Bukit Lawang is a pleasant getaway from the polluted streets of Medan. The village sits on the eastern outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, a huge sanctuary for the flora and fauna of the region, but BL is maybe most famous for the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. These attractions has made Bukit Lawang one of the most popular destinations in northern Sumatra, and today the town exists almost only for the purpose of serving the tourists.
Bukit Lawang is located in the Bohorok administrative area, and often only referred to as Bohorok by the Indonesians. The area is typically farmland with rice production and cocoa, palm oil and rubber plantations. Bukit Lawang as a tourist destination started with the orangutan rehabilitation station, but visitors who come here to see the orangutans or trekking in the rainforest keeps the place running today. It now has a large selection of losmen, budget hotels and restaurants on both sides of the river, and a number of organized activities for the visitors.
This is not the place to go if you want to avoid tourists and experience the authentically North Sumatra, but easily the most accessible entrance to Gunung Leuser national park.
Upon arrival the bus stops in a small square at the end of the road, here you will find a small tourist office and a ticket office, not to forget the many guides who wait here to offer their service to newcomers. There are some accommodation and a few restaurants here, but the most popular establishments are 15-20 minutes by foot upstream. If you allow one of the guides to bring you to a guest house he will in a way be “tied” to you, if you go on a trek with another guide he will have to pay some money to the first guy.
The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is found to the north of the Bukit Lawang town just within the borders of the Gunung Leuser national park. The feeding takes place at a platform in the forest, an about two kilometer pleasant walk from Bukit Lawang. You will first have to cross the river in a small dugout canoe. This is where most of the treks into the rainforest starts, most people start the day with the 8 o’clock feeding in the morning and then start walking into the forest. Before entering the national park you will need to obtain an access permit which can be obtained from the rangers office in Bukit Lawang, your guide will often arrange this for you. If you plan to go trekking you need to employ a guide to be allowed to enter the park.
There is an abundance of cheap losmen dotted along the river, there are mainly two areas to choose from; along the river opposite the town and up the river towards the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Station, where you also will find the most quiet area. Most of the guesthouses have a restaurant, and most of these are pretty standard.
Buses between Medan’s Pinang Baris bus station and Bukit Lawang depart every half hour between 5.30 am and 6 pm, and the bus will use about three hours. You can also go with a public minibus which is about an hour quicker, and a little bit more expensive. A third alternative is to use a tourist minibus, which can pick you up at your hotel in Medan. They will leave Bukit Lawang for Medan early in the morning, if there is enough demand there will also be tourist buses that will leave for Berastagi and Danau Toba.
There are no banks or ATM’s in Bukit Lawang, so make sure you bring enough cash money, there are some moneychangers here, but don’t expect to get a very good rate, you better change before you come here. There is no post office either, but a few post boxes and you can buy stamps from the shops. There is one place with Internet near the bus station, the connection is very slow and the price relatively high. The reason for this is that the nearest internet provider is in Medan. You can find one Telkom Wartel across the river.
There is a tourist information office close to the bus stop, don’t expect a lot of information though, but it may be worth a visit. On Friday it’s market day in Bukit Lawang and on Sunday in Bohorok. If you want to party wait for the weekend, when you can join the locals at the disco. July and August is the season for durian here, beware of these heavy fruits crashing down from the trees, there are even signs that warn you against this. The climate here is hot and humid, and it can rain a lot.
The best time to visit is during the week, in the weekends you will have to share the place with busloads of Indonesians coming up from Medan, about 96 km southeast of Bukit Lawang.
This article was written before the 2003 flood, some details may not be valid anymore. 239 people were killed, more than 400 houses and 35 hotels and guesthouses were destroyed during the disaster. The site was rebuilt and re-opened again in July 2004.