The Epic, Ultimate Guide to Visiting Tangkahan, Sumatra

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The village of Tangkahan in the Langkat Regency of North Sumatra is aptly dubbed, “The Hidden Paradise.”

Although only a few hours away from the much-hyped tourist hub of Bukit Lawang, with its semi-wild orangutans, Tangkahan is a world away from Bukit Lawang’s lines of souvenir shops and well-trodden jungle trails.

Operating as an ecotourism destination for the last 20 years, Tangkahan has never really ‘taken off.’ This is a struggle for the locals that depend on tourism for their income, but a treat for those who discover this remote and breathtakingly beautiful jungle community.

Tangkahan is our second home. Agung worked and lived here as a ranger and guide for seven years, and I have used it as home base for the last two.

 

Read on to find out everything you need to know about this Hidden Paradise: how to get there, where to stay, what to do and more!

Tangkahan river
Chilling by the river

 

History

Famous for shrugging off the mantel of illegal logging and poaching in only one generation, this tight-knit Karonese community realized that there was no future in destroying their jungle home. Instead, they worked together to protect it, creating a team of rangers and turning to ecotourism to provide for their children and grandchildren.

Tangkahan village was built on illegal logging, with wildlife poaching thrown in for good measure. However, around 20 years ago, the community agreed to give it up and protect their natural bounties, focusing instead on ecotourism.

Of course, it wasn’t a simple process, but these changes led to the Tangkahan of today, where there is a healthy respect and reverence for mother nature.

How to get to Tangkahan

How to get to Tangkahan, North Sumatra

Perched on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, Tangkahan is a reasonably short drive from Medan. Unless you get stuck in traffic, it should take you three to four hours.

Three quarters of the trip follows good roads. But for the last stretch, you’ll be crawling along bumpy dirt roads that cut through palm oil plantations. If there has been a lot of rain, the last leg of your journey will be a tad slow.

Catching a bus to Tangkahan

There are no fancy tourist buses heading this way. Don’t expect air conditioning and bear in mind that smoking is allowed inside the bus. The journey may be slow with lots of stops and can be rather noisy and bumpy.

From Kuala Namu Airport

If you are heading to Tangkahan by bus from the airport, you’ll need to first jump on a bus to the Pinang Baris bus station in Medan city. It’s about a one hour trip, depending on traffic. At around 40,000 IDR per person, these buses are fancy, with air conditioning and sometimes even wifi!

From Medan

Buses heading to Tangkahan depart from the Pinang Baris bus station.

Unfortunately, many tourists experience problems with this station. There are “guides” there that will give incorrect information and overcharge. Forewarned is forearmed!

Look for the bus that clearly says Tangkahan on the front. There have been occasions where tourists have been sent to Bukit Lawang instead!

Don’t pay to anyone except the driver, and only pay once you’re on the way or you arrive in Tangkahan. There will be people trying to tell you that you can’t get on the bus until you pay them – this is incorrect.

It should cost around 50,000 per person (including your luggage).

Driving to Tangkahan

The fastest, most comfortable way to get to Tangkahan is to hire a car with a driver. The cost is around 700,000 – 800,000 IDR.

Your guesthouse can help you book – if you’re stuck, contact us and we can recommend some great drivers.

Taxis don’t tend to head to Tangkahan as it’s not one of the more popular tourist destinations.

Traveling from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan

tangkahan road
Rush hour in Tangkahan

There is a back road from Tangkahan to Bukit Lawang but it’s rather extreme and bumpy. Although not very far, it’ll take you around two or three hours. A car with driver will set you back around 500,000 – 600,000 IDR.

There’s no traffic, other than herds of cows. In wet season, you may be helping to push.

If you’re after a quicker, lower budget journey and don’t have too much luggage, hire a motorbike and driver. The price will be 200,000 – 300,000 IDR.

You can book drivers/cars/motorbikes through your accommodation.

Where to stay in Tangkahan

Accommodation in Tangkahan is affordable and there’s plenty of it. All the guesthouses and lodges you’ll find here are great, with super-friendly staff and guides to make you feel right at home

However, bear in mind that you are in the jungle! There is no hot water (not that you’ll need it in the tropical heat!) and no air conditioning in any rooms.  Most come with fans, which you’ll find are enough to keep you cool at night.

