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Here are a set of very informative posts on Northern Sumatra that should be valuable for future travellers there.
by: dportal

wild orangutan with package or not?

Hi there,

I am planning a trip to Northern Sumatra to see wild orangutans (Bukit Lawang) and visit the elephant sanctuary at Tangkahan. For what I could see, there's two options that seem to differ in price.
One is to book a package tour with two guides, 1 night in the jungle, total 6D5N for some EUR 450, and the other is to arrive in Medan and find your way to Ketambe, via Kutacane and hire (?) a guide there.

My questions are:
Is this second option viable? I cannot really spend any more days than 6 incl arrival and departure days.
Can you arrange the same kind of experience (jungle trek, visit to Tangkahan) arriving on your own?
How safe is the region, in general?

by: pPamela


Hi Daniel,

I am a little confused by what you have written.
Wild orangutans are not found in Bukit Lawang- even the ones you will see out in the jungle are some of the rehabilitated ones.
Wild orangutans can be seen in Ketambe, but because they are wild animals there is NO guarantee you will see one.

In Bukit Lawang you will usually see at least one orangutan- even if it is just one across the river walking as you sit in the restaurant of Jungle Inn.
Also there are feeding times at the platform ( you get a smallboat across the river) where the orangutans are fed- times are 9am and about 3-3.30pm.

Now please do NOT go on any package tours for either of these areas- as a backpacker traveller that sort of money is just over the top- it is definitely not necessary.
I, as a solo female traveller have been to all the areas by myself ( and with no Indonesian language skills) as part of my 5.5 month trip through Indonesia in 2006.
Never once did I have any problems with anyone- it is safe and everyone was very courteous and helpful. I even entertained the buses drivers at Pinang Baris bus station ( lots of laughing, gesturing and the odd indonesian word) at the coffee warung for 30 minutes whilst I waited for my bus.
And everyone thinks Medan so bad, but it can be fun, despite the heat and pollution etc.

To get to Bukit Lawang you can get a big bus ( 4 hr trip ) from the Pinang Baris bus terminal or go up the road 1km and outside the Mawar cake shop you can get a mini bus to BL ( 2.5-3 hr trip).
Here is a photo of the unmarkled bus terminal
The green bus in the photo is
He usually leaves about 7am and can get to BL in about 2.5 hrs.
The road from Medan to Bukit Lawang is currently being repaired an election promise from the new Governor of North Sumatra who was born in BL, so your trip may even be quicker now.
I saw the road repairs happening at the beginning of May and other travellers have informed they are continuing.

In Bukit Lawang you have many options of where to stay- check out an Aussie guy Scott's website on accomodation in Bukit Lawang
I love staying at Rain Forest Nora's family's new accomodation, but there are loads to choose from. But do try to stay up along the pathway to Jungle Inn- this is where all the action is these days. Make sure you bring a good strong torch with batteries because the electricity after Rain Forest is generator driven and can cut out anytime.
Re: Treks- You can go on a day trek or maybe an overnight trek. Both are reasonably expensive compared to other parts of Indonesia so make sure you take plenty of money with you- no banks in BL.
My trek in 2005
More information on Bukit Lawang can be found here is an updated version of the old Flood Appeal Site from years ago.
Finally here are some Blogs on Bukit Lawang definitely worth reading.

From Bukit Lawang you can hire an ojek ( motorbike and rider) to take you down to Tangkahan- a 2 hr rough motor bike trip - I personally love it it is really an adventure for sure. This year I did it the other way from Tangkahan to Bukit Lawang and boy is it rough- but enjoyable.
I have been writing about Tangkahan since I went there in September 2006- it is indeed a paradise in the jungle and such a great contrast to BL.
But not better than BL just different.
Garuda Inflight Magazine had a great article on Tangkahan in their April issue when I flew from Sydney to Jakarta and then I was lucky enough to find it here

Here is also a report I wrote on another forum on Tangkahan Report
PLEASE NOTE THE PRICE FOR THE MOTOR BIKE TRIP IS NOW 150,000- a small increase since my first visit 2 yrs ago.
If you do not wish to go to Tangkahan by motor bike ask one of the guys at Jungle Inn and a jeep can be arranged, but it is about 400,000 rupiah- fairly expensive and I would say you will be thrown around a lot- for me the bike is the best way to go.

