When to go

There is no real 'season' to visit Bukit Lawang. Rains fall all year round, with 200 days of rainfall a year and almost 4000mm of rain. The heaviest rains are in October through December, and the driest months March, April plus June through August. Rains usually fall in the later afternoon (after 4pm) and evening, and rains moderate temperatures.

Public holiday dates (2017) are:

1 January & 2 January - New Year
28 January - Chinese New Year
28 March - Balinese Day of Silence
14 April - Good Friday
24 April - Isra Maraj
1 May - Labour Day
11 May - Buddha Day
25 May - Ascension Day
1 June - Pancasila Birthday
25-30 June - Idul Fitri
17 August - Independence Day
1 September - Idul Adha
21 September - Islamic New Year
1 December - Muhammad's birthday
25-26 December - Christmas 

The busiest time of the year for local guests is Idul Fitri (usually from the second or third day, although the period immediately before and after will be busy for transport throughout Indonesia). At New Year's Eve expect all accommodation to sell out. 

Accommodation prices may very slightly by season, but not hugely so, and with accommodation prices generally ranging from $5-$40, this is not a major concern.

You can find more information at our forum.

What to bring

Generally bring any 'gadgets' and their chargers that you will want to use in Indonesia, as it might be difficult or impossible to find them in Bukit Lawang or even Medan.

Specifically consider:

  • Digital camera and batteries as appropriate
  • Mobile phone - but get it unlocked BEFORE you arrive in Indonesia and switch to a 'Simpati' card for lower calling/internet costs
  • Ipad/tablet or similar - if you use one. More practical than a laptop for travel
  • Power bank - highly recommended for providing backup power for your phone, tablet and some digital cameras, as power cuts are very frequent. You could also consider a solar charger.
  • Plug adapters - Indonesia uses 2-pin round plugs at 220V. These are the same as used in mainland Europe. Visitors from the UK, Australia, US & Canada will require adapaters.
  • Extension socket - typically your room might only have one plug point. And this might be powering the fan! If you want to charge multiple phones you will normally need an extension.
  • USB charger - If you have many gadgets that charge from USB, rather than carrying many USB chargers and maybe their plug adapters also, a single Anker USB charger can 5 gadgets from one plug socket. This saves carrying around many chargers, and also saves the extension socket.

Clothing and other supplies:

  • Bring light-weight clothing such as t-shirts - a linen/polyester or cotton/polyester blend is the best choice (dries quicker than cotton, and cooler than polyester alone). Waterproof clothing is not useful in monsoon rains - the only effective protection from the rain is an umbrella, but for walking in the jungle you are likely to get wet, so don't try and keep completely dry.
  • Shoes - we do not recommend heavy hiking boots, but you might prefer hiking sandals or trail shoes. Waterproof, goretex shoes are not a good choice - it's better to pick something that gets wet easily and dries easily. Mesh shoes, for example, will get soaked in the rain, river or puddles, but will dry quickly. Goretex shoes, once wet inside will never dry
  • Swimsuit - locals don't really use them so don't think about trying to buy one locally. For women it's best to avoid bikinis and go for a more modest style.
  • Sunhat 
  • Sun lotion - not as important as you might think, due to tree cover in the jungle, but you will probably want to have some as the direct sun is very hot, and it's not really available locally.
  • mosquito repellent. Mosquito repellent creates an odour that repels mosquitoes.It is rubbed into skin. There are three main mosquito repellents (natural repellents, such as citronella, or lemon oil are NOT effective, and should be avoided):
    • DEET, which is available in concentrations up to 100%. Higher concentrations should last longer, however there is no added benefit above 33%, and may be too strong for young children. Ultrathon repellent (34% DEET) lasts up to 12 hours. http://www.amazon.co.uk/3M-Ultrathon-Insect-Repellent-Lotion/dp/B004LA5SUC DEET can irritate skin and also damages plastics, such as sunglasses.
    • Picaridin is a more modern repellent than DEET, which may be preferred for those who find that DEET irritates their skin. Concentrations are typically 7%, 10% or 20%.  The lower strengths protect for 2 to 3 hours, the 20% for up to 8 hours.
    • Permethrin is used to treat clothing and equipment. It lasts for several washes. You can either buy small spray bottles of 0.5% permethrin, which will treat a small amount of clothing/equipment, or buy agricultural bottles of 10% permethrin, and dilute it 20:1, and spray onto clothing and equipment. It is applied BEFORE you put the clothes on because it has a lasting effect
    • Indonesian mosquito repellents are the Autan and Soffell brands. Both contain DEET - Soffell at 13%, but it will need to be re-applied about every 4 hours. They are effective if applied regularly, and are available in shops in Bukit Lawang.
  • Medical - basic first aid supplies are useful, you can buy a first aid kit or make your own. Essential supplies include bandages/plasters, antiseptic cream, paracetamol and ibuprofen. You also may wish to bring hydrocortisone cream, for itches/allergies. Most of these items can be purchased locally, but it's more convenient to bring them with you.

