Most people visit Sumatra to go trekking in the jungles around Bukit Lawang. And that is also what I (Christine) did back in 2017 and I instantly fell in love with this little village on the edge of Gunung Leuser Nationalpark.Once you start researching about Bukit Lawang you will find info on (semi-wild) orang utans, lush rainforests and fresh rivers. But you might also find people telling about being ripped off at the Pinang Baris bus station in Medan on the way to Bukit Lawang, crazy local busses, a lack of ATMs, a lot of tourists or locals who don’t speak English. And yes these stories are (partially) true.
But we can assure you, that if you decide to go to Bukit Lawang you won’t be disappointed. You will be rewarded with great jungle views, friendly locals, good food and a little more comfort and amenities as in other places. As always a good preparation is all you need and therefore we created this travel guide for Bukit Lawang.
Christine has visited this little village many times, and Syafri was born and raised in Bukit Lawang (Read more about us here). So the info gathered is mostly first hand experience.
History of Bukit Lawang
Sumatra has been covered in dense rainforest for many centuries and was (and still is) home to many beautiful creatures such as orang utans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. At the beginning of the twentieth century the car industry demanded a huge amount of rubber to produce tyres. The Dutch government, colonial leader of many parts of Indonesia at that times, as well as some sultans from North Sumatra sadly agreed to cut most of the rainforest around the city of Medan, in order to plant rubber. Many plantations have been established around North Sumatra, including a plantation at today’s location of Bukit Lawang. By that time there was no village or any sort of community here, just the nearby villages Timbang Lawang (4km away) and Bohorok (10km away).
Sadly neither the Dutch government nor the sultans didn’t care about any sort of wildlife or the rainforest itself. Nowadays, rubber plantations have given way to palm oil plantations. Read more about the problem of palm oil.
In 1973 two zoologists from Switzerland established an orangutan rehabilitation centre at Bukit Lawang. It sounds crazy, but orangutans were (and sometimes still are) held as pets throughout Indonesia , and the centre was founded to to reintroduce them to the jungles. It was funded by the WWF and Frankfurt Zoological Society.
The centre was built a couple of kilometres away from Bohorok to minimise human contact. The rangers taught the orangutan all the essential skills to survive in the wild. After some time of quarantine, refamiliarisation to the rainforest as well as reintegration to the (semi-)wild orangutan population, the animals were released back into the wild. The ability to see orangutans up close brought local as well as international tourists to Bukit Lawang. In addition to the rehabilitation centre, the first jungle trekkings for tourists were carried out in the late 1980s. At that time it must have been a real adventure. Since the beginning of the 90s there is the ITGA-HPI, the Indonesian Tourist Guides Association. All guides who want to lead tourists into the jungle have to pass an exam. All our guides are licensed by the ITGA-HPI, speak very good English, have been trained accordingly and had to pass an exam.
The centre has been closed in 2002 as it was not suitable anymore for the animal wellfare. All orangutans of the center have been slowly released to the jungle. That’s why you can still see some semi-wild orangutans while jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang.
A flood hit the little village on 2 November 2003. This disaster destroyed most of the tourist resorts and had a huge negative impact to the tourism of the area. Around 400 houses, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and warungs, 3 mosques, 35 hotels and guest houses have been destroyed by the flood, including the guest house of Syafris grand parents which was located behind Jungle Inn at the far end of the village. 239 people were killed, and app. 1,400 people lost their homes. As many others Syafri lived in provisionally camps outside of the village and away from the river. The fear of another flood lasted a long time and up until today it determines many local’s life. In 2019, a three-stage early warning system was installed in the village to warn locals and tourists of a new flood.
It is said that the flood was caused by illegal logging in the jungles aound the area. Thanks to several international NGOs the village was rebuilt.
Today Bukit Lawang is a small, cosy place with nice locals, great jungle views and always a few macaques within reach. It offers a number of guesthouses and restaurants, as well as a few shops for daily needs. In 2019 some local artists started to decorate the village with street art. See some of the artworks on their Instagram channel. There are also weekly garbage collection events. There is a lot happening in Bukit Lawang.
How touristy is Bukit Lawang?
Yes together with Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang is declared as the “touristy” part of North-Sumatra. But compared to hot spots like Thailand and Bali the village is basically untouched! Bukit Lawang is used to tourists, but nowhere near crazy. Also during the day most people are trekking in the jungle and you can relax in the beautiful village almost on your own or chat with the friendly locals. But yes during the main season from May to August it can get a little busy while jungle trekking, we try our best to avoid the well trotten paths in the jungle.
I (Christine) have been to Bukit Lawang in almost all seasons and it never felt extremely crowded in the village itself. Just sometimes on the weekends and public holidays many local tourists visit Bukit Lawang, which is always nice to experience.
Our travel guide for Bukit Lawang covers:
- Getting here and around
- Pack List
- Best time to travel
- Crime, Safety & Security
- Sim cards and wifi
- Plugs & Adaptors
- Travelling with Children
- The jungle
- Jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang
- Activities and things to see
- Do’s and don’ts
Getting here and around
Medan is the main hub for flights onto the island and the best starting point to get to Bukit Lawang. Travelling around Sumatra is sometimes difficult, the roads are bad and busy with lorries and motorbikes. There are varying options to get to Bukit Lawang, including private drivers, tourist busses (shared cars) and local busses.
