Bukit Lawang is described by many as the ‘gateway to the Sumatran jungle’. If you’re planning on visiting Sumatra with kids, you should read this post and all of our tops tips before you go. I solo travelled Sumatra with our three kids and we started in the north-east and finished in the west. It’s one of the most remote parts of the world we’ve ever been to and travel took quite a bit of patience. Read on for our suggestions and trip of how to get to Buit Lawang in Sumatra with children.
The EASIEST way to get to Bukit Lawang With Kids
We flew into Medan, the capital city of Sumatra, which is three hours east of Bukit Lawang. As I was travelling alone with the three kids (we left Rich working in the UK), I pre-booked a private driver. It removes any hassle of negotiating and worrying about whether the kids will get a proper seat or if you’ll be be safe. We paid 650,000rp for a private driver.
You can also pre-book shared tourist buses although it will take about three hours longer than a private driver because of the stops. We paid 550,000rp to leave Bukit Lawang to head to Berastagi in a shared bus.
If you’re up for a big adventure and want to brave the public buses, you can get a bus from the airport to Binjai and change there for Bukit Lawang. I think this option costs about 200,000rp.
You can also hire a car and drive yourself. I wish we had done this! There are quite a few local car rental agencies however it appears that Avis is the only internationally known agency there.
Top Tip: I recommend hiring a car and having the freedom to go where you please. The condition of the roads are not great (pot holes, missing tarmac, different height lanes, dirt track roads) and driving 200-300km might take you SIXTEEN HOURS. No joke.
Driving Around Medan
Due to a delayed flight from Malaysia, which by the way is a BIG problem in SE Asia, we were three hours late in landing. Rather than landing at 2pm we landed at 5pm and hit rush hour traffic. We drove a grand total of 5km in 90 minutes. BOOOO!
Traffic around Medan is chaos. The roads are in an ok condition. I say ok because although they’re proper roads, the tarmac is often patchy with holes or one lane is 90cm higher than the other lane.
Driving is chaotic and if you choose to drive, you’ll need to be patient. It’s chaotic because despite there often only being two lanes for traffic, the Sumatrans think it’s a good idea to create four lanes (out of the two lanes) so they can ‘go faster‘. Utter codswallop… it just means the queue they were originally in moves forward and they then have to barge their way into a different queue.
I don’t think they’re the smartest bunch either because when I pointed out to our driver that FIFTEEN cars had passed us (after he’d moved into one of these faster lanes) he refused to believe me!! He did it repeatedly whereas if he’d just stayed in his original lane, we would have progressed much quicker.
It wasn’t just that driver either, it was a repeated problem. You must be patient lol.
TOP TIP: Arrive into Medan in the morning and avoid rush-hour traffic.
Arriving in Bukit Lawang at night
Arriving into Bukit Lawang in the pitch dark (at 11pm) is something we’ll never forget. It was pouring with rain and the roar from the river was almost deafening. The experience was disorientating.
I had no bearings of where I was in the village (having been frog marched down tight alleyways with all our backpacks) and it was dark, sticky hot, raining and noisy! What an affront to our senses lol.
We were taken to Fido Dido where we were staying but the noise of the river became louder. I didn’t work out until the next morning that we were sleeping OVER the river. Our bedrooms were directly over the roaring river – whose noise is way louder than there was water!
The RIver Is Life
Before I arrived I had read some reviews about the river with several women pointing out how dangerous it was and how strong the currents were. They advised AGAINST tube-rafting and going into the water stating it was far too dangerous (this should have given me an idea as to the type of tourist visiting). As we visited during the rainy season (it rained pretty much every afternoon) I was worried by how strong it would actually be but I needn’t have worried.
I’m guessing the women who wrote the reviews are risk averse because both Zach (9) and Imogen (7) jumped into the river from our balcony (a five metre jump) and had an awesome time on their tube raft. If anything they complained it wasn’t fast enough as we kept getting stuck on the rocks.
