We left Kuala Lumpur and headed for Medan the capital city of North Sumatra. Initially we’d thought about staying in the city to explore for a couple of days, but after some research we decided to go straight to Bukit Lawang for some jungle trekking. Bukit Lawang is a small tourist village spread out along the banks of the river Bahorok in the North of Sumatra. It borders the dense Gunung Leuser National Park. Having been trekking in the jungle in Guatemala and loved it we wanted to experience a few days in the Indonesian jungle. Many years ago there used to be an orang-utan sanctuary in the village meaning that today there is a good population of semi-wild and wild orang-utans in the locality. It is also low season during March and April so we had hoped it wouldn’t be too busy. We really are happiest when off the beaten track away from the tourist trail.
We’d booked our accommodation ‘Brown Bamboo’ via booking.com in advance and through them we’d booked transport from Medan airport to the hotel for £25. The cost for the room was only £5 per night (we didn’t expect much!). Our flight was on time and we landed in Medan excited to head to the jungle. We had some issues getting past immigration. They wanted evidence on paper of all flights we would be taking within Indonesia and evidence that we had flights booked to leave the country within 30 days. With an EU passport you don’t need to apply for a visa before entering the country and visiting is free for tourists for up to 30 days. Because we hadn’t had any issues entering Nepal or Malaysia we weren’t prepared. They held my passport until I could provide all the information! So be organised and save yourself time and stress by having that information ready!
After finally getting through immigration we quickly found our driver which was a relief! He was lovely and we headed off on what would be a 5 hour drive. It was very humid and luckily the car had decent air-con. The first half of the journey took us through Medan city. The roads were as mad there as in Nepal. It was a bit of a culture shock for both of us; bursting full of people, and small tin shacks cramped together with many tiny shops, mostly selling sim cards! It made us glad we hadn’t decided to stay. The driver stopped at a little road side cafe that he trusted for tourists and we had chicken and rice. We felt like total aliens but the staff were friendly and the food was nice.
The second half of the journey involved dirt tracks that got more and more bumpy and dusty as we crossed into many many (too many) miles of palm oil tree plantations. It was sad to see. Then finally JUNGLE! As we got closer so did the thunder and lightning. We got to Brown Bamboo at 11pm and Jay from Sumatra jungle adventure greeted us to talk through the plan for the trek the next day. Given how late it was this was a nice touch. The ‘hotel’ was an interesting place with a nice wooden dining area and rooms leading off the side in a little block. It was very basic with a half open top bathroom (not for the faint hearted) and just a small fan in the room for ventilation, but the bed was incredibly comfortable and had a decent mosquito net. It took a while to adjust to the heat and humidity but once we did we slept like babies.
Day 2- Jungle trek day 1
We got up early to sort out our gear, most of our stuff would be left behind at the hotel to await our return. In fact we managed to fit what we needed into our small 20l hand luggage bags (this was impressive!) Ando and Tyson our guides came to Brown Bamboo to introduce themselves along with Agus the chef (who soon disappeared). Having booked the trek online from home they sorted out our permits to enter the jungle and we paid up! We’d booked online without having to pay anything so had been a little bit concerned that it wouldn’t happen! All was well. Off we went already struggling with the humidity. We walked through a rubber plantation, this was quite fascinating to see, and neither of us had realised that rubber even came from trees!
Very soon into the trek we realised that even in low season the jungle was full of guides and groups of tourists. Although Ando told us that most of them would be doing a half day tour and that after day 1 it would get far quieter. It didn’t take much walking before we came across some Thomas leaf monkeys playing in the trees, and not far from there we saw our first orang-utans!! In fact we saw 7 different orang-utans on day 1- Woah!
We had a little break and Tyson got out an exotic variety of local fruit. The trek was difficult in places, we hadn’t realised how hilly the jungle would be. It was a day spent climbing up and down hills of rocks, tree roots and mud. We could see the sky getting darker and darker and then the rain came. Luckily it was a little shower that provided some relief from the humidity and it didn’t last long. After 6-7 hours trekking the river came into view as did camp. Camp was VERY basic.
We were actually taken aback by how basic. We’d expected at least a tent. It was a wooden frame with no front, covered in plastic tarpaulin. With the thinnest sleeping mats we’d ever seen placed over bumpy rocky ground, finished off with a mosquito net that had seen better days. Too hot to care we changed into our swimming gear and jumped in the river. It was blissful! As we sat cooling down in the water we saw a large monitor lizard a few meters away fishing!