If you do not wish to go back to BL to get back to Medan you can get a bus from Tangkahan back to Medan about 5-6 hr trip.
Not many buses leave from Tangkahan so I suggest you get another ojek ( 20 minutes) to Simpang Robert where a lot more buses leave from.
if you are going to do the ojek trips suggest you leave any big backpacks in Medan and only take a small managable pack. ( I always do that- that rough trip to Tangkahan is best done with minimum luggage.)
In Tangkahan there are 3 accomodation places across the river namely Mega Inn -Mega an English speaking guide has about 6+ very nice bungalows for rent now, then further along the path there is Bambu River, and finally along the path the one place I have stayed at twice now is Jungle Lodge.
I believe there is some sort of accomodation this side of the river, but if you really really want to support the locals please get the ferry across and stay at one of the 3 places on the other side of the river.
An interesting blog about Tangkahan and the Elephants from a traveller called Wendy.

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Hi Daniel,
Now if you want to skip BL and Tangkahan, you can go to Kutacane and then to Ketambe.
Have you seen this relatively new Ketambe website?
You can fly from Medan to Kutacane and then get the bus or taxi up to Ketambe about 1hr away.
The problem with flying is that the tickets are usually sold out. You need to buy the air ticket at the airport from the SMAC counter.
If you had had more time in North Sumatra like 10 days I would have suggested you buy your ticket in advance and then check out BL and Tangkahan and then back to Medan to fly to Kutacane, but alas you do not have the time to do the both areas in my opinion- too much rushing around.
The flight time is about 20 minutes compared to about 7-8 hrs on the bus as long as nothing goes wrong. Nothing ever seems to go wrong on my bus trips, but heaps of other travellers have untold trouble with buses breaking down etc.
Places to stay in Ketambe include Pak Mus where I have stayed and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Pak now has about 3 new bungalows and the one up the hill has been repaired and is being rented out now.
It has the most spectacular views of the river etc - just to die for. Sadly it was in a state of disrepair when I was there in 2006.
And this year I did not get back to Ketambe because I got sick and could not face two 8 hr buses trips over 3 days ( the flights had not resumed by beginning of May)

Sadar Wisata photo is very lovely to stay at and they have an excellent restaurant with great food.
Here is the Lily Pond Sadar Wisata and a view of 'beach' and this one at back of Sadar Wisata.

I have not stayed at the new place Friendship Guesthouse, so cannot comment.
If you go, suggest you do the over night trek up to the hot springs lovely are to visit- staying overnight in a tent- more modern version one than what is used in BL.
You get to camp near the hot springs, lay on the hot stones, sit by the river, eat great Indonesian food cooked by your guide- life can't get much better.
Photos of the trekking area - and here

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by: dportal


I can't even begin to express my gratitude. You should organize these trips!

Your reply answered my question, but also raised others.

My main goal is to see orangutans. Ketambe seems great, though I'm afraid that I don't have much time left for delays, so that worries me about going that way.

I would need to land (8:30AM Air Asia from KL) and get on my transportation right away (how often do they run?) to make it to the guesthouses that day.
Unless I can get on the plane. Do they flight in November?
Can I buy my ticket in advance? Plus according to the Ketambe web page ( they only fly Wed and Sat leaving at 6:45AM, so I'd miss it.

Also, if I understood correctly, Ketambe is wild orangutans, while BL is rehab orangutan (guaranteed) but you can also go to Tangkahan.
Now, this place looks awesome to relax, but is it worth it to see the elephants?
Are they just work elephants that you can get close to or are they "rehab" elephants?
Finally, Is november too rainy? are the roads passable?
What is the malaria situation? Do you recommend taking drugs for it?
I wish I could hire YOU to come with me! lol
You have absolutely no idea how much I appreciate your help
by: dportal


Can you go from Ketambe to Tangkahan without going back to medan?
Can't find it in a map...

by: Edwricepatty


This response by Ppamela is a great public service. I was in BL just over a yr ago and wish I knew all this before I went.
If you are taller than about 5'2" you should take that green van.
I didn't even know it was available and took the bus. The seats are so close together than I was really uncomfortable all the way and esp bouncing over the non-road (and I usu. never complain about anything in travel).
I did take a van back from Lake Toba to Medan and they stuffed it with about 50% more humans than it was designed for and I had freight a foot deep under my feet and the so-called express we paid for stopped for any person along the road - makin trip that should have been a couple of hours extend to nearly 5 hours.
by: pPamela


So pleased my information helped you. I nearly died when I had finished and it was THAT long, but I thanked my lucky starts I did not lose it like I have been doing lately with other posts on this new computer of mine.
Will get back to you in the next post with some more info'

