If you are heading to Sumatra to trek with Orangutans, Bukit Lawang in Northern Sumatra is the place to go. We spent 2-days trekking in Bukit Lawang with Sumatra Orangutan Treks, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
At the same time, there are many things to consider before signing up for a jungle trek in Bukit Lawang. In this guide, we hope to shed light on the issues surrounding animal tourism, as well as share the details of our experience.
In turn, we hope we can help you decide if you should plan your own Sumatra Orangutan Trek.
Sumatra Orangutan Treks in Bukit Lawang – A Complete Guide
*Don’t leave home without any backpacker essentials with our free printable packing list.
Sumatra Orangutan Treks – Our Experience
For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with all species of apes and monkeys. Their human-like mannerisms, cheeky characters and high intelligence are tremendously endearing to me.
At a young age, when I was heartbroken to find that I could never have one as a pet, visiting them in their ‘home’ was the first-ever thing to land on my bucket list. It was a dream that at the time, seemed like light year’s away.
Fast forward 20 or so years and I find myself in the jungles of South East Asia fulfilling that ‘pipe dream’. In the past few years, I’ve seen Gibbons in Laos, Langurs in Thailand and Macaques in Malaysia. But there was one particular species that I was fixated on seeing…
Orangutans can only be found in the jungles of Borneo & Sumatra, where sadly they are facing the risk of extinction. The current population is estimated at around 100,000; less than half of what it was a century ago.
The endangered Bornean orangutan make up for 90% of this number, while the ‘critically’ endangered Sumatran orangutan make up less than 10%.
The reason for this is simple: habitat loss. Deforestation for road plans, logging, or palm oil businesses has proved catastrophic to the orangutan population.
At such a critical time for the species, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat in Sumatra. Although, the more I educate myself on the effects of animal tourism, that feeling has since turned some-what bittersweet.
With this in mind, I have set out to answer any questions you might have regarding Sumatra Orangutan Treks, so you can make a well-informed decision regarding your own trekking experience.
Borneo or Sumatra?
If you were to ask why we decided on Sumatra over Borneo, then there is no definitive reason other than it fits in better with our travel plans. However, to learn of the orangutans particularly vulnerable position here, made the experience somewhat more remarkable.
Are Sumatra Orangutan Treks Ethical?
It’s a controversial subject of whether or not Sumatra Orangutan Treks are entirely ethical. Of course, animal tourism will never be perfect. Ideally, we would leave wild animals alone in the wild. At the same time, orangutan treks with an ethical trekking company, help support the local communities while still respecting the animal.
Often, the orangutans you spot in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, are in-fact semi-wild. In 1973, the Bohorok orangutan rehabilitation centre was set-up in Bukit Lawang, to rehabilitate orangutans rescued from poachers or deforestation.
After they are taught the necessary survival skills, they are released back into the wild and monitored by rangers until they become fully self-sufficient. This is how the trekking companies know where to find the orangutans, as they often return to their old feeding platforms. Finding wild orangutans is rare, but it does happen.
In my opinion, so long as the trekking companies encourages responsible tourism, Sumatra Orangutan Treks are not harmful. We review our experience with a trekking company further down; however, it’s also worth checking out this article on how to choose a responsible guide in Bukit Lawang.
Which Bukit Lawang Trekking Company?
When choosing Bukit Lawang Trekking company, we were sure to take extra care with our research. There have been stories of dishonest (& uncertified) local guides harassing solo female travellers, and although we can’t be sure of how common this is, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
We found Sumatra Orangutan Treks through trip advisor, and after reading solid outstanding reviews, decided to get in touch. We were not disappointed. The customer service was excellent from the moment we emailed them. They were very clear with all of the information regarding the experience and also helped us to arrange transportation & accommodation upon our arrival.
The trekking experience itself was also 5*. Our guides (Baba and Jojo) were not only friendly & humorous but also very clearly educated on our surroundings. We learned many interesting facts about the jungle, the wildlife that resides there and the different kinds of medicinal plants that can be found.
Another key reason for choosing Sumatra Orangutan Treks was the assurance that their guides do not feed the orangutans. Feeding is highly discouraged by the local guide association as poses many risks to the species.
Unfortunately, not all guides are as mindful, and some continue to feed them in order to lure them closer to tourists. There are other reputable companies other than Sumatra Orangutan Treks in Bukit Lawang, however, please be sure to do your research first.
*Tip for Solo Travellers – If you don’t want to avoid trekking alone with your guide, you can request to be included in a group trek.
How Long Will I be Trekking for?
All companies have a range of trekking options to choose from, depending on your interests and capabilities. You can stay in the jungle for as little as 3 hours or as long or 6-7 days.
We chose the 2 day-1 night option, and for us, it was enough. We got a good taste for jungle life in that time and were lucky to see 6 orangutans, along with a variety of other wildlife.
How much is a Sumatra Orangutan Trek?
For our 2-day, 1-night trek, the cost of our Sumatra Orangutan Trek was 80 euro/person
Prices include trekking, rafting (weather permitted), accommodation, meals, snacks, tea & water refill. Please see below prices at the time of booking:
Check here for the most up to date prices.
Am I Guaranteed to see an Orangutan?
Of course there are no guarantees in life; however, there is an extremely high success rate for spotting orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Luwang previously homed a rehabilitation centre, and often the semi-wild orangutans return to the old feeding platforms. The guides do not seem surprised to find them in these areas, and some of the time know them by name.
What Should I do if I see an Orangutan?
If you see an orangutan, always await instructions from your guide before rushing to take photos. Some are of a tremendously intimidating size & known to be aggressive.
