Gunung Leuser National Park

Entrance to the national park

Gunung Leuser National Park is a large world heritage listed national park covering 950,000 hectares in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, straddling the border of the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh.

Understand

The village of Bukit Lawang is located within the park and situated 90 kilometers northwest of Medan. It is most famous for being one of the last places in the world where one can see orangutans in the wild. Bukit Lawang is situated at the eastern side of Gunung Leuser National Park. As Bukit Lawang is near Medan, it can get crowded during the week-end, especially during the public holiday period (June-beginning of July). Try to avoid the week-ends (full guesthouses, crowded feeding platform, large and numerous trekking groups).

Ketambe village is another option — quiet, not crowded, wild. There is a research station at Ketembe. It is not open to the public.

History

The park is named after one of its highest points, the 3,381m Mount Leuser (Gunung Leuser). The highest point in the park is "Puncak Tak Punya Nama" ("The peak with no name").

Along with the two other National Parks (Kerinci Seblat and Bukit Barisan Selatan) on the island, it comprises the UNESCO World Heritage site of 'The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra' (status since 2004).

Landscape

Part of the Barisan mountain range lies within the park. The highest peak, and the park's namesake, Gunung Leuser can be climbed. Much of the park is steep and inaccessible.

Flora and fauna

Seeing the orangutans is a magical experience. About 10,000 live in this area. In Bukit Lawang, you can usually see them near the rehabilitation centre and at the feeding platform during the morning and afternoon feeding sessions. In Ketambe, you can go to 1-7 days treks into the jungle.

The best experience is an encounter in the jungle where there are many semi-wild and wild animals. The wild orangutan can be difficult to spot unless you go deep into the jungle. There are also white and black gibbons that make an amazing noise calling out to each other, and Thomas Leaf monkeys. If you are lucky, you may be able to see hornbills, toucans, moon snakes, monitor lizards.

Since there are very few (hundreds) still alive, it is very improbable that either the Sumatran Tiger or the Sumatran Rhinoceros will be encountered, although footprints and droppings have been reported. If you really want to see a tiger, you have to go deep, and be patient (waiting for weeks).

For elephants, go to Tangkahan or near Ketambe, where you can trek further into the jungle to try and spot wild elephants.

Climate

During the wet season, October to March, expect rain at least daily, towards the late afternoon and early evening. Intensity varies, but invariably the monsoonal rains always arrive. Climate is always very humid, so pack a lot of drinking water if you are trekking.

Get in

By plane

Medan holds the nearest big airport for accessing the region.

For Ketembe or hiking Gunung Leuser, you could fly to Kutacane from Medan (30 mins) or Banda Aceh (on Wednesdays and Fridays).

First of all, consider the huge ecological footprint of taking a plane! Going by bus may be a better choice if you want to save the forests.

Note the flights fill very quickly so make sure you book as soon as you can. Note also that the airline flying is on a contract basis and from time to time when the contract finishes there are times when there are no flights until a new contract is signed.

From Kutacane you'll need to continue by road (with labi-labi).

By bus

Another option is to take a taxi from the airport or hotel in Medan to Pinang Baris. (no more than 50,000 IDR). DO NOT get off at the big terminal.. tell your driver to go on.. just a bit past there is a bakery called Mawar. from there you can get a minibus (max 20,000) or the big coach (max 15,000). The big coach is government run but minivans are 'private'. They will stop many times along the way and in Binjai (about 40 minutes from Medan) they may stop for half an hour to fill up. The last stop, where you get off, is normally the bus terminal in Gotong Royong, a village just 5 minutes from Bukit Lawang. From here you can get a becak (motorbike/sidecar/tuktuk type thing) for 10,000 IDR. This should drop you at the national park office in Bukit Lawang and you can then find your guest house.

There are many drivers offering minivans from the Belawan ferry terminal direct to Bukit Lawang, bargain hard. Expect to be shifted minivan at least once (in Medan). Prices vary between Rp. 60,000 and 70,000 all the way to Bukit Lawang. The extra cost should outweigh the hassle of getting into Medan, finding the bus station, then finding a hostel in Bukit Lawang (especially if you arrive during a torrential downpour). The driver will usually recommend a family or friend's hostel.