Medical

Locally there is limited medical care. Midwives, in Indonesian 'bidan', serve as pharmacist, doctor and nurse.

There are several pharmacies in the nearby village of Gotong Royong. They can supply basic antibiotics, painkillers, bandages, antihistamine, and other low-cost medicines.

For anything more serious visit 'Rumah Sakit Elizabeth' or 'Rumah Sakit Columbia Asia' in Medan, which are both fully equipped general hospitals.

Facilities

Although Bukit Lawang is by no means a city, it has many modern facilities available, although some others are still lacking.

 You can find:

  • Electricity - although powercuts occur several times a week and a small torch is highly recommended for power cuts and for poorly lit areas, visiting caves, etc.
  • Internet access - there are several places to access the internet in the village. The main one is located next to the Guide Association Office. Prices are around 4,000rp per hour. You might prefer to use mobile internet. To do this you will require a smartphone, laptop, mifi, tablet or similar device (bring from home!) with a Telkomsel SIM card (Simpati, Kartu Halo or Kartu As). SIM cards are widely available throughout in Indonesia, including in Bukit Lawang. Internet is sold in 'pakets', currently 800MB costs 27,000rp, 1.5GB is 52,000rp. Not all sellers of phone credit know how to sell a 'paket' so you may n eed to ask around; if you access internet without buying one then it will be extremely expensive. 
  • Telephone - see above, use a Telkomsel SIM card, the signal is good locally, although in guesthouses further upstream it may be weak. You can purchase a basic mobile phone for around 200,000rp if yours is locked. For international calls be aware of the special dialing codes 01017 (cheapest, worst quality), 01018 (better, more expensive), 01019 (most expensive). Expect to pay 3,000/minute for a call to Europe on 01017, 4,500rp/minute on 01019. 01017 has some much cheaper rates to certain countries, including the US & Canada (400rp/minute), and Australia (1500rp/minute). Example: to call the German telephone number  (0) 30 202300, you would dial 01017 49 30 20300.
  • ATM - 11km away in the village of Bohorok, a guide will take you by motorbike for around 50,000rp round-trip, or you can try to take a local bus known as an 'opelet' for about 3,000rp/each way, plus potentially a becak to take you to the bus station about 1.5km from Bukit Lawang. The ATM is owned by Bank Rakyat Indonesia and is on the Mastercard/Cirrus network. Visa/PLUS cards will NOT work. If you have a Visa-family card, do not try to use it here. In this case you will need to take a longer journey possibly to Binjai, about 2 hours away.

