Bukit Lawang / Indonesia



Bukit Lawang

About 84km westnorthwest of Medan, at the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park, lies the little jungle village of Bukit Lawang (means: 'gate to the hills'). Bukit Lawang's fame came with the 'Orangutan Rehabilitation Center' there, which was founded in 1973.

'Orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park' by Asienreisender

An orangutan mother with her baby in the trees of Gunung Leuser National Park near Bukit Lawang.

Image by Asienreisender, 1995

It's pretty sure that the place in this time was either extremely small or didn't already exist as a village. However, the little jungle nest became soon a tourist spot and started growing quickly. In the 1980s and 1990s the numbers of western tourists were rising, until the 1997/98 forest fires and the political turmoil in Indonesia. From then on the (western) tourist stream (arriving in Southeast Asia mostly in Bangkok) changed to the north, towards Laos and Vietnam, more and more also to Cambodia. The post-dictatorial Indonesian government restricted the visa conditions much to the worse and Westerners were rather repelled by the new, high visa fees and the (completely unnecessary) new buerocratic obstacles to visit Sumatra anymore. Now Bukit Lawang sees still a few, but far not as many western tourists as in the past. Therefore, on holidays and weekends are huge groups of local tourists invading the jungle nest at the banks of the Bohorok River. Many of them come from buzzing, chaotic nearby Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra.

'Bukit Lawang and the Bohorok River' by Asienreisender

Bukit Lawang, a growing village at the shores of the Bohorok River.

Image by Asienreisender, 2009

The village itself grew also considerably in the past decades. When there were buildings only along the river in the 1990s, a new village came into existence just a few dozend meters away from it, protected from the water on an a bit more elevated spot.

'Family in Bukit Lawang' by Asienreisender

A shop owner with her children. Image by Asienreisender, 1995

In the last decade there was also a considerable growth of palmoil and rubber plantations. When coming from Medan, after leaving the monstrous megacity and reaching the green, the road leads all over the way to Bohorok and Bukit Lawang through huge, mostly palmoil plantations. Since rubber and palmoil are on the world market competing with food, and being more profitable than food is, there is meanwhile even a lack of rice in Indonesia. The country has to import rice since years now, what makes the food prices rise in such a poor country. Bukit Lawang is partially surrounded by these huge plantations, bordering the Gunung Leuser National Park with it's protected, tropical rainforest at the other side. By the way, the rainforest here is, according to informations I got in the 1990s, secondary jungle, about a hundred years old. Primary rainforest starts after a one or two days walk into the park, towards Gunung Leuser.

'Pupils' by Asienreisender

A group of pupils from the islamic school near the irrigation canal. Image by Asienreisender, 1995

The local economy is very much based on tourism. The Bohorok River is seamed with guesthouses of different quality and a number of restaurants and tourist shops. Since Bukit Lawang is a good place for jungle trekking, the villagers competition for selling organized tours is high. Almost any male villager between 16 and 60 years is a (self-declared) jungle guide. The verymost have absolutely no qualification for the job. They have no understanding for the ecosystem, know little about the animals and the plants. It's all about seeing the orangutans and making a few good photos of them. In the case of an accident in the jungle most of these guides certainly wouldn't know what to do.

Not all the inhabitants of the village are living from tourism; many, particularly those in the new village, are working in the plantations.

Exploring the tourist village of Bukit Lawang is a very easy thing. One only needs to follow the river upstream on the only, single path on each side. The track on the right side (riverdownwards) ends much sooner than the track on the other side. Since the flash flood (see below) has altered the river's flow and banks, it's no more possible to go that far upwards than it was in the past. At least not without crossing the river several times.

'Bukit Lawang's new Village' by Asienreisender

Bukit Lawang's new village, a few hundred meters away from the river. It's surrounded by plantations. Image by Asienreisender, 2009

The villagers have an open heart for customers and it is easy to come into talks with them. The restaurants/bars are mostly equipped with local gigolos, who have the very ambition to come in closer contact with the female part of the western visitors. The gigolos are unavoidably also jungle guides in personal union. If one comes in more talk with them, it often turns out that they are trophy collectors. It's about having 'adventures' with western tourists. That fits the taste of not few western complementaries. Sometimes it ends up with a marriage and a journey of the local to a western country. That's the greatest thing for a local womenizer; it's phantastic for his reputation and brings him quite some money respectively commodities. A few years and maybe a baby or two later they usually divorce again and Tarzan has to go back home.

