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Published: March 8th 2018
Major airport waiting areas, and we have seen a lot of those in the last two years, seem to exist in a parallel world of their own, divorced from whatever country they are nominally surrounded by. At a corporate level they often have variations on the same international chains - Ralph Lauren, Polo, Chanel, Starbucks - they all appear to have adopted the Ikea snakelike path through duty free, and they all have pricing that also bears no relationship to that outside this, supposedly, tax free bubble.
We contemplated on this twice on our journey from Ho Chi Minh to Medan via a 2 hour transfer at Kuala Lumpur. At HCM two coffees and 2 pastries came to nearly $15 - around $5 in an upmarket French patisserie chain in the city. And in KL we found a Harrods shop, which was offering 'high tea', including scones (but sadly not clotted cream) though we only indulged on a pair of miniature fruit tartlets.
Medan for us was just an overnight stop on our way into the jungle, rather than taking the 4-5 hour trip direct and arriving in the dead of night. We were somewhat surprised, therefore, to find
Medano Islam festival
out that it is a sprawling city of around 2.5 m but without the roads and infrastructure to properly support its growth. We caught the bus in. Only 20,000 rupiah each - £1 - 30 km, but it took 2.5 hours!
It was fun at the airport. Paul had researched enough to know what bus line and how much to get to town. It was around 400 m from the airport exit to the buses, well signposted, that 400 m being an incessant barrage of 'gentlemen' touting us for varying forms of transport to the city. As we got to around 30 m from the bus counter and having tried again to a fend off a persistent tout by saying 'Bus!' and pointing to the counter now just in front of us, the tout said 'I am the bus!'. At this remark the guys behind the counter, wearing bus company shirts almost fell to the floor with laughter, and we could hear them amusingly repeating 'I am the bus.', 'I am the bus.' as we walked away with our tickets.
In the town, near where we left the bus, there appeared to be something large happening on a
site next door, so we went for a look that evening. Turned out it was a large, 1 week, Islam festival, on a site that must have held a few thousand, though it looked like the day's activities were mostly finished. Nevertheless we took a walk around the perimeter, which was edged with dozens of elaborate, bright 'stands' mostly built like small temples.
Having been the only westerners on the flight over, then the only westerners on the bus, it now appeared like we were the only westerners in town. We were in great demand for family photos!
We took a shared taxi to Bukit Lawang in the morning. Quite common for the route, a nice compromise between a bus and our own taxi. It could have been a comfortable trip; the taxi was certainly OK. But the roads weren't. Quite aside from the usual 'driving', very large sections of previously tarmac-ed road were shot to pieces. Not surprising given the (hundreds?!) of 10/15 ton trucks on the road transporting palm nuts for the palm oil industry.
And rather than rain forest we passed through acre after acre of palm tree plantations, the main driver of course
How many at the wedding!
for the dimunation of original rain forest habitat here and in many other tropical countries.
During the taxi trip the driver took a call on his mobile and passed it over to Paul. It was a call asking where we were staying in BL, and when we arrived sure enough there was someone there to escort us the half km or so to our hostel.
BL, in geographical parlance, is essentially a ribbon development. It just so happens that the ribbon it follows is a river not a main road. The main attraction is the ready access it has to the Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covering 1m hectares within a 2.5m ecosystem, one of the richest expanses of tropical rain forest left on the planet, and home to orangutan.
But for the evening at our guest house it was a couple of cold beers, a veg and a chicken curry - yes, Paul has been eating curries on this trip, but they are not Indian! - watching the river rush by, being amused by the monkeys right outside our verandah riding the electric cables between the buildings, and having an engaging conversation
and recorded interview with a Danish anthropologist who is researching gap yearers / back packers but with a recent focus on 'gray' backpackers, before retiring for our first ever night beneath a mosquito net.
On arrival we had booked a 1 day jungle trek for the following day, Tuesday. There are 2, 3 and 4 day overnight stay in jungle options available but we know our limits (and, in hindsight, were grateful because there have been two periods of tremendous downpour since - not called rainforest for nothing).
As we crossed the river with our guide that morning he told us there had been a terrible flood sweep through the village in 2003. At that time the river was much narrower, and a blocked lake upstream had burst under heavy rainfall and all sorts of water and debris had poured through the village (a bit like Lynton and Lynmouth). 239 perished, including some tourists, along with 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls and 35 hotels! Illegal logging was blamed, allowing fast rainwater run off. And that is why building rules now keep the buildings further back.
Our guide did a good job
of pointing out all sorts of items to us on the trek.
Cacao trees - we had seen some Cacao seeds drying in the village
Cinnamon trees, with signs of some bark having been stripped
Rubber trees, and we watched the process of cutting a fresh strip on the tree
Various plants and leaves used for medicines and cosmetically, including a leaf that can substitute for lipstick.
Having walked a fair while and climbed through ever thicker vegetation we came to the official Park entrance. There are less than 7000 Sumatra orangutan existing. And, to be fair, some of the local ones are classed as semi-wild because, until a couple of years ago, there was a rehabilitation centre and active 'feeding platform'. They are a slow growing population. The mother nurses the child until about 7 or 8 years, and doesn't have another during that period - the longest known such period in the primate world. They are the only Great Ape outside Africa, the largest arboreal mammal in the world and share 96.4% of our genes.
Our guide led us to three separate encounters, each time a mother with one juvenile. Each time the mother kept a
beady eye on us as the child wandered around the local canopy, learning to swing, balance and forage. Totally awesome and so magnificent to see them in the wild.
We also saw pig-tailed macaques, who tried to steal our fruit lunch, lots of beautiful butterflies, giants ants, a leathally venomous, red legged, giant centipede (about 6 inches, really), and a small monitor lizard.
Regrettably Pip took a slip on the way down, and had to sit for 20 mins to compose herself. A slight twinge to the left knee, which the guide expertly massaged, and thankfully only minor twinges since. Plus muddied trousers which Paul has since washed.
We decided the single day was sufficient, we were unlikely to top it anyway, so have stayed close to the village for these two days, relaxing. But it turns out we haven't had to stray far to see the star attractions again. Both days whilst lazing by the river at the guesthouse we have watched a mother and young orangutan across the river exploring a couple of houses being built there, much to the consternation of the local builders, and come down to the waterside.
We also watched
a large assembly of monkeys, 30 or more, come to the river's edge, some to play in the water. And a group of Thomas Leaf Monkeys, with mohican haircuts, in the village.
And except for a meal and drink this evening that is essentially it for Indonesia. Tomorrow, 8am, we reverse the journey back to Medan airport, though straight there this time. Flight to Penang, Malaysia isn't until nearly 7pm so should be plenty of time.
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