Orangutan means “person of the forest” in Malay, and these intelligent creatures share about 97% of their DNA with humans.They only live in two places in the world: Sumatra and Borneo.They are also the largest arboreal animal in the world, and spend about 90% of their life living in trees of the tropical rainforest. 🌳This also makes them the victim of palm oil deforestation, and currently Sumatran orangutans are a critically endangered species, with only about 7,500 left in the wild. Here are some palm oil nuts, which I found during my visit. To harvest the palm oil, they cut down the trees, which is the home for this vulnerable species. 😢Now I knew I wanted to see this incredible species in the wild while I still had the chance, so I traveled to Sumatra, Indonesia to find them.
Sumatra vs. Borneo
I chose the island of Sumatra in Indonesia over Borneo in Malaysia when I learned that the Gunung Leuser National Park here was one of the most accessible trekking locations, and offered the best chance of seeing these animals up close. 😮The Gunung Leuser National Park is actually located in the largest wilderness area of Southeast Asia, and protects a wide range of diverse species.💚
It’s home to over 100 Sumatran tigers, Clouded Leopards, Sun Bears, 60 Sumatran Rhinos, 200 Sumatran Elephants, 14 species of squirrel, Pangolin, as well as, various birds, amphibians and reptiles.
In regards to primates, there are seven species here, including Pig-tailed Macaques, Long-tailed Macaques, Slow Loris, White-handed Gibbons, and Thomas-Leaf Monkeys. 🐒
They also have over 3,5000 types of plants and over 100 types of trees.🌳 Many of the plants here are also medicinal, and used to treat a variety of minor health conditions, like stomach aches.Side note: All the facts about the national park were taken from the visitor information center.
Orangutans are Great Apes, along with gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and even humans. Apes and monkeys are both primates, but have many differences. To distinguish apes from monkeys, remember that apes are larger in size, live longer, and have a higher level of intelligence. Also, monkeys have tails and apes do not! 🐒 🦍
How to Trek for Orangutans in Sumatra (a step-by-step guide)
First, fly to the capital of Medan on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. ✔
I flew to Medan from Singapore with AirAsia. The flight took 1.5 hours and cost about 50 USD.
Accommodation in Medan:
When I arrived at the Medan airport, I took a Damri bus to the city center, which cost 1.5 USD. Before heading to the jungle, I spent one night at Dazhong Guesthouse in Medan. The owner was super sweet, and actually studied at Marquette University in Wisconsin. He even teaches English classes to Indonesian kids in the reception area. ❤The single fan room was 6 USD, and the place had a small kitchen, free drinking water, and easy access to the city center. That being said, their bathrooms were super gross, and I would rather walk to the mall next door than use their toilet! Hah!🤣
Next, travel to Bukit Lawang. ✔
Bukit Lawang is the closest town to the national park. Its name actually means, “Gateway to the Mountain” in Indonesian. To get there you can take a public bus or hire a private driver. The public bus is a bit more complicated, and involves both a tuk-tuk ride to the bus station for 2 USD and a haggled bus ticket for about 4 USD. I opted for the more stress-free option, and had a private mini-van transfer for only 8 USD, including hotel pick-up. The journey took three hours, along some very bumpy roads with lots of cows and potholes. I was so happy to be in a comfy car, and not on a hot public bus! 🙏 My driver was kind of a smart aleck too. I asked him where he was from, and he replied, “I’m from my mother.” Hah! 🤣Anyway, Bukit Lawang is a touristy little town with lots of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops.It’s also built on both sides of the Wampu River, and you’ll have to cross numerous slightly sketchy bridges when you want to get around. Hah! 😛
Accommodation in Bukit Lawang:
I would highly recommend staying at Junia Guesthouse.
They had the best reputation for service, their facility was absolutely gorgeous, and their food was spectacular! They book up very fast, so try and reserve in advance. I used booking.com, which gives you the option to cancel up to 24 hours in advance for free if your plans change.
Cost: 7 USD/ night including breakfast
Next, hire a trekking guide.✔
My guesthouse arranged absolutely everything! I chose to book a one-day trek in the national park, but you could also choose a two-day, three-day, five-day, and even a seven-day trek in the jungle, where you camp overnight in tents. The price is around 55 USD/day. I opted for a more conservative route, because I really loved this fancy guesthouse with my own double bed, stone bathroom, and delicious hot meals. ❤
Next, you get to trek for orangutans. ✔
He also smoked lots of clove cigarettes, which seems to be the standard here.🚬He asked me, “You do the smoking?” I said, “No, it’s not healthy for you.” He then tried to tell me that cigarettes give you strength to get up the hill when you are tired.💪It’s like Red Bull. It gives you wings. Hah! Anyway, we set off towards the national park and began our search to find the orangutans.Many of the trails are slippery and muddy, so bring good hiking shoes. 👟There are also load of mosquitoes and jungles hazards, so watch where you walk and wear repellent. 😲
Orangutans: Are they Wild or Semi-wild?
Basically, up until 1973, it was completely legal for people to own, hunt, and sell orangutans. When it became illegal in 1973, a Swiss woman named Regina Frey established the Bohorok Orangutan Centre here as a refuge for these once captive animals. Well, even though TripAdvisor will tell you to visit the center here, it actually CLOSED DOWN in 2005! It was determined at that time that the orangutans were able to survive on their own, so they were all released back into the national park.