Just be aware that the local restaurants and cafes pump water OUT of the river to use in their kitchens/bathrooms and then pump IN their waste. We also saw locals taking a shit in the river as well as bathing, washing clothes and bathing/washing their hair etc.
The river divides Bukit Lawang
The village is split into two by the river. The side with the roads is called Bukit Lawang whereas the side with the jungle is called Bukit Mendai. On google maps the river doesn’t exist but on google satellite maps it does. See map below.
There are about six different bridges connecting the two sides of the village. Some bridges you’re supposed to pay for but others are free.
All the bridges are an interesting array of suspended metals and woods, sometimes bamboo. The main bridge (photographed above) is quite high and does move as you cross it but it’s perfectly safe.
What’s in the village?
The village itself comprises of a large number of cafes, hostels, rooms, hotels and a tourist market which sells a small selection of clothes, carved wooden items and paintings. There are a few small supermarkets which have a small selection of dried foods but the choice is very limited. There a number of tour agencies, a tourist taxi-bus organiser and a laundry service.
We were very careful about what we ate and only ate at restaurants where the (plant-based) food was freshly prepared. Much food spends all day sitting in glass counters waiting for people to buy it.
The nearest cash machine is approximately 10km away. There is a fresh fruit/veg market once a week about 4km away. If you want to leave the village you will need to negotiate transport on one of the many scooter/motorbikes in the town. There are no helmets available.
Bukit Lawang is HEAVING with tourists. We went out of tourist season and were shocked by how many westerners were in the village. I would estimate that over 300 westerners were there when we visited. Having come from Vietnam where we rarely saw another westerner it was a shock.
Top Tip: Vegan food at Junia’s is plentiful, cooked fresh and is tasty. Plus the service comes with a smile and there’s often a man with a guitar singing in the evenings.
How much money will I need?
An average breakfast cost approximately 18-20,000rp per person with a snoothie/juice being about 15,000rp. An evening meal cost roughly 35,000rp however could cost more if you ate more up market.
We paid in advance for our rooms by Paypal however most places accept cash. Expect to pay between 150-450,000rp p/n.
We spent approximately 14,000rp and we over paid for our tours and excursions – read below.
What is the accommodation like?
Accommodation ranges from very basic to really nice. Some accommodation offers mattresses on the floor whereas others offer purpose built, elevated bamboo beds.
There is unlikely to be any hot running water, unless it is specifically advertised. We didn’t have any for the majority of our three week stay in Sumatra.
Although there is running water in the toilets, you are not allowed to put toilet paper in them. Most toilets are provided with a douche on the side.
It is important to remember that northern Sumatra is an incredibly poor area where many people’s houses comprise of one room in a wooden house-hut and they sleep on the floor.
Booking.com, AirBNB and Tripadvisor are the best sites for trying to find and book accommodation.
Top Tip: Insects are an integral part of the jungle and there are many everywhere – including in the rooms (ants, millipedes, mosquitoes) . Covering yourself in toxic jungle spray is not the answer for you or the health of the jungle. I recommend that you look at using natural essential oils, wear long sleeves and sleep under a mosquito net.
Second Top Tip: Look for a room with a working safe in it. If you go off into the jungle you don’t want to be taking valuables with you.
What about electricity?
On the whole most places in the village have electricity however there are frequent power outages which can last quite a few hours at a time.
The electricity sockets take modern European plugs with the two thin prongs.
The weather in July
The weather in July was sticky hot. We slept every night with our fans on, pointing at us, but there were power outages at some point most nights or early mornings. The temperature was about 24-30*c but the humidity was very high.
The sun was usually out in the morning but by lunchtime the clouds had rolled in.
When it rains, it POURS! Thunder would start late afternoon and would usually result in a flash downpour every afternoon or evening for about one to two hours.
We washed our clothes in the river with great success however it was very difficult to dry them. It took about three days for them to dry properly.
Top tip: If you wash your clothes, try and dry them in the morning sunshine and then move them undercover in the afternoon.
