The critically endangered orangutans of the Indonesian forests have long been recognized as one of the world’s truly fascinating animals. And the jungles of North Sumatra and Borneo are the only places in the world where you can see them living in their natural habitat.
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BUKIT LAWANG, a sleepy village overlooking the rushing Bohorok River, is one of the best places to see Orangutans up-close and in their natural habitat.
The village nestles into the jungle edges of the magnificent Gunung Leuser National Park, the largest wilderness nature reserve in Southeast Asia.
Gunung Leuser has been described as the green heart of Sumatra and is one of the richest tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia for flora and fauna.
It covers around 8,000 sq km and straddles the border of the North Sumatra and Aceh provinces. It is said to be the last place on earth where orangutans, rhinos. elephants and tigers still live together in the wild. It.
Don’t expect to see rare rhinos or tigers up close at Bukit Lawang – but then you probably wouldn’t want to. But you can expect to see orangutans, the main attraction for most visitors.
And if you want to take a rough trip of a couple of hours to another nearby village you will see elephants. You can even take part in scrubbing their backs.
A mother and young – Orangutans are said to rank as one of our most distant primate relatives. Chimpanzees rank as the closest
Thriving populations of other rainforest wildlife
In Indonesian ‘orang’ means person and ‘hutan’ means forest, bush, or jungle. Combine the two, drop the “h” and you have orangutan meaning ‘forest person’.
The name recognizes of the intelligence, learning ability and behavioural traits of our usually gentle, distant arboreal primate cousins.
Along the jungle tracks and even around your accommodation you also will encounter thriving populations of other wildlife, like Siamang (black-furred gibbons), Thomas Leaf Monkeys, long tail Macaque and varieties of exotic Sumatran birds.
Hornbills are part of the birdlife at Bukit Lawang (Pic orangitanadventure.com) and the Thomas Leaf Moneky is one of the primates you will see. – Pic Madeleine Holland Wiki Commons
Bukit Lawang village is reached via a drive of about 85 kilometres from Medan – much of it through vast expanses of palm oil plantations. Challenging road conditions mean it can take about three hours.
Internationally famous Orangutan rehabilitation program
Bukit Lawang Village on the banks of the Bohorok River – Pic Wiki Commons.
The unassuming little village of Bukit Lawang is where two young Swiss conservationists, Monica Borner and Regina Frey, first established the internationally famous Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in 1972.
Back then it was common for local people to confine young orangutans as ‘pets’ or curiosities and the animals were often neglected or mistreated.
The two Swiss women aimed to return captive and orphaned orangutans into the wild after first checking and treating them for any diseases and injuries.
Together with Indonesian rangers, they sought out captive orangutans, treated them and then TAUGHT THEM how to climb and build treetop nests, skills the animals had lost while locked in cages or tethered on chains.
Over the years the Centre released some 200 rehabilitated orangutans into the jungle wilds of the Gunung Leuser park. Rangers continue to monitor their progress and operate feeding stations where released orangutans and their descendants can come for supplementary feeding.
Threats from shrinking habitat, illegal trafficking, and logging
The Indonesian government banned holding orangutans in captivity in 1990, but illegal capture and trafficking has persisted.
The Government also has joined with international conservation organizations to protect an orangutan population shrinking through loss of habitat.
As of 2020 conservationists estimated 14,000 orangutans remained in Sumatra and around 105,000 in Borneo. The Sumatran orangutans are listed as critically endangered and their Borneo cousins as endangered, mainly due to destruction of habitat.
Illegal logging continues to be an issue for the Gunung Leuser Nature Reserve, along with clearing for roads and palm oil plantings, often at the behest of local communities.
It has been estimated that the reserve is losing as much as 21,000 hectares of its wilderness every year.
But while of concern, for perspective, we need to acknowledge that rate of loss represents 21% of just one square km – a tiny part of the total protected reserve.
Rehabilitation program moved to new location
The active rehabilitation program at Bukit Lawang ceased in 2002 and the focus moved to another location at Batu Mbelin, also not far from Medan.
One of the first goals of the new Critically Endangered Sumatran Orangutan organization (SOCP) at Batu Mbelin was to establish a modern, state-of-the-art quarantine facility for confiscated illegal pets and a program to release these animals back to the wild.
The rehabilitation program is well underway. On the most recent figures the Batu Mbelin program had recovered and cared for some 360 previously captive orangutans with around 270 released into the rainforests in Central Sumatra and Aceh.
This has created two new populations in areas where historic populations no longer survived.
Early work on the planned Orangutan Haven (TOP LEFT) and an artists impression (RIGHT). Check out the video about the work being undertaken at Batu Mbelin and ambitious future plans.
Refuge for Orangutans unable to go to forest
Some of the orangutans at the Quarantine Centre cannot be returned to the jungle for health or disability reasons and faced the prospect of spending up to 50 years in captivity for their protection.
To overcome this the SOCP is creating a spectacularly ambitious solution by developing Orangutan Haven – a series of moated naturalistic islands in a 48-hectare jungle valley where these disabled animals can live out their days in optimal conditions.
