Sumatra - Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan - Trip Report
Replies: 24 - Last Post: Mar 26, 2013 1:40 AM Last Post By: pPamela
Nov 15, 2012 1:25 AM
I spent almost 4 weeks in and around Bukit Lawang during a long trip around South East Asia with my two children. I can say, without any hesitation, that this place was the absolute highlight of our trip - that's why we stayed so long - we extended our stay there twice and actually flew back there again for a second visit at the end of our trip! The whole area is really special and deserves a lot more time than most people allocate. I was shocked at how many people came just for 2 or 3 days, went to see the orangutan and left! I have also noticed that many travelers who have written blogs about their travels around Indonesia often say that Bukit Lawang was their favorite place and they wish they had stayed longer. Give yourself at least one week, as an absolute minimum - but really in my view, it deserves a lot longer than that if you have time.
Pre-organising our trip - to book or not to book?
We organised our transport in advance, as well as our initial accommodation for first 5 nights, through an excellent local guide, Rahman - he was absolutely brilliant and I would highly recommend him on all fronts. Everything was seamless. He is an absolute professional, has worked as a guide in the area for 20 years and is also an all round lovely guy. The extent of his local knowledge, and community ties was staggering. He works as a volunteer teacher in a local NGO school, asides from his work as a guide, and is very involved in his local community. His contact details are email@example.com / +62 813 75324015. We ended up also doing all of our trekking, tube rafting and a 2 day trip through him, and everything was brilliant.
In terms of whether you need to plan in advance, I have a certain view although others may disagree. I can say unequivocally that having the transport sorted in advance took a lot of the hassle out of our arrival at the airport and saved a lot of time. With the accommodation in Bukit Lawang, many of the better guesthouses were quite often full - people definitely book ahead. In terms of trekking, most people seem to wait until they arrive, but it is worth doing some research in advance on this also and trying to organise a guide or at least get a name of someone who is recommended. Otherwise you will be very much dependent on the guesthouse / hotel to find one for you. To me it felt that there wasn't a great sense of options or any clear system for finding a guide in Bukit Lawang once you are there - most of the guides seem to be affiliated with a guesthouse, and I saw a lot of people arrive without anything organised and someone would just latch onto them and by some mysterious process of osmosis be appointed as their guide, or new "best friend" (and then nobody else would come near them!)... Less than ideal.... We were really happy with the fact that we had done some internet research and organised someone in advance - and in terms of recommendations, I would certainly highly recommend Rahman he was brilliant. He was particularly great with my kids, which made an enormous difference for me.
Because I was travelling solo with two kids, I organised an airport pick up by private transport from Medan directly to Bukit Lawang. We had booked this all through Rahman. The cost of this was 450,000Rp (approx $45 US). This is obviously quite a bit more than the public bus, but still pretty reasonable and saved us needing to stay a night in Medan so it worked out (on balance) alot better. If you are travelling in a group of 3 or more, or arriving late at night, private transport saves a lot of hassle and is not too pricey when one considers that it is a 3-4 hour trip up to Bukit Lawang (subject to weather). I also think that Medan airport, as a solo female traveler, is not the greatest place to land without a plan. But that is just an opinion, I'm sure many people do it!
Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang & other guesthouses
We stayed at Jungle Inn and absolutely love it! I think it is one of the greatest hotels I have ever stayed in anywhere - location incredible!! You can see it in the looks on people's faces when they first arrive. In my view, it is in the best position of any of the guesthouses there with a prime spot right on the river right at the very end of the village, and looking over a particularly picturesque curve in the river, right opposite the entrance point to Gunung Leuser. There are perfect swimming and tubing spots right outside the hotel, and a beautiful view from almost all of the balconies - it is a truly unique place and something really special. We stayed in both the Honeymoon Suite and a few of the other rooms, they were all nice (although the Honeymoon Suite is superb!). The food and the ambiance in the restaurant is great, the staff are fantastic - we honestly felt like we lived there by the end of the first week - there was always someone to talk to or something going on. It just has a really nice atmosphere. I would highly recommend this place for families with young children - my kids really loved it and often say that the hotel itself was the highlight of their trip. Other places that looked really good were Green Hill and Jungle Tribe (which is right next to Jungle Inn). I also really liked Kupu Kupu Guesthouse which is about a 5 minute walk along a gorgeous track which runs upriver from Jungle Inn - this place really is in the midst of the Jungle, on an absolutely pristine stretch of river (uninhabited on both sides) with some beautiful swimming spots out the front. The owner Jeff is great and incredibly helpful. There are only two rooms there but they are building a few more I believe. The other place I really liked was Back in Touch - again, if we went back to Bukit Lawang, I would spend more time here. We only stayed there one night, but really loved it. It is, like Kupu Kupu, upriver and outside the township (if you could call it that!) of Bukit Lawang. Beautiful swimming out the front, amazing hilly surrounds. I think scenery-wise, this part of the river is one of the prettiest areas around Bukit Lawang.
