Having just arrived in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra and largest city in Sumatra altogether, I started right away investigating as to in which geographic coordinates of this great island my forthcoming adventures shall take place.
One of the first places I got to hear of was the village of Bukit Lawang, a popular tourist destination in the general vicinity of Medan. Because of the mere fact of me hearing of that place a lot, and moreover because of what I was hearing of from any person whose opinion I may personally esteem as carrying any weight was negative towards that village’s spoiled and debauched character, I was originally highly skeptical of the prospect of me setting there my foot at all. However, after the intervention of some adventitious events, it so came about that a fair morning, me in the company of three more, we were heading thither driving a rented car.
We took the road leading west from Medan, which was heavily jammed with traffic, until the town of Binjai. We then continued further west via a narrow road, wherein the traffic subdued significantly, its surface, though, was resembling more of swiss-cheese than a road, thus obliging us to drive for several hours in order to cover the otherwise short distance. When, around noontime, we finally arrived in Bukit Lawang we were directed by some locals playing the role of the traffic regulators into a small parking lot, actually the only possible parking spot in the village. Upon us parking, we got instantaneously received by a pack of touts, who, as soon as they got the first glimpse of us, started to assemble around us in crow-fashion, bombarding us audaciously and shamefully with offers for accommodation, guides, restaurants, etc. What quite startled me about these touts was that, unlike touts in general, they made no pretense of being kind and benignant – or if they did so, it was as unsuccessful as it’d be for a lion pretending to be a cat. One of these touts was the one dispatched by the owner of the guesthouse my friends had booked our stay at. We neglected all the rest and followed him ambling through the village’s lanes.
Despite all the fancy guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops, their greedily-staring owners and the whole touristic atmosphere of the circus-like kind, I found the village to be phenomenally picturesque. It was built inside a broad ravine, by either bank of the forceful river crossing speedily through it, descending from up the jungly, wild mountains. It’s traditionally built wooden dwellings were climbing up the slopes of the ravine mingling with the dense and wild greenery. Bevies of villagers were accumulated by the banks and on the various little aits in the river, swimming, fishing and frolicking, while some shrewd monkeys were lurking around, waiting for a chance to get hold of their food to arise. There is one long hanging bridge connecting the two sides of the river, passing about 20 meters or so above it, wherefrom one can get a splendid view of the river and the village. That exact bridge we passed to the other side and, after yet some short ambling distance, we arrived at the guesthouse right on time for a revitalizing siesta.
After my consciousness was restored back to the physical world, and as the sun had already hidden himself behind the west mountains bereaving the ravine of its former frying-pan-like features, I decided to set off for an inaugural exploration of the area. There is a trail adjoining the north bank of the river, and that one I took eager to find out how close to the riverhead I may approach. The village persisted for some good way upstreams, and after the last of its traces had given out, I found myself enjoying a solitary stroll with only the rhythmic rippling of the river and the occasional bird songs of varied tunes to intercede with the silence. The trail keeps up, at times on river level, whereas at other ascending up over bluffs, or briefly entering into the rainforest. The views throughout the whole trail are outstanding and the serenity one may experience profound. I after all came to a dead-end at a point where the trail runs through a narrow passage right by the verge of a some 10 meters tall, vertical crag. There was absolutely nowhere to walk after that point. Though, there were a couple of ropes tied on some ill-looking, small trunks, which were obviously there in order to assist a climb up the crag. With extreme caution, as a possible fall would, most probably, be proven fatal, I climbed up reaching the afterwards less inclined ground, which allowed me to venture further up the slope. Against the expectations the presence of the ropes had raised me, I did not find anything extraordinary up there – as a secluded, mysterious little lodging, any kind of secret-like thing or, at least, another trail leading somewhere. The vegetation though was sparse enough to let me move into the jungle, which was a rewardingly pristine one, abundantly inhabited by monkeys, birds and other sorts of jungle creatures. After having this very interesting afternoon, I was back to the village by darkness’ advent and spent the evening in the guesthouse with food, drinks and music, ready for new jungle ventures the day that was to come.
My three co-travelers had already arranged to be taken to a guided jungle expedition that morning. It was, of course, proposed to me to join them and share with them the cost of that guide. However, not only because I do not happen to have enough money to waste them away, but, most importantly, because I am accustomed to going trekking myself and I do not really like to be guided – especially by ones who try to force me to be, as I shall hereafter explain how, – I rejected the offer. The issue was, that that guide together with the guesthouse staff, they tried to convince me that it is strictly prohibited to go into the jungle alone after I told them of my intention to do so. It goes without saying that I didn’t give any trifle of consideration to their warnings. So, that morning, I was starting that hike of mine, which turned out to be not so pleasant.
As soon as I was approaching the verge of the jungle, some strange guy, who happened to see me alone, asked me of where I was going to. I answered to him bluntly that “I don’t know, just strolling around”. “Don’t go into the jungle, you are not allowed to go by yourself!”, he warned. I then ignored him plainly and continued my way into the jungle, whereat he started to follow me yelling at me, but he soon stayed behind, as I just opened my pace and he couldn’t keep up. It didn’t take long and I ran to a group of tourists with their guide. Needless to say, that guy attempted to halt me and turn me back. I explained him, as politely as possible in such a situation, briefly, that: ” You know what, man, unfortunately for you, you don’t possess any authority nor any other means by which you could, by any chance, obstruct me in going wherever I want to…so, sorry man, but screw you.” During the next half hour or so, I ran into 4-5 groups or more, and in each case, the same story was repeated… I rebuffed them boldly and kept my way straight boldly again. All of them, the only thing they could do was to look at me voiceless and bewildered. Except one, who, while I was starting on my way, he took out his phone and threatened to call the police. “Call the army!”, was my reply.
Being already for some time in Indonesia, having visited several of its national parks, and having read through the regulations of Leuser National Park specifically, I was quite certain that there could not be any law compelling me to have a guide. It was only the vicious and greedy attitude of those guides, who were struggling to convince me that it is so, believing that everyone except themselves is stupid. However, as I realized that the trails are too frequented and I would not be able to enjoy the jungle in peace, I came to conclude that I should change tactics – those idiots were too much for my head. So to stop being in need to be confronting them the whole time, I started to move as quietly and surreptitiously as I possibly could, using the smallest trails I could find and at times leaving them altogether. As for the few ones who thereafter, as it was inevitable, noticed me, I only answered their chiding with two words: “No English”, and disappeared again into the forest. Later in the afternoon, I finally came back down at some place quite high upstream the river, and after I took my time to swim and relax a while, I headed back to the village needing to cross the river at some spots.
Noteworthy is also, that the trails generally in that park are, obviously in purpose, very ill-maintained and zero-signposted, so to make it practically difficult for one to venture into the jungle alone. Although anybody with the most basic sense of orientation and a simple compass should have no problem at all. Though, my general impression is that one should have no reason at all to visit this place. Sumatra is full with spectacular places and beautiful, honest people all over, so that, in my opinion, Bukit Lawang, being an exception to the rule, should be the last place in Sumatra one should visit.