In all honesty I am hesitant to write this piece, feeling as though I found a little magical piece of the world not yet pillaged by tourism and smeared with the west, and like any good little wanderluster… I know the importance of keeping secret spots sacred. However… Bukit Lawang is by no means a secret destination. It is one of the top tourist destinations on Sumatra. It’s just that not many tourists and travelers choose to explore the wild wild west of Indonesia and embark on a Sumatran adventure at all… Personally, I am not a “Bali Hater” like most people I come across. Yes, in my many trips to Bali, Kuta has made my skin crawl off my body and I have threatened to punch the next tout who offered me a Bintang singlet and a “very special price”…. for me? oh how lucky i must be.
No. I have love in my heart for the Bukit (Uluwatu and the surrounding areas), even though massive hideous hotels are devouring what were once untouched, pristine beaches that are now filled with human waste and garbage…And I especially love Ubud and a few other small secret areas that I won’t name, where yoga and peace and mellow vibes are grasping for dear life to being the most important thing while warungs become western priced bars overnight and Australian dollar signs seem to light up over your heads while you walk the streets if you remotely resemble a caucasian.
I have been living off the coast of West Sumatra… far from the Balanese chaos, but close enough to hear guests and surfers complain about hating Bali. Its crazy. Bali is one of the most beautiful islands in the world. The only island of Indonesia’s 17,800+ that is Hindu and by FAR the most popular tourist destination in the country.
The people who come out to where I live are surfers. Very occasionally, at a land camp like Togat Nusa Retreat (www.togatnusaretreat.com) or Surfing Village (www.surfing-village.com), we will get a non-surfing friend/wife/partner who will come enjoy the beaches and tropical island life of the surfing mecca that lies 100 nautical miles off the coast of Sumatra, but for the most part it is gutsy, high-level surfers and professionals with their photographers.
I am a yoga instructor and masseuse for the surfers and spent well over half of 2011 in the islands, at land camps and onboard a charter boat called Kaimana (www.surgingwaters.com). The boats have far less of a chance of attracting non-surfing guests. Shayno, who co-owns and runs Kaimana just told me last night that in his 8 years out here he has maybe had 2 non-surfing guests.
Shayne and I met up last week in Padang – our West Sumatra port and mainland “home” when we return from the islands. We both had a week to kill and Padang has next to nothing to do. There used to be a ‘western’ bar that served liquor called “Fella’s” but it’s gone. You can buy Bintang tall boy beers at the market and sit in your homestay and talk to other surfers coming in on out from trips (you can tell by the amount of injuries they look to have sustained on the reef and how sunburned they are whether they are heading home or going out)…
But when i say that there is nothing to do in Padang, I really mean it. I am one of the most resourceful, optimistic, adventuresome person I know… (if i do say so myself)… but there are only so many times you can cover yourself up to be respectful in the dense Muslim atmosphere and sweat to the point of almost passing out while wandering around the Pasar (market) lovingly dubbed “the vortex”… or climb to the top of the hill that overlooks the dusty, dirty city of rusty corrugated tin roofs and dilapidated mosques….
The 40,000rp massage that we always get (about $4 US) only lasts an hour and a half, and then you are left with the rest of the day to twiddle your thumbs and go watch Arrested Development on your laptop while lapping up the AC at your home stay or hotel for the nine thousandth time. So Shayne and I decided that we were getting out of town.
Domestic flights in Indonesia are super cheap – Lion Air, Sriwijaya Air, Batavia Air & Garuda Air – so we made a decision on a whim, booked our ticket and got ready to hit the road North and East to go find the Sumatran Orangutans that have intrigued both of us and been a point of conversation and fantasy vacation talk… I always had heard it was $800 to go stay at the sanctuary and help resuscitate these nearly extinct creatures. But a little look on lonely planet told us that in Bukit Lawang you can go out on day treks into the jungle and see them in the wild.
BTW – Orang means “person” and Hutan means “jungle” so and Orang-Hutan is a jungle person. We looked at each other and decided that WE were jungle people too and had to go find cousins in the trees and bought a return ticket from Padang to Medan. I had never been to Medan but heard it was chaotic… Ya… Understatement of the century right there.