You can go by tourist bus (minivan 5-7 persons;) from Parapat (Lake Toba; 130.000 rps/person) or Berastagi to Bukit Lawang. Tickets can be bought at local tour agencies; but sometimes they run the vehicle as speed driver; to reach the arrival place; just check it out and made a good decision for the transportation

By car

To/fro Bukit Lawang - Medan - If you prefer the convenience of an air-conditioned transfer - a private car can be arranged for Polonia Airport or your Medan hotel pick-up. Many Bukit Lawang hotels will arrange this service for you in conjunction with an accommodation booking. If you are a little more adventurous car rentals are also readily available in Medan for approximately Rp 350,000 a day

Get around

The villages consist of little more than the guesthouses, a few local residences and the odd shop or cafe. You can walk around but there's not much to see or do!

Fees/Permits

Permits need to be arranged at a PHPA office before entering the park. The fee is Rp 20,000 per person.

In Bukit Lawang this can also be paid at the orangutan feeding ground. The permit should be included in all treks and jungle activities, but check with the guide to be sure.

In Ketembe your guesthouse may ask for your passport to register you with the authorities. If you have copies of your passport (including the visa page) you can give them those instead.

See

Orangutan Feeding in Bukit Lawang

Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

In 1973 a Swiss organization set up an orangutan rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang (Bukit Lawang literally means "door to the hills"). The purpose of the centre was to rehabilitate orangutans released from captivity. The rangers at the centre teach the orangutan all the necessary skills to survive in the wild. After an intense period of quarantine, readjustment to the natural habitat and reintegration into the (semi-)wild population, the orangutan is released back into the jungle. All orangutans released are still monitored by the rangers and they still provide them with supplementary food at the feeding platform until they become fully self-reliant.

In the years after the arrival of the rehabilitation center more and more tourists found their way to Bukit Lawang and it became one of the most popular destinations in Sumatra. A flash flood hit Bukit Lawang on 2 November 2003. Described by witnesses as a tidal wave, the water was approximately 20 meters high, as it came crashing down the hills, wiping out everything in its path. The disaster, which was the result of illegal logging, destroyed the local tourist resorts and had a devastating impact to the local tourism industry. Around 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls, 35 inns and guest houses were destroyed by the flood, and 239 people (5 of them tourists) were killed and around 1,400 locals lost their homes. After eight months of rebuilding, Bukit Lawang was re-opened again in July 2004.

For many villagers the trauma of losing family, friends and their homes has taken a long time to come to terms with. The people were facing unemployment and homelessness. It has been a long road to recovery and an especially hard task to rebuild a town with only limited financial assistance from the government. However the people in Bukit Lawang are survivors and the new village is taking shape and more and more businesses are opening again.

Especially the young generation is hoping to rebuild the village in more sustainable way than before and they are very aware of the importance of preservation of the fragile ecosystem they live in. They can use all the support they can get and the income of tourism will help them in realizing their ideas for a brighter future for Bukit Lawang.

Other sights

Do

The number one reason to go to Gunung Leuser National Park is for a trek, whether that's mountain trekking or trekking to spot wildlife.

Trekking

A jungle trek is a must. Seeing the orangutan in the wild may be one of the best experiences you will have in your life.

It is not permitted to go unaccompanied into the jungle. There are plenty of good and reliable guides around so take your time to get to know some of them, have a chat, make your choice and prepare for a great adventure. Ask questions and ask them if they follow the rules and DO NOT feed orangutans or any other wildlife. Ask if they will actually be your guide or if they will pass you on to another group. It has happened that travelers pay their money and get sold off and end up in a group of 10 people. Ask how many people will be in the group.

It is a good idea to ask for information at the guest houses... if anything goes wrong or you are not happy you can complain to them. And they have a reputation to keep up.

A fixed price for jungle treks is €25 per day. 2 days trek including rafting is 60 euros and 3 days trek including rafting is 85 euros. During the trek the guides always provide you nice Indonesian traditional meals and exotic fruits! Usually you stop at a really nice waterfall where you have the chance to relax and swim!

It happened quite often that some guides have fed orangutan some human food during a trek just to coax the wild animals to pose for tourists. Several orangutan have gotten sick or died for this reason. You should not get close to or call or feed ANY of the animals, even if your guide irresponsibly tells you it is OK.

Even though sightings of the orangutan and other wildlife can never be guaranteed, when following the instructions of your guide the chances are favorable.

Another hero is the Thomas Leaf Monkey. Such a wonderful creature that leaps into air with wild abandon as they move from tree to tree. Their mohawk hair styles and faces filled with millions of years of character really make these little guys stand out.