'Bukit Lawang' by Asienreisender

Bukit Lawang. Twenty years ago it was a much smaller place as it is nowadays. Image by Asienreisender, 1995

I have been a couple of times in Bukit Lawang already. Last time I spent some time with a Scottish fellow traveller. He decided to do a two-days jungle treck. When he was back next day, we sat together with his guide and talked a bit. On the guide's proposal we went with him into a bar he recommended. It turned out that it was full with easy girls and a transvestite. The girls joined (uninvited) our table and generously drank our beers. Thank's to them I remained pretty sober this evening. The guide, however, was pretty much in hope to bring us closer together. It's about commissions. I was happy when we left the sad place. My Scottish friend was quite a bit depressed that evening, for he felt dealt bad with in the last two days. If you stick to the wrong people here it can be very disappointing.

Map of Bukit Lawang

'Map of Bukit Lawang' by Asienreisender

A sketch of Bukit Lawang. The upper part of the Bohorok River is seamed with guesthouses, restaurants and tourist shops. The new bus station is now a kilometer outside town, on the road from/to Medan (no more on the map). In the 1990s it was at the spot where the market (M) is now.


Orangutan Station

Little Bukit Lawang is the only sanctuary for Sumatra orangutans on Sumatra what can be visited by the public. It was founded in 1973 by a Swiss scientist and grew quickly up. Allegedly there are around 5,000 of the humanlike apes in these parts of the rainforest. About 200 of them were wildered out here in the rehabilitation center of Bukit Lawang.

'Orangutan Feeding Session | Bukit Lawang | Feeding Platform' by Asienreisender

Feeding time for the orangutans on the feeding platform in the jungle. Image by Asienreisender, 1995

The orangutans are mostly brought here after they have been found illegally kept as pets. Many of them are kids or adolescents when they arrive in Bukit Lawang. First they come under quarantine, because orangutans are the closest relatives of the human species and they can catch human diseases, with with their immune system can not cope. A contageous disease which would spread out here among the last wild living population in the rainforest would be a disaster for the whole species.

The pretty charming apes then learn to live in the forest again and to find their own food. The feeding station serves as an institution to feed the animals until they are able to completely care for themselves. Among the orangs who come to the station are always females with babies, who need additional nutrition for themselves and their babies. They have, by the way, always only a single baby at a time. At the station they get mostly bananas and a fruit-rice-milk pulp. There are two feeding times daily, in the morning and in the afternoon.

The feeding platform in the trees is a short walk from the village upstream the Bohorok River. One has then to cross the river on a simple, small canoe. Entrance is charged, of course, for heads as well as for cameras. The station lies already in the protected part of the national park.

The surrounding forests became saturated with an orangutan population, therefore they don't accept new arrivals. There is another, new quarantine center for orangutans anywhere around Medan, but this center is not open for visitors. A big problem is to find appropriate places for the orangutans in the wilderness, because Sumatra's forests are doomed by grand-style deforestation, and the habitats of all the large mammals are rapidly shrinking.

Orangutans in Bukit Lawang

'Orangutans in Bukit Lawang' by Asienreisender

Orangutans in the rainforests at Bukit Lawang. It was easy to see the apes at the right side of Bohorok River, while I have never seen one appearing on the other side of it.

What you see on the pictures right and bottom is exactly what shouldn't happen. The apes are fed irregularly by some kind of 'guides'. Feeding should be cared for by the feeding station exclusively. The orangs get food twice a day there; for the rest of the day they are wanted to learn to find food sources in the jungle by their own, to learn becomming independendly from the feeding station in long-term. Feeding them irregularly means to teach them begging. 'Guides' do that, of course, for the simple reason to please tourists and help them make the funny fotos.

Images by Asienreisender in the years 1995/1996; photocomposition 2014


Bat Cave

'Inside Bat Cave, Bukit Lawang' by Asienreisender

Bats, hanging under the ceiling of 'Bat Cave'. A strong smell is in this part of the cave. Very few visitors are coming here. Visiting the place several times, I have never met other visitors here.

Following the jungle path further into the forest leads to a small mountain which houses another, much bigger cave. This one has, as I heared, two entrances/exits and is a big labyrinth inside. One can get lost there.

Image by Asienreisender, 1995

Kind of a natural 'sight' a pleasant 30 minutes walk from the village through the green is the majestic 'bat cave'. It's inmiddle of the forest and requires a bit climbing over large rocks and slippery ground. It's quite an 'Indiana Jones' experience to go inside the cave, which is partially huge with hundreds, if not thousands of bats hanging under the rock ceiling. At other parts the cave becomes a small and narrow tunnel. Here and there the ceiling is open and one can see either the sky or the dense green of the grand jungle trees. In the surroundings are often groups of monkeys moving through the treetops. Sometimes there are macaques; mostly I observed langures. The bat cave is a natural highlight of the area; among all the many caves I have seen it's one of the most picturesque.

