BUKIT LAWANG – Orangutans, monkeys, rare birds, jungle, a rushing river and an eco hideaway

Sumtran orangutan swinging in Jungle trees
To just about anyone with an interest in nature and wildlife, the ORANGUTANG is one of the earth’s truly fascinating animals. Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra is one of a handful of places where you will have the best chance of seeing these critically endangered primates in their natural jungle habitat.

The name orangutan means “forest person” in Indonesian, a tribute to the intelligence, learning ability and behaviours of our gentle arboreal primate cousins.

Bukit Lawang played an important early part in creating awareness and  protection for the critically endangered species. In the process Bukit Lawang  has emerged as an ‘eco village’ attracting nature lovers  and trekkers fcrom throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia and from around the world.

The sleepy village straddles the Bohorok/Landak River and nestles into the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park. It’s the largest natural reserve in Southeast Asia and sometimes described as the green heart of Sumatra.

Bukit Lawang,  is reached by a scenic drive from Medan. It’s only about 90km, but expect to take around three hours. The roads leave a lot to be desired in these parts – it will be bumpy, but we take it steadily.

A mother and young – Orangutans are said to be the primate most closely related to humans.

Site of original orangutan rehabilitation centre

Bukit Lawang is where two young Swiss conservationists, Monica Borner and Regina Frey, first established the internationally famous Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center back in 1972.

They aimed to return captive and orphaned orangutans into the wild after first checking and treating them for any diseases and injuries.

Then they taught them how to climb and build treetop nests, skills they had lost while locked in cages or tethered on chains.

Over the years some 200 rehabilitated orangutans were released from Bukit Lawang into the jungle wilds of the national park.

Park Rangers continue to monitor their progress and operate feeding stations where released orangutans can come for supplementary feeding.

The Indonesian Government and international conservation organizations joined in the campaign, mounting an increasing effort protect a shrinking orangutan population becoming threatened through loss of habitat.

Around 20 years ago the Bukit Lawang rehabilitation effort moved to another location at Batu Mbelin not far from Medan and the rehab program at Bukit Lawang ceased in 2002.

artists impression of haven planned for Ornagutans unable to be returned to the wild

An artist’s impression of Orangutan Haven islands and moats providing a natural and safe refuge for disabled orangutans unable to be returned to the wild. It is part of a  major rehabilitation project due to open at Batu Mbelin near Medan in 2023.leo.

New location for truly ambitious Orangutan rehabilitation and refuge program

One of the first rehabilitation goals of the new Critically Endangered Sumatran Orangutan (SOCP) at Batu Mbelin has been to establish a modern, state-of-the-art quarantine facility for confiscated illegal pets and a program to release these animals back to the wild.

Since 2001, the SOCP has received over 360 ex-captive orangutans into its quarantine facility and more than 270 have been reintroduced to the rainforest.

But some of the orangutans at the Quarantine Centre cannot be returned to the jungle for health or disability reasons and faced the prospect of spending up to 50 years in captivity for their protection.

To overcome this the SOCP is creating a spectacularly ambitious solution by developing an Orangutan Haven – a series of moated naturalistic islands in a 48-hectare jungle valley where these disabled animals can live out their days in optimal welfare conditions.

The goals are for them to serve as “ambassadors” for their wild counterparts through face-to-face contact with the public, and to develop an education resource promoting animal welfare, species and ecosystem conservation, and sustainable development.

Entrance fees from visitors will help fund the operation and their experience will help people better understand and relate to the impact their daily decisions may have on orangutans and the other wildlife species sharing their habitat.

You can see more about this ambitious and far-sighted project in the video below and check progress as at 2022 on their website via this link https://www.sumatranorangutan.org/our-work/creating-new-wild-populations/orangutanhaven/

You will see from the website that the Orangutan Haven is progressing well with plans for a ‘soft opening’ early in 2023. Immediately it is in operation Better Tours will be adding it to our Premium North Sumatra and Java Tour. Watch our newsletters for updates.