The goal is for them to also serve as “ambassadors” for their wild counterparts through face-to-face contact with the public, and to develop an education resource promoting animal welfare, species and ecosystem conservation, and sustainable development.
Entrance fees from visitors will help fund the operation and the experience will help people better understand how their daily decisions may impact orangutans and other wildlife sharing their habitat.
You can learn more at these links:
Trekking, watching, and river rafting adventures
Meanwhile, the jungle around Bukit Lawang still echoes to the calls of these shy creatures of the treetops.
And the beautiful primary tropical rainforest is also alive with other wildlife.
A main way for visitors to see the orangutans and other wildlife is trekking trails through the surrounding jungle.
Licensed guides offer treks ranging from a half day or a day and up to three days with overnights at jungle campsites.
Foreign visitors are required to pay admission of 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah (about AUD$15) per day to enter Indonesian National Parks, but for Gunung Leuser at Bukit Lawang it is a once-only fee.
It’s one thing to float down the stream but someone has to get the raft of giant inner tubes to the starting point – pic www.cheekypassport.com
The good news is that for the longer treks the return journey can often be made easier and more fun by tubing down the river.
Trekking costs range from around AUD$55 per person for a half day to around AUD$190 for three days and two nights. Price for the longer tours include entrance fees, guides, camp accommodation, and return rafting.
There is much information on the Internet about available guiding services. For informed and helpful advice go to:
While there check out the other extensive information Christine and Safrool of the Discover team have compiled.
Also take a look at this video by travel vlogger Jordan Simons based on his is overnight trek into the Guning Leuser jungle from Bukit Lawang.
Bukit Lawang has plenty of comfortable places to stay
You will not find 5-star hotel or resort luxury at Bukit Lawang. But there are plenty of good Lodges, guesthouses, and bungalows with good clean, comfortable and appropriate accommodation.
Most of the accommodation operators consider ecological and environmental concerns appropriate to the beautiful national park location. You can check the listings on the Internet.
An example is the Bukit Lawang Ecolodge – a rustic but highly rated and authentic three-star cottage hotel overlooking the river.
It is not luxury but is clean and comfortable with touches like showers where you can see the stars.
Ecolodge cottages (ABOVE) and its Kapal Bambu restaurant (BELOW RIGHT). Watch the video to see more about this cottage hotel and its setting.
More of the eco-friendly accommodation at Bukit Lawang – the Orangutan Hotel (LEFT) and the Junia Guesthouse.
You also have the bonus adventure of crossing the Bohorok River to reach the Lodge via a classic suspension footbridge (yes, it sways a bit, but it is perfectly safe). If the bridge is too scary you can cross by a small boat used as a punt.
The Eco Lodge is a place to relax and absorb and enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle night. The staff will treat you like family.
(You can see more about the Ecolodge and this beautiful area in the video above.)
Plenty of eating places but not cashpoints
The Lodge’s striking Kapal Bambu Restaurant (it means bamboo ship) Is constructed of bamboo and clays from the local area. The menu includes Western, local and fusion dishes.
There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Bukit Lawang, most associated with guesthouses and lodges.
They serve some Western food, but mainly Indonesian and Asian dishes. And many are highly rated by visitors – check out the Trip Advisor reviews.
There are also local food stalls.
One of a number of pedestrian suspension bridges at Bukit Lawang
There are no banks and no ATM machines in Bukit Lawang. Bigger lodges and guesthouses usually accept credit and debit cards but some do not. Check when booking.
Ensure you carry enough cash in Indonesian rupiah to pay for food, guide fees and routine purchases. Include small notes (Rp50,000, 20,000 and 10,000) as local stalls and traders will sometimes be unable to make change.
There is a local money changer who will accept major international currencies, but exchange rates will be a little lower than city rates.
There is an ATM at a village about 12km away, but it does not accept all cards and sometimes it’snot working or runs out of cash.
THE BIG PICTURE
A visit to Bukit Lawang is an adventure, but one you can undertake in safety and relative comfort. And it will be worth it because it is such a special place.
The roads can be bumpy and at times sections of the rainforest trails can be muddy. You won’t find luxury, but you will be surrounded by beauty and interest.
And you will be charmed by the people of the village and other small villages in the area – their smiles, their laughter, their warmth, their helpfulness and their knowledge of place and the wildlife – and their desire to preserve and protect it.
If you are fit enough the ultimate is to take one of the longer treks, camp for a night surrounded by the sounds of the jungle and ride the river home.
But just a short trek and an overnight in a guesthouse or lodge will be enough to create wonderful memories.
It’s no accident that some of the lodges, guesthouses, and trekking ventures are operated by Western expatriates. They are people who came as visitors and were so taken with what they found that they came back to stay.
The dry season – from around April to September – is perhaps the best time to visit Bukit Lawang, though it is also busy during holiday times like Christmas and Easter. It is warm and humid all year round.
It is perhaps best not to visit around July to avoid local holiday season crowds. Indonesia’s schools usually are on break from mid-June to mid-July.