Sumatra’s sultry Bukit Lawang jungle village…where you can experience Orangutans up close and personal!
In 1998, the reason for flying from Australia to Indonesia was for a spot of long-term travel.
Landing in Indonesia only one month after the racial riots that left 1,000 people dead, decide to stick around in Sumatra for a while before heading south to Java – just to be safe.
You may like to read about the long road from Batam to Dumai, then the uncomfortable overnight bus from Dumai to Bukit Lawang, before continuing with this post. Remember, in 1998, not much information was available for travel through Indonesia.
Finally, arrive in the lush jungle village of Bukit Lawang, after the 3-hour crammed bus trip from Dumai.
Deep in the Gunung Leuser National Park, I’m pleasantly surprised at the lack of aggressive cabbies and touts.
Bukit Lawang is a popular weekend destination for locals. Today is Sunday, so it’s still quite busy.
Following the hoards of people along the Sungai Bohorok (river), which runs along the whole of the village, a plethora of money changers and street sellers line the riverbank.
A narrow, decrepit path leads up and down the river to aged stoned steps and accommodation. With the same old questions of “Where you go?”, we keep wandering until, of course, a guide latches on, leading us to a restaurant for a delicious meal.
The spectacular lush, dense jungle is graced with a crystal clear waterfall cascading into the glassy river – a stunning backdrop for the village. The river and jungle, are lifebloods of Bukit Lawang.
Loads of people splash around, swim, or ride the river’s fast-flowing rapids on tyre tubes – everyone is in holiday mode.
Gunung Leuser National Park
As one of the main entrances to the Gunung Leuser National Park, decades of tourists have seen Bukit Lawang become a well-trodden path. Luckily, there aren’t too many foreign tourists here in 1998.
These days, foreign tourists head for the Aceh section of the national park as this area receives few visitors only.
After the last couple of dingy hotels, decide to indulge and treat ourselves, venturing to the picturesque Pongo Resort.
On the opposite side of the village, need to take a traditional dugout log canoe across the Bohorok River.
A heavy wireline is strung up from one tree to another, with one continuous rope on a couple of pulleys. The current pushes the canoe the 100-metres across the river, while the front and back pulleys steer the canoe. It’s quite a simple and effective system.
Pleasantly surprised at the room’s cleanliness offering a couple of vivid white towels for the icy-cold shower, albeit also clean.
Although the resort is top of the range for Bukit Lawang, this room isn’t the most expensive at under AU$8 per night. Unfortunately, there isn’t a fan in the room so keep windows close as flesh-eating mosquitoes want to dine on our bodies. The room becomes too stuffy to sleep and itching all over, I take several ice-cold showers through the night.
The sound of the river’s rapids are clear, in the near distance, reminding us that we’re in a jungle – eventually, sleep overcomes tiredness.
The resort offers good food, so it’s not far to walk. But, the best part of this accommodation is its location, next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Orang-utan or Orangutan, the word evolves from the meaning “person of the forest”.
Believe me when I say that these fascinating mammals not only resemble humans, but their behaviour is enthralling and incredibly human-like, of course.
Climbed for half an hour into the oppressive, steaming jungle alive with ravenous blood-sucking mosquitoes, until reaching the orangutan feeding platforms.
Locals last only ten-minutes of viewing before becoming bored and leave. Apparently, locals fear orangutans so, don’t like them too much. And, one of the reasons for the brutality towards these beautiful creatures.
Besides the beautiful scenery, many visitors arrive in Bukit Lawang to see semi-wild Orangutans at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which was established in 1972 by a Swiss-based organisation. The purpose? The release of orangutans in captivity after their rehabilitation.
The baby Orangutans arrive from all over Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaysia. Mistreated badly, by humans, the orangutans are kept at the centre until they can fend for themselves then released into the wild once more.
Spending a very long time at the centre as can’t tear myself away, just sit and watch for ages – a magical memory.
Many carers are tourists that volunteer to feed and clean the orangutans as locals won’t do these jobs. Rangers are supposed to also do this work, but, they don’t if they can get out of it!
Rangers teach the orangutans critical survival skills, however, even in 1998, we see the detrimental dependency on humans.
Orangutans’ heart-warming eyes display affection for humans, even after all the hurt they’ve endured. If only humans could forgive as these creatures forgive.
Rehabilitation Centre update
As the orangutans became too dependent on humans, eventually by 2002, the centre closed down. And by 2015, the viewing feeding platform also closed down as “it reduced their wild behaviour” and the platform perceived really only for tourists.
These days, intrepid tourists to Bukit Lawang visit for its ecotourism, jungle trekking, and natural wonders.
Back to the village
The only transport across the river back to the village stops at 10pm, so take a wander around Bukit Lawang, after another quick canoe ride.
The jungle bursts with timber for buildings…
…and locals use whatever they can collect, usually for free.
It’s not sustainable. As Bukit Lawang expands, so too does the hunger for more jungle timber to build homes for new villages.
Leaving Bukit Lawang
After a couple of relaxing days absorbing the jungle and Bukit Lawang in Sumatra’s north, it’s time to hop on another bus to the next destination.
Parapat is the stepping stone to gorgeous natural volcanic Lake Toba, in Sumatra’s central-north.