Bukit Lawang, Indonesia and Orangutans in the Sumatran Jungle

Feb 24, 2016

Bukit Lawang was our first official stop in Indonesia after flying into Medan and, while I think it is a good place to visit for 2 - 4 days (no need for more than that) I left with a bit of a sour taste.

The reason you go to Bukit Lawang is to see the wild Orangutans and the former research and rehabilitation outpost that was run by a Swiss man for the past 30 years. The center has since closed and the government has taken over control of the property and enforced tight entry restrictions. They have also continued with the efforts of responsible management of the Orangutans inhabiting the area around the center and the reserve itself. The center and ranger station is located at the very edge of the reserve that is bordered on almost all sides by imposing palm plantations that threaten the very existence of the reserve and its unique inhabitants.

The little tourist village of Bukit Lawang is quite a nice spot with a river running through it that collects water from countless streams in the jungle and races downstream. The river itself is nice beyond town but can be hazardous further from town as it picks up it’s pace over large rocks and mixes with pollution from the plantations and surrounding villages. As long as you stay somewhere upstream, the water is clean and not bad for a short dip. The river is also a source of concern at times as floods are not uncommon and, when heavy rain is coupled with the affects of logging in the area, disaster may can strike as it did in 2003 when logging in the area dammed the river upstream causing a catastrophic release of water and debris after a heavy rain. Most of the town was wiped out along with many of the inhabitants. In fact, we spoke to one of the local guys who lost two siblings in the flood and third later died when the Tsunami struck the Sumatran coast a year later.

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One of the great rooms at Garden Inn The bridge that crosses the river in Bukit Lawang.

With what you’ve read so far, you can probably see why we decided to visit. So what left the sour taste? Let’s get right into that…

First, getting to Bukit Lawang SUCKS. After 22 months of travel I am pretty well versed in long, cramped bus rides but I have grown quite wary of bullshit and the journey from the Medan Airport or even Medan proper to Bukit Lawang is nothing short of being a complete and often literal pain in the ass.

We arrived in Medan Airport from Kuala Lumpur at around 10:30 in the morning and immediately hopped on an official bus from the airport to a town outside of Medan named Binjai. The bus was fine and without any issues but, once we arrived in Binjai, the annoying nonsense began.

Everything you read tells you to get off the bus and go across the street to catch another unofficial bus (van owned by some guy who picks people up) and from there you can get to Bukit Lawang. We took a look around and didn’t really see a clear pickup point or any of the vans waiting and of course anyone we asked said that we were not in the right place and the pick-up point has moved. The bijak (tuk-tuk) driver who had been hovering close by informed us that we needed to go to another place that was too far to walk and he could take us there. How fortunate for us, right? Wrong. He first asked the absurd amount of $8 for the ride but after lots of bargaining we got him down to a reasonable cost of $2.

His willingness to drop the rate 75% should have put up more red flags than it did but, whatever. Anyway, he drove us through slow traffic for about 5 minutes and we arrived at a place where a few vans were gathered to pick people up. We paid the taxi guy and he tried to pull some shit and not give us the correct change. When pressed further he refused, saying he gave us the right amount but then when I got a little more aggressive, he gave in and chuckled with a sly grin as if to say, “Ah well, can’t blame a guy for trying to rip off tourists, can you?”

With that annoying transaction sorted, the real fun began. The cost of the next mini-bus should have cost 20k Rupiah or roughly $1.50 USD per person. The first person to approach us quoted 100k Rupiah per person and I was floored. “No fuckin way” I shot back. “Ok, 100k for both” the next offer now cut by 50%. “Nope” I replied. Now at this point, the other touts began to gather and tell us the bus was leaving and the price was 100k for two. Two other girls we saw gladly paid 75k each and were on the bus already and I was now growing quite inpatient and a little unhappy with the aggressive nature of the touts. The next offer came at us at 80k Rupiah for two. I sort of accepted by putting our bags in the open hatch at the back of the bus and climbing aboard but there was no money exchanged or rate confirmed with the driver/owner of the van. My goal was to basically sort it out with the driver and let the touts sit back and be confused. It sort of worked. The tout who was most aggressive asked us for money from outside of the bus and I refused saying I’d only pay the driver. He immediately went to the driver and got on his case about something and the driver just nodded and we took off. What I didn’t see was that the driver gave the tout 40k Rupiah which was apparently the commission for getting us on the bus we wanted to get on without his help.

