Sumatran Orangutan in the forest near Bukit Lawang

Our room with balcony in Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang










Bukit Lawang is located in North Sumatra, close to Aceh, at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Here is where a lot of Sumatran Orangutans still live. This is mainly thanks to the rehabilitation center in Bukit Lawang. This center also attracts some tourism, but that does not influence the tranquil environment and the amount of wildlife here.


Arrival in the Dark

We booked a tourist bus from Lake Toba, which was supposed to go directly to Bukit Lawang. Unfortunately, however, it took a long stop in Medan. When it leaves again, we end up in rush hour to get out of this big city, and after that, the road to Bukit Lawang appears to be in a very bad condition. So we arrive shaken and stirred in the dark in Bukit Lawang. A number of touts is waiting there to bring us to their guesthouse. But we already chose to stay at the Jungle Inn. It is located closest to the jungle, but on the other side of the village, which can only be reached on foot.


The road, or rather path through Bukit Lawang is badly lit, and rather bumpy and hilly, so we need all our attention not to trip with our backpacks. There are a number of restaurants and souvenir stalls, but their number gets less as we progress. Eventually we reach the Jungle Inn, but it is full and we end up at their neighbors, the Bohorok Inn. The rooms here are not that great, but the meals are and we are informed about the National Park and the possibilities of a jungle trek. We do listen, but are especially interested in a good night rest.


Room with a View

Our room with balcony in Jungle Inn, Bukit LawangWe had a good sleep, but didn’t like the sleazy communal shower, so we moved to the Jungle Inn, where a room became available, the next day. We pay much more (as much as 7 Euro per night…) but the room is great. We have a large room with big bed, and a balcony with hammock and view over the river to the jungle on the other side. As we relax here, we see how some Orangutans are arriving there to eat from the fruit of a large tree. It is a great sight which we enjoy for a few hours.


When one of the Orangutans climbs down to drink from the river, we hurry down with our camera. When he is gone we return to the hammock, where we are suddenly visited by a monkey. It is Loco, the tame macaque which is lingering around here.

Recovery from the disaster of 2003

Bukit Lawang was struck by a tremendous flood of the Bohorok river in November 2003. The flood wiped away 90% of the buildings, and killed 300 people. The orangutan rehabilitation center was also struck, although all but two orangutans were able to save themselves.

Because of destroyed feeding facilities, and since the animals were able to survive in the forest, the activities at the center stopped for a while. But since tourism is an important source of income, and the orangutans are the main attraction in the area, rangers have resumed feeding activities, and it is possible to arrange jungle treks again.

For the local economy in Bukit Lawang, eco-tourism is an important factor. Activities have started to re-develop Bukit Lawang and the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation center into an Eco-tourist Viewing Area, meeting modern standards. In order to complete this activities, it is of vital importance that tourists return to this area. Enough facilities have survived or are rebuilt for a new steady flow of tourists. So please consider visiting what is still a great destination. 

He cam be very annoying, stealing food from people’s plates etcetera. But now he is very friendly, and joins us in the hammock. He let’s us pet him and falls asleep on our laps.


Subtropical swimming paradise

In the afternoon we go for a swim. At the Bohorok Inn is a rapid in the river, where we can let the water carry us with it. It is an original subtropical swimming paradise. We have a great time here, especially when another orangutan drops by. And even Loco can swim. But he starts to be annoying when more people arrive. He even bites people, and although his teeth are filed, people are scared of him. But he doesn’t harm us, and we even feel sorry for him. When a troop of macaques pass in the jungle, he watches them with a sad face. He will not be able to return to the jungle.


After breakfast the next day, we are called to come and watch, as a group of Thomas Leaf Monkeys is up in the trees. These are beautiful black-and-white monkeys with a funny crest on their heads. Some of them entered the restaurant. They visit more often, and know that the personnel treats them with bananas. Loco is trying to tease them, but they ignore him, as they ignore us. Great to be among those semi-wild animals.


Bat Cave

On the other side of Bukit Lawang is a nice cave. To reach it, we pass rubber plantations where people are harvesting the rubber from the tree. They carve diagonal canals in the tree, so the rubber drips into plastic cans. Eventually we reach a small stand, where they charge 1000 Rupiah (10 cents) for entrance to the cave. A guide is also offering his services, but that doesn’t seem necessary.