We did a half day trek to the Gunung Leuser, as well as several visits to the Orangutan Feeding Platform during our stay in Bukit Lawang. We also did a fantastic 2 day trip / trek which went up river along the Bohorok River. We stayed overnight on this trip at the Back in Touch Guesthouse (mentioned above) and then traveled back to Bukit Lawang by tube rafting - brilliant. We did all of our trekking through Rahman - again, fantastic - contact details above. The reason we didn't do a longer trek in Gunung Leuser was that I wasn't sure that my children were up for it - the trip along the Borohok was lower grade walking and a lot easier. I did speak to many travellers in our time there who did full day and two day hikes in Gunung Leuser. I think the two day treks are really worthwhile - the experience of sleeping in the jungle was something people really raved about - and you could tell that people coming back had a real sense of having achieved something - be warned though: these two day hikes are no walk in the park!! A lot of steep inclines and sometimes slippery footing was what I heard, and long days. If considering a two day trek, I would be particularly inclined to do the research in advance and try and get the name of a good guide before you go. We did hear a small number of horror stories - often involving rain overnight, poor equipment and not too much sleep. The other horror stories were from people who were simply not really fit enough for the trip, or unprepared, and found it very difficult to keep up. But overall I think these treks are definitely worth it.... even with those who complained of the level of difficulty and the lack of comfort overnight, you could see that they would do it again in a heartbeat!
Other walks in the area
The stretch of the river upstream along the Borohok from Bukit Lawang is stunning - this is the part which was mentioned above which goes past Kupu Kupu Guesthouse and on to Back In touch. Starting just near the boat crossing to Gunung Leuser (right outside Jungle Inn) the trail goes along past a beautiful little waterfall, then continues past Kupu Kupu and on to a flying fox. If your cross over the river on the flying fox and continue on, you get to Back in Touch. This whole track is gorgeous - it became almost a morning ritual for me - and there are lots of lovely swimming spots along the way.
We spent alot of time swimming in Bukit Lawang and loved it - almost everyday - and there is a great spot on the corner right outside Jungle Inn. Also just upriver past Kupu Kupu there is a beautiful swimming spot (ask Jeff the owner there to show you if you walk by). I did notice that while the locals all swim in the river, not a huge number of travelers did and I couldn't really work out why. I think one of the benefits of having spent so much time there and having Rahman as our guide when we first arrived, was that he showed us a lot of the good swimming spots and it made us feel confident. The river runs fairly quick, and there are stretches of reasonably fast moving rapids, but there are plenty of good and safe swimming spots and the water is crystal clear - I certainly didn't feel unsafe (although you have to watch the weather - the current speeds up very quickly when it rains). But it was just beautiful. Alot of people come here to see the National Park and I think overlook the river - it is really an attraction in its own right.
Tubing and Traditional rafting
Traditional rafting is where they string together a series of tubes, have two guys with a big stick at either end, and off you go! Fantastic - my kids thought this was just brilliant. We did two traditional rafting trips - both were great. The first was downriver from Bukit Lawang towards the town of Bohorok - this is about a 3 hour trip with a stop for lunch and a ride back on the roof of the bus - this trip is great, the rapids run quite fast at times and you can really see life rolling by along the side of the river - children playing and swimming, people fishing and farming, plenty of activity and a real sense of small village / rural life. The other tube rafting trip we did which was great was downriver from up around the Back to Nature Guesthouse back into to Bukit Lawang. This is not as long a trip as the one to Bohorok, but totally different - the river is uninhabited on either side - pristine wilderness - stunning! I think this trip is often done at the end of a two day trek.