We saw one, in particular, that was around 40 years of age, and weighing 90 kilos would be 8x stronger than your average man! The guides seemed wary of him and encouraged us to admire only at a distance. Another lively little guy jumped down from a tree when spotting fruit in one of the guides backpacks, and charged at a group of tourists to get to him.
Most of the time they can be found just chilling or showing off in the trees above you. Your guides will tell you when it is safe to take a photo; however, try to avoid getting too close, do not use the flash on your camera and in no circumstance attempt to touch them. Our bodies bacteria can be very harmful to them.
*Tip – Ask your guide to tell you about the infamous Minah – she has quite the reputation!
Other Wildlife in Bukit Lawang
The Sumatran jungle hosts a wide variety of wildlife, including the critically endangered Sumatran tiger & Sumatran elephant. Although these are rarely seen, you can expect to see a number of other species during your time in the jungle.
As well as orangutans, we spotted different breeds of monkey including gibbons & langurs; A variety of birds including peacocks; And a number of different reptiles. We also had the privilege of an uninvited, 8 legged guest in our tent; so be sure to check inside before settling down for the night!!
Difficulty Level of the Trekking in Bukit Lawang
As somebody of a reasonable fitness level, I found the trekking to be moderately difficult. Majority of the time it is a comfortable hike; however, there are times when it becomes a steep incline or decline. Expect to hike for around 6-7 hours per day and be sure to wear suitable footwear with a good grip.
If you have medical issues that could potentially affect your hiking ability, then be sure to mention it to the tour company in advance. They can then recommend the trekking options that would be suitable for you.
Accommodation in the jungle consists of a 2 man tent, complete with a pillow and blanket. A typical Asian style toilet is situated nearby the camp. There are no showers, however, the camp is located next to a river where you can wash. Let’s just say it is a sure-fire way to wake you up in the morning!
Food & Drink in the Jungle
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of food throughout the orangutan trekking experience. A substantial lunch & dinner were supplied on day 1, with vegetarian options available upon request. Day 2 consisted of a good breakfast & tasty lunch. There was also plenty of fresh fruit provided throughout the days trekking, as well as tea, biscuits and water refill at the campsite.
What to Pack for Sumatra Orangutan Treks
Unsure of what you might need to pack for your Sumatra Orangutan Trek? Don’t worry, we have got you covered. Check out our backpacker essentials, for a packing list of items that we carry with us on every adventure.
Here are some items that we recommend taking to make your visit to the beaches & waterfalls more comfortable:
- Comfortable shoes for the hikes
- Water shoes to wear in the water – We Recommend: 2 in 1 Water/Hiking Shoes.
- Waterproof Bag to protect valuables – We Recommend: Waterproof Dry Bag-10L/20L/30L
- Bathing suit & towel for the obvious – We Recommend: Microfiber Travel Towel
See below checklist for what you should take with you into the jungle in addition to the above.
- Steripen to sterilise water
- Mosquito Repellent
- Any medications you need
- Lightweight Rainwear Active Outdoor Jacket
- Waterproof cover for your backpack
- Camera/Go Pro
- 1 big bottle of water per person (If you are staying overnight, it can be refilled at the campsite)
For those staying overnight:
- Sleeping bag with stuff sack
- Change of clothes
*Tip – The rest of your luggage can be left at your guesthouse in Bukit Lawang or with the trekking company.
River Rafting is an optional part of the package that we highly recommend taking part in. At the end of the trekking, your guides will take you down to Bohorok River where you can raft back to Bukit Lawang village.
Depending on the time of year, it can either be a relaxing or hair raising ride, but it was a great end to a fantastic experience. We went during the dry season and the rapids were minimal, however, our guide informed us that they can get rather fierce at times!
How to get to Bukit Lawang?
The closest airport is Kualanamu Airport in Medan and from there you will need to travel the 136km to Bukit Lawang. Here are the transport options available:
PRIVATE CAR – Although this is the most expensive option at around 50 euro, you can have your hotel in Bukit Lawang organise a private car for you. The total journey time is 3 hours.
GRAB TAXI – Grab Taxi operates in the area and if you are able to find a driver the price to Bukit Lawang is around 30 euro. The total journey time is 3 hours.
LOCAL BUS – The local bus is your cheapest option to travel to Bukit Lawang. Below you can find the bus time table and prices or check tourist buses with 12go, Asia.
BUKIT LAWANG MAP LOCATION
Where to Stay in Bukit Lawang
Batu Mandi Guesthouse – Although the rooms were very basic, the garden surroundings are beautiful and peaceful. Furthermore, if you are doing a jungle trek they will store your luggage for you. A great base for a night or 2.
For other places to stay in Bukit Lawang, check out the latest prices.
As travellers, it should always be a top priority to travel responsibly. We already leave a substantial carbon footprint just by flying to our travel destinations, so that’s even more reason to make a positive impact when we get there. There are many small steps you can take to becoming a responsible traveller, and we highly encourage you to educate yourself before travelling to Sumatra. Here are some things you can do to minimise your footprint:
1. Do not leave any rubbish on the ground: You would think this would go without saying; however, there are some questionable humans who think it’s ok to throw trash on the ground.
2. Carry a Steripen or iodine tablets to sterilise water: This not only limits your usage of single-use plastic but also saves you money too!
3. Respect the local culture: Be courteous of the local culture and act in such a way that leaves a good impression. Learn a little of the local language (hello and thank you is the minimum), greet the locals in a polite manner, and respect dress codes & traditions
Well, that concludes our experience spotting the endangered orangutan in the Sumtran Jungle. For more things to do in the area check out our ultimate travel guide & itinerary. If you have any questions or feel we have missed anything, please reach out to us in the comment section below.
Stay adventurous and happy travels,
Charlotte and Natalie x
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