Dinner was absolutely delicious. Agus had greeted us as we’d arrived at camp with a big pot of tea and had spent a few hours cooking up a delight on an open fire. We sat on the riverbank together and had a variety of curries and tasty sides. We played cards and chatted with the guides until bed beckoned. We patched up the holes in the net as best we could with our gear and tried to sleep. It was so uncomfortable on the back that neither of us slept much at all. I felt a little anxious as it felt like a vulnerable position to be in with so much wildlife out there including tigers! During the night we’d had a candle at our side but it was knocked over by a giant moth. Luckily this woke me up from dozing so I could put out the little fire that had started to burn on the ground!
Day 3- Jungle trek day 2
After a very poor night we were up early eager to stretch out our sore bodies! During the night some very large bites had appeared on my thigh. That felt like acid was burning my skin at the same time as being incredibly itchy. My thigh rapidly grew as it swelled up and spread to the back of my other leg! Agus made a tasty omelette for breakfast and we set off for day 2.
As we set off we walked upstream in the river for half an hour. This was fun and very cooling for our hot bodies. We trekked for a total of 7 hours with a few breaks at the top of particularly steep hills. The humidity made it tough going. It felt like we were going in circles up and down and up and down steep hills and because of the rain the day before it was slippery and muddy. But we really enjoyed ourselves. We only bumped into two other groups of tourists in the whole day. We saw lots more orang-utans. We’d been made aware that we may see Jackie and her baby (one of the ex sanctuary orang-utans) and that she likes to hug people especially white people! so we’d have to avoid her as its bad for us and for them with a risk of transmitting diseases to each other.
The bites on my legs got progressively worse. During one of our breaks I opened my bag to get my water out and a very large caterpillar came wriggling out. Tyson said that was what had poisoned my skin. That the hairs on its body are toxic and that they were probably still sticking to my trousers spreading the inflammation further down my leg. He cut up the caterpillar and rubbed its insides all over my sore skin!? By this point I was desperate! (It didn’t help!) As we approached camp for night 2 we saw a greater hornbill, and again the rain came. Again it didn’t last long and as we planned on jumping in the river as soon as we could we didn’t care about getting wet.
Camp 2 was even more basic than camp 1. The views of the jungle and the river were spectacular but it was the same painfully thin sleeping mats with the same poor mosquito net, only this time where the ‘hut’ was there were thousands of termites. We sorted it out and moved things around but weren’t too impressed. We really love to embrace nature. we don’t care about using the ‘jungle toilet’ (find a spot in the jungle and use it!) with no expectations being deep in the jungle other than perhaps having a tent that you can close to sleep in! (like we did in Guatemala). Tired from no sleep the night before we felt a little grumpy at this point. But the river cheered us up. We swam and played in the water until it clouded over again and we got out to get dry before it rained. Ando had found me leaves from a plant to rub on my sore legs. It seemed to take the edge of a little.
Agus cooked up another feast and we ate together before heading to bed. During the night I started to feel unwell and didn’t sleep at all, lying there waiting for dawn! I saw rats the size of a small dog, one tried to get inside our mosquito net and was not scared when I tried to stop it! But we survived.
Day 4- Jungle trek day 3
I felt very sick and had a sore tummy by the time we got up. Therefore decided against having any breakfast. We packed up and Tyson had carried some large rubber rings up from a large camp we had passed downstream from ours the night before. This was so that we could ‘tub’ back to Bukit Lawang. They tied the tubs together, put all our gear in plastic bags and off we sailed! What fun we had! Using bamboo canes to steer us we tubbed down rapids, and rough waters around big boulders and along nice quiet stretches all the way back to Bukit Lawang with captain Agus at the helm! It took around 1 hour and was really good fun. It was just a shame that I felt like I may explode at any moment as tummy cramps set in.
The rest of the day had to be spent in or around Brown Bamboo as I needed to be within meters of the toilet. This was interesting as the toilet needed refilling with water from a very weak flowing pipe every time you flushed! I had trusted the water they provided. That was a mistake. They boiled it on the fire but I guess not for long enough to kill all the bugs. I had a very uncomfortable day. Poor Pato had a boring time around the hotel with me. Although after all the trekking our bodies were happy to relax. Luckily we had books with us.
