Seeing wild orangutans is right up there at the top of lists of things to do, one day. Yet most people are completely unaware just how accessible and affordable it is to view to these iconic animals. I’ve seen them many times so I thought it’s about time I wrote about the best place to see wild orangutans. It’s so easy.
The easiest and cheapest place to see truly wild orangutans in the world is in Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Visit at the right time of year during the fruiting season of December, January, and August and you are virtually guaranteed to see wild orangutans, in primary forest, on an easy day hike.
This is a comprehensive guide so you can visit independently. You will learn how to get there, where to stay, and the various trekking options. From day hikes to multi-day camping trips I’ve got it covered. Let’s jump in.
Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra
I have spent many months in Gunung Leuser National Park over the last few years and I have become very attached to the forest and the people that live there. It’s no coincidence that Leuser also happens to be the best place to see wild orangutans in Asia.
Why visit Gunung Leuser National Park?
Why is Gunung Leuser NP so special?
Gunung Leuser NP is unique. It’s the last stronghold of the Sumatran orangutan and the only place in the world where wild orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos can all be found in the same forest.
Gunung Leuser National Park lies within the last great rainforest in Northern Sumatra. It’s a true wilderness that runs along the mountain spine of Aceh province. The rugged interior remains for the most part inaccessible. Only the most determined expeditions venture far inland and much remains unexplored even to this day.
Gunung Leuser is also the last stronghold of the Sumatran Orangutan and a critical refuge for Sumatran tigers and elephants.
Sumatran rhinos still occur in isolated pockets but in tiny numbers. No one is sure quite how many remain but there is still hope of finding some remnant populations far away from poachers.
As the best place to encounter truly wild orangutans up close, this place should be firmly on the tourist map yet few people venture beyond the rehabilitation centers dotted around Borneo.
To see wild orangutans in a primary forest without any crowds, the people that know head for Ketambe.
The village of Ketambe spreads along a road that slices the park in two and situated next to the last forest corridor linking both sides of the park.
The encroachment is heartbreaking but within this last link lies one of nature’s gems.
This is Gurah forest, a section of magnificent community forest within the park boundaries and it’s full of life.
If you plan your visit during the fruiting seasons of Dec, Jan, and August and don’t see Orangutans then you aren’t looking up!
And considering this is one of the easiest and possibly best places to see 100% wild orangutans on the planet, it’s yours for next to nothing.
To put things into context…
If you want to see a wild mountain gorilla? cough up $700 in Uganda and wait for it, $1500 in Rwanda for a one hour permit!
Chimps maybe? It costs $200 in Uganda and £100 in Tanzania.
These prices are beyond the reach for most people and don’t forget, you still have to get there in the first place and pay for visas and accommodation.
The wild Sumatran orangutans of Ketambe are yours for about $20 (2020) and that’s your guide fee. I have never been asked to pay the Park fee in all the time I’ve spent there. It’s officially set at Rp150,000 ($11) per day (2020).
I’ve seen orangutans so many times just sitting on my veranda and even from the side of the road. If a tree is in fruit an orangutan will be there. Wait around and it’s all yours, for free.
Into the Forest
You can access Gurah forest on a guided day hike and your chances of seeing an orangutan are very high. Your chances are even better if you camp for a night or two in the forest.
Everyone goes to the same area. The campsite next to the river and Gurah hot springs further along.
Don’t dismiss this camping option. It’s beautiful.
This rainforest has everything you’ve ever imagined. Giant trees, mountain streams, and natural springs for a steamy jungle bath.
Monkeys will pass by, hornbills will beat their wings overhead and orangutans will make the occasional deadpan appearance.
If you visit in the low season, you’ll have the camping almost to yourself but it’s also the best time to see orangutans. If a tree is in fruit there will be plenty of action.
Now if you want some real adventure and want to go further into the forest, this is your chance to go beyond your comfort zone.
Mount Leuser at over 3000m is yours to bag if you are up for the challenge. If not then a trek partway is possible. The open country at Camp Padang Rumput, along the Pepanyi Ridge, is your best chance (if negligible) of actually spotting a tiger.
I’ve trekked deeper into the forest myself on a couple of occasions. Once to a tannin-black lake called Danau Marpunge and once to the Kapi Plateau, a flatter area and home to tigers and especially elephants.
The lake is simply stunning. It’s a black pearl surrounded by thick forest. After such a grueling trek, the sight of that cool still water was irresistible. I swam out to the middle and took in the amazing scenery.
Our campsite was on the lakeside and we got up at dawn to watch the mist rising in the morning light. It was hard work getting there but boy, this was our reward.