Upon reaching Bukit Lawang, I figured my plan had either worked or the bus driver was going to be a little confused when I only paid him 40k. I gave him the money and grabbed our bags to catch a short ride with the Guesthouse we booked but then the bus driver lost it. Basically, he had given two people free rides (he already paid the touts 40k Rupiah) and wasn’t pleased. After a long rant and some yelling, I agreed to pay him partially and gave him another 30k Rupiah. So the trip should have cost $3 but instead cost $5. It is a long journey and, while $2 might seem like a petty amount to bicker over, it’s the principle of it. I don’t like being ripped off by assholes. The driver gets a pass in my book though because I was later told that the touts intimidate them quite a bit so that they only stop for tourists at their pick-up point. Still, someone has to break that cycle.

Finally, we reached our guesthouse named Garden Inn and things began to look like they might be improving. The Guesthouse was very nice with excellent views into the jungle and lots of little Makak monkeys running all over the place getting into trouble. We had a private room with a hammock on our shared porch and while it was basic, it was all we needed. The jungle was just across the river that was noisily flowing a few meters from our bungalow and a nice breeze was coming through the valley cooling things down a bit. It really was nice just being there surrounded by so much nature. As it turned out, Garden Inn was undoubtedly the best part of our trip and I certainly could have spent a few more days just lounging in the hammock and staring at the jungle. The prices were reasonable, the food was good and the staff was excellent. I think we got away with spending $60 total for all food and accommodation over three days. We thought it was a pretty good deal for how much we enjoyed the place. 

A curious Makak right outside our door

The tour itself wasn’t bad and we saw lots of Orangutans, Gibons, Thomas Leaf Monkeys, and even a rare Baboon but unfortunately, the guides leave you feeling like you’re supporting a destructive tourism business. The first issue was that the guides tend to lure some Orangutans with food to get them to come down from a tree even though it is strictly forbidden. Second, we saw two Orangutans act quite aggressively towards the guides when the guides teased them with food prompting one guide from another group to grab a stick and threaten one of the female Orangutans which had a baby with it. Obviously this is going to escalate at some point and the baby will learn the same behavior. Finally, we saw another guide tease an Orangutan with food, then take it back and eat it right in front of it and try to hold it’s hand. Aside from being just a stupid thing to do around a 140lb strong and hungry animal, touching an Orangutan can pass diseases on to them for which they have no immunity. We read that this wasn’t common behavior but we saw every single guide do at least one of these things. They did know the jungle well and were quite informative at times but the interactions with intelligent wild Orangutans left us feeling like we were part of something dirty.We didn’t come for the accommodation though so we began sorting out how we would get into the reserve and see the Orangutans and other creature. As it turned out, a flood had destroyed the bridge to the research center cutting off all access so it was closed. This left us with only one option, to pay for an expensive guided tour ($35 USD per person) which we had really hoped to avoid. We figured we had come all this way and weren’t going to spend much on anything else so we decided throw down the cash and suck it up.

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The first Orangutan we saw. An Orangutan w/her child who was showing off for us.

If the Rehab Center had been open we surely would have gone there as the rangers strictly control behavior of guests/guides and only feed Orangutans that are recently rehabilitated and/or raising young babies in an envoirnment confined by the surrounding plantations. They also only feed them foods in their natural diet only twice daily unlike the guides who just bring whatever fruits and vegetables they picked up at the market and hand feed them throughout the day promoting more dependent behavior.

We also visited the nearby bat caves where, surprise-surprise, some guy was trying to tell us the price to get it was quite high but he would cut us a deal. He tried his best to convince us but I was under the impression that it was free to visit. He protested and continued to try but fortunately, a few other people showed up with more information and collectively we told the guy to shove it and we agreed to pay the entrance fee which was less than $1 USD, about $7 USD less than he was asking for. The caves were ok but nothing special really and the whole interaction with the guy at the entrance almost made it not worth the effort. It was something to do that day but I hindsight, spending the day in hammocks reading and sipping delicious coffee might have been a better use of out time.

So there you have it. Bukit Lawang was nice and our accommodation was great but getting there kind of sucked and I wasn’t all that thrilled with actions of the guides. There are other places in Northern Sumatra to see Orangutans and I can only hope they would be more responsibly run but from what I have read, they just aren’t. Tourists want guides to guarantee that they will see Orangutans so this is the way it is. Oh, to top it all off, the mini-bus on the way back into Binjai also tried to short change us. This time it was for around $0.70 but again, you don’t get to rip me off just because I’m a tourist. Here’s hoping the transportation and management situation improves, the place certainly has a TON of potential and loads of natural beauty.

Category: Places

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