West of Sumatra Island is vastly known for two reasons- palm plantations and orang-utans. If Sumatra and seeing orangutans in the wild is on your wishlist, then I’d say head to Ketambe. It is often a battle between Bukit Lawang and Ketambe for orangutan spotting; the difference is that the former is more organized and orangutans are often tamed/bred there. Ketambe on the other hand is wilder.
How to reach Ketambe?
The nearest airport to Ketambe is Kualanamu airport in Medan, the capital city of Sumatra. The airport is huge and if you need help with understanding the route or need recommendations for stay and food, the helpful staff at the information desk at Arrivals will help you.
Ketambe is an 8-10 hour drive from Medan city. Upon reaching Medan airport you will need to make a few calls to travel and tour companies for a taxi ride to Ketambe. These companies will coax you to book an indepedent taxi to drop you off to Ketambe, but do not do so, it is too expensive (about 800,000 rupaih for the drop). Insist on sharing the ride with other customers/travelers. We recommend Adi Guna Travel for sharing taxis. The taxi will not pick you up from the airport so you have to arrange to get to the city first. Take a DAMRI from outside the airport to Citra residency where you’ll find the office of Adi Guna Travel (the DAMRI ride will cost you about 35000 rupiah per head). Once you reach their office, pay for the ride to Ketambe, about 2,00,000 rupiah per head, and wait for other customers. Remember to specify that you intend to go to Ketambe and not Kutacane, which is the nearest town. They usually arrange the ride in comfortable air-con SUVs with sufficient rest stops in between and the taxis are not too crowded. If your ride goes smoothly without any break-downs then it will take you about 8 hours to reach Ketambe.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Friendship Guest house for 3 nights and had an adventurous stay with monkeys, birds and all types of rainforest bugs visiting us often. It’s more like a homestay than a hotel, and lived up to its name of “friendship”; Ahmed the host and the orangutan tracking guide John Kanedi (yes, that’s his name!) were extremely friendly and hospitable people. The stay should cost you about a very reasonable 50,000 rupiah per night, not including the meals. Highly recommended. There are two other similar but not as well-equipped guesthouses near Friendship guesthouse.
What to do?
Orangutan tracking. It’s the best and the only activity near Ketambe. If you’re staying at Friendship Guest house then the entry to the Sumatran rainforest is only a 5 minute walk. Sometimes people are lucky enough to see orangutans right near the forest gates. We desperately wanted to learn more about organutans in their natural habitat rather than visit them like spectators in the zoo. Unfortunately it was around the time when the forest fires were raging in the northern regions of Indonesia, causing a thick blanket of smoke everywhere in the jungle.
Apart from orangutans, the forest has some of the biggest and wildest trees imaginable. Standing next to them makes you realize how truly small you are! Be careful though, walking through the rainforest has its pitfalls. Visiting it during the wet season means that the forest is slippery and very muddy, making it hard to walk without falling every now and then. Leeches will feast on your blood and you will realize it only when someone points out that you’re bleeding from somewhere.
What to eat?
Food is excellent everywhere in Sumatra. In our 22 day trip across Indonesia, Sumatra is where we enjoyed food the most. Eat anywhere as long as you’re sticking to the local cuisine.
The local fare in Sumatra is somewhat different than the rest of Indonesia. They include a lot of vegetables in their diet, given the amount of food that grows there. A preparation of spinach in a mild non-spicy gravy is served with rice, along with potato fritters, spicy icy gourd, spicy spring onions in gravy and savory jackfruit fritters are commonly served in restaurants.
Apart from rice, noodles fried with vegetables and meat (called ‘Mee Goreng’) is popular in restaurants. Coffee is available everywhere. Milk is not commonly available so you will find yourself drinking coffee black or with condensed milk.
You may have some difficulty finding western food in Sumatra but in Ketambe, Friendship Gueshouse serves fresh, delicious pasta.
What not to do?
Do not wear jeans, shirts or carry big backpacks. It is advisable to wear full-sleeved light clothing, but avoid denims as they make it difficult to move or breathe freely.
Keep checking yourself inside your shirts regularly to make sure no leech is feasting on you.
Do not sit randomly on the ground; that’s when the leeches, ants and other bugs get attracted towards you. The key is to be alert.
Do not attempt to swim in the river alone; make sure you’re taking a dip neat the river bank with your guide close by. The river is treacherous.
Do not go without a mosquito repellant.
Carry as little stuff as possible so that you don’t feel restricted in your movement.