This means that some of the orangutans are used to humans. For this reason, they are not completely wild, but semi-wild. My guide said he even regularly finds them in the village, and has to call the park services to return them back to the jungle. This may sound great, since you’ll have the chance to get closer to them, but some are actually super aggressive towards humans. My guide was attacked multiple times by a particular female named Mina, and one time he got bit in the knee cap and could see bone! I’m not saying they are all aggressive, but you have to remember they’ve had a traumatic relationship with people. They were captured and held captive in less-than-ideal conditions, and they are not quick to forget those scars on their memory.Anyway, we were lucky enough to spot four very relaxed orangutans during our trek. The first was a female who was sitting high up in this tree.Fun fact: Orangutans build nests every day out of branches, leaves, and sticks. Orangutans are also the most solitary apes, so you won’t see them in groups like gorillas and chimpanzees.Next, we spotted a male orangutan. This species has lighter colored hair and a more narrow face than their relatives on Borneo.This male’s demeanor was so calm and unfazed. He glanced down at us on occasion, but seemed uninterested in our presence.Just lots of scratching and a big yawn!
Next, we spotted the highlight of the day: a mother and her baby.💕The baby was munching on vegetation, but in general, orangutans also eat lots of fruit and even insects.My guide joked that the orangutan would treat this tree like an ice cream cone, and just lick up all the bugs! Hah! 🐜+🍦This aging mother also had a noticeable cataract, and she seemed very curious about us being there. On two occasions, she even climbed down from her branch to get closer to me for a better view! 😮Funny coincidence: Orangutans have this distinguishing orange hair color, which also sounds like their name, orangutan. Anyway, her little baby was off swinging in a tree on its own, then slowly came over to join her.Fun fact: Orangutans only give birth every EIGHT years, and each baby will spend that entire time living with its mother. This makes their bond very strong! Kind of gross, but they actually learn how to copulate from their mothers. 😬Anyway, all of sudden, things started to get a little interesting, as the male made his way over to the female trying to show his interest. Orangutans, like gorillas, chimps, and bonobos, are not monogamous. They don’t mate for life, and this is not the female’s partner. He’s more of a jungle Casanova! Hah! 😛Anyway, you could see that she was totally uninterested and upset by his pursuit, as she made these uneasy vocalizations when he got close by.
The whole “chase” kind of ended anticlimactically as the male and female made separate nests within a comfortable distance from one another. Here’s a short video of the male, female and baby, including a few vocalizations.
Anyway, from there we walked around the national park to enjoy more of the forest, and observe other parts of nature. Here’s a white planthopper larvae. These ants are gigantic, and my guide kept putting them in his mouth just to freak me out! 😮The most exciting spotting, other than the orangutans, was this Great Argus, a species of pheasant who was putting on a rare mating dance.He made a few loud calls, then spread his wings to reveal a beautiful pattern of plumage.Overall, an incredible 7-hour trek, with many memories to last a lifetime! 😀Afterwards, we returned back to the guesthouse where I enjoyed a delish traditional lunch of fried rice with egg, served with deep-fried crackers, fresh veggies, and a spicy chili sauce.
Other Things to Do in Bukit Lawang:
Aside from jungle trekking, you can visit the local bat cave, tube down the Wampu River, go swimming, check out some local restaurants, or just chill.
At one point I found this bizarre, slanted forest. Then I found these rubber trees, where they were tapping them for sap to use as latex.I also found lots of local fruits growing. Yum! 🍍🍌Everyone here is so friendly too! Each person on their motorbike seemed to stop by me to say hello, and ask me where I was from. I also really loved the Batak architecture here, which is a style unique to Indonesia. Anyway, I would end each day nestled in this beautiful little alcove by the river, where I enjoyed the chirping of crickets, the rushing waters, and the company of the adorable resort cats.And sadly, after five beautiful days here, I headed back to Medan. Honestly though, if you have the time, there are many more places to visit on Sumatra. Four or five hours away is Berastagi Volcano and Lake Toba, which is the largest volcanic lake in the world! As well, in the north are the tropical Mentawai Islands.
I spent my last day in Medan checking out a few of the local sights and indulging in some Indonesian fare. The main attractions in Medan are the Great Mosque and the Maimun Palace.The palace costs about 50 cents to enter, and for an additional 50 cents you can dress up in traditional Indonesian outfits from the 19th century. I also just walked around the streets, and tried to learn some Indonesian words by reading the signs. Gotta love cognates! 😀Medan also seemed to be preparing for some end-of-Ramadan carnival. They were assembling and painting a bunch of different rides while I was there. Caution: this is not Gatorade! Hah! These colored liquids are actually fuel for the many motorbikes in Medan.
Overall, Medan is not a top-tourist destination, but it is a nice stopover between cities.
Anyway, I ended my time here at the local mall, where I did some window-shopping, and indulged in a traditional Indonesian dish.Ayam penyet is fried chicken with tempeh and tofu. It’s served with cucumber, cabbage, and a spicy chili sauce. I could honestly put that sambal chili sauce on anything. It was so good! The restaurant could also make a killing off bottled water. Hah! So spicy! 🌶The bill looks like a fortune, but it’s really only 1.75 USD. I also went shopping for some snacks for my next journey to the island of Java. 😀Stay tuned to hear all about that trip! I hope you enjoyed this post, and until next time! 😀