I am surprised you did not read about the green van before or at least the unmarked mini bus terminal, because I am always writing about them as an option, to catching the big slow buses.
I made sure I got that photo in 2006 when I was in BL for 5 weeks and kept going back and forwards to Medan from BL.
I mention the green bus because the driver is excellent- drives fast, but knows what he is doing. On one occasion in Oct 2006 I got back to Nora's in the village over the bad road in just 2.5 hrs.
I had no idea the seats were larger as I have only ever sat in the front with the driver and those seats are always comfortable and one as curious as me can see what is going on.

by: mdesilets

To get some really helpful information, you should contact Helen Buckland at the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS). They even organise trips and the funds raised go back into conservation rather than into the hands of tour operators.
You may also be interested to see orangutans, both wild and rehabs, with the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in East Kalimantan. Their eco-lodge situated right in the grounds of the Samboja Lestari Project (a reforestation project with 250+ orangutans and 50+ sun bears) also puts money back into conservation. Excursions to see orangutans and other wildlife in the wild are available. or
Don't forget to offset your carbon footprint for this trip. Use any carbon calculator and then why not send the money to offset to either SOS or BOS for reforestation or forest protection efforts!

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by: pPamela


Hi Daniel,
Do the trip yourself- all those organized trips cost an absolute over the top fortune when you know how little everything does cost in reality.

Your chances of seeing orangutans are not guaranteed in Ketambe- I only saw one on the trek I went on with Pak Mus and the sighting was on my way back.
I remembering having a conversation with the orangutan and telling him or her I was not happy having to wait for 2 days and they had better do something spectacular for me.
With the orangutan swung himself across the trees above the road and back again like he was performing for me- it was incredible and gave me such a great memory.
Sadly he was too far up to really photograph properly and only cast a shhadow in my photo, but the sighting was exciting after a two day hunt.

Then two days later in Ketambe, Yan Faisal a guide friend of mine from Medan turned up with 4 travellers and they saw 4 orangutans on their second day of trekking and got back in the dark because they stayed so long to watch them in action. So you never know.

RedApe who used to post on this forum for years wrote a wonderful report about seeing a lot of orangutans in Ketambe in August 2005 during the fruit season.
Here is the 2005 Ketambe Report
Please note the prices quoted will be way out now ( report date 2005) and there are no letters of permission etc required for Aceh now.
However, a note of caution for anyone reading this post -do not mention to any authority organsiations you are going to Aceh- not to anyone nor put any mention on your application for 60 day visas.

Daniel, not sure if the flights will still be happening in November because I am not sure when the contract ends.
The new flight contract began about 9th May this year- I missed out by one week.
You could try to email the guy on the website and see if he knows anything ( no guarantee here though, because he did not even know he had the wrong airline name up, until I contacted him with the correct one.)
You could try to phone Badaruddin who has the Friendship Guesthouse and has a friend at the airport. His number is +6285296883624

Travelling in Aceh from late October till mid November 2006 was not a problem with the weather- it was actually fine most of the time- one or two days of rain- not all day and when Pak Mus and I were trekking it rained the whole night, but was fine the next day.
You can see by my photos that the weather was fantastic- look at those blue skies and fluffy white clouds- such beauty.

Re: Malaria - I never take malaria tablets these days, but always carry a good supply of Malarone with me in case I come down with malaria. Then I need to start taking the tablets and get myself to a medical centre in a major city fast.
This is a decision a doctor and I came to, at the Travellers Medical Centre here in Sydney Australia.
I have travelled in Sumatra now about 4 times without taking any tablets and never had a problem. It is really up to you to decide. I can only tell you what I do - I am not telling you to take or not to take anti malarial medication. I am not a doctor so cannot take that responsibility.
I also use the Australian brand insect repellant called Rid and cover up a bit at night.
If I feel the need I also burn those cheap Indonesian mosquito coils in the evenings, even though the smell is quite disgusting. And if it is possible to securely lock the bathroom ( mandi) door I do that too. Many accomodation places have mosquito nets though some are in need of repair in some places.

Air Ticket to Kutacane :
If you wanted to try to book a ticket in advance for the plane you could contact my wonderful friend Ajad in Medan at Narasindo Tours.
He was the person who called Riau Airlines for me and found out that they did not fly down to Ketambe.
You can find all his contact details here at
And when I finally got some PM's from Blackgibbon who posts on here occaisionally and stays two months every year in Ketambe I found out he was flying with SMAC who had got the new contract.
SMAC had previously flown down to Ketambe before Riau got the contract.
However, if your plane arrival from KL does not allow you to get the flight that day, then you are no better off are you?

The bus trip could be okay, but there are no guarantees.I had no problems- the trip was exactly 7 hrs long. And if you do the bus and get into Kutacane too late to get a local bus up to Ketambe- no problem just stay at the Maroon Hotel for about 70,000 rupiah.

