season in Bukit Lawang. I read on the tourist map that it is near the Leuser
Gunung National Park, and is the place to go to see orangutans and do some
Orangutans AND durian? Yes please!
My initial impression of Bukit Lawang was soured by the fact that my camera
was stolen on my bus ride there (so all the pictures from this post are borrowed
from google images – thanks google!). It was raining, and I was moody when we
arrived. We were immediately scooped up by a jungle guide, who was very nice
and promised I could buy a new camera tomorrow in a nearby village (actually 2
hours away, nearly to Medan).
It turns out there were no durian in Bukit Lawang. One of the jungle guides
said he could get us some, but we’re not sure from where or for how much. For the right price the local guides were willing to promise pretty much anything.
The jungle guides are numerous. Other than a few jobs in the palm oil
industry, the entire economy of Bukit Lawang depends on eco-tourism. Being a
guide is a lucrative business. A jungle guide can make nearly 10 times the
average laborer’s daily wage in a single 3 hour trek. And so the competition
for tourists is tough. Guides constantly solicit foreigners, hoping to get their
business before someone else does. The situation is epitomized by a guide we met
named Mogli, who referred to himself as the jungle boy.
|the Palm Oil industry is a major cause of deforestation in North Sumatra|
We met the jungle boy on the first day we arrived in Bukit Lawang. A seemingly easy-going
guy in a rasta hat, Mogli had darker than average skin, a powerful build, and
an intense expression. He took in Rob’s messy hair and discreetly offered to sell us marijuana. We weren’t interested (if you are, consider 20 years in an Indonesian prison). He then offered his jungle trek
deal: 150,000 IDR each to go into the jungle for 3 hours. From what I’d
read, this price was standard. I was interested, but Rob explained that he was
tired and only wanted to see the Orangutan feeding and hang-out by the river.
Mogli implored us to think about it.
The next evening we were enjoying some local greens in one of the small restaurants that line
the river when Mogli passed by. This time
he tried to convince us that it would be more expensive to go to the Orangutan
feeding in the morning than to go on his jungle trek. We knew better: the
Orangutan feeding is free, plus 20,000 each to enter the National Park. Knowing
that we had been asking about durian, he asked us if we wanted any. Finally, in
exasperation, Mogli asked “How can I get your money?” Then he laughed a
wheezing, inhaling laugh like a donkey that went on and on past when Rob and I
had stopped laughing. It was around then I realized that not only was Rob not
interested in trekking; he didn’t want to go out into the jungle with this
Mogli explained that the next night was Chinese New Year and there was going
to be a big shin-dig up the hill. He needed money to buy ecstasy for the party.
“You understand, ya? This jungle boy party-party boy.” I was curious, so I
asked how much ecstasy cost. He got a gleam in his
eye. “Do you want some?” I didn’t, and Mogli was disappointed again. The
conversation eventually ended when a taxi-load of European backpackers appeared in front of the restaurant, and Mogli trotted off to sell them his jungle
“None of the guides ever tried to sell us on how amazing their jungle is” Rob said later. “Maybe if they talked more about how cool the animals are I’d have wanted to go.” Mogli had tried every tactic from insulting Rob’s manhood to practically begging, but never expressed a love for the jungle.
We took the bus to Medan the next morning. We’d seen the Orangutans, and
were ready for some durian.