Local mini busses are the cheapest way to get to Bukit Lawang, but this is everything but a comfortable journey. The mini busses have no air condition and can get very cramped. You will be sitting very close to others. There is no real legroom. Many people don’t speak English, but are always friendly and maybe want to take a photo with you.
The tourist bus (shared car) or private driver are a more convenient option. Especially when you are two or more people the private care is hardly more expensive than the tourist bus. We are happy to arrange both for you.
Renting a car is not recommended. The traffic is crazy and the roads are bad. But to be more free you can book a private driver.
Becaks (tuktuks) are an easy way to get around Bukit Lawang. You should definitely get a ride on these to get a taste of real Sumatran culture, but make sure to bargain for the price.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
Read full info here: How to get to Bukit Lawang
We do not provide specific recommendations for vaccines or any other health-related issues. Please consult your doctor in advance for these matters. Health risks and vaccine requirements may change any time. Therefore please speak to your doctor and seek the latest medical advice.
There is a pharmacy next to the Indormaret in the village of Gotong Royong next to Bukit Lawang. It is a 10 minute ride with a becak. There is a small clinic in Bohorok, 10km away from Bukit Lawang, which may be able to treat minor injuries and illnesses. There is no hospital in or around Bukit Lawang and neither one with international standard on Sumatra itself. In bad cases you need to go to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. So make sure you obtain a travel insurance which covers these costs.
Nearest hospital from Bukit Lawang:
Hospital Dr. RM. Djoelham
Jl. Sultan Hasanuddin No. 9
Sumatera Utara 20741
Columbia Asia Hospital Medan
Jl. Listrik No.2A
Sumatera Utara 20112
Tap water is not safe to drink on Sumatra. Bring a water bottle and you can refill it (sometimes even free) in restaurants or accommodations from big gallons.
Be prepared for all seasons in one day when visiting Bukit Lawang. The tropical days are humid and hot and we advise light, comfortable clothes. Light rain jackets are a must as there will be encounters with rain. Bring sun screen and hygiene products from home as they can be very expensive in Bukit Lawang. Sun hats and a sarong/scarf can be a plus. See our comprehensive pack list for Sumatra
Best time to travel
Bukit Lawang is a perfect travel destination all year round. The temperature remains between 21°C to 33°C throughout the year. However, the wet season lasts from November to April while the dry season is from May to October. But as Bukit Lawang is located inland it is perfect all year round. There is rain usually just in the afternoon for 1 hour or so.
The currency of Sumatra is Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). Exchange rates vary, but generally 1 EUR equals to around 15,000 IDR. Some examples: a cup of coffee costs 4,000 to 6,000 IDR, a meal in a warung or restaurant around 10,000 to 50,000 IDR.
There are no ATMs in Bukit Lawang. The nearest one is in Bohorok, 10km away from the village. We can arrange someone to bring you there by motorbike (a bit faster than a becak).
If you book tours, accommodation or transport with us you can also pay via bank transfer or Paypal. With that you don’t have to carry so much money with you when traveling Sumatra. Paying with credit card is mostly only possible in bigger shops in the cities, Indomaret and the like.
The hotels and guesthouses in Bukit Lawang offer something for every budget – from simple and cheap rooms to more expensive hotels. Especially in the high season during the summer months the prices tend to go up. Generally speaking you can get a double room for 150,000 IDR.
Here are some recommendations:
Waterstone – offers just two rooms with stunning views and shared toilet.
MBoy – Nice, basic rooms with own terasse and awesome jungle views. Good value for money.
Indra Valley Inn – offers rooms with up to three beds, amazing jungle views, and a restaurant.
Happy Ria Homestay – Offers one of the few accommodations in Bukit Lawang with dorm rooms.
The spicy delicacies of Sumatra are a must taste once in your life. Their speciality is undoubtedly Rendang, Soto, Sambal or Gulai. Padang restaurants are very common on Sumatra. You will see the already cooked dishes in the front window with a fine variation of curries, fish, egg, tempeh and vegetables. Some other famous dishes include Rujak, Gado Gado or Cap Cay.
Read also: Sumatra for foodies
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in Bukit Lawang and what to eat there:
Ida guesthouse – best mie goreng (fried noodles) in town.
Yusri Café – Near the becak station, this is a typical Padang-style warung. Choose the food from the window in front and eat in or take away.
Waterstone – Probably the restaurant with the best interieur design. It offers a smal menue with Indonesian classics.
Sam’s Bungalow – Almost at the far end of the village, it offers Christine’s favorite veggie curry. Syafri likes the Soto (curry soup). Also great gado gado.
Rainforest – Christine tried almost all Rendangs in town and declared their’s as the best.
Jungle Inn – this restaurant offers a bit more pricy, but delicious Indonesian and international dishes.
Plus: The best breakfast spot is Bukit Lawang Indah. Try the smoothie bowl or the yoghurt with crumble.