Bat cave near Bukit LawangWe have to climb to reach the cave. But once inside, we meet the bats, and see birds nests, as in the Niah Caves. But nothing is harvested here. It would be possible to make a tour around the caves, but we only find a small passage at eye height. Back at the entrance we hear that that was indeed the passage to go through. We decline, and decide we have seen enough cave.


Tropical rainshowers

Almost every day as dusk sets in it starts to rain. Huge tropical showers, mostly taking an hour or two. The strange thing is that almost every time the electricity is cut, so we spend the nights in the dark with some candles. In the village different restaurants show movies, but that isn’t possible either without electricity. One of the nights there is a big thunderstorm. The rain is so heavy, that some of it comes through our thatched roof. A bit scary, especially since there is place to run to. We try to pass time playing cards until it gets less.



Jungle trek

Although we already saw a lot of wildlife from our balcony, we decide to go for a one day jungle trek. Together with our Italian friends Alec and Debora we have two guides. Harry walks in front, once in a while explaining things about plants, trees, and flowers. And Sinar is walking behind us, listening and making side trips searching for animals. It doesn’t take long before we meet the first Orangutan, a mother and child. And it is not the last one we meet today.


Seeing Orangutans from up closeAlthough the path often goes up or down very steep, it is a relaxed jungle trek. We stop a lot, always after a climb and to spot wildlife. The orangutans we spot from up close are semi-wild. They grew up in the rehabilitation center. We also spot a few that do not come closer, these are probably wild ones. We also see gibbons, Thomas leaf monkeys, two kinds of macaques, a hornbill, lizards, giant ants, etcetera.

We eat our lunch, nasi goring, at a small stream with waterfall. And when we reach the river again, the trip back to the village is taken by a rubber raft. We had to hurry, since we heard the rain arrive in the mountains. Just half an hour after we came back, we saw the water in the river rise and change into a wild river. In the village it stayed dry this time.

We enjoy the surroundings of Bukit Lawang for a couple more days. The fruit trees on the other side of the river are almost empty, so we see less orangutans. But we have a great time with the cats hanging around, Loco, and a strange rooster which wants to be petted, and performs a strange dance.

Bukit Lawang is a fantastic destination. The orangutan rehabilitation center here offers a great insight for tourists into the life of this endangered species. But Bukit Lawang has much more to offer, so it is about time tourists rediscover this place. With regret we say goodbye to this village, to Sumatra, and to Indonesia. Despite some of the discomforts in this country, these are just wonderful places to be.









Seeing Orangutans from up close








Bat cave near Bukit Lawang






Danau Toba, or Lake Toba as we know it, is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. It was created by the eruption of a super volcano 75 thousand years ago. It is still surrounded by the crater edge of that volcano, and in the middle of the lake, volcanic activity created Samosir an island as big as Singapore. Attached to that island is a small peninsula, with the village of Tuktuk on it. This is the tourist destination of the area, where we enjoy the cool air, a dive in the lake, the relaxed atmosphere, and the local Batak culture.


Liberty of Lekjon

After the exciting bus and bemo ride to Parapat we meet Liberty. He tells us that the last ferry to Tuktuk leaves in an Hour. But not to worry, there is a small restaurant where we can eat something while Liberty tells us all about Tuktuk and his hotel Lekjon cottages. It appears that the ferry will drop us off at any hotel on Tuktuk we want, and since we like the leaflet of Lekjon, we decide to let us lead by Liberty.


In the dark the ferry brings us over lake Toba. It takes about half an hour during which we only see some lights and a small fire along the crater edge. The ferry stops at the bay next to the peninsula first, and then moves along the coastline to drop everybody at their desired destination. We see a lot of hotel names, but it is too difficult in the dark to see what they are like. Just in the middle of the peninsula is Lekjon, and we are easily convinced to at least spend one night here. We get a clean room, a warm shower, and a nice view for a low price, what else do we want?

At night we drink something in Lekjon’s restaurant. The personnel is friendly, and one of them starts playing the guitar. A few English guests know some songs, and Sabine also starts playing. It is a good start for our stay at Lake Toba, which promises to become a holiday during our world journey.


Where are the tourists et Lake Toba?

