Observing Orangutans in Sumatra – don’t go to Bukit Lawang!

Best activity in Indonesia: Orangutan tour in Sumatra - this unique experience counts to my personal Top 10 things to do in Southeast Asia

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia offers one of the rare chances of the world to see wild orangutans.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia is possible at various places. Orangutans exclusively live in Asia and are divided into two species, Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans. Originally they were native in Malaysia and Indonesia but can currently only be found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia. In some places, you might be able to see orangutans in cages which you should definitely not support! In another place, like Bukit Lawang in Sumatra, guides pretend to show you wild orangutans but in reality, they allure the animals with food to appear in front of the tourists and their cameras. And in more remote places like in Gunung Leuser National Park, you’ll experience the real wild-living orangutans you were looking for. So please choose wisely and decide if you want to pay to see orangutans whose environment was destroyed by tourists or if you want to be off-the-beaten-track and act as a non-disruptive visitor. I guess I made my point (choose the Gunung Leuser National Park over the other orangutan tours in Sumatra!!!!)

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra: our tour in Gunung Leuser National Park

When we arrived in Friendship Guesthouse in Kentambe very exhausted from the one day travel with 3 different buses (and 3 chickens in one of them!!) on extra bumpy roads it was truly beautiful and idyllic at first sight. Few colourful huts placed in a big garden which was bordered by a little river. Each hut had a little terrace and the whole garden seemed peaceful and natural. My hippie me was completely happy. At second sight it wasn’t that stunning anymore: „manual shower“ which basically meant a bucket of water with a smaller bucket to splash water on yourself (how should I ever gonna wash my long hair here?! Not even mentioning conditioner!!) and „manual toilet flush“ for which the same bucket served.

Well, we were there for observing Orangutans in Sumatra not for a fancy hotel room but rather for a true wildlife experience. Grit your teeth and bear it, Maria! We wanted to see wild orangutans. After a sociable evening with the owners of the guesthouse, some drinks and some locals who didn’t seem to take Muslim rules too serious, we started our hike to the rainforest of Gunung Leuser National Park. We packed some clothes to change, 4 litres of water per person and the most important thing, blue leech socks which should prevent leeches to reach our skin and suck our blood or even transmit any diseases, as well as a machete for cutting off limbs which might distract our way or eventually for self-defence. A guide and a friend of him who turned out to be our cook and luggage-carrier accompanied us.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

The first steps of our orangutan tour in Sumatra led along a small street next to the jungle. Our guide explained some rules which we have to follow in the jungle and how to behave if we are close to an orangutan. „Don’t look in his eyes when he is approaching on the ground.“ he explained because male orangutans might feel provoked. I started being a bit scared but the excitement predominated and I kept walking enthusiastically. The guide was walking quite slowly as the climate in the jungle was very hot and humid. And the long pants and leech socks which we wore over the pants made it even worse. We were walking too slowly for my taste because I wanted to get this trek done to finally see orangutans. Patience is the most important attribute of this trek. After more or less an hour of sweating through the deep jungle my friend got attacked by a leech. Immediately we tried to remove the leech of my friend’s leg. We read on the internet some days before that salt might help and bought a big overpriced pack, just before the trek and carried it all the way through the jungle. We poured some on the leech but nothing happened. The guide was already laughing at us while watching our attempt to fight the leech. The only thing which helps apparently was to flip it off the skin with two fingers. Shortly after the leech fight, we arrived at our camp where we were supposed to spend the night. The jungle was a bit clearer than on the way and rays of sunlight came down through the trees. There was a river and everything seemed green and idyllic – at first sight.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!
Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!
Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

The second sight made me realize that this four limbs on the ground with some canvas over was supposed to be our tent for the night. Toilet? The Bushes. „But don’t use the leaves with red underneath as toilet paper. They will burn your skin.“ The guide warned us. Great!, I thought. After this deception, I really wanted to see orangutans to make this trip worth it at all. We dropped our stuff in the camp and made our way back to the deep jungle and the guide started playing orangutan sounds with his Nokia 3210 whose sound was of bad quality, tinny and unreal. Not sure if this is gonna work, I thought, the sounds don’t even convince me and an orangutan must know his language better – already doubting about this trip. And nothing happened, we were walking and walking, a couple of times it seemed as if an orangutan was close and we stopped. We stopped, were super quiet in order not to disrupt the animals and scare them off and waited. And waited. Then, suddenly, some rustling sound in the trees. Ahhhh it is approaching, I thought. But it was just the wind. And no orangutan ever appeared. Our guide played some more orangutan sounds, which apparently didn’t work, I thought a bit demotivated. But then after a while of waiting we could catch a glimpse of some brown animal far away high above the trees. The guide gave us the sign to be very quiet and not to move and repeated the orangutan sound of his phone. We didn’t move and almost didn’t dare to breathe. And there he was – our first orangutan – a big male one, high above us, swinging slowly from one tree to another, approaching us. At one point he stopped and looked down at us.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

