The road to Bukit Lawang winds through endless fields of palm oil plantations, on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. We planned to be in Bukit Lawang for a few days. We hoped to take an orangutan tour in the forest, and experience a side of Indonesia that was new to us. Our Indonesia guidebook mentioned that Sumatra is one of the places to see orangutans in the wild.
As we drove along the bumpy road, we looked out at the scenery passing by. Sumatra was new to us, and my husband and I commented to each other how different the scenery was here compared to the rest of Indonesia. We drove through small villages tucked into the hills. Large piles of palm nuts occasionally lined the side of the road. Locals harvested these palm nuts and placed them on the road for large palm oil manufacturers to pick them up.
This post was updated on December 11, 2019.
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An orangutan tour experience in the heart of Sumatra
After a four hour drive from the Kualanamu Airport near the city of Medan, we arrived at the village of Bukit Lawang. This was the closest village to where our orangutan experience would take place. Our driver instructed us that it was another ten minute walk into the village to get to our guest house, Green Hill Guest House. We paid our driver, and then paid three porters to help us with our bags. They led us through the village, along the stone path, to our guest house.
The village of Bukit Lawang sits on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the national parks on the island of Sumatra. Many of the residents of the village are farmers, harvesting palm oil, rice, cacao, or rubber. However, due its close proximity to the national park, there is a growing tourism industry in the village.
Gunung Leuser is home to Sumatran orangutans. The park, and nearby Bukit Lawang, attracts tourists who want to see wildlife but don’t want to spend too much time in jungle. An orangutan feeding platforms sits just a ten minute hike from the edge of the national park. Although there are multi-day Sumatran wildlife tours that you can do at Gunung Leuser, you can also do a quick half-day orangutan trek as well.
A rustic getaway in the forest
Walking through Bukit Lawang, my husband and I definitely noticed the influence of tourism on the village. No doubt, many of the tourists come to Bukit Lawang for the orangutan tour. Guest houses, restaurants, and stores lined the road to the guest house, which was only about five feet wide. Many of these places catered to tourists.
But there was also a distinct backpacker feel to the place. Everything had a rustic looking decor. Families and couples owned the guest houses, not big corporations or chains. And the travelers we met were of the laid back variety, rather than the typical party-going tourists of a place like Bali.
Our guest house sat on the side of a hill, overlooking the Bohorok River that runs through Bukit Lawang and the jungle. It’s owned by a Sumatran man and his English wife. We stayed in the Treetop Chalet, which consisted of a queen size bed, a loft with an additional double size futon mat, an alfresco style bathroom down below, and a balcony with a hammock for enjoying the jungle and river views. Bamboo walls and wood floors gave the room a rustic charm.
It was certainly the most simple place we stayed at during our visit to Indonesia. But after doing an orangutan trek, and spending three afternoons lounging on the balcony hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle, it turned out to be one of our favorite places we’ve ever stayed at.
Taking an orangutan tour through the jungles of Sumatra
The morning after our arrival, we took a orangutan tour through the jungle. Our guide, Said, was a native of Bukit Lawang, and has been a guide for over ten years. Prior to being a guide, he did two years of research in the national park, so he was pretty knowledgeable about the animals and plants in Sumatra.
Our four hour orangutan trek took us up into the hills of the jungle. We traversed through leaf covered paths, up slippery ascents, and into dense underbrush. Said pointed out various animals that we came across, from pig-tailed macaques, peacocks, long-tailed macaques, and of course, orangutans. We saw a total of six orangutans on our hike! We were told this is normal for Sumatra wildlife tours of this kind.
Experiencing orangutans in real life
After walking through the jungle, Said took us to the river, where Adi, our other guide, had “rafts” waiting for us. The rafts were essentially four inner tubes tied together. The four of us were to sit in the middle tubes, while our guides sat on either side guiding the raft.
I was a little apprehensive at first about the safety of our kids, but with the kids sitting on our laps, I decided to trust in our ability to hold on to them. The water was relatively calm, only a few semi-fast rapids. It turned out to be a fun ride, both for the kids and for the grown-ups. When we got back to the guest house from our orangutan experience, we spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the banks of the river.
Our orangutan experience in the jungle of Sumatra with two young kids was an interesting, to say the least. A part of me was fearful of every step they took, nagging at them to slow down, to be careful, and to not stray too far. But another side of me wanted them to explore. When else would they have the chance to take an orangutan tour in a real jungle? What other opportunity would they have to see orangutans in the wild, in person?
The joys of traveling with kids
This whole Indonesia trip has been an affirmation for me of how amazing traveling with children in Indonesia can be. Our kids are like sponges, soaking everything in, and learning new things every day.
I love how open they are to this whole experience, adapting to each new environment with enthusiasm. Even the orangutan tour was nothing scary to them! As we come to the end of our trip, I can’t help but think how good life is for us. The world is full of opportunities for adventure. I’m so glad I can enjoy them with my family.
Have you taken an orangutan tour in the jungle? Share your experiences in the comments!
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