In the 1990s it wasn't a problem to just go into the cave; in 2009 there was a villager blocking the entrance, charging entrance fee. Certainly he hasn't any legal right, let's say a permission from the local authorities to do that. It's a similar appearance as often seen in Laos, where one is charged at any cave, waterfall, bamboo bridge etc. by ambitious neighbours.

Bat Cave / Bukit Lawang

'Bat Cave Bukit Lawang - Photocomposition' by Asienreisender

Bat cave. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2009/2014


The 2003 Flood Disaster

On November 2nd, 2003, at the worst nighttime around three or four a.m., Bukit Lawang was hit by a mighty flash flood which came down the Bohorok River, out of the jungle. Allegedly the floodwave was 20 meters high. All the buildings along the river banks were destroyed. 239 people lost their lives, more were injured. Bukit Lawang has de facto been wiped out in one violent stroke; only detrital and debris was left of most of the village. The disaster caused a trauma among the surviving villagers which engraved deeply into the local's psyche, comparably to the post-disaster trauma of the people in Pangandaran on Java after the 2006 tsunami there. Also the orangutan rehabilitation center, which feeding station is placed not far away from the river banks, was hit. Whole Bukit Lawang was closed for several months; it was reopened in mid-2004.

'Ariko Inn' by Asienreisender

Ariko Inn, at the top end of the jungle path parallel to the river, situated in a small, hidden valley surrounded by mountains to all sides. The guesthouse's architecture was styled analogue to a Batak ship. The owner and staff there were all Batak People.

Ariko Inn was destroyed in the 2003 flash flood. The little jungle path up to the spot doesn't exist anymore.

Image by Asienreisender, 1996

I never heared what about if orangutans were among the victims of the disaster. Since they use to stay up in the trees, the risk for them was comparably small, so long the sheltering trees weren't close to the river and weren't cracked by all the material what was coming down with the rapid flood. Besides do the animals have a fine sense for dangers and sometimes anticipate them. However, some of the orangutans were kept in quarantine cages and couldn't move. Allegedly none of them was hurt by the flood.

Typically for Southeast Asia, even years after the disaster it wasn't clear what caused the flood and rumours and gossip were going on. Mostly blamed were illegal loggers who supposedly caused a landslide by deforesting slopes higher up at the Bohorok River (in the national park). Another version is that the water riverupwards was queued in a natural way by wood which blocked the natural flow of the water. The water queued and formed a reservoir or little lake. When the water pressure on the wooden barrier became too strong, it broke and released a mudflood together with tons of wood, to which the broken material of the destroyed houses added then. Another version joines both. Illegal loggers had cut thousands of trees and formed a dam on the Bohorok River. They had in mind to transport the trunks later away. After days of heavy rain the weight of the queued water grew so heavy, that it bursted the dam.

The flood also washed out the topsoil of the affected area and changed the local ecology. The established orchards and wet rice cultivation couldn't be recovered after the catastrophe. Partially there was only the stony underground left; the natural recovery of such spots would take a long time, decades at least.

The villagers got compensation promissed, for their losses and a new start. However, as it is typically for Indonesia, the officials who were responsible to distribute the money among the affected people, kept it for themselves. At least that part of the promissed sums who where really given. Politicians are brilliant in making promisses; they are far not so brilliant when it comes to action.

Police and army are also among the profiteers of illegal logging. They are partially directly involved, partially they do nothing to stop the destruction of the forests.


Gunung Leuser National Park

Bukit Lawang means so much as 'gate to the hills'. When coming from the east (Medan) one crosses large plains. The plains end at Bukit Lawang, which borders 'Gunung Leuser National Park', one of the largest natural reserves in Indonesia. It covers almost 8,000km2 and is a national park since 1980, UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra since 2004. Most of the park area is mountainous. It's named after Gunung Leuser (gunung = mountain), who is the tallest mountain in Sumatra (3,466m). The whole mountain scenery is itself part of the Barisan Mountain Chain.

'Gunung Leuser National Park' by Asienreisender

Bohorok River, streaming out of the tropical rainforests of Gunung Leuser National Park. Image by Asienreisender, 2009

Here, in one of the last coherent tropical rainforests of the earth live a great number of rare animals and plants. Among them are large mammals like the Sumatra tiger, the Sumatra rhinoceros, the Sumatra orangutan, the Asian elephant, langures, macaques and many more as well as a lot of birds as eagles and hornbills, together with saltwater crocodiles and other reptiles of a great variety.

This unique biosphere reservat is under severe threat. Every year a great loss of forest happens due to forest fires (arsons). Despite the protection status, large-style (illegal) logging happens. Water degradation happens since the 1990s; areas suffer partly floods, in other times of the year droughts.

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Published on August 12th, 2014