We’d noticed that everyone seemed to be ultra happy in Bukit Lawang, it almost felt like we were in the Truman show… to the point that we started to feel a little suspicious!! Every Saturday they have a big get together where the whole village go and party. We saw them driving the large PA system past and were quite sad that my tummy wasn’t up to going. It sounded like good fun. There was a very big thunderstorm that night with some really heavy downpours of rain. It was fun to sit and watch from the dining area using some wifi (until the power cut!). We headed to bed feeling warm and weak.
Day 5- Bukit Lawang to Medan
There is a cheap daily tourist minibus that leaves Bukit Lawang at 7:30am. However after a night mostly spent in the toilet for me, we decided to book private transport for later in the day. We had decided to change our plans having spoken to some locals about Medan city and having driven through it on day 1, we really didn’t want to go into the city that night as first planned. We found a transit hotel ‘Thongs Inn’ on the edge of the city where we could go for the night before our flight the next day.
Brown Bamboo staff helped us book transport for £25 again. (we soon realised this was expensive but it was too late!) We explored Bukit Lawang on foot finding the people very welcoming and friendly until our transport arrived at 2pm. We had what can only be described as a terrifying experience being driven to Medan. The driver must have been at the party the night before and could barely keep his eyes open. There were times when we thought we were going to crash. He chain smoked, talked on the phone, blasted music and still his eyelids kept closing. We got to Medan in 5 hours! We were so relieved to get to our hotel alive we didn’t care where we were! In fact the hotel was lovely. Very surreal but a lovely oasis in the madness of Medan. It felt like an army barracks in a way; contained within tall white walls a new build modern hotel set in pretty landscaped gardens full of creepy statues of angry looking animal/human hybrids!!
Day 6- Medan to Padang
We slept really well thoroughly enjoying the air con and having hot showers, and the free airport shuttle was prompt in the morning. Off we flew to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.
We arrived at Padang airport and got an airport taxi into the city. We arrived at our homestay in a residential area feeling lost. There was no sign that the house was a homestay and we ended up having to call the owner as the gate was locked. Luckily the taxi driver hadn’t been wrong and it was the right place! It was evening time so we decided to find the local shopping mall and find something to eat. Walking the short distance to the shops we felt safe. It was a more developed, cleaner city than Medan.
I decided to have a look on Trip Advisor for any packages for days out in the area to make the most of our very limited time. Luckily for us I found ‘Padang private driver’. Within minutes I had organised a day out exploring West Sumatra by van. We’d be picked up at 8am sharp.
Day 7- West Sumatra
Doni our driver was early, and sadly I had had a recurrence of the awful stomach I’d picked up in the jungle overnight. In fact I felt so bad I very nearly stayed behind. But, not wanting to miss our only day in West Sumatra I dosed up on medication and we headed out. Doni was lovely and we instantly felt at ease. We soon realised the roads were far calmer in this part of Indonesia so could relax and enjoy watching the scenery go by. We let Doni chose the itinerary for the day having chosen to see the countryside instead of the city. It was a very long day of driving but it was utterly worth it. We left the city behind us and travelled through luscious green rice paddies up into the mountains to Lake Maninjau a stunning crater lake.
Traveling on to Bukittinggi the third largest city in Sumatra, high up in the mountains, where we stopped for lunch at a typical local Indonesian restaurant. It was delicious, although we were startled at first when the waiters brought out fifteen different dishes at once! This is called Nasi Padang and is a typical Sumatran way of eating. You get a big bowl of rice and many many small dishes and you pick and choose what you want. They charge you for what you eat and take the rest away. They also provide a glass of warm water, although we found it too strange to drink, while Doni found it weird that we didn’t drink it!
With full tummies we continued on to Ngarai Sianok Canyon. There we stopped and walked to find several different waterfalls. The canyon was stunning as a back drop to more bright green rice paddies. The locals were friendly, and we starred in my many photographs with local families. It was a long journey back to our homestay with Doni stopping at all the best places to take good photos. A full day exploring West Sumatra had been a good decison, although it did feel a little strange not to have time to see the city itself. The owner of the homestay was friendly and it was comfortable enough, though it did feel a little strange being in someone’s house. We had an early flight to Bali the following morning so we decided to head to bed, tummies still full from lunch. Excited to be heading to Bali, and to our friends house in Candidasa the next day.