I had a lot of anxiety about choosing our jungle trekking guide. A guide is required to go hiking in Bukit Lawang, so it is a bit of a racket for the young men- and, surprisingly, some women- of the town. Everyone is constantly asking if you have a guide; even if you say yes, they want to know who your guide is and they might even still try to put on the pressure to defect from an already-booked tour. We had met a couple in Lake Toba who recommended a guide they used and gave us his info and how to reach him. It took a bit of wrangling to track him down, but we decided to go with Amin (from Sam’s Bungalows, if you’re shopping around) because we heard he spoke good English, was fun and knowledgeable and we really had nothing else to go on. We met several other guides who could have been fine, but after our miserable experience in Tana Toraja, we didn’t want to get stuck on an overnight hike with a dud. I was actually in knots the rest of the evening before our hike because I wasn’t sure if we made the right decision. Spoiler alert: everything was fine and Amin proved a great guide.
Leaving Bukit Lawang
Here are the things we heard about Bukit Lawang:
-It is crawling with tourists and the town lacks character
-Guides will feed the orangutans for the benefit of tourists, leading to all kinds of problems like shared diseases and aggressive animal behavior.
-The trails are overcrowded with tourists, creating a Disney-fied jungle experience
-It is next to impossible to spot wild orangutans due to the heavy traffic and abundance of ‘semi-wild’ animals who have been rehabilitated by humans
Here’s what we thought of it:
– The town is charming, small, spread out along the river and very atmospheric. Every hotel had hammocks and river views and there were no bars or clubs. Is it touristy? Yes, but that’s because it has all the amenities that tourists want. I am past the need for authenticity at the cost of dingy rooms, fleas, and no real sights of interest. We stayed at a ‘tourist’ hotel, but chatted nightly with the friendly local owner and the young men that worked for him. We had electricity for only a few hours each evening and no hot water. It’s not like we were enveloped in a sanitized place, but it probably was better than the locals had it and I was okay with that- I’m the one on vacation.
DISCLAIMER: We were there outside of the high season, so the town was very quiet and we were the only ones staying at our hotel most of the time we were there. Perhaps just going out of season is enough to make the town palatable to people who are turned off by crowds.
-Many guides do feed the orangutans, which is expressly prohibited outside of the feeding platform. They do it because it makes tourists happy, they do it because they have always done it, we were even told that they do it to ‘protect’ tourists from orangutans that had become used to being fed and would attack hikers if they weren’t given food. We saw a flaw in that logic, but it didn’t seem to concern any of the guides. Our guide did not participate in the feeding, but he also didn’t admonish the guys who were doing it. I kind of suspect that it’s all arranged so that guides with appalled Westerners don’t have to take the blame for interacting with wildlife like that, but if their guests are happy with the photo ops and close contact, then they can ride on that enthusiasm.
-The first 2 hours of our hike were spent in the company of other tourists. The one-day hike + tubing package is one of the most popular options and there are only so many trails within a 2 hour hike of town. Once we got past that mark, we didn’t see another soul……
-Except for plenty of gibbons, Thomas leaf monkeys, and, yes, two wild orangutans. Yes, they are there and they are wild. The farther you are from town, the better your odds of seeing the wild ones, but nothing is guaranteed in Bukit Lawang or any other area in Gunung Leusar National Park (where the orangutans live). There are also elephants and tigers in the park, but these are almost never spotted by tourists, no matter how remote and ‘untouristy’ a place claims to be.
A rubber tree
Thomas Leaf monkey
But what I really want to talk about is the ‘semi-wild’ orangutans that some tourists find so disdainful as if there are not still powerful, aggressive, blood-thirsty animals. Perhaps I exaggerate, but it did not feel that way when I was being chased by them. In the first 3 hours of our hike, in addition to bumping into plenty of other tourists, we also encountered three separate sets of mother-and-baby ‘semi-wild- orangutans. Let me tell you, they are still pretty impressive up close despite being ‘semi-tame’ and they are not tame enough to not bite.
The most famous of the female orangutans that we met that day was Minna, who has a record of attacking and biting over 80 people. There is a backstory of her losing a baby at one point and ‘blaming’ humans for it, which is why she likes to bite them, but I suspect it has to do more with all the bananas in the guides’ pockets. We were supposed to maintain something like 5 meters from the orangutans when we ran into them, and were expected to back slowly and calmly away if they closed the distance. The comedy of it is that, with a seasoned ‘semi-wild’ animal like Minna, she’ll just keep coming at whoever she feels like until she is satisfied either with the effects of her intimidation, or, ore frequently, by a mango handout. I won’t lie, my heart started racing each time Minna made strides in my directions, especially as our guide kept commanding ‘Move! Move! Move! But DON’T run!’. My constitution is too delicate for a primate bite to the posterior.
The guides bought her off with a carrot
We did the same routine twice more when female orangutans would descent from trees along the trails- clearly sitting in wait for us- and do a kind of slow motion charge. One orangutan forced us all the way down a vine-covered hill and into a small creek at the base, where Amin splashed at the water vigorously, explaining that she was afraid of the water. I stood in the middle of the stream up to my ankles in the stuff, wondering if it would be enough; meanwhile, R coolly strolled down the hill behind the primate, who had split our group up. He was aware and alert, but not the slightest bit concerned. It was very reminiscent of our trip to Komodo Island when he got down on one knee to pose with the monsters while I was quite content to watch from about 50 feet away.
A lady who knows what she wants: the orangutan grabs the arm of a fellow hiker
The last encounter came when we had fallen into line with a group of about 5 tourists and their guide. Once again, the female orangutan clambered down a tree out of nowhere and came right up to our group. She got so close that she actually grabbed the forearm of a guy in the other group and led him around like a rag-doll He was rightfully concerned about what to do and the guides said ‘You just have to follow her’, which would have made me pee my pants. At several points, she stopped and bared her teeth, making to bite this guy’s arm and was only stopped by our two guides waving their arms and making noises to distract her. Finally, with the aid of a banana, she released the man’s arm and climbed up the tree. We were all relieved that the situation had ended so peacefully until the orangutan started shrieking and breaking off twigs and small branches and throwing them at the ground. We were growing uneasy again until one of the guides discovered that a large tortoise was moving slowly through the grass beneath the tree. Apparently orangutans hate tortoises because they move funny and look weird and the orangs have no idea what is going on with them. It was definitely a tension-breaker and a valuable lesson to get out of tricky situations: just carry a turtle.
Scary, isn’t it?