Back in late January 2014 Elicia and I found ourselves having a one-week window of vacation between the academic years here in the Korean public school system, so we decided to travel to Indonesia. More specifically, we wanted to get a taste of Sumatra. We often heard of Sumatra and were convinced by some close friends that we’d love it there. So, using Air Asia’s affordable airfare, we flew into Medan, Sumatra which is just a short flight west of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Medan is the most populous city in Northern Sumatra, and we’re glad we only stayed there one night. In hindsight, I would have preferred to arrange transportation immediately from the airport to our first destination, which was Lake Toba. It would have meant more time relaxing on the lake instead of transportation in/out of the big, crowded city. Anyways, Lake Toba is a volcanic lake and it also has an island in the middle called Samosir Island. The lake and island were incredible – 100% chilled atmosphere with cheap, traditional (and comfortable) lodging for under $10… most of which were just steps from the lake. It was glorious. We stayed at Tuk Tuk Timbul for two nights and then Mas Cottages for a night… Mas Cottages was probably our favorite:
Our first half of our week was spent around Lake Toba – we rented a motorbike one day and rode around all of Samosir Island, swung from rope swings into Lake Toba, ate delicious grilled fish, and relaxed in our hammock. Mid-week, we grabbed transportation over to Bukit Lawang, where we’d embark upon a 2D 1N jungle trek… the focus of this post.
Bukit Lawang is about two hours from Medan, and it’s the tourist hub for jungle treks in Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Lawang is situated next to a jungle river, and plenty of hostels/guesthouses line the river. I think I remember between 30-40 options for lodging, with each of them being able to arrange jungle treks (they work with local guides). Having a guide is mandatory to enter the national park, so arranging a day ahead of time is just what we did (and you should, too). We opted for the 2D/1N jungle trek since we were simply out of time… a week sure does fly by when you’re off in remote locations like this because transportation takes a bunch of time.
Immediately upon meeting our guides, we knew we were in for a fun and entertaining time. Here they are, along with the owner of the guesthouse we stayed at. Laughter, sarcasm and fun times began from moment one.
We started around 8:00am and got paired up with another couple staying at our guesthouse – the four of us trekkers would have two guides. Allow me to introduce you to the guides:
First things first: we walked through a rubber plantation. In driving from Medan to Lake Toba, then up to Bukit Lawang, we noticed rubber tree plantations just about everywhere. Here on the trek, we learned about the industry and its threat to some species’ natural habitat.
It was cool to see up close and personal. I particularly appreciated the conversation I had with Josef about a balance: reducing natural habitats like the jungle for a rubber industry that creates jobs and sustains life for the locals… Josef had a good perspective and I’m hopeful a healthy balance can continue so the locals may prosper, but still protect the jungles and environment. Let’s just say I am thankful Gunung Leuser National Park isn’t going anywhere…
The jungle trek itself wasn’t too rigorous or difficult. After walking through the rubber trees, we entered the park and trekked for just an hour or so until we came upon:
The big draw to Bukit Lawang is to see the orangutans in their natural environment. Granted, every day these orangutans are encountering tourists just like Elicia and I – but they have the space and ability to move away deep into the national park if they wish. I’m hopeful these amazing orangutans aren’t dependent on us humans as we trek through… nevertheless, we were able to learn a lot about the Sumatran Orangutans as Josef was very knowledgable and treated the animals with the respect they deserve. Furthermore, he was very attentive to our surroundings, often finding other critters along the trail and explaining them to us… just like this ant that is extremely stinky!
We were now deep in the jungle and we had seen rubber trees, birds, orangutans, insects, etc. It was time for lunch! Our jungle lunch was wrapped up in banana leaves – a nice touch and quite authentic for this whole jungle experience.
While trekking we would often take breaks to catch our breath (there were some ups and downs, mostly near the river valleys). One time, we had a beautiful outlook in which we could see all the treetops… reaching their way out of the jungle’s canopy:
Just about every time we stopped for a quick 5-10 minute break… our guides pulled out some delicious fruit from their bags. What a treat!
The trees and vegetation was simply… massive. It was awe-inspiring to walk through such a place.
We were fortunate enough to stumble across more orangutans – we observed them from a distance for quite a while. We had seen some orangutans in Malaysia when we visited Borneo… but I appreciated seeing them here in Sumatra just a hair more becuase we were now deep in the jungle, away from any noise, cities, other tourists, etc.
Around 4pm or 5pm we made it to our resting place for the night: it was a permament shelter-type-area with about three bamboo & tarp structures where we could sleep. After we got settled in a bit, we had free time before dinner would be ready, so we practiced our sling-shot skills, aiming for a bottle hung up across the river:
I loved where the rest-stop is for these 2D/1N treks. We went swimming in the river to freshen up, and the scenery was outsanding.
We were truly deep in the jungle.
This guy came floating down the river… he often kept his head high, looking for fish that could turn into his dinner:
And I couldn’t believe the length of his tongue!
As the day’s light was disappearing, the chefs completed our meals and we were ready to scarf down at the romantic candle-light jungle restaurant with our guides:
Stories and laughter follwed our meal. The six of us huddled up in our shelter and played some games with Josef – he shared jungle riddles, stories, and little problem-solving games that were funny, mesmerizing and challenging to solve. These jungle games were a highlight of the day, and a perfect way to end day #1 out in the Sumatran Jungle. We fell asleep wondering if we’d hear the Sumatran Tiger or not…
We woke up ready to tackle day #2. Unfortunately we didn’t hear any tigers throughout the night…
After breakfast we headed upstream in search of some beautiful waterfalls the guides knew about:
Here we jumped in the water and enjoyed our time listening to the crashing waterfalls. The big joke here was the free jungle massages (just sit under the water and let it massage your back/shoulders). The massage was great, and the price was right. There were a couple of water falls:
After the jungle swimming and massages, we made our way back to our camp and had a nice lunch, mostly comprised of fresh fruit like this:
We also saw this guy, a Black Gibbon, who was pretty curious to see what was going on in our camp:
The time eventually came for our adventure to come to a close. Almost. Instead of trekking back, we inflated some massive tubes, tied them together, put all our gear in several plastic bags, and floated down the jungle river back to Bukit Lawang! When we trekked, we were heading ‘upstream’ – so to return it was a good 20-30min float down the river, around the turns and bends, through the rapids (FUN!) and back to our guesthouse where we stayed another night. It was the perfect and adventurous ending to our trek in the jungle.
Back on our feet in Bukit Lawang, we walked around a bit. There’s plenty of trails available to explore – we found cool areas like this:
When I look back and think about our jungle trek in Bukit Lawang, I can’t help but think about our guides Josef and Harry. Their smiles and laughter were contagious. I am happy some of the money we spent to go on this 2D/1N trek went directly into their pockets so they can help support their familes. They were genuine guys who cared deeply about protecting the animals and teaching others to do the same. I learned a lot about Sumatra and the challenges it is facing as industry grows and resources get depleted.
Most of all, I’m reminded of the many laughs, stories and good times we shared with the local people we met along the way. In all our hiking and traveling so far while living in Korea, I’ve learned that it’s the people… the local people… that really enhance the experience.