In typical fashion, we had made zero plans and didn’t even really know how far Bukit Lawang was from Medan when we arrived at Medan airport. I knew that we could get a driver to take us or we could go the cheap way and find the bus station called Pinang Baris. It helped enormously to be able to speak Indonesian, and I was actually pleasantly surprised to hear all the indonesians speaking Bahasa Indonesia instead of a dialect from their region that I couldn’t understand. (I found out later that there are so many dialects in the Medan region that everyone just defaults to Bahasa Indonesia)…
A driver with a nice, new, air conditioned SUV offered to drive us straight to Bukit Lawang for 300,000rp ($30) but I am recovering from Malaria right now and am under strict orders not to do anything stressful or strenuous, so we opt to take the crazy mini-bus crammed with 15 sweating people and one guy sitting on the roof, while the Indo chick behind us pukes out the window and our driver rips off his shirt and basically pops wheelies weaving through the insane Medan traffic like a bat out of hell, stopping every thirty minutes or so to try and pick up more people and cram them inside too. I go FULL ON Rosa Parks on him and refuse to scoot down, telling him that i paid my money for a seat on this “bus” not a half a seat. So they all look at each other and shrug, realizing that the friendly Bule girl in the back has a gnarly side, and they climb on the roof instead.
Four hours and two xanax later, we arrive in Bukit Lawang, though we can’t be sure because there are no signs. It’s already dark and we can hear the river running but have no sense of direction. Haidir, our Bukit Lawang bestie, pops out of nowhere and offers to help us. He speaks really good english but upon realizing that we can speak Indonesian, we swap over to a mix of the two languages.
We had seen on the Lonely Planet about a place called “Ecolodge” and intrigued by the eco aspect we ask Haidir to point us there, but he insists on walking us across the rickety bridge that Shayne insists on swaying and making me scream every single time we cross it.We get the first room that is shown to us… a beautiful big bed on a platform with a mosquito net hanging from the super high ceilings. Framed photos of orangutans on the walls and a bathroom that is half outside and has tropical plants growing beside you as you shower. We ate an unbelievably expensive meal of Gado-Gado and fresh pineapple and passionfruit juice and talked to Haidir about how to see the Orangutans.
Haidir is the best guy ever. He has a French girlfriend in Hong Kong where he spends half the time, but he grew up here in Bukit Lawang, in the jungles. His father was one of the first people to lead tours up to see the orangutans and he knows the land like the back of his hand.He has a laminated paper with all the stuff we can do while we are here, and although he is talking about business he lacks that pushy trying to make a deal BS that I feel like you always have to deal with in Indonesia. I feel like Haidir really wants to share this experience with you. He tells us that a Canadian girl and her British boyfriend are already signed up to leave in the morning and go on a two day trek, sleeping in the jungle for one night.We go back and forth and can’t quite decided whether or not we want to actually sleep in the jungle, especially since I am not totally well and need to take it easy.
Haidir tells us that its no worries, we can decide in the morning… if we want to just go up in the jungle with him and try to see the orangutans in the day, he can have one of his porters take us back to the hotel and he will continue on for the night with the other group. We can think it over for the night, but as it is Saturday, we absolutely MUST come out and party with him… so of course we oblige and jump on his and his friend’s motorbikes and cruise down rocky lanes along the side of the river until we get to a little bar made from bamboo with a PA set up. There are a handful of foreigners… backpacker vibe… something I never see in Padang or the Mentawais… the vibe reminds me of parts of India like McLeod Ganj and Rhishikesh… a mountain town by a river… the sound of monkeys scurrying across the rooftops and then launching into nearby trees.
The band plays a mix of King of Leon, CCR and Indonesian music and its surprisingly great. The vibe here is really special. The mix of young Indonesians and backpacking tourists and wildlife lovers makes for a cruisy, happy atmosphere.We decide by the river after I sang Proud Mary with the singer on stage that we would go for it and do the overnight trek. We would meet Haidir and the other guests in our open-air, river-front ecolodge lobby at 9am sharp. We wake up at 9:15 of course. By 10 we are finally underway. We had to give Haidir our passport info so he could get special permits to take us up into the jungle. After a little while of walking past rubber trees and little huts, we see the sign that warns us that we need permits to enter and it instantly becomes more lush and tropical… the ground feels more rugged (especially to Shayne who insists on trekking the entire two days barefoot).
Within an hour there are Orangutans all around us. The word I would use to describe their energy is “wise”… they move slowly and gracefully… often pausing with hands and feet stretched wide between two trees… their babies clutch on to their chests and look around, taking it all in as though they have seen it all a million times and are just remembering what it feels like to be suspended in a tree in this beautiful world…When we would come across an individual Orangutan on a solo mission in the trees, they would seem shy and remind me the timid, introverted students i taught preschool to who would sit back and take it all in rather then participating and playing. We sat and ate fruit salad on the jungle floor while the Orangutans clung to branches miles high in the sky above us… that is, until we were finished and they came crawling down to take the leftovers home.
