An orangutan eats a carrot

Travel to Sumatra: An orangutan adventure

My Sumatra travel memory is burnt orange; a color and a smell. From the minute we got off the plane in Medan and walked into the smog that covered the parking lot, we smelled it–burning palm oil. It was an almost sweet smell, like a singed coconut husk, that would follow us the rest of the trip. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and even coming from Singapore, we had been feeling the effect on our air from our neighbor to the west.

A palm oil plantation (photo from Pixabay)

The haze was just subtle enough that you would forget about it until you’d rub your eye, before remembering that this was the lens through which Sumatrans saw their world on a regular basis.

We soon forgot about the smog, though, because it was then that Bambang came bounding up to our group waiting on the airport stairs. Bambang would be our guide for the next few days, and I swear he was personally acquainted with every last person in northern Sumatra. Loud, outspoken, and flamboyant, he was the best guide I’ve ever had, and made the trip a resounding good time, even without alcohol.

Bambang masters the ipad selfie

Why Sumatra?

You may be wondering why we would choose to visit a place with air pollution and with little alcohol; a place that most people have never heard of. I’ll be honest–part of the reason was that it was cheap, it was close to Singapore where I was living at the time, and it was less likely to be full of tourists for the five day Chinese New Year holiday. However, it ended up being one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, partly because I had no expectations going into it.

The two major attractions on Sumatra are both natural–Lake Toba and the orangutans. Both of these are within driving distance of Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra, and together make a perfect long weekend trip. 

Masjid Raya Al-Mashun

The city of Medan itself does not have many tourists draws, with the exception of the Masjid Raya Al-Mashun. This mosque was built in 1909 in a unique octogonal shape, drawing from Middle Eastern, Spanish, and Indian architectural elements. We headed here on our first day, and being the only westerners in sight, were quickly surrounded by students who wanted to practice their English and take our picture, a not unwelcome request that would occur many times throughout the trip. What was more surprising though, was that their teachers also wanted pictures with us.

Next, we headed out of Medan and south towards Lake Toba, stopping at Beristagi.  The massive Buddhist temple here is a replica of a pagoda in Myanmar.  It’s worth a stop and provides a good place to stretch your legs before continuing on to Lake Toba. 

Lake Toba

Danau Toba (Lake Toba) is a huge lake that was formed as part of a volcanic crater.  When the super volcano erupted over 70,000 years ago, its eruption was felt world-wide, spitting ash into the air and causing a global decrease in temperature. The caldera that is left is an oval-shaped lake 100 kilometers long with a large island in the middle of it. Today Lake Toba is a popular vacation spot for Indonesians, and you can enjoy hiking, fishing, and swimming, if you don’t mind cold water.

Within the lake, on the island of Samosir, is the open air museum Huta Bolon Simanindo.  It contains a complex of traditional houses of the Batak Toba people.  The houses are large enough to accommodate an extended family and are built on stilts, leaving room for animals under the house.

Batak design

We came in the morning and were lucky enough to be treated to a traditional dance and puppetry performance that even involved an unwilling water buffalo!  

After two nights at Lake Toba, we headed north back towards Medan. With many miles to cover, the local roadside café pit stops provided snacks and a chance to meet more locals. While we would pull out our Kleenex to carefully use the squat toilets, Bambang would order a coffee and strike up a conversation with whoever would listen to him. Five minutes later they were fast friends, and Bambang would, of course, have to introduce us to his new bestie. Our 10-minute stop would turn into 30 as we discussed politics, the best Indonesian food, and inevitably the fact that I was very tall.

The strange combination of Guinness, eggs and cookies for sale at a roadside stand

In the town of Pematang Siantar, halfway between Medan and Lake Toba, we stopped to see the Vihara Avalokitesvara temple. The temple has a giant state of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin, which is one of the tallest statues in Sumatra. The temple has many more statues to take pictures with, including statues of each of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals personified. Visiting in January meant that everything was decorated red for Chinese New Year.


Finally, we headed towards Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park and the famed orangutans.  Here, with a local park guide, we were able to take a short hike through the park, spotting different types of monkeys and caterpillars & butterflies as big as your hand.

A Thomas’ Leaf Monkey, found only on Sumatra
Our national park guide

Our guide had an interesting personal story. When he was a boy he met a Dutch family who was living in Indonesia. They became friends and offered to sponsor his education. Because of this friendship he was able to go to college to study orangutans, visit them in the Netherlands, and become a park ranger. He was proud to be able to have this well-paying job and was passionate about introducing visitors to the orangutans. He was also concerned about the orangutans’ future, and told us how more and more deforestation was occurring as the demand for palm oil increased.

As we continued hiking we saw a number of trees being tapped for rubber, their white, sticky sap dripping into small buckets.   After a while we came to a wooden platform in the trees. It was here that orangutans often came to feed. Sure enough, within a few minutes we heard a rustling in the trees and a large, burnt-orange blob swung towards us.  It was a mother with a small baby hanging nearly upside down on her side. They eagerly took the bananas and carrots that our guide held out to them. They weren’t at all scared of us, and lounged in the trees just above our reach.

Click to see the orangutans

Seeing these gentle giants in the wild was wonderful.  The moment was all the more poignant knowing that as we watched them, their habitat was being destroyed and it might not be possible to see them in the future.

You can read more about palm oil and orangutans and get involved in protecting them through these organizations:

You can book trips around Sumatra to see orangutans with Viator.

Note: There is definitely alcohol on Sumatra, it’s just mostly cheap beer and not readily available in all places. 🙂

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