There Is Quite A Bit Of Trash
Let’s be honest about Sumatra’s rubbish problem. It makes Sumatra look like a shit hole!
There is trash EVERYWHERE. There is no respect for the natural environment and if the trash isn’t left by the side of the road, they burn it on the camp fire and cook over it! There are no organised rubbish collections and thus the trash is everybody else’s responsibility.
Don’t book any tours before you get there
Because I was alone with the three kids I decided to book all of our tours before we arrived in Bukit Lawang.
Not only can you book tours much cheaper when you get there, you also get a chance to meet your tour guide/s and talk about your expectations. In my experience this is really essential.
There Are Too Many Jungle Tourists
The orangutans were our main reason for going into the jungle. I was desperate for us to see them before they’re wiped out by palm oil forestations – which is an enormous and very visible problem in Northern Sumatra.
If you partake in the one or two day hike into the jungle, you will ONLY see semi-wild orangutans who have been rescued and released into the immediate area. These orangutans are fed by the guides who leave fruit on the floor and pushed into branches.
We opted for a two day hike with a night in the camp and I was really disappointed by the ease of the hike and how superficial it all was. At every jungle path-bend we’d bump into another tourist group, eating or taking photos of the animals.
Zach discovered a tortoise in the undergrowth and we shared a special sixty seconds just watching it before another group spotted us watching it and picked it up. It was frustrating to feel so swamped and intruded upon all the time.
We were warned by another family before hand that the hiking was ‘challenging’ and ‘very difficult’ but we all agreed that it was super-easy and in some respects very patronising. The only difficulty was the humidity but so long as you account for needing at least 2 litres of water, there should be no problem.
TOP TIP: If you want to see anything natural in its own environment opt for a 3 to 5 day hike or go somewhere else.
What’s It Like To See Orangutans
There is no doubt that it was special to see these amazing, critically endangered creatures swinging in the trees. It is a wonderful site to see. Their agility and speed is breath-taking, they descend from the trees so quickly and their gentle nature surprised me. I was expecting them to be more abrupt and forceful but they weren’t at all.
However the experience was detracted from by the knowledge that they’re so used to human contact and being fed. Our second guide left us at one point and was using his mobile phone to contact other guides in the area to locate the animals to show us.
I was disappointed by how the guides tamed (dumbed down) our experience, it wasn’t what I was expecting and I suspect much of it was because I was a woman on my own with three kids. I understand that many tourists who go there can’t cope with a kilometre hike but that isn’t us and I don’t feel as if our guides responded to that which was frustrating!
It’s a baboon!
I wasn’t expecting to see a Baboon in the jungle so when this little fella strolled past me I froze and watched him in absolute awe.
He was happy to collect the orange and mango left on the floor near us and eat it relatively close by. He was much calmer than the orangutans and could have easily slipped past without me knowing creeping lightly over the jungle floor.
He was un-phased by us being there but at the same time, unlike the orangutans, he had no interest in stopping or talking to us.
The Thomas’s Leaf Monkeys
These little guys are very accustomed to human contact and can be found across Sumatra and everywhere in Bukit Lawang.
They’re not scared of humans at all. They swing through the trees, climb on the bridges, land on house roofs, climb through the windows, steal property and one cheeky little monster even had his hands in my rice and stole my crackers!!
They jump, swing, run, swim and even pick fights with the monitor lizards. Ingenious little rascals really.
Don’t be fooled by their cuteness, they’re devious!
The Macaque monkeys are really quite different to the Thomas’s leaf monkeys; timid, quiet, hesitant and patient. A total contrast to the bold brashness of the Thomas’s leaf monkeys.
They hang around within sight but not close enough to really come into direct contact with humans. They especially like to eat the scraps of food left over in the river.
Camping in the jungle
Camping in the jungle is something everyone should do at least once! After all it’s not every day you get to shit in a big hole where everybody else has also shat lol. I won’t mention the worms that feast on it…..
