“Hi Kristin! Where you go?” kind voices called out periodically as I walked down the dirt and rock path through the trees. Smiling faces greeted me each time I turned my head to see who was calling. Somehow they had all remembered my name.
“Come back in a few weeks, months, or years, and they’ll still remember you,” said Josie, a Canadian who has made this adorable place her home for the next year.
Bukit Lawang is a tiny trekking town in the north of Sumatra. Most people just breeze through, using it as a hub for the nights before and after their jungle trek.
I was told that there is good reason to stay longer – that there is more to the place than meets the eye. Weeks later as I write this, I realize how true that was.
I am still warmed by the memories of my weeklong stay there.
Each time I met someone new in Bukit Lawang, I’d tell him my name, and where I am from. He’d usually sing a line from Hotel California, and if I told him any extra information, he’d never forget it. Days later, he could repeat the same things right back to me without missing one detail.
Plus, I had a vested interest in sticking around – there was a bundle of kittens we had rescued from Lake Toba that needed a new home. Bukit Lawang was going to be it. They would eventually end up loved by the whole community. Josie kindly took them in and they have been happy little trekkers ever since.
I spent my days going to Landak River with locals to avoid the Sunday karaoke (oh how it made my head hurt), being asked to take pictures with the kids who would pour in from neighboring Medan, renting inner tubes for 10,000 rupiah (USD$1) and tubing down the river through town, jumping off of rocks into the water with local kids, picking the tube back up, hiking it to the starting point, and tubing right back down again.
What I loved even more was the musical nights at my guesthouse. The guys who worked there would take out a guitar, bongo drums, and eventually a Bintang beer bottle and pocketknife which would become another instrument. They’d belt out lyrics to popular songs, encouraging everyone in the room to sit in a circle and sing along.
Various lyrics would get replaced with trekking terms:
“You know you look so good (look so good), you know you look so fine (look so fine) you know you look se-xy (not really), you know you look just like an orang-u-tan in Bukit Lawaaang a bamba…” (La Bamba)
“Would you know my name if I saw you in jungle? Would it be the same if I saw you in jungle?” (Tears in Heaven)
“Welcome to the hotel Bukit Lawang. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face” (Hotel California)
Some nights, we’d go through so many bottles of beer the side-by-side lineup of bottles would span several tables.
I never feared I’d get scammed there – something I’ve dealt with heavily in other areas of Southeast Asia. That’s a good feeling. It was also the cheapest week of my travels in Indonesia, and one of my best fed. My downing of an entire kilo (2.2 lbs!) of passion fruit in only 12 hours is still legendary.
When I left, my trekking guide even took me to the local bus station to make sure I got on the right bus, and told me what to do once I got to Medan so that I could take public transport the whole way (costing me only 25,000 instead of 100,000 rupiah to get all the way to the airport).
It was one of the best weeks of my travels so far, solely because I felt so welcomed by the locals. Bukit Lawang, I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to you one day.