All rooms should have mosquito nets and western toilets, and the vast majority of guesthouses have their own restaurants.

Tangkahan bridge across river
The bridge to accommodation at Tangkahan

Most of places to stay are across the bridge in the central village area. If you stop at the Visitor’s Centre and head down the path to the left, you’ll come to the bridge. There’s a small fee to cross.

Here, you can choose from several different accommodations. Some have rooms and restaurants with gorgeous river and jungle views. Prices generally range from 100,000-300,000IDR per night.

If you continue down the road past the central visitor’s centre area for a few minutes (towards the elephant CRU) you’ll come to a handful of other accommodations perched on the side of the river overlooking the jungle. You’re pretty spoiled for choice in Tangkahan, so take your pick!

Here are a few of our faves.

Tangkahan Inn

Tangkahan Inn
Jungle views from Tangkahan Inn restaurant

Just a few minutes down the road from the Visitor’s Centre, Tangkahan Inn sits above the Batang River and is only a five minute walk from the CRU Elephant Centre.

It’s a tight-knit, family-run spot overlooking the jungle, with a spacious, vine-covered restaurant and sizeable rooms. This is the spot I call home when I’m staying in Tangkahan.

Choose from riverside or jungle rooms at 200,000 IDR per night, or standard rooms for 150,000. Rooms come with fans, balconies, western toilets and mosquito nets.

The best thing about Tangkahan Inn is the warm welcome you’ll get and the friendly, family vibe.

Jungle Lodge

Jungle Lodge Tangkahan
Jungle lodge perched above the Buluh River

Across the river from the Visitor’s Centre and a five minute walk along some pretty paths is Jungle Lodge. The restaurant here has stunning river and jungle views, and steps lead directly to the Buluh river.

It’s handily located right next to the natural hot spring and a small waterfall perfect to shower under.

Some rooms have balconies overlooking the river and jungle. Prices range from 150,000 to 200,000 IDR.

Try the vegetarian taco in the restaurant – big enough for two people!

Mega Inn

Just across the river from the Visitor’s Centre, Mega Inn is the largest accommodation in Tangkahan with more than 20 rooms.

There’s a nice restaurant and it’s close to the river, hot springs and waterfall.

Basic rooms start from 100,000, and all have mosquito nets, fans and western toilets.

About the jungle in Tangkahan

Like many communities in Sumatra, Tangkahan is literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. The village is squished between endless acres of palm oil plantations and the pristine beauty of the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP), which stretches North into Aceh and covers over one million hectares.

Aside from the incredible fauna found here, the jungle itself is spectacular, particularly when you head away from the still recovering, previously logged secondary forest and head to the hills.

The jungle is lush, intriguing and full of life, from the super-sized ants marching below your feet amongst the weird and wonderful fungi, to the impressive parasitic ficus (fig) trees choking the life out of the rainforest giants.

The Gunung Leuser National Park is undoubtedly one of the most important conservation area’s left on the planet. Like most natural areas remaining, it faces numerous threats.

Wildlife in Tangkahan

Thomas Leaf Monkey
Thomas Leaf Monkey

When you head into this part of the national park, you are heading into real jungle. There are no semi-wild animals here, so if you’re expecting to have macaques rifling through your backpack or want to hand feed an orangutan, you’re really barking up the wrong fig tree.

However, if you want to experience the incomparable rush of seeing true-blue, wild born and wild living orangutans, gibbons, leaf monkeys, hornbills and more, this will so be your cup of teh manis.

There’s nothing like it: as you slowly walk through the jungle amongst the cacophony of insects and bird calls, you hear the subtle snap of a branch somewhere above. Your guide puts finger to lips, motioning you to be quiet as you carefully tiptoe forward through the undergrowth, holding your breath in anticipation.

Then you see it (or rather, your eagle-eyed guides spots it), the flaming orange hair of an orangutan high above. If you’re lucky he or she will stick around and check you out for a while, giving you the chance to marvel at this amazing person of the jungle.