The next morning we make a walk around Tuktuk. Although Lekjon is okay, we like to know what alternatives are around. And we also like to explore the surroundings. We pass many hotels. Big ones, with large buildings, and small ones, with cosy cabins along lake Toba. Especially the big ones make a desolate impression, they seem to have almost no guests. And some of the small ones are closed all together, and so are many of the restaurants. It appears to us that lake Toba must have seen much more tourists in the recent past. Many stay away now because of September 11, and the independence struggle of Aceh in North Sumatra, not very far from Lake Toba.


The peninsula is larger than we expected. At different hotels we inspect the rooms, but it is all similar to Lekjon. We also stop at some souvenir shops. Many nice woodcarvings for low prices. The vendors are urging us to be something, they also feel the lack of tourists.


To the market

In the afternoon we take the ferry across lake Toba back to Parapat. There is a market there, and we have to go there to get some money. This time we have a seat on top of the boat, and inspect the hotels again, this time from the water. There are a few that could not be seen from the road. It is clear that Hotel Carolina is the most fancy hotel on Tuktuk. Nice cabins in traditional Batak style, including cane roofs, and a private pool created in the lake.


The market of Parapat isn’t much of an attraction. We quickly find the ATM and go back to the ferry with a bemo. Parapat isn’t very interesting, but it is a pleasant town. There are some hotels here as well, but again only a few tourists.


Historic Ambarita

We decide to rent a few mountain bikes to explore Samosir island, the main island in Lake Toba to which Tuktuk is attached. The main road goes around the island, and we enjoy great views until we reach the historic town of Ambarita. We enter the wall around the historic center via a small gate. We have to fill in our names in a guestbook, and pay a small fee. We are the only tourists in here, and from the guestbook we learn there are not many visiting these days. We wonder how the personnel here can live from the fees. Then a guide comes along offering his services. He tells us we can decide for ourselves how much we pay him afterwards. Yeah, right.


There are a few traditional Batak houses in a nice row. Although they’re not that traditional, since they have tin roofs. But at least they have the traditional shape, that resembles the traditional shape of the Minangkabau houses, or these of the Toraja people in Sulawesi. They all had the horns of the water buffalo for inspiration. One of the houses doubles as a small museum and the guide explains some tools there. From his explanations, we only remembered the Batak calendar, so is wasn’t much.


Cannibalism at the old courtyard

Most important part of Ambarita is the old courtyard. Under an old tree are a number of stone chairs in a circle where the village elders held council. Criminals who were convicted with the death penalty were led to the execution yard 50 meters further. This is a larger circle with stone chairs, and a large boulder on which the convicted would be tortured to scare away the evil spirits. Then, the victim would be killed, beheaded, and cut in pieces. The heart and liver were eaten by the king and elders, and every witness had to eat something as well. The blood served as a drink for everybody.


We pay our guide, not surprised he asks for more, and move on to the souvenir street. Lots of stalls with woodcarvings and vendors who are desperate to sell something. And only 2 tourists (us) as their prey. But we carry very little money, so we have to disappoint them all. Another sad result of the tourist decline at Lake Toba.


Graves of Tomok

Batak Grave at TomokWe hop on our bikes and follow the road to Tomok. Main attraction in this village is the grave of the king. Or actually there are more graves, and it is unclear to us which one is which. There are some stone figures around the graves, but no guide to explain things. A little further is a large doll on a stage. The story goes that a former king was so sad for the death of his son, that he ordered a dancing doll. The dancing of dolls became a tradition at funerals.


In Tomok are a lot of souvenir stalls as well. This time especially with clothes and other stuff. But again, no tourist around, and we are the only prey. So we don’t stay long, hop on our bikes and go back to Tuktuk, enjoying the views over Lake Toba.



Tuktuk has its own cinema. An Englishman who lives here permanently, created a business with the copied video CD’s which are for sale everywhere in Southeast Asia. He has a large collection for rent, or you can watch them in a small room with large TV. We are watching “The Lord of the Rings” here. The copy was obviously made in an actual cinema: we can hear the laughter of the audience, and once in a while there is a shadow passing by. Amazing how the illegal copying industry works here.


In order to explore more of Samosir, we hire some motorbikes. After some instructions, we leave while the people shout at us to drive on the left side of the road, something we would already forgot. Easily we pass the many hills on our way to the first target: Samanindo. Here is a the Batak museum of Samosir located. After a little search, we find it just in time for an dance exhibition.