There are some souvenir shops and stalls in Bukit Lawang. They also sell hygiene products, snacks, sim cards and clothing. For a little more choice you can take the Becak to the Indomaret in Gotong Royong.
There are also a few shops selling wood carvings, pictures, jewellery and accessories.
A visit to the market in Gotong Royong every Friday is also highly recommended. The chance is high that you are the only tourist here.
Most people in Bukit Lawang are Muslims. Be prepared for the occasionally call from the mosque.
Crime, Safety & Security
There is no destination without issues. So it is advisable to keep an open eye in Bukit Lawang. But to be honest, as a solo female traveler Christine has never felt more safe than in Bukit Lawang.
Sim cards and wifi
It seems Indonesia is much more developed when it comes to wifi and data. Almost every kiosk, warung or accommodation in Bukit Lawang offers free and good wifi.
Furthermore you can buy sim cards in the village. These are cheap and the coverage is usually very good. To give you a rough idea for 5 EUR you get 10 GB of data. We can recommend Telkomsel which worked everywhere we went so far incl. the jungles around Bukit Lawang.
Plugs & Adaptors
In Sumatra sockets are of type C, also known as the standard Euro socket, and F, also known as Schuko. Travelers from Germany don’t need an adapter. For everybody else it is advised to buy a travel adapter in advance, but you can also obtain one when you are in Sumatra.
Travelling with Children
From jungle lessons with locals, to swimming in the rivers or encounter wild animals, Bukit Lawang has many options for families and is basically a huge playground for your toddlers and children. Indonesians love children and you will have a great time exploring the area. Also jungle trekking in generally recommended for children (we advise a minimum age of 5).
Read or full guide for traveling Sumatra with children.
The jungles around Bukit Lawang
The Gunung Leuser Nationalpark is a fragile, but very diverse ecosystem. It is threatend by deforestation, palm oil plantations and illegal logging. And many of the wildlife is in danger as well. This rainforest is home to such rare mammals as the mighty Sumatran tiger, the rhinoceros, the elephant and the Malaysian honey bear which are threatened in the existence of their species. The continous destruction of the rainforests around Bukit Lawang has pushed the orangutans to the edge of extinction. Currently there are only app. 14,000 remaining orangutans in the wild making this species classified as endangered. The Sumatra Orangutan Society is one of the NGOs helping to protect the ecosystem.
Making people aware of the crisies surrounding the orangutans and other wildlife of the Nationalpark is one of our goals. We also believe that responsible and ethical jungle trekking will help to save the rainforest by providing a high level of care and education to tourists. We are against unnatural and abusive practices and strive to improve animal welfare and to promote education.
On a trekking in the Gunung Leuser Nationalpark you may encounter, besides the orangutans, Thomas Leaf monkey, tucans, snakes, monitor lizards, gibbons, macaques, many insects, huge butterflies.
Jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang
Jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang is a unique experience. With a bit of luck you may encounter orangutans in their natural habitat as well as snakes, monitor lizards, gibbons or tucans. We offer different treks for all fitness levels. From an introductory 3-hour trek to an advanced 3-day trek with overnight stay in the jungle. Learn more about our jungle treks.
There appears to be some kind of rivalry between the best places to go for an orangutan trek in Sumatra (e.g. Ketambe, Bukit Lawang, Batu Katak, Tangkahan) and every village has its own charme. Discover Sumatra is based in Bukit Lawang, Syafri grew up here, and therefore this is our very personal guide to visiting Bukit Lawang.
Activities and things to see in Bukit Lawang
The village has so much to offer for everyone. Of course most people opt fo a jungle trekking, but there is so much more.
- Go for a swim in the river. There are some good spots where the currents are not too strong.
- Join the local boys for soccer every day at around 4 pm (Indonesian time)
- Try all the delicious food in town, see section above
- Visit the elephants in Tangkahan
- Dance the night away on Saturday’s party at Thomas Retreat
- Visit the bat cave
- Go for a walk to Landak river
- Visit the Friday market and shop for clothes and fruits
Read also: Top 10 Avtivities in Bukit Lawang
Do’s and don’ts
The people of Bukit Lawang are super friendly and always in for a friendly chat. They will be extremely warm and respectful towards you. However, there are some do’s and don’ts:
- Use your right hand to eat and shake hand. The left hand is considered dirty.
- Never touch someone’s head, not even a friendly padding on a child’s head. This is highly impolite.
- Avoid kissing and touching your partner in public. You are in a Muslim country. Such things should just be kept private.
- You will notice shoes and flip flops on the front porch of someone’s house, restaurants or shops. That’s because Indonesians take off their shoes when entering a house. So if you see a bulk or shoes in front, follow along and take off yours.
- Dress appropriately. Again you are in a Muslim country. The locals here dress rather conservatively and expect others to do the same. Christine’s rule of thumb is either sleeveless shirt and long pants, or a shoulder-covering/long-sleeved shirt with shorts.
- Many Indonesians greet each other with a handshake. After this the hand is led to the heart. Always use your right hand for greeting.