If you want to go on a multiple day trek make sure you are fit and in good condition. The humidity coupled with the intensity of grade of the hills makes for some hard work. The reward at the end of your jungle adventure is a late afternoon paddle in the river back to the village.

Everyone who is planning to go on a jungle trek or even to the feeding platform is asked to refrain from any physical contact with the orangutans. Getting too close to an orangutan increases the risk of passing on disease and viral infection, which jeopardizes the orangutan's chances of survival and in turn the health and survival of the wild orangutan population in the entire area. All guests should keep at least 10 meters away and move away if an orangutan approaches. The motto of any jungle adventure should be take only pictures, leave only footprints.

Another popular past time activity is tubing. When tubing one uses an inner tube to float down the river. Tubes can be rented at various stalls along the village and expect pay around Rp 10.000 per tube. Be careful on the water because currents are strong.

You can also visit the bat cave for Rp 5,000 [make sure to take a flashlight], make a stroll around the rice fields and rubber plantations, visit some of the social projects (like the Children's Home on the way to the bat cave), visit the Friday market or just hang out with some of the locals and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

Wildlife trekking

A wide range of treks into the jungle looking for wildlife are available in Bukit Lawang, Ketembe and Tangkahan. There are many tours from 1 to 3 days (sleeping in the jungle) but more or less can probably be arranged too.

Mountain trekking

These are all multi-day treks.

River activities

Buy

In Bukit Lawang during the low season not many of the shops are open on weekdays, however in the weekend there are several small shops that sell the locally made coconut necklaces. Also there is a small shop selling bamboo souvenirs, like key chains, picture frames, etc. There are also a few shops that sell wood carvings and at the beginning is Genta's batik shop, selling traditional batik paintings.

There are only very small shops in Ketembe selling not much more than packets of biscuits and bottles of water. Buy everything you need in Kutacane or elsewhere.

Eat

All of the guesthouses have restaurants, usually with both Indonesian and Western food available. When trekking, your guide should provide all your food.

Drink

Guesthouses sell a range of drinks and when trekking your guide should bring enough water but you may wish to check this. At sunset a great place for a Bintang is the terrace at the Eco Lodge. The friendly folks there will serve you up a cold beer and you can watch the colours change over the town and river below.

Sleep

Lodging

Arranged by your guide when wildlife trekking.

Camping

Arranged by your guide when wildlife trekking.

Backcountry

Your guide should cover all your requirements for accommodation in the jungle, even right down to leech socks if required. Just make sure you take enough dry clothes as it's so humid nothing will dry once wet.

In the Kutacane region the electricity supply can be a bit variable so don't leave charging your camera until the morning you head out to the jungle!

Nearby

Bukit Lawang

In order of position up the pathway by the river in Bukit Lawang.

Mama Anas Homestay is in Lambo village, 10 minutes from Bukit Lawang by local bus. A great location in the rice paddy fields with amazing views of the mountains. She has 2 really nice rooms and you will get to meet her children..a great way to experience a bit of real life. She and her husband both speak good English. to book email mamaana99@gmail.com

Tangkahan

Ketembe

All the guesthouses are very similar, have restaurants and can arrange tours. They are all along the main road and offer accommodation in wooden bungalows with bathroom from about Rp 50,000.

Kedah

Kutacane

If you arrive too late for onward travel, there are a handful of options in the town.

Stay safe

Some guides can get quite flirtatious/annoying with the girls during trekking trips esp in Bukit Lawang so team up with a larger group during a hike if travelling as a single female or pair. It is perfectly safe for female travellers here but do behave appropriately. Don't wear bikinis or skimpy clothing...this includes tight fitting and low cut t-shirts. Solo female travellers who seek a bit of reassurance should check with the guesthouses and arrange to go trekking with other travellers. Green Hill and Sam's Bungalows have good reputations for solo travellers. Any woman who experiences sexual harassment in any form in Bukit Lawang should report the incident immediately to the Guides Association at +62-813-70730151 (Bahrum the leader). Also make sure you get a photo of the guide as well.

When travelling down the river rapids on the rubber tyres, do not go past the bridge. There are narrow drains and sharper rocks the closer you get to the village.

Keep your villa doors and windows closed when you are not around, the long tailed macaques like to get inside and raid your belongings for food.

Unbranded or unfamiliar branded or even unsealed bottled liquor/alcohol is best to be avoided as it may be too harsh for you and you might be end up hospitalized.

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