    About another 4km from Bohorok at Turangie is another Bank Rakyat Indonesia ATM, located just inside the Lonsum compound. This has a slight advantage over the Bohorok ATM in that they dispense 100,000rp notes, rather than the 50,000rp notes in Bohorok ATM (but still now Visa cards). This means you can withdraw up to 2,500,000rp in one transaction, rather than 1,250,000rp. This saves making multiple withdrawals and paying extra fees.
  • Post Office - like the ATM, this is in Bohorok. Here you can maybe send a post card home, but don't send anything of value, as postal theft is common. Western Union transfers can be received here. Open Monday-Saturday, go before noon.
  • Money changer - there are a number of money changers who will change a variety of Western and regional currencies to rupiah. Rates are slightly lower than in Medan.
  • Market - on Friday from 8am till around 3pm, located 2km in Gotong Royong. Popular with tourists, a variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, fish and clothes are sold. Another, similar, market on Sundays in Bohorok (11km away).
  • Clothing - mostly tourist-oriented t-shirts. For buying jeans etc. try the malls in Medan.
  • Mosquito repellent (deet-based), condoms, sanitary towels, shampoo, toilet paper (often not provided by guesthouses) are widely sold. Tampons are not available. Sun cream is useful when swimming or otherwise exposed to the sun, and while some stalls sell it, it may have been sitting behind the stall for years, and prices are usually high. Best bring some from home.

Warnings and dangers

  • Indonesia does not have any real safety standards. Uncovered drains, bridge stays at head height, and other hazards are found all over in Bukit Lawang as across Indonesia. So look where you are going and take care of your children.
  • Paths in the jungle and in the village can be steep and slippery. Take care when walking.
  • After dark many paths are not lit at all, or inadequately. A torch (flashlight) is always useful, cigarette lighters sold locally for around 2,000rp come equipped with a basic LED torch which will suffice in a pinch.
  • Motorcycles are a common form of local transport, and tourists may be asked to take a ride on one with a guide. This is best avoided, as accidents are common, and helmets are not available. In addition, many unwary tourists wearing shorts or skirts find that the exhaust pipe is red hot and leaves a nasty burn, which can become infected.
  • Many tourists like to drink in the evening. While this can be an enjoyable part of your trip, please bear in mind the above warnings and again watch your step when going back to your room.
  • Many of the guides hanging around in the guesthouses are very experienced at forming relationships with female tourists and may pledge eternal love within a few hours of meeting.
  • Deaths in Indonesia from drinking fake or adulterated liquor (gin, vodka, etc.) are common. In April 2013 a visitor to Bukit Lawang died after drinking counterfeit gin. Beer is safe, local spirits are not and should be avoided.
  • Diarrhea occurs in Bukit Lawang as in the rest of Indonesia. Firstly the water supply is not potable (drinkable). Only bottled or boiled water should be drunk. River water, even in the remotest part of the jungle, should never be drunk without treatment, as there may be invisible water-born parasites.
  • Ice is one of the biggest risks for stomach upset, because it is often made from unboiled water. Iced drinks in tourists restaurants are usually safe, but in markets and other less sophisticated operations, the ice may not be safe.
  • Food has the potential for food poisoning: to reduce the risk eat food that is freshly cooked to order.
  • While Bukit Lawang is not considered a malarial area (although the possibility cannot be completely ruled out), that does not mean that there are no mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are most active during dusk and at night. Regular application of mosquito repellent is advisable. If your room does not have a mosquito net, and you would like one, ask at reception.
  • Cannabis is very commonly used and sold in Bukit Lawang, and many travellers choose to take that extra 'jungle trip'. Although there are no reports of tourists being arrested or set up by police, you should know that Indonesia has strict laws against the possession of marijuana and other narcotics, and so extreme caution is advised.
  • Unlicensed guides exist in Bukit Lawang. They can put your life in danger through their lack of knowledge of the jungle. Avoid them by booking your trek through this website or ensuring that you verify the credentials of your guide (ask to see their permit, which should have their photograph on it) or by booking directly in the guide office. This warning applies especially to female travellers, and includes not just treks but other services such as motorbike rides. Some women have reported unwanted sexual attention from these guides in the jungle.
  • The river, while generally not deep, can have strong currents after heavy rains. There are many rocks in the river. Swim with care and at your own risk.

    Opposite the Sibayak guesthouse there is a sluice at the back of the rocks. This has a warning sign but still (usually local) visitors get sucked in and have to be pulled out by passers by.

