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Where To See Sumatra's Orangutans In The Wild

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High on my bucket list before even travelling to Asia was to see orangutans in the wild. There are two places left in the world where you can see wild orangutans: Sumatra and Borneo. I was lucky enough to see orangutans in both of these places, but in this blog I will focus on my time in Gunung Leuser National Park.

A fitting bit of street art in Bukit Lawang

What is Gunung Leuser National Park?

Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the richest tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, covering an area of 7927 km2. As we already know, it’s one of the last places to see the critically endangered orangutan living in the wild. But it isn’t just orangutans that inhabit this incredibly diverse area. The region is also the habitat of other wildlife such as elephants, rhinos, tigers, siamangs, Thomas leaf monkeys, macaques, and gibbons, although don’t expect to see a tiger or rhino roaming anywhere near the areas you will be trekking.

This rainforest is immensely biodiverse, hosting approximately 750 different species of animals, including more than 200 mammals, 380 birds, 190 reptiles, and amphibians. The park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Unfortunately, in 2011, it was placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger.

Where to enter the national park?

Overnight camping spot in Gunung Leseur.

Gunung Leuser National Park has two main entrances. The first is Bukit Lawang, the more well-known and established tourist town. It is also much easier to get to. The second is Ketambe, a more remote, rustic and the less touristic option. We did want to go to Ketambe, but due to our reliance on the internet, we opted for Bukit Lawang.

Ketambe seems to be much more authentic and eco-friendly than the tours from Bukit Lawang. If you have the time and don’t mind the extra effort to arrive, I would suggest going there.

 
A curious Thomas Leaf monkey.

How to actually get to Bukit Lawang

We started by flying into Medan from Kuala Lumper. We had pre-arranged a tour in Bukit Lawang and the owner sent someone to pick us up. We didn’t have the best experience with the tour provider, so I will not be recommending the company. You can organise a private car, which should cost you around 500,000-700,000 IDR ($40-50) all in.

If you are more budget-conscious, then there is another cheaper option, but it does take a little longer. If you are going directly from the airport, you can try to take a grab to Pinang Baris Bus Station, and from there you can catch one of the mini buses that leave for Bukit Lawang. Make sure you arrive before 5pm, as that’s the time of the last bus. Be prepared for some negotiation when you buy your ticket, as some vendors will try to charge you extra (the normal price is between 15,000-30,000, but they will try and sell you a ticket for 100,000). When bartering, be polite and just pretend that you have been before. I found this rule goes throughout Sumatra. An important side note is that you pay the fare on arrival, not before!

I have heard of tourists being kicked off buses for not paying the high price. Don’t expect any comfort either; the mini buses are hot, cramped, and sweaty. I almost sliced my hand open when entering one as the whole inside of the bus was rusted. It’s also normal for people to smoke in these buses and on a lot of public transport, so take that into account when choosing which transport you want to take.

Another way from the airport is to take the ALS bus to the city of Binjai, just outside Medan on the road to Bukit Lawang. The cost from the airport is fixed at 40,000 IDR. This bus takes 2 hours depending on traffic and runs roughly every 45 minutes between around 3am and 10pm. It’s best to try to get off the bus at Medan Supermall. Here you should catch one of the orange minibuses. They’re marked with Bukit Lawang on the front window. Just hail them as they pass by. The fare is something between 15,000 IDR and 30,000 IDR, payable on arrival in Bukit Lawang, not before (don’t forget this).

Sometimes the ALS buses also drop off passengers at Binjai’s main bus station. From here, you need to take a becak (tuk-tuk) to Tanah Lapang, which is a junction 2km away, where buses to Bukit Lawang stop to pick up passengers. The tuk-tuk costs around 10,000-15,000 IDR depending on your negotiating skills. Just look out for the minibuses with Bukit Lawang in the windscreen and wave them down. Always agree on a price before entering though.

A baby orangutan deep in thought.

9 Tips before arriving

  1. Research tour providers and check the reviews! I saw a few tour guides actually feeding the animals in the national park, which is actually illegal. Choose a responsible company that actually follows the rules.
  1. Take enough cash and then some. There aren’t any cash machines in Bukit Lawang, and I didn’t find anywhere that accepted cards (well, one random guy that charged a 10% commission). It’s a pricey taxi ride to the closest ATM, 30 minutes away.
  1. Choose the right time to go. We arrived as the COVID pandemic was just starting, so it was very quiet. The high season runs in the summer months, around Easter and around New Year’s. During this time, the park can get very busy and you can easily be watching an orangutan with 100 other people.
  1. It should go without saying, but don’t leave anything behind; always clean up after yourselves!
  1. Keep your distance from the wildlife. This should be explained and enforced throughout your time in the park. Orangutans are very powerful and sometimes unpredictable. Also, being close relatives, we can actually pass on diseases to orangutans, which could cause huge issues.
  1. If you are going during the wet season, be prepared for leaches. We both had run-ins with them during our time there. Any little gap or hole in your clothes will get them in. Although they aren’t painful, they do leave a mess. Some tour companies do offer gators to stop them from getting into your boots, at an extra cost, of course.
  1. The trek wasn’t very difficult, but some parts are steep and it can be slippery, so wear comfortable walking shoes or boots.
  1. Don’t leave things lying around, especially food. A cheeky macaque will appear out of thin air and steal your food in an instant.
  1. Bring a torch as there isn’t any electricity when you camp and you will need one if you need to use the bathroom in the night.
An adult male stalking a female.

