Sumatra travel tips, advice and links

Frequently Asked Questions

You must have a guide to trek in the Gunung Leuser National Park. As mentioned elsewhere on our website, travel in Sumatra is different to other parts of South East Asia. This is not the sort of trekking you can do alone.

You can visit the Orangutan Feeding Platform alone. The short (30 minute) hike to that location is along a well-beaten trail and easy to do alone. However, any trekking further into the park requires a guide. The Gunung Leuser is dense tropical jungle, and the paths are not clear or easily navigated without expert local knowledge. The second and more obvious issue is the wildlife. Trekking in and around dense ecosystems with the large orangutan population and other wildlife requires special knowledge to ensure safety. Guides in Bukit Lawang have a lot of expertise in locating the orangutan and therefore increase your chance of having really memorable encounters with the animals inside the park.

During almost all treks, even the 3-hour treks, orangutan and a range of other fauna will be observed in the wild (though we cannot make any guarantees!). You will almost always see orangutan at the feeding platform, which is the first stop on each trek.

Beyond that, it’s highly unusual for us not to sight more orangutan in the wild, particularly on the full-day or 2-day treks. The guides in Gunung Leuser are extremely skilled at locating the orangutan and will almost always provide you with opportunities to observe these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat, particularly on the longer trips.

We would strongly recommend that travellers visiting Sumatra, particularly between May and October (peak season), book their accommodation in advance. We would also recommend that, in the very least, travellers do some research and get the name of a good local guide.

Even though Bukit Lawang has a small and steady trickle of travellers, largely drawn by the Gunung Leuser and the orangutan, it’s still relatively undeveloped. There are no ATMs, and internet access and mobile coverage are unreliable. There are also frequent electricity outages.

All of this contributes to a real sense of being at the last frontier and has many positive effects – it’s a real escape!

There are plenty of guides in Bukit Lawang, and a reasonable number of guesthouses. It’s certainly possible to arrive there without prior arrangements and find accommodation and a guide to take you trekking in Gunung Leuser.

However, you may not be able to stay in the place you wanted as many of the best guesthouses are deservedly popular and people book accommodation far in advance in peak season.

Also, you may not have much of a sense of options when you arrive about who takes you trekking, or what you do.

There’s a big advantage in organising your trip before you go – you get your head out of the guidebook and spend more time looking at the jungle! Forward thinking, careful research and advanced planning mean that you will have the best possible experience and won’t waste time in internet cafes searching for information.

Most guides in Bukit Lawang work independently and some are affiliated with a local guesthouse. They rely on referrals. There are strict rules around price capping for all trekking and other guided activities in Bukit Lawang, and on top of that, many unspoken rules about not taking customers away from other guides.

This can make it very difficult for guides to compete with each other or market themselves in any way. It can also make it difficult for travellers to get a good sense of the options about who they would like to guide them or what sort of experience they’re looking for, if they arrive without a plan.

There’s no street or area in Bukit Lawang teeming with tourist offices or trekking information centres. If you book nothing in advance, you will generally be dependent on the guesthouse you stay at to organise something for you. There are some fantastic guesthouses in Bukit Lawang, many of whom have fantastic guides working with them – so this is certainly not a problem.

It is just important to research your options in advance and make an informed choice.

Your options for finding a guide in advance are:

  • Searching through internet blogs and travel recommendation websites, like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, to get the name of a good independent guide.
  • Booking through an ecotourism operator, like Harimau Sumatra.
  • Organising your guide through the guesthouse you choose to stay with.

The advantage of booking through Harimau Sumatra is that we’re a one-stop-shop. We can assist in the coordination of airport transfers to and from Bukit Lawang, accommodation, as well as trekking, rafting and other activities. This will take a lot of the hassle out of your trip and ensure that you don’t waste your precious time looking for guides and hotels. It will also save you a bit of money.

Harimau is committed to developing ecotourism in Bukit Lawang to take travellers beyond the orangutan and other obvious attractions of the area, to see the fascinating cultural matrix which lies underneath. We also offer travellers the chance to explore the off-the-beaten-track areas of the stunning natural surrounds of the village.

Whether you book through Harimau or make arrangements through research on Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, advance planning is highly recommended.

Advance bookings allow you to exercise an active choice in who you would like to trek with, and what sort of experience you want. For us, it allows us to schedule our work flow as efficiently as possible, and ensure our availability to do activities with guests on the days they have in Bukit Lawang.

Many people come to Bukit Lawang to see the orangutan and spend way too little time here. Anyone who has looked at internet blogs on travel in this area will see that many travellers rate Bukit Lawang as their favourite place, even those on lengthy trips through South East Asia. And many seem to regret not having spent more time there. It’s a pity they do not work this out until they get back home.

Bukit Lawang and its surrounds are very special. You should allocate at least 5 days if you want to see the area properly.

Links

For independent travel information about Bukit Lawang and Sumatra

For information about the conservations issues relating to the Gunung Leuser National Park

Resources

For a copy of resources, guidelines and guidebooks produced by the Orangutan Information Centre in Bukit Lawang

For a comprehensive list of guesthouses in Bukit Lawang