Tubing in the river on your own is great fun too. You can hire a tube easily - there are vendors all along the side of the river - it is about $1 for a day. You need one the locals to show you the ropes and where are the best places to jump on and off, but there is a great spot right out the front of Jungle Inn, jumping in at where the boat launch is to go across to the Gunung Leuser.
We traveled by Jeep (around 500,000Rp) to Tangkahan. I have to say, we didn't have a great run with break downs in both directions, but I think this is quite common place - it is quite a rough road. Definitely not a good idea to leave in the afternoon (as we did) - arriving in Tangkahan late at night is not ideal. We stayed at Jungle Lodge which is about a fifteen minute walk from the road, and on the side of the river. I know it gets great reviews, and it is in a nice spot, but we were not hugely enamored with Jungle Lodge. It does have a spectacular restaurant with great food - I will say that. The young staff who work there were also really lovely. The rooms are reasonable but nothing special - although the price very reasonable also, so I guess that's ok. I didn't visit Mega Inn, but I believe alot of people stay there too. I had expected great things of Tangkahan and thought that it would be even more spectacular than Bukit Lawang as it is more remote - but in my opinion it is nowhere near as nice. It is a pristine and remote area, but I don't think the geography is anywhere near as spectacular as Bukit Lawang (which has that enormous jungle wall almost hanging on the other side of the river!). I also didn't think the river or the swimming was as nice as it was around Bukit Lawang either - but it may have just been the days we were there. And I'm sure many people may diagree. Just an opinion....
A visit to the Tangkahan Elephants is a must - this place is amazing. We did the 1 hour elephant trek (which was expensive) and then visited the sanctuary and had the magical experience of bathing the elephants. The bathing experience, and being up close to these amazing creatures, was absolutely unforgettable. The ride was great too (just seeing the scenery along the river) but it was really the bathing experience that was special for me. The mahouts there are incredible, really informative - and the conservation (rather than tourism) focus of this place is really apparent. This is very different from any other "elephant trekking" you might do anywhere else in SE Asia - I would really recommend a visit, even if the ride is out of your budget - it was worth the trip from Bukit Lawang to see the bathing.
Travel in Sumatra with kids
Bukit Lawang in particular is kids paradise! It was my children's favorite place on our entire trip by a long mile. They still constantly talk about it now - the river, the orangutan, monkeys running around on tin roofs and crazy thunderstorms powering through every other night. Constant electricity blackouts and that feeling of being at the last frontier, bonfires at night and the sound of acoustic guitar, amazingly friendly locals and guides, bats whizzing around gasoline lamps inside the restaurant (have never seen anything like this in my life!).... for my kids, it really was excitement on a daily basis!! Whether it be watching a Cobra being removed from under a house by the local "snake man" (its true - we saw this - it was quite something!) or spotting a rare or endangered animal swinging opposite in the trees while you eat your breakfast - coming back to the room and finding that the monkeys had attacked the sunscreen - spotting strange or unusual insects, like giant millipedes and hi definition butterflies - riding on the roof of the bus, on the back of motorbikes and in the local transport (Becak) - flying down the river in a tube - seriously, this is the best adventure playground you could ever imagine for young children. My kids were blown away. In terms of optimal age - I think being able to swim is a major factor, and my kids (8 and 9) were the perfect age to enjoy this place. It is overall a great family destination.
1. Do your research and book things in advance - especially accommodation - but also find out the name of a good local guide by reading the blogs and contact them in advance. I think the quality of the guides varies dramatically..... I will say no more!
2. Make sure you leave plenty of downtime for lazing around the river, swimming and tubing, walking along the foreshores of the Bohorok (especially upriver along the trails which go towards Kupu Kupu Guesthouse - beautiful!), and other unstructured time where you can just appreciate the spectacular surrounds without a guide.