History of Bukit Lawang

The island of Sumatra was once covered with jungle, but at the turn of the twentieth century, the rise of the automobile meant that there was a huge new demand for rubber, to make tyres. The Dutch government and the various Sultans of the region around Medan granted rights to cut almost all the jungle around Medan, to plant rubber, which is a tree originally from the Brazilian rainforest. Dozens of plantations were established across North Sumatra, including the 'Boekit Lawang' plantation. At this time there was no village in Bukit Lawang, although the nearby village of Timbang Lawang (around 4km), and the town of Bohorok (around 10km away) were already in existence. There was also little concern for the wildlife in the rainforest, as wildlife was often considered a nuisance, and a barrier to progress.

The conservation status of the orangutan became of international concern in the 1960s, and in 1964 the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre, in Sabah, Malaysia, became the first to attempt to rehabilitate captive orangutans. In 1971, the Ketambe orangutan centre was established in Aceh, North Sumatra, not far as the crow flies (less than 20km across the Bukit Barisan mountain range) from Bukit Lawang, but a long way and arduous by road.

In 1973, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, two Swiss zoologists, established an orangutan rehabilitation centre at Bukit Lawang. This they called the Bohorok Orangutan Centre after the nearby town of Bohorok. Although illegal, orangutans were widely held as pets in Indonesia, and the centre sought to reintroduce them to the wild. It was supported by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Frankfurt Zoological Society. In 1975, they left (although Regina Frey is still active today in Bukit Lawang) and the centre was taken over by Rosalind and Conrad Aveling.

The practice of keeping orangutans as pets was very damaging to the wild population as people sought only baby orangutans, who were cute and relatively easy to handle in comparison to an adult orangutan, which is large and four times stronger than an adult human. In doing so it was usual to kill the mother of the baby, usually by shooting her, a process that often killed the baby as well - it is estimated that five orangutans are killed for every one that is successfully brought to market as a pet.

The centre was built a couple of kilometres from the nearest village in order to minimise contact with humans - the orangutans were after all being trained to live away from human contact. The ability to see orangutans in close proximity brought first local and later international tourists to the village, and soon a visitors centre was built, as more tourists arrived.

The following documentary, split in four parts, documents the work of the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in about 1975-1976. After you have watched the first part, please click on related videos to continue to parts 2, 3, and 4.

In 1976 the government agency PHPA built the first guesthouse, against the wishes of the WWF, which was concerned about greater tourist numbers exposing orangutans to human diseases. In 1980 the rehabilitation centre was taken over by Indonesia, under the leadership of Dr. Suharto Djojosudharmo.

Tourism developed rapidly in the early 1990s, with accommodation going from three guesthouses in 1989 to 32 in 1991. By 1994 the government recognised that with increased development and tourist numbers Bukit Lawang no longer functioned for rehabilitation given the problems of mass tourism and issues such as guides feeding the released orangutans. The last rehabilitated orangutans were received in Bukit Lawang in 2001. After that time, rehabilitant orangutans have been sent to a new centre (soon to be converted into a zoo) at Sibolangit. With the ending of rehabilitation, Bukit Lawang has since functioned as a location to view semi-wild orangutans, as part of a jungle trek (unofficial feeding sessions ended in 2015).

For local tourists. who usually visit on weekends, particularly Sundays, visiting the jungle is of lesser interest, and many prefer to relax in the village, swimming or tubing in the river, eating in the simple restaurants and related activities.

Foreign tourists are generally initially attracted to Bukit Lawang by the possibility to view orangutans in their natural habitat, a different experience from zoos, and the opportunity to take part in 'jungle treks'. Many however find that Bukit Lawang offers other attractions beyond the red apes and stay for weeks or even years, enjoying the relaxed lifestyle of this tourism-dependent village - enjoying a banana pancake by the river or smoking a spliff while listening to a guitar-playing guide singing Bob Marley songs. While such experiences can be had all over the Southeast Asian backpacker trail, many visitors return to Bukit Lawang over and over again because things in Bukit Lawang are just a little different.