NB: Incidently it was only much later that I was told that a giant python lives at that lake which might have influenced my decision to swim out so far!
Our route back was less demanding and took us through some magical forest with twisting jungle streams where we camped on the open banks.
Our guide remembered seeing some rafflesia once before and we were in luck. We came across a bunch and one was in full bloom.
My trekking buddies were over-the-moon and spent some time taking photos from every angle. After sending the images to researchers in Bogor Botanical Gardens for identification, it later transpired that we may have stumbled upon an undescribed species.
After 7 days of toil, we returned to Gurah hot springs for a well-deserved steam bath.
The Kapi Plateau
The following year we hiked to the Kapi plateau, a beautiful area with easy hiking and crisscrossed by clear jungle streams
In some places, the forest was particularly beautiful and we walked under a canopy of giant trees.
Signs of elephants could be seen everywhere and consequently, we had to vigilant. Forget about tigers, it’s elephants that you have to worry about. Only the year before a fisherman had been killed in this area.
Our destination in Kapi was the sulfur springs area called Cempegu. This is a large natural fumarole with loose ashen rocks, cold bubbling springs, patches of struggling greenery and blackened tree stumps.
The area is ringed by forest and perfect for wildlife watching. We saw the big black siamang gibbons, pouched hornbills, and a low flying eagle passed by.
For once the birdlife was plentiful. Anyone familiar with Indonesia knows that bird trapping is a national obsession so it was a pleasure to see so many songbirds.
And the icing on the cake?
We found one pugmark which I was skeptical about at first but only a few meters away we came across a tiger scat (poo) which was conclusive. Great news.
We made camp that night at the forest edge
In stark contrast to the arduous hike to Marpunge lake, Kapi was a relative breeze. The only climb was on the first day as we accessed the plateau from the nearest trailhead.
We camped at the side of rivers, on picturesque grassy banks. And our guides took great pleasure in fishing for supper.
We had three trekkers in our party with three porters/guides to help. Luckily we managed to hire a guy called Madan who has the eyes of a hawk and is one of the best guides in Ketambe.
Everyone was friendly and super hard-working. The guides carried all the food and camping gear. They did the cooking and set up camp. At times I was embarrassed to be so passive.
Walking was at a measured pace and we hiked about 4 hours a day.
This doesn’t sound much but the forest is a tough environment. The packs were heavy, the trails were muddy and sweat pours off your back.
Besides who wants to look at your feet all day. The whole point is to appreciate your surroundings and find stuff.
Returning back down we had our best siting of a female orangutan and her very young baby.
If you think they are passive gentle souls you haven’t had an orangutan throw branches at you.
I didn’t blame her, she was rightly agitated. It’s a sad fact that humans represent a real danger.
We paid about the same for both treks. It worked out at about Rp 300,000 per day per person not including tips. Using the exchange rates at the time, it’s about $30 a day
NB; Please factor in tips for the guides. They are not overpaid for their services and rely on the extra money to make it worthwhile.
Each trekker tipped each guide Rp 100,000. So they had an extra Rp 300,000 each at the end.
One of our party then added a little more privately because he needed some extra help during the walk.
The guides were happy and so were we.
Day hikes are good and cost around Rp 300,000 for the day. If you stay in Gurah, Pak Mus will happily take you out and his English is very good.
Where to stay in Ketambe?
There are numerous places to stay along the approach road and you are likely to receive a warm welcome anywhere.
There are presently three stand-out options in my opinion.
- Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse
- Thousand Hills Guesthouse
- Friendship Guesthouse
Your first choice should be Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse, it’s the only place to stay inside the forest. The accommodation is a bargain and you can see most of the best wildlife within a stone’s throw of your room.
My second choice would be the delightful Thousand Hills Guesthouse. What the place lacks in service skills, they make up for with good food and Balinese styling and beautiful gardens. It should be a gem and it’s raised the bar in standards, locally.
Lastly, I would choose The Friendship Guesthouse. Namely, because their website brings in much of the western trade and subsequently you have a good chance of teaming up with others for a trek. The folks are friendly but it lacks the charm of the first two choices.
I chose to trek with Pak Mus who now runs the concession to manage the accommodation in the national park itself. The Leuser Ketambe GH (formally called Gurah Station) is state-owned and was totally neglected until Pak Mus took them on a lease.
The setting is beautiful and the bungalows hide amongst the trees and overlook the Gurah river.
My chalet cost Rp 150,000 ($11) per night (2019) and I stayed for 2 weeks and paid for 8 days camping in the forest.
I stayed in the more expensive rooms with more comfort and a splendid balcony overlooking the river.