One of the camps is a really short distance from Bukit Lawang. Like a REALLY short distance. I took my mobile with me (for security reasons) and was able to sporadically drop pins onto a google map. I originally thought the map was wrong as it showed we were only about 1.5km from the village but it was right! We were actually so close to the village I probably could have sneaked off without anybody noticing. I am really pissed off about it because I felt that we were capable of so much more.
The camp is a series of wood built, open sided huts with plastic covering. Sleeping bags were provided for us and we slept on the floor with our guides. I wasn’t very comfortable about sleeping next to them and they seemed disappointed that they were sleeping next to me and not Sophie (14 year old daughter)!! Read into this what you will but this was our continual, over-riding impression of northern Sumatra as a whole.
The food in the camps is minimal and they didn’t really cater for us fussy eating vegans. We managed to eat some noodles with fried veg and a salad sandwich. I wish we’d taken some protein/nut bars to keep us going as we were a bit hungry. All the food is fried in palm oil – there is absolutely no avoiding it.
Top tip: If you can, take your own tent. There’s usually room to pitch it in the camp huts and it affords you greater privacy.
Swimming in the waterfall
Our camp had a waterfall and a river running next to it which was the highlight of our camping trip. The water was freezing cold but such a delight after the humidity of the rain forest.
We swam in it quite a bit and used it as an escape area from the camp. The camp was busy and as the only family (and kids) there we felt that we needed our own space on occasions.
We swam in our clothes which was the norm in northern Sumatra.
Top Tip: Northern Sumatra is a strict Muslim area. We found that the locals swam in their clothes and then allowed them to dry. You can wear a bathing suit or a bikini if you choose to but we felt very uncomfortable doing so.
Stalking monitor lizards
Three monitor lizards made our camp their home – it is no wonder as every dish, plate and bit of food was washed in the river there and they came along for the left-over food- which was fantastic for us, as if we sat very still they would come within 30cm of us.
The monitor lizards have the most amazing physique which has adapted perfectly to their environment. They could be compared to miniature dinosaurs with their leathery skin and pterodactyl like features but really they weren’t anything like I’d imagined. I thought they would be more aggressive and threatening but they were scared of the monkeys who chased them!
Top tip: Be patient, sit still and just watch them scavenge. They’re amazingly agile creatures.
The jungle’s other weird and wonderful stuff
I couldn’t help be impressed by the sheer amount of animals so abundantly close.
You only had to lift a leaf or peak under a branch to see a range of insects and fungi. The giant ants were harmless but HUGE and the mushrooms came in all shapes and colours.
Do I need walking boots?
We took our walking boots and they were big and heavy and cumbersome but they did stop our feet from getting damaged or wet.
Some other tourists walked in flip-flops (go figure), trainers/sneakers and the locals wore recycled rubber shoes which you can buy in the Bukit Lawang market (although I have no idea about cost).
The upside of wearing trainers is that they can be washed and dried relatively quickly but there are many things you could stand on in the jungle which might go through the sole of a trainer/sneaker. I also wanted ankle protection in case we tripped.
I don’t think it matters what you wear as each option has pros and cons.
Should I go to Tangkahan to see the elephants?
I have written an entire post about our experiences there and I would definitely say NO. The elephants are significantly damaged and do not want anything to do with humans.
Our experience was horrific. We saw the elephants being beaten, ridden, anally violated, forcefully held down and deliberately starved. We left with all the kids crying.
I would never recommend that anybody support it.
If you want some further literature from an animal activist in Thailand, you can read her post here.
Jungle rafting the river
Jungle rafting was a lot of fun! There’s a video below of our experience.
It’s something we’d been looking forward to however we were forced to wear lifejackets (three sizes too big) and could barely move. I understand they were worried for our safety but their treatment of us was overly condescending and none of the other groups were treated in such a way or forced to wear life-vests.
Although we had fun the experience belittled us.
A Short Video From Our Time In Bukit Lawang
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