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 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.
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.
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.