There are cheaper rooms available for Rp 100,000 and are slightly more basic.
The food is pretty good and reasonably priced and offered as a set meal which works well. Teas and coffees are made on request.
I paid Rp 20,000 for breakfast and lunch and Rp 40,000 for dinner. Teas and coffees are Rp 7000.
There’s certainly no need to worry about being in a captive market.
Pak Mus lives on-site with his wife and two lovely kids.
They are easygoing and friendly and the kids are fun, especially the youngest daughter called Wawa who is adorably cute (just now at least!).
Sightings of orangutans around the station are common, you’ll see macaques and Thomas leaf monkeys You will also see and hear hornbills every day.
With luck and especially if a tree is in fruit, Siamang gibbons might appear from time to time.
There are mini trails around the station including a great lookout point high over the river so get Mus to show you the way.
I’ve seen some interesting wildlife during my stays in Gurah Station
Notable sightings include:
- Siamang gibbon
- Thomas leaf monkeys
- Hornbills (3 species)
- Green pit viper
- Flying lemur
- Fish owl
- Pig-tailed macaques
- King cobra
- Slow loris
Add to this list an amazing array of creepy-crawlies, beautiful butterflies, frogs, and reptiles.
To be honest you are unlikely to see much more on a longer trek than you may see locally but being in the true wilderness is an amazing experience in itself and I encourage you to give it a go.
Bring your own. You can use one of theirs but they are either warm and heavy or light and col. Take your pick but do get them to wash it beforehand.
Take something for cool nights. You are quite high and the temperature at night is just cold enough for a jumper or light jacket.
You need a strong backpack, capable of surviving the conditions. Think about the weight, the stitching, the zips, will they hold up to rough treatment? take a look at my suggestions HERE
The mozzies are not too bad. There weren’t many in January at least.
Take a dry bag or grab some bin-liners to take with you. You need to protect your camera and change into dry clothes. This is a priority.
You need deep tread because the paths are slippery. The locals buy cheap plastic soccer boots, while we took hiking sandals. Bear in mind that you will wade across many streams and muddy pools so if you wear boots, you’ll be endlessly taking them off and putting them back on again. Better by far to just wade through in sandals.
Bring some flip-flops for walking around camp.
I take a self-inflating half-mat. It packs small and is lightweight. I also take an inflatable pillow. Comfy bedding makes a world of difference at the end of a hard day.
Don’t trek in shorts. There are stinging plants, insects, leeches and of course snakes.
You should wear leech socks, your guesthouse will probably have some. If none are available, tuck your trousers into your socks and either soak them in tobacco juice or spray them with repellant.
Top Tip: Take a styptic pencil (Nick Stick) to stop leech bleeds
Take a quick-drying microfiber towel.
Take some sweets and cookies along. It’s instant energy along the way and enjoyable
You’ll need a torch for the tent but a bright one for spotlighting at night. My torch is 300 lumens but it eats the batteries. Take spares.
Take the least you can. Ditch the toilet rolls and wash instead. Bring hand sanitizer.
I bring band-aids, painkillers, antihistamines, antiseptic cream, and iodine.
You can be provided with a dome tent but if you don’t mind sharing you can sleep under the makeshift shelter with the guides. I wanted a tent. My trekking buddies brought their own.
Useful items include:
Remember to keep it dry and take a silicone bag to keep the moisture at bay. See my best budget camera suggestion HERE
Wildlife watching is frustrating without a pair of binoculars. I have a waterproof pair because the humidity is too high for normal bins, they steam up. Unfortunately, they are also a lot heavier which is a pain.
You can read about the bin’s I use HERE.
You can’t get a signal deeper in the forest but my phone’s camera is great so I take it.
In all honesty, you might choose not to bother with a rain jacket. You are soaked in sweat the moment you start trekking and sweat even more when you’re wrapped in plastic. A poncho makes more sense, at least you can protect your pack.
Fly from Kuala Lumpur or Penang to Medan, the capital of Sumatra. Most people will search AirAsia.com for a flight as they are usually the cheapest.
Tiket2.com is a handy Indonesian flight comparison and booking site. It covers Indonesian routes only and accepts foreign credit cards. Most Indonesian sites do not.
If you use tiket2.com to buy a ticket be warned that the process is slow and painful. Get through the cumbersome trauma of it all and I can vouch that it works. I’ve used the site many times.
If you know your dates book as early as possible for cheaper fares. You can get a free 30-day visa on arrival in Medan (not extendable) or buy a one month visa for $35 which can be extended for a further month if required.
You arrive in Medan at their new airport which is connected to the city center by a new express train which takes about 30 mins at a current price of Rp100,000. Enjoy it, that’s as fast as it gets from here on in.