3. Take plenty of cash - there are no ATMs in Bukit Lawang and a lot of people get caught out on this. It is a massive pain in the butt. You can travel about 20 minutes by motorbike to an ATM but it only allows you to withdraw small amounts of money, so you have to make multiple withdrawals and end up paying lots of fees. Better to get money in advance in Medan.
4. Be generous with your tips where you can afford it - the local guides and others who work in the tiny tourism industry don't earn a lot and work very very hard to make their guests happy...be generous
5. Write a review on trip advisor and lonely planet. The small operators have almost no means of self promotion so reviews are really important.
6. Spend a night somewhere remote outside Bukit Lawang - if not a night trekking, spend a night at Kupu Kupu or Back in Touch. It is a whole different experience...
7. Be aware that swimming costumes, as a general concept, do not exist in Sumatra - people just swim in what they are wearing and continue wearing it after they swim! There is no concern about wet or dry..... I found this hilarious at the start - but be aware that if you strut around in a pair of swimmers, nobody will get upset or offended - but they will look at you like you are an absolute freak!
8. Visit the Friday local markets if your stay allows - really interesting.
9. Be aware that internet and mobile phone coverage are sporadic in this area - which is quite liberating and has many positive benefits in my view - but the downside is that if you are in Bukit Lawang and still planning onward travel, you certainly cant always depend on the trusty internet cafe. It just isn't as accessible as in other travel destinations - I know this because we were trying to book airfares etc - you would get to the internet cafe near Jungle Inn at 10.15am (it opens at 10.00) and the 3 computers would be occupied by 3 local kids, totally set up for hours and hours of gaming! There are others, but they are a bit of a hike... and often the internet or the electricity was down. Just not as easy as elsewhere.
Nov 15, 2012 4:56 PM
Nov 15, 2012 8:58 PM
Nov 16, 2012 3:59 AM
3Thanks for these great tips.
We are a family of 5 going to Indonesia for 2 weeks so we have only the 3 days in Medan, don´t think we will have the opportunity to go back to Indonesia.
I promised the children orangutangs, elefants, vulcanos, white sand beaches, coral reefs and so on.......
Your report makes me want to spend more time on Sumatra, but what can i do?
I have planned Bali, The Gili´s, East Java and Yogyakarta besides Sumatra.
I will have a look at the intinerary and see if i can arrange one or two more days, but what should we skip then?
Nov 16, 2012 11:57 AM
4Hi Lonel, That is a very similar itinerary to what we did in Indonesia - we were away for 3 months in total and spent 2 of those in Indonesia - we went to Lombok (1 week - based at Santai Inn, Mangsit - but had a jeep and did a lot of day trips around island), Gili Islands (1 week - Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan), Bali (1 week - Ubud only), Sumatra (3-4 weeks Bukit Lawang area only) and Java (Jakarta, Bandung, Ciata, Yogyakarta by train - got tired and flew back to Bali), and finished off with 5 days in Amed in northern Bali which was just blissful. Happy to send you more detailed information if you like. Depending on the age of your children, the best advice I could give would be to pick a few special places and stay in each of them as long as you can. And minimise overland travel. We did alot of internal flights on Lion Air, which was very cheap and surprisingly good & reliable. The only lengthy overland travel we did was overland by train in Java - which we all really liked - it was a big novelty because we didn't do it anywhere else. I really loved Yogyakarta. But we did have to abort that last section of our Java plan (Bromo and eastern Java) as we were tired by then and had all had enough. We flew back from Yogya to Bali instead for last 5 days, which we spent in Amed in the far north - would highly recommend the place we stayed up there (called Good Karma Guesthouse - kids loved it there). My kids favorite place was Sumatra, followed by the Gili's (they loved both Meno and Trawangan) and Amed - but actually there was not a single bit of that itnerary that I would drop off, or that I didn't like - the whole trip was brilliant. There were parts of it that I enjoyed more than they did (like Java) but it was such a great experience for them, I wouldn't change a thing with hindsight. If you only have 3 days from Medan, still very much worth it - just make sure you have transport sorted so don't lose a day mucking around with the buses. Do a half day trek and half day of tube rafting and have a few days of downtime. You will love it there. If you want any advice re: itinerary or travel there with kids, send me a message more than happy to help. Louise. PS - I also did a trip report on Lombok (am still working on Bali and Java reports - is taking a while!).