The reality of Tangkahan is that there is no guarantee you will see any of the captivating mammals that call Gunung Leuser home, but if you do, it’s an experience you will never forget.

If you want the surety of seeing an orangutan, tiger, or elephant, go to a zoo. If you want the chance to have the unrivalled, goose bump-inducing experience of sharing space with a truly wild animal, visit Tangkahan.

Animals you’re likely to encounter: giant ants, a plethora of insects, colourful butterflies, numerous geckos and lizards, squirrels, woodpeckers, macaques, Thomas leaf monkeys, sun bear scratchings, wild elephant footprints, orangutan nests, the calls of gibbons

Animals you’ll encounter if you’re lucky: orangutans, siamangs, white-handed gibbons, rhinoceros hornbills, snakes (moon snakes, vipers, cobra, pythons), monitor lizards.

Animals you’ll encounter if you’re super-duper lucky: slow loris, civet cat (musang), wild pigs, jungle peacocks, tiger footprints, wild elephants, sun bears.

Things to do in Tangkahan

Explore rivers, waterfalls and hotsprings

Tangkahan waterfall
Secret jungle waterfall in the rainforest

Tangkahan village sits alongside two stunning rivers (sungai): Sungai Buluh and Sungai Batang. As such, there are numerous waterfalls to check out.

Unlike many busy tourist destinations in Indonesia, you will often have the waterfall to yourself, depending on the time of year and where you go.

Buluh is my top pick to explore and the best spot for swimming. Even in rainy season, it usually stays clear, whereas the Batang river can rise and become brown pretty quickly with a bit of rain.

As you head upstream in Sungai Buluh, the river becomes narrower and starts to run through gorgeous canyons. Although you can explore a little by yourself, I’d recommend asking one of the local guides to take you if you want to adventure any further.

The guides can show you Memory Waterfall and help you navigate upriver to a great spot for swimming, including a pretty lofty jumping spot up the canyon if you’re brave enough. This spot is total eye candy, with the emerald green river framed by pristine jungle.

If you’re not a strong swimmer, jump on board a ‘bun,’ or inflated tyre – your guide will swim you up river and you can tube back.

Within easy rich of accommodations and the visitors centre is the small waterfall – Air Terjun Garut – a great spot to take some shampoo and have the best shower of your life.

Further afield are Gelugur waterfall (unfortunately this had an epic land slide and isn’t good for swimming nowadays, but still worth checking out), and the smaller waterfall, Lau Buluh Kitik, with a fantastic swimming hole underneath – you’ll need guides to reach these.

Need a good soak after all that trekking? There are two natural hot springs in Tangkahan. One is right on the edge of the Buluh River, near most of the accommodations, the second can be reached via a 30-45-minute walk through some community land to the Batang River.

You can visit the smaller one without a guide but may need to ask for help locating it; it’s just a small, cave-like crevice across the river, you can squeeze yourself into the crack for a hot soak or sit just outside the opening for a more tepid mix.

Jungle trekking

Jungle trekking tangkahan
Stopping for a fruity snack by the river

The experienced guides and rangers of Tangkahan are real jungle experts. Most of them have grown up in or near the village; the jungle is their backyard playground and it shows. Any one of these passionate, fun, talented guides can accompany you into the jungle, whether you are after a brief day trek or something a bit more adventurous.

While merely wandering through the jungle is an awe-inspiring, unforgettable experience, there are some key places of interest you can include on a trek, including some of the waterfalls and hot springs mentioned above.

Bat Cave

A few hours through the jungle will bring you to the bat cave. This is a labyrinthine cavern full of twist, turns, crevices and deep dark holes – but your guide could walk it in their sleep. They know the best way to lead you safely through.

You’ll see hundreds of tiny bats in their home environment, and if you’re lucky the odd frog and snake. Take the short way through at about 15 minutes if you’re nervous, or go a bit deeper for about a 30-40-minute trip.

Goat Cave – Gua Kambing

Unlike the bat cave, the goat cave isn’t a place for exploring. It is, however, an awesome place to spend the night. Trek for half a day to reach this stunning, shallow cave that lies behind a small waterfall, perfect for showering under.