After a lunch down by the river, we started an exhausting and somewhat treacherous uphill climb just as thunder started clapping and roaring above us. We reached the top of a mountain just rain began pouring down like an epic monsoon… There was nowhere to go and nothing to do but just dance in the rain on the hill, laugh and let ourselves get drenched… We kept walking in what was now muddy jungle earth as the rain continued to hammer down… Falling into a somewhat covered jungle area, where we could hear the raindrop pelting down on the jungle roof but just mist and fog swirled around us. Just then one of the porters we were trekking with screamed through a whispered voice for all of us to stay quiet and follow him back up the hill. I was irritated, thinking that he took us the wrong way by accident until i saw them.
These amazing creatures are even more rare to see in the wild then the Orangutans… They actually came down and played with us… looking in the porter’s pockets for fruit and resting a foot on a human shoulder as they hung from the trees and ate our fruit. Once they were done playing and swung through the branches away, we continued our trek in the rain towards the camp. Just before nightfall we arrived at camp. I actually slipped down a slick rock and fell in the river, and my favorite porter, who i now call “Penolongku” which means “my hero”… came diving in after me from about 4 meters up. He FLEW over Shayne’s head and grabbed me in the river. It was pretty epic and dramatic.
Our camp was between a river and a waterfall that everyone dove into and let the water massage their sore shoulders from carrying bags.The tents were already set up and the chef was busy at work making us an awesome meal.It was still pounding down with rain, so we all crammed inside the tent by candle light and played card games, showed magic tricks and drank hot ginger tea. We “slept” on the hard earth under the pounding rain… but shuffled and squealed when anything touched our feet – on a count of the gigantic centipede, leaches, spiders and snakes we had seen all day on the trek.Morning came not one moment too soon, and we found the day beautiful and sunny… the river heaving and full from the storm the night before and ready to carry us down back to Bukit Lawang… oh ya… thats the best part.
Our return trip was river rafting!
We laughed so hard lying on the inner tubes all tied together to make our 6 person raft we rode for a couple hours, i couldn’t tell what were the tears streaming out of my eyes or the river splashing on my face as we bounced up and down over those same slippery rocks i had slipped on the day before… The sun beat down on us as we cruised past waterfalls and avatar-looking river-side jungle trees stacked with tribes of little grey monkeys, like filthy muddy drown rats rocking huge smiles, we arrived back on the banks of the river beneath the ecolodge and found ourselves back in a clean, comfy room where we rested and cleaned up. Haidir called a few hours later and told me that we had to celebrate tonight with a barbecue at his house – a bonfire, guitars, and food…
“Whats the celebration for?” I asked him
“What you mean? We left for the trek alive, and now we return still alive!”
I love this place. Everything about it. There are few places like this that I have found.
Sibayak is the best place to stay – just across the river – easy to find and simple. 50,000rp a night (about 5 bucks)… food is cheap and there is a ping pong table and cool people. It was all we needed and a welcome downgrade from the ecolodge, which wasn’t that much more impressive for the jump in price.
The Jungle Inn also looked cool and we heard was awesome, though a bit of a walk up and through the town to get there – so bring a headlamp/flashlight for the walk home at nightWith Trekking (a MUST do)- Haidir is the man… if you want to do a tour with him (though anyone he hooks you up with will be equally awesome, guarantee)- email him email@example.com and tell him Zani sent you.
I recommend the 2 day overnight Orangutan trek we did. But if sleeping in the jungle isn’t your thing, go for the day trip.If you are a super rugged gutsy adventurer, there is a 5-7 day trek out to try to see the illusive Sumatran Tigers… but there is no guarantee you will actually spot one. (I am definitely doing this on my next trip to Bukit Lawang!)
If you find you have nothing to do one afternoon, grab some Nasi Goreng, tie a couple rafts together and cruise down the river to the next village. It will take a solid 3 hours or so… pull off onto the banks and eat lunch on the rocks and then continue on… Once you get to the next town down the river wait by the side fo the road for the local bus to come by… Put your rafts on the roof and then sit on the rafts and get a panoramic view as you raft down the road Indo-style. It is a KILLER amazing afternoon. (you can grab a local guy or two to come along if you feel unsure about doing it by yourself. They will have just as much fun as you so they love to do itand lastly – word of the wise… when returning to Medan for your flight – get a “tourist bus” – a cushy, Air Conditioned SUV that seats 5 passengers and is WELL worth the 75,000rp per person… compared to the 35,000rp ride on a mini-bus – which is a local 12-20 person rickety bus that stops constantly.