A Guide to Trekking in Sumatra, Indonesia

Sumatra is the ideal place to discover the incredible biodiversity of Indonesia, off the beaten path. The largest island in Indonesia, Sumatra also offers great opportunities for authentic cultural experiences, and plenty of adventure.

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Skip touristy Bali in favor of trekking through the jungle to spot orangutans, tubing through whitewater rapids, and sharing a smile with the friendly locals.

Discover Bukit Lawang

In the heart of Gunung Leuser National Park, on the banks of the Bahorok River, Bukit Lawang is a small tourist village in North Sumatra. The area became a popular place to visit after an orangutan rehabilitation center was opened here in 1973. Soon after, in spite of the winding five-hour drive from the Sumatran capital, Medan, travelers started to come to the village to spot the semi-wild orangutans who live in the national park.

Today, Bukit Lawang is a bustling tourist village with many hotels, restaurants, and handicraft shops. It’s also the base for many of the orangutan treks which leave daily, so it’s easy to book a tour.

Tip: There are no ATMs in Bukit Lawang, so make sure to get money out in Medan.

Bukit Lawang Village, Sumatra. Photo Credit: iStock.com/mazzzur

Trekking for Orangutans

Treks to see Sumatran Orangutans are the main drawcard for travelers visiting Sumatra; once widespread in Indonesia, there are now less than 15,000 Sumatran Orangutans left in the wild.

Classified as critically endangered, orangutans are on the edge of extinction due to rainforest deforestation from the palm oil plantations and an illegal black-market trade.

Thanks to the work of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, the orangutans who call Gunung Leuser National Park home are protected.

Trekking in Sumatra. Photo credit: iStock.com/Davor Lovincic

Many tour companies in Bukit Lawang offer one-day or multi-day orangutan treks. When choosing a tour operator, look for an eco-friendly company that don't feed the orangutans and follows the “leave no trace” principles of trekking.

Most of the orangutans you’ll see are semi-wild, but you may get lucky and spot a wild one. While many of the orangutans will beg for food, it's vital not to feed the animals.

Jungle Trekking and River Rafting

Orangutans aren't the only animals you’ll spot in the jungle of Gunung Leuser National Park. The national park is also home to Thomas’s leaf monkeys, macaques and gibbons. While extremely rare to spot, Sumatran tigers, Javan rhinoceros and Sumatran elephants, also live here.

To truly explore the beauty of the rainforest, book a multi-day jungle trek; you’ll see a lot more orangutans, and have a better chance of spotting other wildlife, like monkeys, birds, lizards, and more, the further you trek into the lush green jungle alive with the songs of birds and insects.

During multi-day jungle treks, you’ll camp along the trails and the river in a tent. Your guides will provide you with homecooked food and water throughout the trek. Be prepared to eat lots of fresh tropical fruit!

Thomas's Leaf Monkey in Sumatra. Photo credit: iStock.com/Rosie Young

Most tour companies will camp along the Bahorok River in tents and gear provided by the tour company before returning back to Bukit Lawang by river tube (inflatable rings that float on the water).

Your guides will tie large rubber tubes together and guide you through the small white-water rapids. While it takes about six hours to reach your jungle camp on foot, it only takes about 20 minutes by river tube. 

Local Encounters and Cultural Experiences

Locals in Northern Sumatra, especially in Bukit Lawang, are very friendly. The village thrives on tourism and many locals speak good English. Sumatra is primarily a Muslim island, so it’s important to dress conservatively and respect local religious customs.

Many tour companies in Bukit Lawang and elsewhere offer cultural tours to nearby villages to see how locals farm brown sugar, tofu, rice, and rubber. The village women will happily show you how they weave bamboo for their houses, and don’t miss the chance to visit the local markets for fresh produce, handicrafts, and more.  

Want to know more about Indonesia? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. With around 17,000 islands to choose from, where are the must visits, and if you have your surfboard, best surf breaks? Hear the tale of a man chased by headhunters, and tips for traveling the world solo.

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