Of course some tourists might prefer to visit 'undiscovered', more primitive places, where genuine conservation works still takes place, but of course as mentioned genuine orangutan rehabilitation is not consistent with mass tourism, and while Bukit Lawang is arguably a tourist trap by Sumatran standards, a Sumatran tourist trap is a very far cry from a Balinese or Thai tourist trap (which of course themselves enjoy many happy visitors each year). If you are looking for a few huts and no tourists, Bukit Lawang won't be for you. But if you would be bored by such a place, Bukit Lawang is a great place to learn a bit more about orangutans and also enjoy a relaxing time by the river on the edge of a national park.

Food and Drink

Food

There are four main sources of food in Bukit Lawang. These are:

  • guesthouse restaurants
  • local restaurants
  • tourist restaurants
  • food carts

For local Indonesian tourists, it's usual to bring rice and curry from home when visiting Bukit Lawang (almot always on Sundays and Indonesian public holidays). Western tourists however tend to patronise the guesthouse restaurant, buying food and drink there. As a result, and because they also book trekking (which locals generally do not), lower room rates are typically offered to Western tourists than Indoensian tourists.

The food in guesthouse restaurants varies from place to place, however it's without exception free of pork, because most people in Bukit Lawang are Muslim.

That's not true of the wider area however, and there is a church located opposite the Gotong Royong bus station, about 50 metres off the road. Local Christians, nearly all members of the Batak Karo tribe, have a choice of two eateries serving 'babi panggang karo' (BPK - Karo-style bbq pork). These are located on opposite sides of the market/bus station in Gotong Royong, just at the extreme edge on the left and right sides. Because the market operates on Friday, the sellers slaughter a pig on Thursday, so you can get BPK, which consists of a bowl of pork soup, BBQ pork, a spicy sauce made from pig's blood, and a portion of rice, for around 20,000rp, on Thursdays and Fridays. Take a becak from Bukit Lawang to the bus station.

Also in the bus station you can find several food carts, which will serve breakfast in the morning and then rice with various local dishes in the afternoon. On Fridays, with the market operating, the selection of food expands to include things like sop buntut (oxtail soup). Another 1km along the road, away from Bukit Lawang, is a warung (food stall) in front of a home, which sells the Indonesian soup 'bakso'. This consists of noodles with beef broth and meatballs. A portion costs 5,000rp and is sold in the evening until they run out. You can get their by becak (5,000rp each way) or ask a guide to take you on his motorbike - you would be expected to buy him a portion!

In the guesthouse restaurants of Bukit Lawang you shouldn't expect to find any Australian beef or New Zealand lamb. In fact you definitely won't find that. What the menus do consist of is lots of local fruit, typically as fruit salad and juice (freshly made juice tends to cost the same as a bottle Coca Cola or Fanta, so is a much better buy), fried rice and fried noodle (with or without fried egg and fried chicken), fried potatoes (hand cut when you place your order!) and pancakes.

Since food is cooked from scratch for each order, dishes such as curry are not normally available, or are of only basic quality.

Several guesthouses sell pasta and a couple sell pizza too. This can be of variable quality, and important ingredients can be missing from your order. The tourist-oriented restaurant 'Tony's' (not a guesthouse) has better quality pasta and pizza, for around 30,000rp for pasta, 55,000rp for a pizza.

If you've had enough of fried rice and banana pancakes, it's well worth trying one of the local warungs (small restaurants). These operate according to the same format - food is cooked and stored in dishes in the window, and you select what you want to eat and it's served with rice and you pay a fixed price for rice and vegetables, plus extra for each egg, piece of meat, etc. that you consume.

In the morning you can find 'nasi lontong' on sale, this consists of compressed boiled rice, chopped into pieces and served with a curry sauce, fried peanuts and perhaps a boiled egg and potato cake. At lunchtime and in the evening the food offering will switch to a choice of curries (usually vegetable, chicken and fish, but you can sometimes find beef rendang), boiled egg in chili sauce and fried chicken.