Batak dance

In front of an open terrain a more tourists are gathered than we saw in total the last couple of days. And in front of a scale model of a traditional Batak house are a group Batak people dancing. Well, dancing is a big word for the small movements they make. The program indicates multiple dances, but we see little variation. When some tourists join them, we hardly see a difference. And then a dancing doll enters the scene, making more moves than the dancers themselves. The tourists are supposed to give a donation to the doll, which is rewarded with a loud “Horas”. And that is the most exciting part of the exhibition.


The accompanying Batak museum isn’t much either. A little disappointed we hop pack on our motorbikes and move on. What amazes us most is that this place attracts most of the tourists around Lake Toba.

We move on along the outside of the island, passing many traditional houses, most of them with zinc roofs. Also many impressing grave towers, with on top of them a miniature traditional house.


Hot Springs

As we approach the other side of the island, the mainland comes in sight. A large white spot on the crater edge draws our attention. It almost seems like a ski trail, but we suppose it must be chalk or sand. A little later we arrive at the village where the island is connected to the main land by a small bridge. In fact, the bridge was only needed since the Dutch dug a canal to separate the island from the main land in 1906. We pass the bridge and drive up to search for our next goal: the hot springs. The closer we get, the more we realize the white spot is where we will find the hot springs.


The hot springs are accompanied by a number of restaurants and a large parking lot. But there are not many tourists. At one of the restaurants we park our motorbikes and order a meal. While we wait we see a little girl playing with to chicks, one of them bright yellow, the other bright green. Funny little animals, although it is sad that they probably have no mother and are obviously artificially colored.

After lunch we search for the hot springs. Every restaurant appears to have a bath of swimming pool fed with hot water from the springs, but we want to find the springs themselves. So we climb up, until we reach a restaurant that only lets us through if we order something. Here is a pool as well, but also a natural bath in the rocks. And as we climb up, we reach the actual source of the hot springs. In some kind of white moon landscape there is a stream of hot, yellow water. It is boiling up from the rocks, although we cannot see exactly where.

After a lovely, purifying, very hot bath, and a cola at the restaurant, we descend to our motorbikes. Although there is a market in the village we pass, we decide to go back to Tuktuk. It takes us two hours to go back, including a few stops for a beautiful view and a drink. We are back before dark, so we can cool off in the lake.


More Batak dance

That night there is a traditional dance performance in one of the restaurants of Tuktuk. We are convinced that there should be more to it than the slow motion dance we saw that morning, we decide to have a look. But what we see is even worse than that. Odd, since the traditional music sounds happy and dynamic.


After the dance there is a singing performance. Five men are putting all their energy in a few nice songs. Quite a contrast to the dance performance. The surprise is complete when the dancers invite the audience to swing with them. So they can actually dance enthusiastically, although it is not very traditional.


Woodcarving course

Having seen most of the sights around Lake Toba, we search for an alternative activity. We find a cooking course, but that one is a bit expensive. A woodcarving course, however, is cheap so we join a few souvenir makers. We get to pick something we like in order to try and copy it. After some instructions how to cut, we try for ourselves. Bit by bit our blocks of wood get some shape. Our teachers watch, adjust, and show how to continue.


Sabine’s mini mask is almost done. After sanding it, it can be polished and varnished. Patrick’s puppet takes a little longer, but after lunch, when our hands can be relieved from the cramps, it can be finished as well. Sabine has continued with carving her name, and begins with carving a guitar. Patrick tries a gecko. But then the fun is over. The leg of the gecko breaks, and the knife hits his hand. There is a lot of blood, but after binding it, it seems to be okay. But it is clear that we have not found a new occupation.


Tuktuk restaurants and hotels

Most of the evenings we dine at the restaurant of Lekjon. But we do want to try something different. So we walk the island, searching for nice restaurants. Around Lekjon are a few of them, but there are just a few people every where, And the further we walk, the sadder it gets. Many restaurants wait for the first guests of the evening, others are already closed. We do find one restaurant that draws more public. It is the Bamboo restaurant, with nice decoration (bamboo obviously), good food and nice music. According to Roy Bamboo, the owner, there are many guests every night. It seems to be the exception to the rule that business is bad around Lake Toba these days.


As we have seen and explored every aspect of Lake Toba it is time to move on. It was a nice relaxing week with nice activities. It is a pity that the locals are desperate because of the decline in number of tourists. Once, there were probably too many tourists, but too little is not good either, for the great destination that Lake Toba actually is.


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