My 3 Day Trip

After arriving in Sumatra and doing the usual stop off to buy a local sim card, we were on our way to Bukit Lawang. As we had to work in the evening, we decided to get a private car to save time. This cost us about 400,000 won ($30), which didn’t seem like that bad of a deal. We had already pre-booked our rooms in Bukit Lawang.

Arriving in Bukit Lawang, our hotel was on the opposite side of the river, so we debussed and carried our bags through the narrow streets, across the bridge and to the hotel. It wasn’t very far to walk, and Bukit Lawang itself is quite a small town. We unpacked and repacked our bags, all set for the days of trekking ahead, but we still had to find a company to go trekking with. There are many different operators in the town, with most offering the same tours. You can always search around for the best deal.

It is possible to see some wildlife without even entering the national park. We were able to see Thomas leaf monkeys, macaques, and even two orangutans along the river.

After an early dinner, we booked our trek with the hotel we were stopping at. We ended up getting a package deal for the transport, accommodation, and tour. It’s not possible to do the trek solo; you can easily get lost in the jungle, and it’s stated in the national park rules that you cannot trek without a guide. With a guide, you have a much better chance of seeing orangutans and other wildlife.

A mother Thomas Leaf with her baby.

Day two

The next day, we were up early for breakfast and raring to see some orangutans. We left the hotel at around 9 am and set off along the river towards Gunung Leuser. Within the first 30 minutes, we spotted an orangutan and her son further up the track. They continued to walk with us for another 20 minutes or so. I was amazed at how quickly we found them. The guide informed me that many of the older orangutans around Bukit Lawang are semi wild, a lot of them were rescued and rehabilitated when they were younger. The rehabilitation center was officially closed down in 2002.

We carried on deeper into the jungle, looking out for orangutan nests along the way. They tend to build multiple nests and use them to rest throughout the day. After walking through a rubber plantation, we found another female orangutan, this one with a male in tow. We weren’t alone here as there were a few other tour groups around. Each person was trying to get the best angle for a picture, I found in these situations, it’s best to just hang back. I think there were between 20/30 people, so I can only imagine what it would be like during high season.

We carried on along a track for a few more hours, looking out for the various primates and other animals that inhabit Gunung Lesser. Most of the tours have food included, and ours wasn’t any different. We stopped around 1pm for a lunch of nasi goreng and fresh fruit, all prepared on banana leaves, which was a nice touch. That way, we didn’t leave anything behind that could damage the environment.

Throughout the rest of the day, we spotted various wildlife along the track, including Thomas leaf monkeys, pig tailed macaques, gibbons, monitor lizards, and a draco lizard, as well as a few pesky leeches. We reached our overnight spot late in the afternoon, giving us plenty of time to drop our bags off and go for a swim in the river that was only a few steps from where we were sleeping. The accommodation consisted of a hard raised surface with a small foam mattress with a mosquito net, we bought our own sleeping bags. There weren’t any toilets, so you just had to find a spot a little away from camp to do your business. After an hour or so, dinner was served. We were treated to a variety of Indonesian dishes. My girlfriend is a vegetarian, we let the operator know when we booked the tour, and she didn’t have any issues with food on the trip. Just let the company know if you have any dietary requirements and they will try their best to cater to you.

Day three: 

I was a little surprised the next day at how late we started. After eating a breakfast of fresh fruit, we set off at around 10am. I am used to getting up at the crack of dawn and setting off before the heat sets in. As we were on the 2-day trek, we began to head back.

After an hour or so, we spotted a mother and her baby orangutan in a nest high in the trees. After spending a few minutes admiring them both, we carried on. It seemed as though they weren’t done admiring us as they followed us. Just before lunch, they joined us at ground level. Sitting a few metres away, the mother let her baby play and used her as a climbing frame while she enjoyed some time smashing twigs with a rock. It was such a magical experience, especially watching how they interacted and the bond the mother and her baby had. I remember seeing the mum trying to kiss her baby and the baby trying to push her away, as if to say “not in front of my friend’s mum”. We were pretty much dragged away by our guide to eat lunch. After food, our small group split as the others were doing the 3-day trek.

Along the route back, we spotted more orangutans and a few gibbons. We arrived back in Bukit Lawang at 3pm. For me, it didn’t really seem like a full day of trekking, but half a day. There is an option to come back via tubing for a $20 charge. We decided not to, firstly as we weren’t done with our search for wildlife and we assumed we would see more trekking back than floating along the river, and secondly, it really didn’t seem worth it to us.

We returned back to our accommodation for a nice cold shower and to plan our route to Lake Toba for the next day.

Two very friendly frogs, next to our camping spot.
Just hanging around, even got a little pout.

Do you want help creating your very own trip to see the wonders that Sumatra holds? Contact me here for expert advice and trip planning.

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