See more about the Orangutan Haven project and some of the issues involved in securing the future of these critically endangered great apes in this video published in 2017. (7min 23secs)

Our short and easy jungle trek to seek out Orangutans and much more

Bukit Lawang village on the Bohorok River – jungle trekking centre for the Gunung Leuser National Park

At Bukit Lawang we will join an expert guide for an easy three-hour jungle trek through beautiful primary tropical rainforest to see orangutans in the wild. We cannot be certain, but the odds are high that we will be successful.

Hornbills are part of the birdlife at Bukit Lawang (Pic orangitanadventure.com) and the Thomas Leaf Moneky is one of the primates you will see. – Pic  Madeleine Holland Wiki Commons

But even if we are not, we will see other rare and unusual Sumatran wildlife like Siamang (black-furred gibbons), Thomas Leaf Monkeys, long tail Macaque, and varieties of exotic Sumatran birds. It will be a memorable experience.

On some jungle treks visitors have the option of completing their trek on foot or by floating down the pristine Bohorok River accompanied by guides on a raft of large inner tubes – different and fun!

It’s one thing to float down the stream, but someone has to get the raft of giant inner tubes to the starting point – pic www.cheekypassport.com

Regardless of the wildlife, Bukit Lawang is a wonderfully authentic destination for anyone interested in nature, beauty and the environment.

The massive jungles of the Gunung Leuser National Park are among the most biodiverse regions of the world and home to many species including tigers, rhinos, elephants, leopards, pangolins (scaly anteaters) and cobras.

But we are most unlikely to meet any of these face to face – which may be a good thing!

UNESCO listed Gunung Leuser as a world heritage site in 2004 as part of the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra.

The suspension bridge over the Bohorok River to our Eco Lodge accommodation 

Across the Bohorok River by pedestrian suspension bridge

To reach our Bukit Lawang accommodation we have the option of crossing the Bohorok River to the village and our hotel via a classic suspension footbridge (yes, it sways a bit, but it is perfectly safe) or by a small boat used as a punt.

We stay at the Bukit Lawang Eco Lodge – a rustic but highly rated and authentic three-star cottage hotel overlooking the river and designed for its environment. It’s not luxury but very clean and comfortable with touches like showers where you can see the stars.

It’s a place to relax and absorb and enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle night and the staff will treat you like family. See more about Bukit Lawang Eco Lodge and this beautiful area in the video below.

The Lodge’s striking Kapal Bambu Restaurant (it means bamboo ship) Is constructed of  bamboo and clays from the local area. The menu includes good Indonesian food, plus fusion, pasta and other Western  dishes. 

Play Video

Cottage-style accommodation at Bukit Lawang Eco Lodge

National Park entry fee for visitors 

All visitors to Bukit Lawang must pay an entrance fee of about AUD$15. The revenues go to the Park Service.  A previous camera fee has been dropped, so you can happily click to your heart’s content creating beautiful shots like the one below.

A half-day trek costs about US$40 per person. If you are part of our group we cover both the entry fee and trek in your package.

A section of the beautiful Bohorok/Landak River cloaked by the jungle of the Gunung Leuser National Park

IN SUMMARY ...

We can see and learn about Orangutans in their natural jungle setting in only two regions of the world – namely Sumatra and Borneo  (Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak).

Bukit Lawang near Medan in North Sumatra is one of the easier places to do so. What’s more  the location is a gateway into Southeast Asia’s biggest and  most diverse national parks.

The modest village with its rushing river at the edge of the jungle has become something of an eco-Mecca for nature lovers from around the region and the world. It can be a challenge to get there but you will be pleased you made the effort.

Soon there will be an alternative and more accessible place to see and learn about our porimate cousins – the Orangutans – at Batu Mbelin nearer Medan and on the road to the beautiful destinations of Berastagi and Lake Toba. 

But Bukit Lawang and its neighboring Bohorok have a special magic. Your visit there will be an adventure to remember.

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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