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  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

A Sumatran adventure -Bukit Lawang

-: This peaceful Village :-

Time in Indonesia is always amazing, wherever you end up and the most difficult part of travelling there is deciding what island to visit next. This Indonesian adventure was to take me from Jakarta to Medan the capital of Sumatra, then down through the jungle to the village of Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra. I wanted to experience the island, visit its volcanos, spend a week on Samosir Island, lake Toba, and get to know the people of Tomok and their culture, which I found intriguing. But my main motivation in Sumatra is to trek through the wild rainforest and see the majestic orangutans in their natural habitat, spending the night sleeping in the Sumatran jungle, in a tent! Big call you're possibly thinking? It is, but I have always wanted to do it, so the time is now and this is what leads me to Bukit Lawang, the gateway to the jungle. The Sumatran orangutans were once all over the island but now they are restricted to only 2 provinces, Bukit Lawang and also Banda Aceh

It can be daunting at first to arrive in a new country. For me it seems to take me a day or two to switch over and get on track. I had an arrangement with a driver to collect me from the airport in Medan and take me down to Bukit Lawang. This took three or more hours. From there I will take a motorbike down deep into the jungle on the river's edge.

The only alternative way to get to Bukit Lawang was the use of the little public buses. The ticket would only cost you $10 but the bus is a tiny old local minivan, and sweltering hot. Luggage is thrown on the roof and away they go. Sure, there are a whole bunch of men also riding the roof of the minivan but I don't expect they are going to rescue your bags as they are sliding off. So, it's pure luck that your luggage will arrive at the destination with you. After experiencing the public buses in Sri Lanka, I would have thought no means of public transport would ever put fear in me again, But I am told that this one is hair-raising. So, a car it was, and the driver was lovely, informative in the best way he could be, speaking no English. This may have felt like quite a long three hours.

Upon beginning the drive my first thoughts of Medan were very similar to the feeling of arriving in Sri Lanka. There were tuk-tuks and cars in near gridlock, men racing around frantically throwing themselves in front of vehicles to direct the traffic for a tiny fee of 20 cents for every car he gets through the jam.

The streets of Medan were poor and gloomily, but as we began to leave the city it all starts to resemble the Sumatra I imagined and looking much more inviting. The island is blanketed in Palm trees; planted in thousands of perfect lines and it becomes denser the more we travel down.

Along the way, it was quite fascinating to see large colorful banners and billboards propped up at the front of the houses and lining the streets and you can see hundreds at a time. I am told that they are made of thousands of pieces of twisted plastic. They are greeting cards, happy birthday, congratulations, etc. Very striking and artistic in some way, but wow the plastic.

Finally, we reached the entrance to the jungle village. It is now 10 pm and it's very dark. A row of old little huts can be seen, but I cannot make out much more. Just the sound of the surrounding wildlife and the Bohorok River. The motorbikes are already waiting to ride down to the Village. It's been raining and everything is damp, but the smell of the air is so clean and fresh. I was praying my accommodation is good, or at least dry. Tomorrow will be a day to rest before the trek and walk around the village. There will be a meeting concerning the following day's trek. 'The rules of the Jungle', at 6 am!

After such a long journey, I was keen to settle in and was happily surprised that the room was perfect. Situated along the Bohorok River, the water is literally at your doorstep.

Me on one side and the Sumatran jungle on the other. It has the sound of soft continuous rain falling but in fact, it's the sound of the river washing over the thousands of polished stones and it's so calming to fall asleep.

It's interesting when you arrive somewhere late in the evening and it's dark. You are often not quite aware of where you are until the sun rises and you get to see your surroundings, but this morning was a surprise I never quite expected. The view is picturesque; the stunning Bohorok river with monkeys foraging by the water's edge and that lush jungle so close I felt I could touch it. I have never woken up in a place quite like this before in my travels. It was just breathtaking. I can hear the sounds of the running river and of all the wildlife communicating back and forth on this warm sunny morning. Outside I see my room is equipped with several hand-made wooden slingshots and I am already aware of what that means Monkey war!

The village is quaint, basic, clean, and has a lovely charm about it. What I noticed immediately was the smiles and hospitality of the locals, who are excited to have people visit and the kids are happy to try to converse but know little English. In Bukit Lawang, Islam, as in Indonesia, is the dominant religion, but it was certainly different from what I had envisioned. Their friendliness was so genuine, 'relaxed Muslims' as they call themselves. Although, my driver had stopped to pray 3 times during the trip to the jungle leaving me sitting on the side of the road waiting for his return. But never did I worry or feel fear of any situation.

Bukit Lawang is located on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park. A UNESCO world heritage site, 86 km Northwest of the city of Medan. It was the largest animal sanctuary of the Sumatran Orangutan. Here was the Bukit Lawang rehabilitation center for Orangutans which was founded in 1973. Its main purpose was to preserve the decreasing numbers due to hunting, trading, and deforestation. The center was then closed in 2012 because the area became too populated and "touristy". Unfortunately, it was no longer suitable for any animal rehabilitation.

I was already aware of the flash flooding from the river in 2003, although when speaking with locals and hearing their stories, giving a detailed insight into the events of that tragic evening and of how it almost completely wiped-out Bukit Lawang, devastating villages not to mention the impact on the local tourism industry, was heartbreaking to imagine what the local people of the village must have endured. The flash flooding came late in the evening giving the majority of the local people no time to get to safety. There were 240 deaths, over 1400 homeless and their 8 bridges all torn down. Settlements had been covered by mud, logs, and rubble. Houses with occupants were pinned by huge logs. The major issue they then faced was that there was not enough equipment to successfully search for victims.

Photo BBC

The area of Bukit Lawang gets hit with flooding each year but illegal logging has stripped the area of much of the tree cover and other vegetation which would normally absorb the water in the rainy season. Another contributing factor was logging. Hundreds of logs were in a waterway in the mountains above the village and it all came crashing down when the water pressure became too great. It was such a sad event that many still find it hard to speak about the tragedy. Thanks to several international agencies, the site was rebuilt and re-opened again in 2004.

A heartfelt memorial to all the lives lost in the tragic flash flooding of Bukit Lawang.

Whilst visiting this wonderful village, there is a wide selection of things to do in Bukit Lawang from trekking, cooking classes, rafting, waterfalls, walking tours, a Bat cave, tubing, and animal watching (not without a guide I would recommend).

There is a quaint village market in the center and a food market on Fridays. There are some amazing painters in the village who display their works in huts, there are also some very talented wood carvers who have created some masterpieces of the gentle orangutan.

If you choose to venture out of Bukit Lawang, Tangkahan is a wonderful place to visit and worth taking the 2-hour drive as it is stunning. There are walking tours, and rafting and you can watch the elephants swimming freely in the river and if you wish to travel further from there, you can go climb Mount Sibayak, the active volcano in Berestagi which is approximately four hours by car. This trip will take you past the ghost village, which is located directly under Mount Sinabung and was almost completely wiped out by the 2014 eruption. What remains now really is a place worth a visit. From Berestagi you can then travel further down to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. I ended up returning to Bukit Lawang after Samosir Island to spend an extra week. The village, the jungle, the locals, I was just not quite ready to leave Bukit Lawang in any hurry. It's the peacefulness and being surrounded by nature that is so embracing.

Hutang - Jungle

Orangu - Person

.. In the end, we only regret the chances we did not take ...


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