Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, 2012-02-28 07:19 by Laerke
We arrived at Medan airport and after an unfortunate episode of sunscreen packed in the carry-on and thus confiscated (wow, Indonesia cares about liquids in hand luggage now!?) we got our 30 days visa on arrival and were ready to go! Our destination was Bukit Lawang, known for its laidback riverside lifestyle, jungle treks in the Gunung Leuser National Park, and its world-famous orangutan rehabilitation centre. We had arranged for our place of accommodation in Bukit Lawang to pick us up at the airport, with the family in tow it made good sense. It was a pretty comfortable ride in a jeep there, the roads had definitely been improved since we were there around 6 years ago. When we got to Bukit Lawang we had to walk 500 meters to our guesthouse, almost all the guesthouses are lined up on a narrow dirt track along the river, this means no cars can enter and that there is a great view of the river from almost everywhere. Our rooms were no exception, we got two rooms right next to each other, on the little terrace out front there were chairs and tables and a hammock for swinging the day away – super nice!


Asger quickly got the hang of the slow-life :)

We spent hours playing on the river, Asger snorkeled and we all swam and we rented big inner-tubes to float down the river on. There was a lot of current and a few small rapids, it was good fun (and sometimes a little bit scary…!)


Probably the prime tourist draws in Bukit Lawang are orangutan trekking in the Gunung Leuser national park and visiting the orangutan feeding, which takes place twice daily in across the river. We were going to do both! We all went for the orangutan feeding, we were told that they feed the orangutans pretty bland food like milk and banana to encourage them to forage for more interesting foods themselves. And as most of the orangutans are previously captive animals that have now been rehabilitated the older and the ones with babies or otherwise weaker individuals often come for the feeding whereas the young and fit fend for themselves in the forest. It was quite the trek to get to the feeding platform, and it was up, up, up! My mom struggled, but she kept at it and eventually we reached the platform and were rewarded with the sight of several orangutans, and even some babies!


Even though Martin and I have been there before and have seen orangutans in the wild before it was still a fantastic experience, to be so close to these majestic animals, that are so similar to us, is truly special. Unfortunately we may also be one of the last generations to be able to experience something like this, orangutans are highly endangered and their numbers are dwindling every day. It is heartbreaking to think about… Every time I buy cooking oil I always think of the orangutans and make sure not to get palm oil as palm oil plantations are one of the main threat to orangutans as they claim more and more of the jungle – the orangutans’ habitat.


Martin, Asbjørn and I decided to go one a trek in the jungle, we arranged to be picked up early next morning by one of Bukit Lawang’s many guides. Our guide was a pretty quiet guy (which suited us fine) and he only spoke Indonesian (which also suited me fine as I got a chance to practice my Indonesian). So, off we went! We crossed the bridge to the other side and went up into the jungle. It was hot and sweaty, and beautiful and quiet (apart from all the buzzing and humming from the millions of insects). After a little while we spotted a troop of monkeys up in the trees, not orangutans but a much smaller monkey called Northern Sumatran Leaf Monkey. It was fun to see these agile monkeys jumping from tree to tree.

After some time we did see orangutans, and not just any orangutan – we met the infamous Mina! She is notorious among the guides and other locals, is seems to be a bit of a love/hate relationship. She has a reputation of being aggressive towards humans; according to Lonely Planet she has attacked at least 64 guides! Apparently most guides can show off a Mina-scar… But Mina is most definitely not shy, she sort of seemed to hang around us, this is possibly explained by the fact that she was held captive as a pet when she was a baby so she is probably still expecting food from humans. We had no incidents with her however, we also kept a safe distance and when she came crashing by we tried to stay low and move well out of her way – it was a pretty intense experience! We made our way through the jungle inland along the river, almost at the end we got to a small waterfall where we took a quick dip – bliss!! Shortly after we emerged back by the river, but a bit further up than Bukit Lawang. Here we were met by a couple of guys with an inner-tube raft, a couple of tubes were bound together and then we all rafted back down the river. It was good fun and nice and cooling. It is also a gorgeous way to see the jungle and the beautiful river, and when we hit the rapids I couldn’t help but shriek with joy and excitement!

Bukit Lawang is such a great jungle escape, while still having a few amenities to make your stay pretty comfortable – and did I mention the to-die-for passion fruit shakes?!


About Bukit Lawang
The conservation status of the orangutan became of international concern in the 1960s, and in 1964 the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre, in Sabah, Malaysia, became the first to attempt to rehabilitate captive orangutan. In 1971, the Ketambe orangutan centre was established in Aceh, North Sumatra, not far as the crow flies from Bukit Lawang, but a long way and arduous by road.

The Bohorok Orangutan Centre (Bohorok is the nearest town to Bukit Lawang, and also the name of the river that runs through both places) was established in Bukit Lawang in 1973 by Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, two Swiss zoologists as a rehabilitation centre for captive orangutans. Although illegal, orangutans were widely held as pets in Indonesia, and the centre sought to reintroduce them to the wild. It was supported by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Frankfurt Zoological Society.

The practice of keeping orangutans as pets was very damaging to the wild population as people sought only baby orangutans, who were cute and relatively easy to handle in comparison to an adult orangutan, which is large and four times stronger than an adult human. In doing so it was usual to kill the mother of the baby, usually by shooting her, a process that often killed the baby as well - it is estimated that five orangutans are killed for every one that is successfuly brought to market as a pet.

The centre was built a couple of kilometres from the village in order to minimise contact with humans - the orangutans were after all being trained to live away from human contact. The ability to see orangutans in close proximity brought first local and later international tourists to the village, and soon a visitors centre was built, as more tourists arrived.

In 1976 the government agency PHPA built the first guesthouse, against the wishes of the WWF, which was concerned about greater tourist numbers exposing orangutans to human diseases. In 1980 the rehabilitation center was taken over by the government, and the WWF's involvement ended.

Tourism developed rapidly in the early 1990s, with accommodation going from three guesthouses in 1989 to 32 in 1991. By 1994 the government recognized that with increased development and tourist numbers Bukit Lawang no longer functioned for rehabilitation given the problems of mass tourism and issues such as guides feeding the released orangutans. Since that time Bukit Lawang functions as a location to view semi-wild orangutans, either at the twice-daily feeding sessions or as part of a jungle trek.

For local tourists who usually visit on weekends, particularly Sundays, visiting the jungle is of lesser interest, and many prefer to relax in the village, swimming or tubing in the river, eating in the simple restaurants and related activities.

Foreign tourists are generally initially attracted to Bukit Lawang by the possibility to view orangutans in their natural habitat, a different experience from zoos, and the opportunity to take part in 'jungle treks'. Many however find that Bukit Lawang offers other attractions beyond the red apes and stay for weeks or even years, enjoying the relaxed lifestyle of this tourism-dependent village - enjoying a banana pancake by the river or smoking a spliff while listening to a guitar-playing guide singing Bob Marley songs. While such experiences can be had all over the Southeast Asian backpacker trail, many visitors return to Bukit Lawang over and over again because things in Bukit Lawang are just a little different.

While Bukit Lawang is arguably a tourist trap by Sumatran standards, a Sumatran tourist trap is a very far cry from a Balinese or Thai tourist trap (which of course themselves enjoy many happy visitors each year). If you are looking for a few huts and no tourists, Bukit Lawang won't be for you. But if you would be bored by such a place, Bukit Lawang is a great place to learn a bit more about orangutans and also enjoy a relaxing time by the river on the edge of a national park.

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