For many people, jungle trekking tops the list of the best things to do in Bukit Lawang.
Located on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, the small north Sumatran town has an orangutan sanctuary where tourists can trek to see semi-wild orangutans and other rare monkey species such as Thomas’s langur and gibbons.
However, orangutan trekking isn’t the only attraction in Bukit Lawang.
After school, gaggles of kids take to the river to swim or go tubing on rubber rings. On weekend nights, the bars erupt with locals playing the guitar or the bongos.
On Fridays, a busy traditional market showcases local food and knick-knacks. There are also rivers, waterfalls, and interesting villages in the surrounding area.
It’s clear, then, that there are plenty of things to do in Bukit Lawang aside from orangutan trekking.
In my Bukit Lawang guide, I hope to give you ideas for what to do in Bukit Lawang before or after your orangutan trek.
This could include kayaking, visiting the Friday market, travelling to local villages by becak, and exploring local caves and waterfalls.
For activities elsewhere in Sumatra, check out my detailed Sumatra backpacking itinerary which includes itineraries for north and west Sumatra.
After Bukit Lawang, you might want to visit the world’s largest crater lake, Lake Toba. I have written a detailed Lake Toba travel itinerary and summed up the very best hotels in Lake Toba for all budgets.
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you decide to click through and make a qualifying purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you – thanks for your support.
Best time to visit: May to September
Time recommended: 1 – 5 days
How to get there: Bus or private transfer from Medan
Best Hotels in Bukit Lawang
Top Pick: Ecolodge Bukit Lawang
Mid-range: Jungle Inn £££
Budget: Sam’s Bungalows £££
Where is Bukit Lawang?
Bukit Lawang is located in north Sumatra in Indonesia. It is 86 kilometres northwest of Medan, the island’s largest city.
The town is split in half by the Bahorok River.
Bukit Lawang is on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is home to an orangutan sanctuary and wild animals such as gibbons, Thomas’s langur monkeys, tigers, rhinos, sun bears and elephants.
Is Bukit Lawang worth visiting?
Bukit Lawang is your chance to see Sumatran orangutans. There are approximately 5,000 orangutans in the area, either wild or semi-wild.
On top of that, trekking in the Gunung Leuser National Park next to Bukit Lawang gives you a good chance of seeing species such as Thomas’s langur, a monkey endemic to Sumatra (in other words, only found in Sumatra) and gibbons.
Thomas’s langur monkey in Bukit Lawang
Orangutan in Bukit Lawang
While orangutan trekking tours are one of the main things to do in Bukit Lawang, the town is also particularly interesting if you want to learn more about the small-town culture in north Sumatra.
The people of Bukit Lawang and its surrounding villages produce handicrafts and incredible north Sumatran cuisine.
The local rivers, the Bohorok River and the Landak River, also provide the chance for swimming or watersports such as white-water rafting and kayaking depending upon the season.
To summarise, Bukit Lawang is worth visiting for:
- Seeing wild or semi-wild orangutans.
- Spotting wildlife such as gibbons and Thomas’s langur.
- The experience of overnight camping and trekking in a Sumatran jungle.
- Tubing, swimming and watersports on the rivers.
- Visiting local villages, caves and waterfalls.
- Amazing north Sumatran cuisine and markets.
A Short History of Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang started out as a rubber plantation in the early 20th century. In order to plant rubber to sell to an international market, locals decided to cut down the jungle to make space.
This formed the ‘Boekit Lawang’ plantation. Eventually, a village emerged next to the plantation and became known as Bukit Lawang.
In 1973, two Swiss zoologists visited Bukit Lawang and set up an orangutan rehabilitation centre in order to rehabilitate orangutans which had been displaced by the plantations or captured.
Many baby orangutans were kept as pets during this time and often killed when they became too big or strong to control. Other orangutans were hunted down or killed during the process of deforestation.
The orangutan rehabilitation centre began to attract international and domestic tourists wanting to see orangutans. The proceeds from the orangutan treks went towards the rehabilitation of the orangutans, aiding both parties.
During a severe wet season in November 2003, a flash flood destroyed over 400 houses in Bukit Lawang. It killed over 200 people, including tourists. The town had to be rebuilt, and lessons were learnt. The flood was believed to have been caused by illegal logging nearby and thankfully resulted in the government cracking down on these activities.
Sumatran orangutans are one of three orangutan species in the world. There are two orangutan species in Sumatra.
The Tapanuli orangutan also lives in Sumatra. They are critically endangered and live south of Lake Toba, far from Bukit Lawang.
All of the semi-wild orangutans living in the orangutan rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang are Sumatran orangutans.
Getting to Bukit Lawang
To reach Bukit Lawang, you need to get to north Sumatra.
I’d suggest flying into Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport (KNO). It is the island’s main airport.
Direct flights operate between Medan and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Singapore and Bangkok.
AirAsia consistently offers great low-cost flights to Medan.
If you’re not planning to stay in Medan, you can take a private car transfer from Medan airport to Bukit Lawang for under 20,000 IDR (£62). You can check the availability for private transfers on Viator.
If you’re staying overnight in Medan, note that Bukit Lawang is a three to four-hour drive from Medan during good traffic and road conditions.
There are three main ways to reach Bukit Lawang from Medan:
- Private taxi: This is the most expensive option and typically costs 600,000 IDR each way.
- A tour: You can take a day tour to Bukit Lawang from Medan, which includes orangutan trekking and transport costs.
- Tourist bus: A bus shared with other tourists costs around 200,000 IDR each way.
- Public bus: The public bus from Medan costs around 80,000 IDR each way.
For more information such as where to catch the public bus or how to arrange a tourist bus, as well as how to reach Bukit Lawang from destinations other than Medan, check out my detailed guide on how to get to Bukit Lawang.
Things to Do in Bukit Lawang
1. Orangutan trekking
There are only two places in the world where you can see orangutans: Malaysian Borneo and Sumatra.
In Bukit Lawang, you can spot the Sumatran orangutan.
Local tour agencies organise orangutan treks on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where rehabilitated semi-wild orangutans roam freely in the jungle.
The staff monitor the orangutan’s feeding and mating patterns, intervening only when necessary for their survival.
My guide explained that the orangutans you’ll see are either first-generation orangutans which have been saved from the rubber and logging industries or they are the second-generation offspring.
Both generations are accustomed to human presence, which is why many of the orangutans peacefully contemplate human visitors from a distance.
This is a learned behaviour within the second generation of orangutans in the centre.
Two orangutans peacefully gaze at my camera
In just one day of orangutan trekking in late February in 2023, I saw over six orangutans.
I also saw Thomas’s langur monkeys, endemic to Sumatra. Surprisingly, I spotted gibbons in the distance, which is a very rare occurrence for a day trek because they usually reside deeper in the jungle.
Your chances of seeing an orangutan in Bukit Lawang are 50-50. Taking a multi-day tour and camping overnight in the jungle improves your chances of spotting an orangutan drastically.
Orangutans are the most active in the morning and evenings; they wake up around 8 am or 9am.
I’d suggest booking your tour at least several days in advance (ideally over one week in advance), as many of the most popular tours sell out.
Orangutan treks from Bukit Lawang:
- 1 Day: Four-hour jungle trek with Sumatra EcoTravel.
- 2 Days: 2 Days and 1 Night jungle trek, including overnight camping and river tubing, with Sumatra EcoTravel.
- 3 Days: 3 Days and 2 Nights jungle trek with overnight camping and river tubing. A portion of proceeds for this tour goes towards supporting a local school in Bukit Lawang.
Orangutan treks from Medan:
- 1 Day: Responsible orangutan trek with a local guide and pick-up and drop-off from Medan.
- 1 Day: Ethical day tour from Medan by Orangutan Trekking Camp.
- 3 Days: 3 Days 2 Nights tour from Medan, featuring overnight camping and tubing. Numbers for the small group are capped at 6 people.
Remember to choose a responsible orangutan trekking tour.
Ethical orangutan tours should:
- Never touch or feed animals.
- Stay 10 metres away from the orangutans at all times.
- Never litter or damage the environment.
- Keep group sizes to a maximum of 6 – 8 people.
- Never imitate orangutan’s vocalisations or call out to the orangutans.
- Move on from observing an orangutan after 30 minutes.
- Keep food sealed and out of sight of orangutans.
2. Go tubing on the river
Every afternoon, school kids gather on the Bohorok River in Bukit Lawang to swim and go river tubing. Join in: river tubing is one of the best things to do in Bukit Lawang.
River tubing involves sitting onto a rubber ring and letting the river current carry you downstream.
The activity is often included in multi-day orangutan trekking tours, but if it doesn’t, you can easily hire a rubber ring from one of the stalls along the riverfront and carry it upstream to do it yourself.
A rubber ring costs around 20,000 IDR for a day’s use.
3. Browse the Bukit Lawang Friday market
A 20-minute walk from the town, next to the bus station, the Bukit Lawang Friday market takes place every Friday until around 3 or 4pm.
The traditional Indonesian market is packed with local produce, whether it’s fresh fruit and vegetables, Indonesian snacks, or locally-made garments and knick-knacks. You’ll probably find a few tropical fruits you don’t know the name of.
Head to the market early in the day before the best fruit, fish and chicken gets snapped up.
If you have any trouble finding the market, it is labelled as Pajak Gotong Royong on Google Maps.
If you don’t want to walk, a becak should cost under 20,000 IDR each way.
4. Explore the Bat Cave
The Bat Cave is probably the second-biggest tourist attraction in Bukit Lawang after the orangutan trekking. Surrounded by rubber and palm plantations, the cave is home to bats and creepy crawlies.
Tree roots descend from holes in the cave’s ceiling, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Stalagmites and stalactites are also present.
You can venture down to the Bat Cave without a guide, as there’s a signposted path to the Bat Cave from the town. The signposts aren’t exactly clear, but with some trial and error, you should find the cave. Bring a torch.
The only thing is, locals wait outside of the cave to charge an entry fee. The entry fee should be 25,000 IDR but unfortunately I heard that they try to charge some tourists over 100,000 IDR.
If you want an easy trek without needing to haggle, take a local guide from the town. They should only cost you around 50,000 IDR.
Some guides offer the chance to visit the Landak River for a barbecue on the same day.
5. Explore the north Sumatran cuisine
Small Indonesian towns are some of the best places to taste authentic cuisine. That’s one of the great parts about visiting Bukit Lawang.
The families in Bukit Lawang have spent years perfecting Indonesian recipes for their children and grandchildren. Therefore, you can buy some excellent rendang and soto, or even spectacular versions of dishes such as nasi goreng (fried rice) or mie goreng (fried noodles).
Eco Lodge Bambu Restaurant
I’ve put together a list of the best-rated warungs (restaurants) in Bukit Lawang:
- Cave Rock Cafe: A restaurant in a small, breezy cave. Recommended: gado gado and banana fritters.
- Nifrita Restaurant And Cooking Class: A local riverside restaurant with a friendly owner which runs cooking classes. Recommended: gado gado.
- Eco Lodge Bambu Restaurant: A bougie bamboo restaurant at the most popular guesthouse in Bukit Lawang. It does proper barista-style coffee and western cuisine. Recommended: rendang, coffee and western cuisine.
- Jungle Inn Restaurant: A restaurant surrounded by the jungle with a good chance of spotting passing monkeys and other wildlife.
6. Visit local villages by becak
There are lots of incredible villages a short becak ride away from Bukit Lawang. You can hail down a becak driver or take a local guide to the villages.
The becak is a tricycle which features a driver and hatched seating for two people. It is powered by a scooter.
Many of the villages have traditional markets, gorgeous rice fields, and views over rubber plantations.
Meeting the locals and seeing their everyday routines is the main attraction. Many of the villagers will be happy to teach you bamboo weaving, roof thatching, or how to make tofu or brown sugar for a price.
7. Go mountain biking to the local villages
In Bukit Lawang, a few guesthouses offer bicycle rental.
Alternatively, Sumatra EcoTravel runs a guided five-hour mountain biking tour to the local villages, which includes meeting villagers, trying tofu and brown rice, and seeing how rice is harvested.
8. Cool off in the Bohorok River
Just like the villagers, you can cool off in the Bohorok River at any time of the day.
The best way to find a gentle swimming spot is to copy the locals. Outside of Ecolodge Bukit Lawang and Jungle Inn are some good spots with less-strong currents.
Remember, wear a loose t-shirt and trousers. Wearing a bikini, swimsuits or trunks will offend the locals, as they are majority Muslims who have a conservative culture.
9. Go white water rafting on the Wampu River
The Wampu River in the Gunung Leuser National Park has Grade 3 white-water rapids. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can sign up for a white-water rafting tour which begins in the village of Simolap Marike.
This one-day tour is offered by Sumatra EcoTravel, but it depends upon the season and water levels.
10. Dance and busk at the local RNB bar
Ricky’s Bar is an infamous local RNB bar in Bukit Lawang.
Beers, dancing, and busking are on the itinerary every Saturday night.
The bar is very popular with locals, but foreigners are warmly welcomed to join in. Many times, locals may try to teach you traditional Indonesian dances.
11. Go jungle kayaking
Jungle kayaking is another adventurous water activity on offer in Bukit Lawang. Several guides and companies offer this adventure, which usually takes place on the gentle Bohorok River running through the centre of the town.
Often, kayakers will catch glimpses of monkeys and other wildlife along the river banks.
The kayaking usually begins slightly upstream and ends a way downstream from Bukit Lawang, requiring a becak to get back to the town.
12. Take a cooking class
Many restaurants in Bukit Lawang organise Indonesian cooking classes so that visitors can learn how to perfect Indonesian dishes such as rendang or gado-gado. For foodies, this is by far one of the best things to do in Bukit Lawang.
Many begin by collecting the food at the local market, taking you on the full journey from the market to your mouth.
Some popular cooking classes include:
- Nifrita Restaurant And Cooking Class
- On The Rocks Bungalow
13. Visit local waterfalls and hot springs
There are a few small waterfalls and hot springs in the area surrounding Bukit Lawang.
Many tour companies are poised to whisk you there for the day with the company of a local guide who knows their way through the jungle.
The two-hour hike to Saringana Waterfall is a particular popular spot, but only a Bukit Lawang guide will know the way.
14. Try soap-making, coconut carving or a handicrafts workshop
Some of the main vocations for women in Bukit Lawang are soap-making, coconut carving and handicrafts.
If you’d like to try your hand at one of the above, there are plenty of locals who are happy to provide a class for a small cost.
Things to Do in Bukit Lawang for Couples
- Go orangutan trekking for a once-in-a-lifetime memory.
- Enjoy an Indonesian meal at an authentic local warung.
- Browse the Friday Market.
- Seek out a massage for some TLC.
- Go river tubing or kayaking.
- Take a cooking class together to recreate Indonesian meals back home.
- Visit local waterfalls and hot springs.
Things to Do in Bukit Lawang for Foodies
- Try north Sumatran cuisine such as gado gado and rendang.
- Visit the Bukit Lawang Friday market to buy local snacks, fish and fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Join a cooking class to learn how to make dishes such as rendang.
- Take a becak to local villages to learn about how rice is harvested and how to make tofu and brown sugar.
- Have a barbecue by the Bohorok or Landak rivers.
Things to Do in Bukit Lawang at Night
- Enjoy live music and dancing at a bar such as Ricky’s Bar (RNB).
- Try rendang or gado-gado at authentic Indonesian restaurants.
- Look for Bintang beer.
- Take a short stroll or sit along the riverside.
What to Wear in Bukit Lawang
Knowing what to wear in Sumatra is a very important piece of your trip.
Cultural expectations are different in different parts of Sumatra, especially when you compare the predominantly Christian culture at Lake Toba to the highly conservative culture in west Sumatra.
Bukit Lawang is a predominantly Muslim community, meaning that it’s very important that you dress conservatively. You should cover your shoulders and knees, and dress modestly.
Best Resources for Sumatra:
- Check hotel availability on Booking.com.
- Find a tour or experience on Get Your Guide or Viator (note: there’s less availability in west Sumatra)
- Check flight availability on AirAsia.
- Sumatra Backpacking Guide: Full North and West Sumatra Itinerary
- How to get to Bukit Lawang
- What to Wear in Sumatra + Packing List
- Lake Toba Travel Itinerary and Things to Do in Samosir Island
- 12 Best Hotels in Lake Toba and Samosir Island
- Harau Valley Travel Guide
- Things to Do in Bukittinggi Sumatra
- How to Visit Puncak Lawang Viewpoint
- Things to Do at Maninjau Lake in West Sumatra
Aim to spend 1 to 5 days in Bukit Lawang to spend time orangutan trekking, river tubing and visiting local villages or waterfalls.
There is no ATM in Bukit Lawang. You should bring enough cash to cover your expenses.
Most guesthouses in Bukit Lawang offer Wi-Fi. There is also 3G. Your internet connection is likely to be slower than in cities like Medan.
Bintang beer is sold by western guesthouses and bars in Bukit Lawang. Bintang is typically 30,000 IDR per bottle.
Bukit Lawang is considered a safe area for malaria. However, malaria does exist in Sumatra and you should take precautions such as wearing long, loose clothing and wearing insect repellent, especially when trekking in the jungle.
I’m Katie, the owner of Escape Artist Katie. I have been travel writing since 2018, including writing for luxury travel magazines and publications such as Wanderlust.
As well as being a digital nomad who works and lives abroad permanently, I’m a big advocate for offbeat travel and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.