Nov 16, 2012 7:03 PM
5Fantastic report on Sumatra.
So wonderful to have such an up to date report on a trip to one of my favourite islands. Well done Louise.
Nov 17, 2012 2:30 AM
Nov 17, 2012 6:04 AM
7Thanks a ton Louise for the detailed report.
I have been thinking about going to Indonesia for a while - i have 2 weeks and orginal plan was to head Bali (1 week) and Java (4 days - Yogya). After reading your report, i am interested in seeing all that Sumatra has to offer as well.
Should I try to pack all this in one trip or just keep Sumatra for another trip. I will be travelling there with my parents who are in late 70s and early 80s. Your thoughts?
Also, a friend of mine who will be joining me has 4 weeks off. She should be able to add this on easily - right?
Looking forward to reading your Bali/Lombok report as well.
Nov 17, 2012 8:42 AM
Nov 17, 2012 1:36 PM
9holidayvisitor, you could spend one week in Bali and one week in Bukit Lawang / Tangkahan, this would be possible. You can fly in between on Lion Air via Jakarta - however, it is almost a whole separate trip. It may be easier just to go to Bali and Java. There are direct and cheap flights between the Denpasar and Yogya and it is only a one hour flight. Or you could just go to Sumatra, and spend one week in Bukit Lawang / Tangkahan and one week in Lake Toba. One factor to consider may be the health / fitness of your parents noting their age. Some of the best spots around Bukit Lawang require quite a bit of walking, and some steep inclines etc, and many of the hotels in the nicer part of the village (up where Jungle Inn is) are only accessible on foot. This may or may not be an issue.
Nov 17, 2012 1:40 PM
10Mangoholic, my kids are 8 and 9 - was a perfect age really. I'm sure your 4 year old son would absolutely love it there too - one big factor though I did think about when i was there (around travelling with children) is the river. My children are good swimmers, and this allowed us to do a lot of really fun stuff like tubing... and also allowed me to not be so panicked and feel like I have to watch them every minute. I was able to really let my kids wander off on their own in Bukit Lawang. The other factor is the trekking and walking, and whether he likes to walk or likes to be carried (could make it hard work for you!). On the other hand, the guides are so lovely there, they would help you with him.
Nov 17, 2012 6:02 PM
11Thanks so much for taking the time to post this report. Right now getting to Indonesia is just a dream, but hopefully I'll make it before my daughter goes to college (she's 7 now). :-)
Nov 17, 2012 7:16 PM
12How about birds and other wildlife seen? Beyond the orangs of course. I am looking at this as an alternative to
going to Camp Leakey in Borneo. The boat trip there sounds like fun (though wet no doubt in Feb when we are going) but your write-up is very attractive and I am thinking easier to get to from Singapore.
Nov 18, 2012 2:37 AM
Here is the link to PHOTOS of the what can be seen in Bukit Lawang in regards to nature. All photos taken by GreenHill owner Andrea Molyneaux ( ex British Govt scientist with Doctrate in Primates and Conservation) or travellers who have been on treks organised by Andrea and her Indonesian husband Mbra.
Edited by: pPamela
Nov 18, 2012 3:42 AM
14Ebwilderae, there is so much to see.... I am just not good particularly at remembering the names. We did see a black gibbon swinging around right outside Jungle Inn across the river bank on our very first day there, which was incredible. We just sat and watched it off the balcony. Lots of Thomas Leaf Monkeys and long tailed macaques. We saw quite a few monitor lizards also in Tangkahan, and incredible butterflies and insects. Re birds, I did notice the birds in particular in Tangkahan were absolutely stunning. We saw these tiny little birds, no bigger than your thumb, with really beautiful colours. Have never seen any quite like it before.
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