If you want to see orangutans, head to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra.
Initially, I thought my place to find them would be Malaysian Borneo. I had many reasons for visiting Borneo, namely because I simply hadn’t been there before, but also because I wanted to see some amazing wildlife and spend some time in the jungle. Due to deforestation given the influx of (mostly foreign) palm oil plantations, and lack of orangutans in general, I was left feeling disappointed.
The feeding platform I stopped by in Sepilok while motorbiking around Borneo ended up being a let-down for me. It was chock-full of loud tourists and felt more like a zoo than an opportunity to appreciate the orangutans in a natural environment, seeing how they would naturally act.
I wanted to give it another shot. Given orangutans only live in Borneo and Sumatra, Bukit Lawang seemed like the perfect place to give Orangutan viewing a fighting chance. I’m delighted to say that I was not disappointed this time around. A one-day trek ended up providing an amazing viewing opportunity:
But, as amazingly bright and intriguing as they are, there’s much more to the jungle than only orangutans.
A Little Info
The orangutans seen in the jungles of Bukit Lawang are “semi-wild,” meaning they were most likely orphaned, have been rehabilitated, and have since been released back into the wild. This is why they are easier to spot in the jungles and don’t mind being somewhat close to humans. There are even a couple of orangutans that are famous for “hugging” or even biting tourists if they get too close.
That said, these photos were all taken with a zoom lens. I appear to be much closer to the animals than I actually was.
It’s worth mentioning that Sumatra, like Borneo, is also prone to deforestation due to spreading palm oil plantations. One of the ways to help keep the orangutans’ homes preserved is to visit the areas where they live, proving that they can be a lucrative tourist attraction.
Do it Yourself
- Get to Bukit Lawang via Medan’s Amplas bus station. Public busses can be taken for around 20,000 RP (USD$ 2) while tourist busses are closer to $10. Take a becak from the bus terminal in Bukit Lawang to the main town.
- A great budget option for your stay is Bukit Lawang Indah – the price is right at 50,000 RP per night and the food and atmosphere are both great. Cross the large white bridge from the main town and find the guesthouse at the end of it on the other side.
- Find the right guide. A huge part of my amazing trekking experience was my guide, Robet’s, sixth sense when it came to searching out wildlife. Booking ahead through the wrong agency or believing stories about guides either being “dead” or “not trekking anymore” can lead to overpaying and getting stuck with a guide who doesn’t know the jungle well. TrekSumatra is a great resource for the best guides in the area, gives the guide a much fairer cut, and provides the best budget options. You can also ask for Robet or Rinto (two guides I can personally vouch for) at Bukit Lawang Indah’s reception.
- A package including transport from Medan and accommodation can be booked. If you are on a budget, make your own way to Bukit Lawang and search out a guide for 25-30 Euro per day. Bargaining below this price is discouraged.
- Things to avoid: Some guides feed the animals during treks. This is particularly harmful to the animals’ natural habits and can even lead to an early death. If your guide does this or tells you it’s ok to offer the animals food of any kind, be firm and say that you do not support this kind of tour or tourism.