I deliberately left late at 12 noon so I could spend the night in Kutacane and let other travellers know where to stay and to let them know that Kutacane is not so bad as some travellers say. There is nothing worse than if your bus develops trouble and you are stressing because you need to catch a local bus to another place and you fear you will miss it and be stranded somewhere yuo never planned on.
I wandered around by myself checking out which hotel to stay at in my price range and then once I had settled in, I went out and got some dinner and found some locals who speak some English.
Got up early the next morning, paid my bill and got the 7.30 am bus with coffee in hand and one hour later I was set down right outside the entrance of Pak Mus's property.
All so easy.
But then everything in Indonesia seems ot be so damn easy for me- I have no idea why it just is.

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by: pPamela


Hi Daniel,
Here is a map showing Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan.
And here is an aerial map showing Bohorok (12kms from Bukit Lawang) and Kutacane
You can note the rugged impassable terrain between Bohorok and Kutacane.
Mind you some travellers do attempt to trek through this terrain- Mangoholic2 for one, but his brother got sick so they had to be rafted out.
You will need to keep clicking on your mouse near the pink pin for the area to enlarge and then hit HYBRID to get the names of the places.

Re: the price of 450 Euro for 6N/5D.
With the Euro fetching 13,437 Indonesian rupiah to every Euro- your 450 Euros is worth 6,053,566 Indonesian Rupiah.
This amount equates to 1 million a day. Unbelievably expensive.
I for one can live really really well on 250,000 rupiah per day which is 1.750.000/week.
That gives you some idea of how costly that tour is you were quoted.
For currency exchange you can use the following website of Oanda

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by: dportal

Hi Pamela,

I just got back and read all your messages. Again, you are making my life easy with all this information. Thanks so much!

At this time it's either Kutacane or BL. I am much more inclined to go to Kutacane, I think. Going in the jungle for 3-4 days seems like a great adventure and pretty much what I'm looking for.
BL seems also good, but no wild orangutans.

I guess I'll decide soon.

I'm not sure what green minivan you are referring to, to go form medan to kutambe.? Have to check this out.

Also, would it be ok to PM you in case I have more questions?

thanks soooo much!

by: pPamela

Hi Daniel,

The green mini van you refer to, is a mini van that takes travellers and locals from Medan to Bukit Lawang and back again.
It leaves from an unmarked mini bus terminal about 1km from the huge bus terminal PINANG BARIS.

Here is a cut and paste from my first post above.
*"*To get to Bukit Lawang you can get a big bus ( 4 hr trip ) from the Pinang Baris bus terminal or go up the road 1km and outside the Mawar cake shop you can get a mini bus to BL ( 2.5-3 hr trip).
Here is a Photo of area around unmarked bus terminal .
The green bus with its driver here
He usually leaves about 7am and can get to BL in about 2.5 hrs.
The road from Medan to Bukit Lawang is currently being repaired an election promise from the new Governor of North Sumatra who was born in BL, so your trip may even be quicker now.
I saw the road repairs happening at the beginning of May and other travellers have informed me they are continuing.'

Travelling to Kutacane from Medan

You need to catch your bus from the PADANG BULAN bus terminal.
To get there I have caught a local bus in Jalan Juanda ( this road intersects with Jalan Tengah( where Ronna's ( formerly Spoutnik is at No. 33) and said to the driver Padang Bulan.
He has dropped me off too far away, but I have kept saying 'Padang Bulan' and someone else has helped me get a becak to Padang Bulan.
I have arrived at Padang Bulan, with enough time to buy a bus ticket, a new phone card, grab some take away food and get on the bus at 12 noon. Perfect timing!!

Of course it is Ok to PM me or you can even email me at pamelajoyfugeRemoved to prevent your adress from being spammed. Click this to go to the user
I am always willing to help any traveller with my information and have been doing so since 2000.
I was in the midst of doing a Word Document on this information earlier in the year, but my laptop died, work became crazy and I gave up.

I only ask that on your return from your holiday you either post of your experiences/share photographs here on TT or do a blog and post the link here on Thorn Tree.
I will usually add these wonderful pieces to my favourites and then put up the link on all the other travel forums belong to when I believe it is appropiate for questions being asked.

by: pPamela

Hi Daniel,

Here is a link to some wonderful posts on Ketambe that somehow I have missed.
I knew Blackgibbon was going to post, but somehow did not get to read them. Great update on what was happening in Ketambe in June 2008.
and I am trying to post yet again Nic66's other report from 2007- did not work above.
and another one from Richard Geddes in 2007

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thanks for sharing pamela Emoticon: Party!

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