If we were playing the game word association 10 years ago, and the original word was Sumatra, I’d use the word Tigers as my associating word.
As I started to travel, that changed to orangutans as I became familiar with Bukit Lawang. And now also, Ketambe. Another destination in Sumatra you can see orangutans.
It’s the non-touristy choice for sure.
Having seen Orangutans in Sepilok and Orangutan Island previously, I wasn’t too fussed about seeing them again while travelling Sumatra on a budget.
However, when chatting to new friends on Pulau Weh, they mentioned trekking in Ketambe as an off the beaten track place to see orangutans. It was decided, we’d stop off at Ketambe in between Pulau Weh to Berastagi.
The first day we didn’t get up to much after arriving in Ketambe mid-morning (see practical info at the bottom of the post), but the second day she was all on.
Before I sat down for breakfast, a pot bellied local had me jump on the back of his motorbike. There was no time to put any shoes on or comb the beard.
A five-minute ride to the Ketambe entrance of the Gunung Leuser National Park and I was staring up at a family of five orangutans feasting on a roadside fruit tree.
We got lucky. This tree had started fruit a couple days before we arrived.
There was only a handful of other people viewing them as I eventually got back to breakfast to brag to my bud about already seeing the ginger beasts.
That random local with the motorbike? He called himself Rambo. Rambo didn’t like wearing a shirt with his beer belly proudly displayed. He also liked the hustle. Trying to sell us tickets to the National Park every time we left the guest house. He would turn up out of nowhere. Everytime.
This was where it gets confusing at Ketambe. There’s no official tourist office so things are pretty much up for interpretation in terms of rules and regulations.
We were going to hire a guide, but having seen orangutans that morning, we figured we wouldn’t need one for a day trek in the labyrinth of trails.
It’s a National Park though, so surely we should pay for a ticket in some form? That’s where Rambo was insistent on selling us his discounted tickets. He had second tickets dated 2013 that were official and a good deal for the price of 100,000 IDR.
After fumbling around, we decided to get ‘permits’ from one of the guest houses for 30,000 IDR. As you can see, they aren’t official by any means. Nor did we need to show them to anyone over the next two days, but we wanted someone else to blame if shit hit the fan.
We’d seen a paper map of the various trails within Gunung Leuser National Park starting from Ketambe and decided we’d stay within the Labrinth. Normally I’d be relying on Maps.me but the hiking trails weren’t to be found on the app.
Before we started the hike, I was super stoked as the orangutans had come back to the massive tree for an early afternoon feast (before a siesta?). There was a family of five, with a few small monkeys hanging about too.
I was thankful my friend got to see orangutans as we had no idea what to expect in the jungle. The guilt would have shredded me if didn’t see any.
We entered the park and knew straight away it wasn’t going to be easy. There are obvious trails but there were plenty of times where the trails kind of stopped or made a hairpin turn where we couldn’t really see the hair pin. There was little signage and we weren’t even sure if we were in the labyrinth or not. It was all a mess really.
To play it safe, I was pinning our location my phone every 5 – 10 minutes. Just in case shit hit the fan we could attempt to back track.
There was no one else on the trails. The whole place was quiet with the odd animal noise echoing through the jungle. As we continued to take turns on guessing whether to turn left or right at the next fork, we came across some hornbills.
When Gibbons turned up on the scene shortly after she was chaos for about five minutes. It was so cool with so much noise. We were the only ones in the middle of the jungle. We were pretty close too!
Eventually, we escaped the jungle with a light rain falling. Escaping wasn’t without its struggles. We somehow missed a turn-off and after failing to back track we bush whacked our way back to the road.
The next morning we were up for another labyrinth walk and wandered on down to the start point. The orangutans were back! This time we went deeper into the jungle and while we didn’t see any wildlife beyond our new friends at the entrance, we are adamant we were below orangutans at one point.
There was fruit dropping from a tree for ages, we just couldn’t spot anything. The fruit was falling just like it was at the trail entrance from the orangutans we could see.
We managed to find one of the Ketambe camp sites while hiking (C1 on the map). It was sort of our goal, which was fun to accomplish.
Over the course of the two days we only saw the orangutans at the entrance and while hiking in the labyrinth we saw gibbons and hornbills, and some crazy bugs.
Should You Hire A Guide When Trekking In Ketambe?
I’m going to say, be prepared to. We got really lucky with the roadside tree fruiting. Apparently two weeks earlier, you had an overnight hike to get to the nearest orangutans. My friend and I are no wildlife spotting experts so we possibly could have been close to seeing things but just missed them due to being rookie animal spotters. If you’re going overnight, take a guide, otherwise, don’t use one for the first day. If that fails, grab one for your second day.
I’m not sure what you should pay but were told about $30/day for a guide. Have a shop around at the different guest houses and do your due diligence a day before you use the guide. And whatever you do, if you meet someone calling themselves Rambo, stay away haha.
How We Got To Ketambe
We were dropped off in the black van (that in most countries would be considered dodgy) in the heart of Ketambe. The heart of Ketambe being the highway you drive through on your way from A to B.
We caught the van from Blangkejeran. We got to Blangkejeran after an overnight van ride from Banda Aceh.
Where To Stay In Ketambe
Along the main road is a handful of guest houses and hotels, a couple convenience stores, and that’s about it. There were rooms available in all of the guest houses so don’t worry about booking in advance. From one end to the other is I’d say 1500 metres max, so you could walk along until you find someone you’re comfortable with.
We paid 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah (less than 4 USD) per night for a private room with bathroom at Friendship Guesthouse. This was the cheapest option so as you can imagine, the facilities aren’t fancy. But we were comfortable enough there for three nights.
Where To Eat In Ketambe
Wherever! It’s classic Southeast Asia in that all of the guest houses have the same menu, with no variation. The only variation is a 10 cents here or there in the price.
As the accommodation is so cheap, I think it’s good courtesy to eat at least one of your meals from the place you’re staying at each day. If not two.
Where To Go After Ketambe
We went to Berastagi and Lake Toba (more hiking there) afterward which meant catching local transport to Kutacane then jumping on a bus. The public transport (small trucks) comes past every 30 minutes or so. It’s easy though, your guesthouse will help you out if need be.
Bukit Lawang Or Ketambe Trekking For Orangutans?
If you have more than a couple weeks in Northern Sumatra, I will say go Ketambe trekking. My mate Chris enjoyed his experience at Bukit Lawang, but if you want to be all cool and non-touristy definitely head to Ketambe. At worst, if you don’t see any, you can head to Bukit Lawang later on your Sumatra trip. We also heard of a Sumatran tiger spotting when a girl went on a week long trek!