From the Medan city terminus, you can get a taxi to your hotel or go to the bus station for connections to Brastagi or Kutacane (the nearest town to Ketambe).
You can even by-pass Medan altogether and go straight to Brastagi by taxi or by bus from the airport. The bus station is on your immediate right as you leave the airport lobby.
The journey will take 3 – 3.5 hours and cost Rp50-60,000. Look for the red Minibuses called Almasar. You may have to change buses halfway but don’t worry.
Ask at the airport info desk and they will help you.
From Medan you can take a shared taxi (called Kijangs) or a minibus to Kutacane which will take all day. Count on 7-8 hours.
For your sanity, I advise you to pay the extra and travel by shared taxi. These cars are 7 seater Toyota Kijangs and far comfier than the minibusses. They will also take you all the way to Ketambe for an extra fee which should be about Rp100,000.
All transport to Kutacane and Brastagi leaves from Padang Bulan. It’s an area of town far from the city center. The ticket offices are strung along Jalan Jamin Ginting, ask your driver to drop you at the right place.
Adi Guna Travel, ‘Ala’ koperasi jasa angkutan (082165650777), or CK Travel Wisata all have offices along this road. Ask your driver to drop you at one. The prices are the same. Or ask to stop at BTN or Karsima minibus stations.
Kijangs cost about Rp130-150,000 ($10) and minibusses about Rp70-80,000 (2020)
The only way to reach the Padang Bulan quicky is by Ojek (motorcycle taxi). There are two apps called Gojek and Grab (which is similar to Uber) and you can call a bike or a cab for the best price.
You can stay the night in Medan if you wish but there are no sites to be seen in this frenetic city. Plan on one night and an early start to get to Ketambe.
There is one more option but few take it. You can fly from Banda Aceh to Kutacane with Susiair.
The Medan to Kutacane service has been discontinued at this time (2020) but you could take a cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur to Banda Aceh, visit Pulau Weh for the diving or snorkeling, then catch a Susiair flight directly to Kutacane. It flies 2 times a week.
It’s next to impossible to book ahead. Your best chance for a ticket is to turn up at the Susiair office in person, at the airport. You cannot book online but try these numbers anyway, 0811-2113-081, or +62 811 211 3080, or +62 811 211 3090. Good luck.
Getting around Medan is a pain
If you haven’t already bought a sim card, get a local person to use their app to get you a ride for you. People are so friendly.
If you take a normal taxi then choose Bluebird taxis ( blue, surprisingly ), they’re known throughout Indonesia as a reliable metered taxi firm.
Most people get in and out of Medan as quickly as possible. I always get a bus straight to Brastagi, the cool hill town south of Medan.
Brastagi is a small town only 2-3 hours from Medan and breaks the journey to the park.
The climate is cool which comes as a relief and you can climb the nearby volcano if you wish.
I stay in Wisma Sibayak in town, it’s been there for a very long time. I first stayed back in the 90’s. There are other places to stay if you search in TripAdvisor.
Take a jumper, you’ll be surprised how chilly it is at night
I stayed in the lower rooms with en suite bathrooms. You can also choose the cheaper upper rooms with a separate bathroom or a couple of very basic wooden bungalows at the rear.
Find out the latest prices on Tripadvisor HERE
N.B. ATM’s accept Mastercard but not Visa (2020)
To reach Ketambe and the park you must catch a minibus to Kutacane which takes about 5 hours for Rp80,000 but be warned the music can be DEAFENING.
Take Ear Plugs!
Shared taxis (150,000) to Kutacane all originate in Medan so if you secure a seat, you will have to pay for the whole journey and arrange a pick-up in Brastagi.
Once in Kutacane, you need to ask to be dropped at the labi-labi (local pickup) stand for Ketambe which is in the town near the market.
Make sure you have enough cash in Kutacane. There are ATMs that now take both Mastercard and Visa.
A labi-labi into Ketambe takes about 45 mins for Rp20,000. You will have to wait until there are enough passengers before they leave. Catch one from the old market, along the main road. Locals will help you.
If you need a shared taxi to/from Medan/Berestagi/Kutacane contact:
‘Ala’ koperasi jasa angkutan (Shared taxi firm)
Kutacane : Jln A.Yani 081360152777
I paid Rp130,000 from Kutacane to Berestagi.
Leuser Ketambe Guest House
Jl. Blangkejeren, Ketambe, Kutacane
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
FB : @ketambetour
Whatsapp : 085360626329
IG : ketambe_tour
+62 (0)85360626329 – Good English.
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