Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bukit Lawang: On the Edge of the Jungle

Bukit Lawang is a village in North Sumatra.  It's located on the edge of Gunung Leseur National Park and is a destination due to the success of its orang-utan rehabilitation program and its proximity to both river and jungle.

After an early morning flight to Medan, a dusty, traffic-choked city, we made our way by becak (Indonesian tuk-tuk) to the hectic bus depot street.  Organizing a ride was slightly challenging, but we managed to get ourselves (and our bags) onto a public mini-van going in the general direction of Bukit Lawang.

Preparing for a 3 to 4 hour drive on pock-marked roads, we made sure to snag a seat together in the front (leg room!).  These shared vans ideally sit about 10, but Sumatrans are pragmatic souls and regularly cram about 15 humans into these rambling death traps.

We swerved, bumped, and clattered through the countryside.  What was dense, old-growth rainforest a mere decade ago, was now primly cleared and plotted to make way for palm oil plantations.  The frenetic pace of deforestation in Indonesia is unrelenting as both the demand for processed foods containing palm oil (nearly half of the products in the average consumer's shopping bag) and the demand for biodiesel increase.

The van slowly let off one passenger at a time as we moved from claustrophobic urban sprawl to roadside villages and neatly coiffed plantations.  Around two hours into the trip (86 km), it was suddenly just the two of us and our driver was pulling up to a decrepit gas station inhabited by a herd of louche young cowboys with earnestness and sincerity emblazoned across their million-dollar grins.  We were ushered out of the van, unsure and stiff, but relieved to be off the road. 

After another jaunty motorbike ride for a km or so, we were plopped down in Bukit Lawang proper.  To get to the quieter (and arguably nicer) end of the town, we hauled our bags along the riverside path, eye-balling our new, lush surroundings.

The town of Bukit Lawang consists of wooden structures built up along the rocky banks of the Bahorok River.  At one time, it was supposedly quite the happening place (the story of Sumatra).  Full of backpackers and booze-soaked revelry, with guesthouses sprouting on top of each other.  However, after a devastating flash flood in 2003, which wiped out most of the infrastructure built along the river (35 hotels and guesthouses, 8 bridges, 3 mosques, 400 homes, and 280 food stands and restaurants) as well as killing 239 people, Bukit Lawang has a more staid, sleepier vibe about it.  

From your guesthouse veranda, one can gaze across the river into the towering jungle canopy.  Troops of macaques patrol the riverbanks and gibbons can sometimes be spotted swinging from branch to branch in the upper reaches.

At the far end of town, just a minutes' walk to the Gunung Leseur National Park entrance, we stayed at Sam's Place and would highly recommend this family-run guesthouse.  We loved the easy river access and the fact that on the days we didn't trek we could swim and relax in the water with not another soul in sight.

Our friend at Sam's (above) and her pet lizard (below).

While most of the food we had in Bukit Lawang was nothing to write home about (read= typical tourist fare), we did enjoy our guest-house's grub.  Below is the ubiquitous Gado Gado (tofu salad with peanut sauce) and "Jungle Food", a helping of whatever was prepared for the kitchen staff's meal that day.  Noodles, crispy baby fish, rice, and a fiery sambal. 

We also had a few good meals and good times next door at The Jungle Inn.  Make sure to take a dip in their on-premises waterfall. Below is their colorful rendition of Muesli with Fruit.

Bukit Lawang (Practical Info.):
Onwards to Bukit Lawang: Flight to Medan from Banda Aceh on Garuda Airlines @ 11:30 am (Rp. 450,000 each ticket). (Can also take a night bus to Medan) When we arrived in Medan, walked out of Polonia Airport past taxi touts and took a becak to Bus Station (Rp.50,000). Grabbed a public shared van at station (we overpaid Rp.50,000 per person, should be about Rp.30,000) to Bukit Lawang.  Essential to grab the front seat as vans are crowded and uncomfortable. Expect a 2 to 3.5 hr journey depending on traffic.

Arrive in Bukit Lawang Bus Station. Take a becak one km into town proper (Rp. 10,000). Stayed at Sam’s Place (Rp.80,000 per night for nice bungalow with private, open-air bathroom and fantastic view of towering jungle canopy). Long walk as it’s near the national park entrance, but highly recommended. Take a jungle trek (Rp.300,000 for one day) – orang-utans are plentiful! 

No comments: