Few travellers will come to Sumatra and not make the trip to Gunung Leuser National Park. Located in the north east of Sumatra, the park protects a wide range of ecosystems and is regarded as the largest wilderness area in SE Asia. It straddles the northern end of the Barisan mountain range, which forms Sumatra’s long spine and includes eleven peaks over 2,700m high including the parks namesake, Mount Leuser (3,119m).
Whilst Gunung Leuser is fabulously scenic and a haven for trekkers, it’s the parks wildlife that most people come to see, particularly its most famous resident, the Sumatran Orangutan. In 1971, Dutchman Herman Rijksen established a monitoring station and rehabilitation centre at Ketambe in the upper Alas River valley with the aim of rehabilitating orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans. A Swiss wildlife organisation opened a similar centre a couple of years later at Bukit Lawang alongside the Bohorok River, just inside what is now the park’s eastern boundary. In the years since, both centres have rehabilitated and released hundreds of orangutan back into the jungle. Whilst the Ketambe centre is closed to the public, Bukit Lawang has thrown open its doors and gained fame as “the” place to see the semi-wild orangutans who return to the centre for supplementary food.
Although the orangutan tend to hog the limelight, Gunung Leuser has many other notable mammals including the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, leopard cat, sambar deer and the Sumatran serow, a species of goat-antelope. There are other primate species too such as the Thomas Leaf monkeys and the unusual looking Siamang, the largest of the gibbon family.
Whilst your odds of spotting any of the more exotic mammals are extremely slim, you can enhance your chances of seeing wild orangutan and the other primates by heading into the less visited northern section of the park around Ketambe or Kedah and do some trekking. The mountainous, jungle terrain around these parts is fabulous and usually involves summiting one or more of the Barisan peaks, but it’s remote and generally requires multi-day hiking. If you prefer something shorter and easier have a look at some of the trekking options out of Bukit Lawang or Tankahan.
The great thing about Gunung Leuser National Park is that there are a variety of activities and you should be able to find something to suit your personal tastes. So let’s have a look at the options:
Bukit Lawang – Obviously the orangutans are the big drawcard but the busy little village built around the rehabilitation centre has much more to offer. Swimming or tubing along the Bohorok River beside the village is popular with all ages but a little further afield where the current is stronger, you can get into some kayaking and white water rafting action. The Bat Cave, a 500m long cavernous hole in a jungle hillside, is home to thousands of bats and worth a look. It’s located an easy 2km trek from the village. The less visited Swallow and Ship Caves are located nearby but are less visited so you’ll need to grab a guide to show you the way. On Friday, drop by the weekly market held at the Gotong Royong bus station, a 15min walk from Bukit Lawang.
Trekking options from Bukit Lawang start with half day circuitous hikes along fairly well used trails up to 6 day treks. Generally, treks under 2-3 days don’t actually venture far from Bukit Lawang although you might feel like you’re a million miles away once you’re in the jungle. Some packages even offer rafting or tubing back to the village. If you’re up for a challenge, take a longer trek through to Tangkahan or Ketambe across the Barisan mountain range. A trek like this will take you through some really remote and beautiful country but is a fairly serious undertaking for fit and committed trekkers.
Bukit Lawang is located 86km west of Medan. Public buses depart from the Pinang Baris bus terminal in Medan every half hour, 7 days a week or you can arrange a private hire car with a driver. The journey takes around 3-4 hours. There’s a good range of accommodation in the village including jungle and river lodges or guesthouses plus restaurants and warungs. Being a popular destination with locals and tourists alike it can get very busy, especially on the weekends so booking ahead is recommended. Visiting during the week is obviously quieter.
Tangkahan – Located on the eastern boundary of Gunung Leuser National Park at the juncture of the Batang and Buluh Rivers, Tangkahan is a small eco-tourism development offering Sumatran elephant rides and elephant bathing. When the elephants aren’t carting tourists around, the locals use them to conduct jungle patrols. 1-4 day trekking expeditions from Tankahan can be arranged at the visitors centre. Prices for guides and porters are fixed so no haggling required.
Lodge and guesthouse accommodation and restaurants are available just across the Buluh River from Tangkanan. Just follow the path from the visitor centre across an impressive hanging bridge and you’re there. Tangkahan can be reached by twice daily public buses from Pinang Baris bus terminal in Medan (7-8 hours) or you can arrange a private car or ojek transfer from Bukit Lawang, a 40km (2.5 hour) bumpy road trip away. Alternatively, Tangkahan elephant excursions can be booked as a day excursion from Bukit Lawang,
Ketambe – The tiny village of Ketambe is located alongside the Alas River in the park’s north central just inside Aceh Province. It’s a charming little village without the swarms of tourists found in Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan. It’s also the primary gateway to Gunung Leuser’s wild north and the Barisan mountain highlands including Mount Kemiri (3,314m).
Most visitors are satisfied with 1-3 day jungle treks along the Alas River valley with the primary purpose of enjoying the beautiful jungle scenery and wildlife spotting. The chances of seeing wild orangutan, gibbon, macaques and hornbills are high and anything else a matter of luck. Longer treks of between 2-5 days can incorporate the Gurah hot spring area or Marpunga highland lake, regarded as a particularly good region for wildlife and birdwatching.
Starting from Gumpang village in the upper Alas valley, roughly 2 hours from Ketambe, a trek to the summit of Mount Kemiri (3.314m) generally takes 5-6 days. For those that have the time, this trek offers a good cross section of the national parks offerings including a day hiking through local village farmlands, two days of primary rainforest trekking (great for wildlife spotting) and 2-3 days in the montane alpine regions including Mount Kemiri summit and superb views across the Barisan Range and jungle lowlands.
Ketambe is located to the northwest and upriver from the city of Kutancane which can be reached by public minibus from Medan’s Pinang Baris bus terminal (7-9 hours). There are also a couple of companies offering shared minivans to/from Medan, Berastagi or Lake Toba. From Kutancane, there are regular daily minibus or public truck services heading north to Blankenjeren, straight through Ketambe so just tell the driver to let you out.
Ketambe has around half a dozen guesthouses and warungs along the road near the river. Trekking tours, guides and porters can be arranged on arrival but in every other regard, you should arrive well prepared for your trek.
Expect to pay around 350.000Rp per day for an English speaking guide and 200.000Rp for a porter. Both will have their own equipment. A national park entry fee (150.000Rp) is also payable but as there is no national park office in Ketambe, your guesthouse may request a copy of your passport and issue the permit on behalf of the park.
Kedah – Only a small trickle of tourists, usually keen trekkers or off the beaten track adventures, make it to Kedah. But those who do make the effort are well rewarded with superb trekking, pristine jungle, gorgeous mountain scenery and exotic wildlife encounters. Kedah’s location on the northern boundary of the park make it the obvious starting point for excursions into the upper Alas Valley and Barisan highlands including Mount Leuser (3,404m) and Mount Angkosan(2,891m) .
Like Ketambe, treks of varying lengths can be arranged from Kedah. Wildlife focused treks of between 2–5 days around the upper Alas Valley are wildlife focused. However, the 3 day return trek to Mount Angkosan provides a good mix of wildlife jungle trekking and alpine trekking. Those wishing to climb Mount Leuser will need to set aside 10 days.
About the only place to stay in Kedah is the Rainforest Lodge located in the jungle a 1 hour hike from the village. As well as clean, basic accommodation and meals, the lodge can provide guides, porters and food for a wide range of treks. You do need to contact them in advance to let them know you’re coming though. Note the lodge is run by the same group operating Wisma Cinta Alam in Ketambe so if you’re coming through from there, they can make the arrangements with their sister lodge in Kedah.
At the time of writing, the Rainforest Lodge were charging 450.000Rp per day per person for guided treks including meals. You’ll also require a park entry permit which cost 150.000Rp per person. In theory, if you’ve already obtained an entry permit from Bukit Lawang, Tangkahan or Ketambe your permit should still be good but in practise it doesn’t always work this way and you may be required to pay for a new permit. There are no park rangers stationed at Kedah so permit checks and fee collection is sporadic. Whether you end up paying or not will be a matter of pot luck.
To get to Kedah from Ketambe you must go via Blangkejeren. The daily minibus or public truck services takes around 3 hours from Ketambe to Blangkejeren. From there, you’ll need to catch an ojek to Kedah. Expect to pay around 50.000Rp for the 30min trip.
Without a doubt, trekking from Ketambe or Kedah is some of the best trekking to be found in SE Asia but it shouldn’t be undertaking lightly. These routes enter remote backcountry where an injury or misadventure can spell serious trouble. You won’t get a medivac or helicopter rescue here so help can be a long time arriving. Thankfully, serious accidents are rare but the longer treks are definitely undertakings only experienced, well equipped trekkers should tackle with a first class guide.
Ketambe and Kedah are both small villages with only a couple of local shops selling basic items so you should arrive prepared for your treks in every way. If you need to stock up with snacks or anything else you might need, do it in Kutacane or elsewhere before you arrive.
Good footwear and at least a reasonable level of fitness are essential. Unfortunately, leaches are inevitable in the damp jungle environment. Wearing tightly woven socks and good quality insect repellent containing DEET will help ward them off but you’re bound to get one or two anyway.