He seemed very peaceful just observing us with his big brown eyes. The orangutan was really big and must have weighed more than 130 kilos. As long as he is in the trees he doesn’t feel disturbed or offended by us, the guide whispered. And luckily he stayed in the trees. After having observed us for some minutes he left back to where he came from. This was a truly amazing experience during our orangutan trek in Sumatra and made all the sweating, walking, waiting and leech bites so worth it. Now it was time to return to our camp, which was surprisingly just 20 minutes away. We didn’t walk a long distance even we were on tour for hours.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra: The night in the jungle 

When arriving at the camp the friend of our guide had already started cooking for us and after a quick „shower“ in the river, we ate noodle soup for dinner all together on the ground. Then it started raining and we went to sleep at around 7:30 p.m. The five of us just fit under the canvas. I insisted in sleeping in-between my two friends (who were men) as there was no way I could sleep at the outer border cause I was super scared of leeches, insects or „boogie man“ the Indonesian version of „Big Foot“ which might show up during the night, our guide said very seriously, and no way that I wanted to sleep next to the guides either. So this was the first part when observing Orangutans in Sumatra: super exciting & I survived!

The second day of observing Orangutans in Sumatra

We woke up early in the morning because the cicadas and other insects of the rainforest start being super loud as soon as it becomes light. I started the day with a cold „shower“ in the river, a quick brush of my teeth, also in the river. Then our cook made some delicious banana pancakes (how great was that !! Pancakes in the rainforest!) for us which we ate sitting on the ground. I started liking this rainforest life – the hippie inside me also. Today we were all super excited and motivated to learn more about the rainforest. We were also already used to leech attacks and just snipped them away like we’ve never done anything else. We discovered many insects today like the impressing rhino bug or millipede which only have 100 legs, the guide explained, which coil up and form a ball when feeling offended.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!
Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!
Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!
Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

And we were lucky and saw more orangutans including a mom with its baby. The baby was hanging down between the legs of the mother. It seemed like they are playing swing. So cute! We were very quite not moving at all in order not to disturb this beautiful picture. It was very fascinating how much the behavior of this mother with its child resembled human traits: when the mom moved on to another tree it reached out its arm to help the baby jump over a big gap.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra - don't go to Bukit Lawang!

Still amazed by so many impressions but also exhausted from the humid day we started our way back to the camp and after to the guesthouse.

Observing Orangutans in Sumatra was a truly beautiful and authentic experience which I recommend to each and every one of you! The rainforest isn’t as scary as it might feel to some (girls) and the positive experiences definitely predominate the leech and insect issue.

How to get there?

To be honest it was a quite long trip of about 8 hours from Medan to get there as we took local buses. We arrived in Medan by plane and took two different buses to Kutacane. From there we had to take another bus to Ketambe and walk a while along a street to reach our guesthouse.

Which equipment do you need?

You definitely need proper walking shoes (Nikes were fine for us) as insects and other animals will cross your path, also the ground is wet from time to time. In addition long pants and leech socks are mandatory. Otherwise, you really risk infection from leeches. A torch is quite useful as well because it gets dark quite early (at around 7 pm).

For the night we had: a tent and camping mats which were provided with the guide, cotton sleeping bags and a candle. All cooking equipment, food, leech socks and machetes also brought our guide.

Do you need a guide for observing Orangutans in Sumatra?

Yes! You can’t go without a guide because you will be lost. If you don’t know the rainforest by heart you will not be able to orient yourself. Phone signal is rare as well. And other animals like snakes, water buffalos and Orangutans might become dangerous as well. So in Gunung Leuser National Park, a guide is really mandatory!

What else you need to know?

When doing the track, keep in mind that it is a rainforest, the oldest living ecosystems of the world. Don’t leave any trash behind, don’t break trees or bushes, don’t kill bugs or any other insects and don’t try to approach, lure or even feed or tough Orang-utans. Long story short: try to leave as little footprints as possible.

I hope I could inspire you to go observing Orangutans in Sumatra one day. It was one of the most fascinating moments in my life. By the way, the most breathtaking natural spectacle of my life were the eruptions of Volcano Stromboli in Italy. Read my blog post about it here.

Never stop exploring!

Follow my travels and sign up for my newsletter. You will receive my travel reports with real insider tips, adventures around the world and inspiring travel tips. No spam - I promise.

One thought on “Observing Orangutans in Sumatra – don’t go to Bukit Lawang!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *