk from the village is Landak River, a small river branching off the much larger Bohorok River. Whereas Bohorok River is fantastic for tubing due to the rapids, Landak River is the perfect spot for swimming!

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Our guides even organised to cook us a barbecue on the rocky banks of the river and trust me, you have never had a barbecue like this before! They fashioned ‘tongs’ out of some nearby bamboo and suspended the chicken over the flames, marinating the chicken with kecap manis; a sauce similar to soy sauce but slightly thicker and sweeter. They then cut a few banana leaves and laid them out for us to eat off.

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While all this work was going on, we swam and sunbaked like queens.

Click here to watch a video of our barbecue!

Motorbike Tour

Bohorok River is the lifeblood to many thriving towns and villages. Zipping through these communities on the back of a motorbike is a fantastic way to spend a day in the area. Our guides took us to a rice plantation, a bamboo treatment plant and to a tiny village where we sat roadside and drank fresh coconuts with ice!

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Wood Carving

Located on the main path of Bukit Lawang is a tiny little shop, full of handmade wooden carvings. The two crafty guys responsible for these carvings make all the wooden signs hanging throughout the town, as well as souvenirs for tourists. They also offer classes to anyone interested in trying their hand at making their own carving.

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We spent a wonderfully relaxing day sitting in the shade under the trees, slowly carving our names into wood while getting to know our interesting teachers and their curious little pet. They had found an abandoned Asian Palm Civet three months earlier and he was the sweetest, cutest little guy. What’s an asian palm civet? They are the animals that eat the coffee cherries which are used to make the coffee Kopi Luwak. Very cuddly!

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Click here to see more of the little guy.

Bohorok Markets

Nearby to Bukit Lawang is the larger town of Bohorok. We visited a large market there in search of fresh fruit and possibly a few souvenirs. We hopped on a becak, a bicycle rickshaw that is used for public transport, and travelled for about fifteen minutes.

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However, what we found was a local market filled with used clothes, vegetables, fresh fish, tables covered in raw chicken and the overwhelming stench of burnt rubber. While not at all what we were expecting, it was an incredible experience.

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We were definitely the only tourists there. It was a very real, colourful glimpse into the daily lives of the locals and the rickety ride in the becak to get there was alone worth it!

Food

Bukit Lawang is designed to accommodate tourists so there are many dining options. Varieties of indonesian curries can be found everywhere and they are absolutely delicious. A few of my favourites were eggplant curry and ‘ikan bilis’; tiny, spicy fried fish either served on rice or as an accompaniment to curry.

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Other offerings are grilled meat or vegetables with rice.  It is also possible to find more western meals like pizza and pasta, however the traditional food is far tastier.

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For breakfast there are banana pancakes, fruit platters, oatmeal and toast, plus there are lots of tropical juices on offer. There are no real food stores in the area and the closest thing are tiny stalls selling icecream and chocolate, meaning snacking is not really an option. Food here is crazy cheap though, so three meals a day will definitely not break the bank. A sit down restaurant meal including a curry and drink will only set you back $2 or $3!

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Cost

One of the most attractive things about Bukit Lawang is the price! It is so incredibly cheap.

Most accommodation is guesthouse style; private rooms accommodating 1-4 people with an ensuite. The price ranges from about $5 – $40 per room.

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We stayed at Jungle Inn Guesthouse, one of the more luxurious accommodations on offer. We decided to splurge a little and spend a whopping $40 a night ($20 each!) for a beautifully designed room with a gorgeous hand carved bed, two balconies(!) and an outdoor bathroom.

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The bathroom was amazing. Showering under palms with a jungle view is a pretty incredible way to start the day.

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As mentioned above, food is incredibly affordable. A sit down meal costs about $3, maybe $4 with dessert! The meals are large, combine this with activity filled days and you will probably only need two meals a day.

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Cheap food and accommodation leaves plenty of money to spend on activities! The one day jungle trek is around $60 and was the most expensive of all the activities. Most of the guesthouses offer their own activities so prices will change depending on where you decide to stay. There are also a few independent tourist offices which can organise activities for you, comparing the prices offered by the different guesthouses.

Getting There

From Melbourne, we flew 10 hours to Medan airport with a stop-over in Kuala Lumpur. Medan is the closest big city to Bukit Lawang and Bukit Lawang was our only destination so flying to Medan suited us. If you are travelling to other areas of Indonesia on your trip, you will probably fly internally to Medan. Return flights from Melbourne to Medan are between $600-$800 (AUD).

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Bukit Lawang is between a five and six hour drive from the city of Medan in North Sumatra. Each guesthouse can organise a private car and driver for you or there are public transport options.

I highly recommend getting a private car and driver. It is roughly $60 one way, depending on which guesthouse you stay with. It is a long, hot trip and the private cars offer a much more comfortable drive. You can organise to be picked up from the airport or from your hotel.

The other option is to catch a public bus. These busses are usually very overcrowded and do not have air conditioning. You will probably have trouble finding a seat and the roads are not well maintained, resulting in a very bumpy trip. But maybe that’s all part of the fun!

Dangers

Overall, Bukit Lawang is a very safe holiday destination. The locals are very friendly and pick pocketing or scamming is very unlikely. We left valuables in our room during the day and never had to worry about theft. It may be different in other accommodation though so it is always best to be careful.

One thing to be wary of is the river. It has a very strong current and large rocks. If you want to swim in the river it is best to ask a local for advice. They know the safest spots to swim; usually areas that are fairly shallow and protected from the current. Also, after periods of heavy rain it may be best to avoid rafting.

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When trekking through the jungle, be aware that it is home to wild animals. The guides are familiar with most of the orangutans and know which ones to be wary of. Never approach without the encouragement of the guides, and even then be careful. Just keep in mind that they are wild animals and you are intruding in their home, be careful and respectful.

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Also, keep an eye out for monkeys wandering in the village. You will spot them on rooftops and swinging in the trees. They are great fun to watch, but they can get aggressive if you go too close.

But the biggest danger is that you won’t want to leave!

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