From my travel research is seems that many people head into the Bukit Lawang jungle for trekking and meeting with orang-utans rather than hanging out in Medan much at all.
Did you know, Bukit Lawang means ‘door to the hills’ and orang-utan means “person of the forest’.
After all the travelling across the world we actually stayed for two days in Medan and during this time it was the 74th Anniversary of Indonesia’s independence. There were street parties, guys climbing huge posts to retrieve prizes, plus plenty of Indonesian tourists in the city. The day we planned to leave we were met with a total down pour of rain, which was hilarious to negotiate barefoot in the street haha (picture us, shin deep in water on the side of the road looking for a food place that did veggie options).
How to get to Bukit Lawang
Depending on your budget and comfiness preferences there are a couple of options for travelling to Bukit Lawang from Medan:
Tourist transport: 120 – 150k rupiahs
This can be organised by your hostel / guesthouse. It’s usually a shared car which will collect others along the way too.
Public bus: 30k + 50k rupiahs grab to the bus stop
The less comfortable but more authentic ride can be done via public bus. Head to the Mawar Bakery & Cake Shop (use this address Jl. Pinang Baris No.261, Lalang, Kec. Medan Sunggal) – sounds weird but trust me as SOON as we got out of the taxi we were approached by a bus driver asking if we wanted to go to Bukit Lawang. They might try to charge you more than 30k for the ride but stick to your guns and refuse to ride if they try anything more – we paid 100k between three of us in the end which isn’t so bad.
To note: local bus drivers are SO erratic; they overtake everyone and everything. Many people will join you along the way so expect it to be crowded. We even had people on the roof with our bags at one point!
Where to stay
Upon arrival into the Bukit Lawang bus station we actually managed to blag a free ride to the accommodation we had booked – Rainforest Guesthouse. It’s about 2km to the main stretch of accommodation from the bus station and the road is hilly, so I do recommend taking a tuk-tuk for around 20k if your guest house doesn’t provide transport.
Rainforest Guesthouse is a relaxed spot with a huge food menu, cheap rooms and really friendly staff. Pay 50,000 rupiahs (around £3) per night if you don’t mind a shared bathroom or for a private bathroom its 75,000, which is still a pretty sweet deal.
There are loads of different accommodation options in Bukit Lawang so choose to book online or just head to a nice looking one upon arrival and enquire about rooms.
Trekking in the Bukit Lawang jungle
The only way to see the orang-utans is to of course head into the jungle. This can be done through a tour, with a guide for 1 day, right up to 17 days. The prices for the treks and overnight stays are fixed across Bukit Lawang, for example 2 day trek is €80. This money goes towards your experience and preserving the national park and ensuring the protection of the orang-utans – it’s not just something they say, it’s the truth.
We didn’t book ahead (although we could have at our Medan hostel), we just booked via the guide at the Rainforest Guesthouse. We organised everything at dinner time the night before. I love Asia for how last minute you can be for things and it usually all works out haha!
Our group of seven met after breakfast at around 9am. We’d packed small overnight bags with a change of clothes, towel and swimwear for dipping in the river, plus the rafting back from the jungle the following day. I wore sports trainers for this, long leggings and a t-shirt. I didn’t pack a raincoat but we were so lucky as it only rained once we got to the rafts in our swimwear – ideally pack one just in case!
Tip: you don’t really need any snacks as they provide everything; just make sure you bring plenty of water.
We spent the morning hiking around in the jungle and meeting with other groups and guides in various spots where there were orang-utans to see. The first couple we saw had quite a boisterous baby who was grabbing onto the guides and stuff. In my opinion it was quite intimidating how human like they could be.
We spotted a few more throughout the day. However, there was a lot of groups around them at the same time, which made it kinda hard when they were moving around a lot. I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about the amount of tourists around one small group of orang-utans, but we had to trust the guides in this situation and they seemed to know what they were doing.
The guides were awesome and would produce fruit for snacks, and a full meal for lunch out of their rucksacks. Rice, tofu, soya beans and salad for lunch – really delicious. We trekked and saw orang-utans until around 4pm, we had done some serious uphill, downhill hiking and were really feeling the sweat hahah! We arrived at our own little private camp on the side of the river, and we were so ready for a dip in the river.
The evening was spent hanging out chatting, eating another delicious meal, playing hilarious games and solving riddles. Our guide Tamprin was an entertainment pro and kept us amused until bedtime. Beds were inside large tents with a mosquito net, sleeping bag and mat for comfort. I slept fully dressed, anticipating I’d be freezing cold but it was surprisingly warm throughout the night and Thijs and I slept right through.
The following day after a delicious egg sandwich for breakfast we continued the trek. Heading uphill was a tough start to the day but everyone takes their time and we rested when we wanted to. We spent until around 2pm hiking with a couple of breaks and a short meeting with Mina, a notably aggressive female orang-utan. We passed her by quite quickly whilst our guide fed her peanuts. It was just our group nearby so it was much more relaxed enjoyable to see her, despite it being a very short meeting. This was my favourite orang-utan moment from the trek!
The final part of the two day tour was rafting back down the river to the Rainforest Guesthouse. After hanging out at the meeting point, all of our bags were wrapped in huge plastic sheets and securely attached to the rafts. Luckily we were all in our bikinis and swim shorts when the HEAVENS OPENED!! In the absolutely pissing down rain we glided and bashed our way down the river back to the guesthouse – a totally surreal experience floating down the river whilst being pelted with heavy Asian rain haha!
Bat Caves, Bukit Lawang
Outside of the two day tour, we wanted to explore something in the surrounding area and were advised to head to the Bat Caves. It was about a 30 min walk through the town, across and besides the river, then back into the jungle. I had expected one large chamber to explore with bats inside, probably for around 15/20 mins but in fact after paying a small entrance fee (I think 20k), were taken on an a 1 hour guided tour through a number of huge damp chambers.
Tip: the route to the Bukit Lawang Bat Caves is available on Maps.me which is really handy. There’s also signs along the way.
We first clambered through the roots of a tree into the cave, which really reminded me of the Whomping Willow – it was actually quite majestic. The caves were home to all sorts of creatures besides the bats; spiders, scorpions, centipedes, cockroaches (alllll the creepy crawlies). The caves themselves are around 500m long and there’s a fair amount of clambering around up and across quite slippery rocks, plus some tight squeezes. I was concerned after a while that I’d end up feeling claustrophobic but there was plenty of room and sometimes the cave opened up into the light too.
Tip: wear grippy shoes and bring a torch. They do provide torches and the guide of course was wearing flip flops, but I do recommend a head torch (nerd alert).
It was about a 30 minute climb through all the different rocky areas, and then we had to come back the same way.
We knew that Bukit Lawang is a popular destination in Sumatra, however upon arrival we were still surprised by how touristy it really is. In 10 minutes we saw more western people than we had done the whole time we were in Medan.
There’s a clothing market, some small restaurants which offer cheap food and a few little shops with essentials. To be honest we didn’t venture too far as our guesthouse had all the facilities we needed, including a laundry service.
Absolutely loved hanging out in Bukit Lawang, especially as the team at the Rainforest Guesthouse made us feel very welcome, plus they’re very flexible with your nights to stay. You can book to do longer treks which take you further into the jungle. Here you can get more up close and personal with the orang-utans and even have a chance to see the Sumatra tigers and rhinos.
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