Late at night (midnight and well beyond, to cater for the late night drinkers) there is a shack in the village entrance serving the Indonesian staple - instant noodles - albeit that they are instant noodles cooked rather better than they would be in the west, usually with an egg and vegetables, either served wet, or otherwise fried.

On weekends and holidays more vendors sell in Bukit Lawang, selling Indoensian snack food such as fried bananas, stuffed deep fried tofu, vegetable fritters, and also barbecue chicken and fish.

If you want to arrange your own barbecue at any time, just ask a guide and they will help you source the food, fuel and cook it for you. You of course just need to pay for it!

Fruit

Fruit in Indonesia generally is very good, and many exotic fruits that you might not have seen before are available. On Sundays and public holidays there are sellers selling fruit in the village, otherwise you will need to visit the market in Gotong Royong, on Fridays, or venture a little further afield to Bohorok market (12km), on Sunday.

Fruit that are worth seeking out include:

  • rambutan, a red spiky fruit similar to a lychee, famous over Indonesia as originating from this area (rambutan binjai)
  • durian, a large spiky fruit known for its pungent, rotten smell, beloved by all Indonesians, but considered an acquired taste (at best) by most Westerners;
  • markisa (passion fruit), originating from Berastagi, these come in larger yellow and smaller purple varieties, the yellow ones are sweet and for eating while the purple ones have a sharp taste and are used mostly for juice;
  • pineapple, ubiquitous;
  • salak (snakefruit), which consist of a brown-snakeskin around a fruit centre which is mostly stone, covered with firm flesh with a distinctive flavour. They vary considerably in sweetness, the Sumatran salak, salak Sidempuan, from the southwest of North Sumatra, has a slightly bitter taste, while salak Pondoh, from the Yogyakarta area of Java are sweeter. Sweetest of all are salak Bali, much smaller than the Javanese and Sumatran salak, but only available in Medan supermarkets, due to their high cost (around 50,000rp/kg), which is beyond the means of local budgets
  • bananas, sold in several varieties, the standard-sized ones are known as pisang berangnan (Berangan banana), but the more interesting ones, are the small, 'pisang mas' (golden banana), which have a sweet taste and good texture.
  • papaya

Drugs

You are quite likely to be offered marijuana in Bukit Lawang. It's illegal and can get you in big trouble with the police if you are caught. However very many tourists still partake and it's a part of the jungle lifestyle for many guides, along with the guitar playing and Bob Marley records.

Alcohol

Along with cannabis, alcohol is very popular in Bukit Lawang. While the smoking is done somewhat secretively, there's no problem getting a beer. The cost is around 30,000rp for a large bottle, usually Bir Bintang, but several other brands, which all basically taste the same, are available. You can also easily buy bottled Guinness stout.

Beyond this local 'gin', 'whisky', 'vodka' and 'arak' are all available in/around Bukit Lawang, brands such as 'Mansion House'; however extreme caution is advised as cheap, adulterated local alcohol has been known to cause serious medical problems and death, including a Czech tourist who died in 2012 after apparently consuming 'Mansion House' (which is widely counterfeited). A second death, of a British tourist, also after drinking Mansion House, occurred in 2013: http://www.hariansumutpos.com/2013/04/56892/turis-inggris-tewas-minum-miras-oplosan.

If you fancy something stronger/different from beer please bring your DUTY FREE! Otherwise you can find a limited selection of wine, imported spirits in Medan, on Jalan Gatot Subroto (the road to Bukit Lawang) just before Berastagi supermarket, at around km2.5, at 'Simpang Barat', the shop is known as 'Kedai Opong'. Indonesian-bottled, UK-produced whisky is 150,000rp for 70cl. Imported Smirnoff vodka (from the Phillipinnes) is 175,000rp for 75cl. Wine costs around 250,000rp per bottle.You can't be 100% sure, in Indonesia, about the quality of even this, as it is something of a black market in any liquor stronger than 5% alcohol, so it really is best to bring in whatever you want to drink from Duty Free.