It’s all set up for a bit of camping – the guides will prepare air beds complete with mini tents and cook you an amazing jungle dinner/breakfast.

River tubing

Tubing in Tangkahan
Floating down the Buluh river

No trip to Tangkahan is complete without going river tubing. It’s a fantastic way to finish a hot day’s trek, with many of the treks designed to end with you sitting in an inflated tyre, gently cruising back to the village.

It’s an incomparable experience to gently float down the river, surrounded by jungle – the ultimate in peace and serenity.

Safe for all ages and capabilities, the river is calm – with only a few areas of gentle rapids – and your guide/s will keep control of the tube for you and be on hand to point out the wildlife on the way.

Other than tubing back from trekking, you can tube from Tangkahan to one of several waterfalls, or take a longer cruise to Pulau Tujuh – Seven Islands.

Don’t miss out on the chance to have an included lunch; the food is incredible and will be set up jungle style when you arrive at your picnic destination – complete with ferns and flowers.

Meet the elephants at the Conservation Response Unit

Elephants Tangkahan
Elephants bathing in the river

Tangkahan’s biggest drawcard for many tourists is its Elephant Conservation Response Unit (CRU). Although there are several of these located throughout Sumatra, this is the only one open to tourists.

The elephants here have all been rescued from life-threatening conflict situations. Unable to stay in the wild, the next best alternative was to set up these CRUs as a safe place for them to live out their lives.

The herd of elephants at Tangkahan have a home base across the river at the far end of the village. Every day their mahouts take them into the jungle to roam, exercise and eat. They have daily opportunities to act out natural behaviours such as bathing in the river, foraging in the jungle, and hanging out as a herd.

When not strolling in the jungle, they spend their time in a large, shady area adjacent to the river and jungle. Occasionally they are chained; this is usually during feeding time to allow everyone to get their fair share of supplementary fruit and veg without bullying or food stealing.

Visitors can meet the elephants every day except Fridays. Twice a day, you can join an elephant washing session, where you meet the mahouts and help bathe the elephants in the river.

Controversially, there is riding available; an activity we do not support in any circumstances. However, there is ongoing discussion amongst the community to phase it out. We still recommend visiting the centre and supporting the work they do.

In 2017, the CRU introduced a Walking with Elephants Tour, where you can walk alongside the elephants through the jungle. We fully support this experience; it is an ethical way to spend time with the animals in their natural habitat. The more people that ask for this option and take a stand against riding, the higher the chances that they will remove the riding option altogether in the future.

Enjoy a chilled evening listening to local musicians

Like most areas in Sumatra, the locals of Tangkahan adore their music. You’ll be hard pressed to go anywhere without being in earshot of someone strumming guitar and singing.

What’s more, like the local Batak Toba culture, Batak Karo seem to all be born with incredible singing voices, not to mention the ability to play the guitar skillfully.

While traditional Karonese songs are usually all about love and heartbreak – as are the majority of Indonesian songs – there are many great local tunes. Want to sing along? All good, everyone knows an impressive array of popular English songs too. You’ll spend many a long evening sitting around in your restaurant of choice while groups of people serenade you.

What’s the weather like in Tangkahan?

Being on the edge of the rainforest gives Tangkahan a more humid, wetter climate than other areas.

Dry season loosely falls between May and September, with wet season October to May.

Dry season in Tangkahan is not dry; it still rains, just less! The rivers will be lower and clearer – but not so good for tubing because you hit your bum on the rocks.

During wet season, it sometimes pours all day but you’ll also see sunny days – it’s a bit of a gamble. The river is higher and muddier as it rushes out of the jungle.

It’s toasty warm and muggy year-round, with the rainstorms offering cool relief. Daytime temperatures are around 28-30 degrees.

The busiest months that see the most tourists in the village are July and August. It’s never crowded here, even in high season.

We recommend avoiding a visit at key holiday periods. Christmas, New Year’s and Idul Fitri see ridiculous crowds visiing this humble village. Check ahead to make sure you time your visit to avoid these few days. t

Eating in Tangkahan

Jungle food in Tangkahan
Amazing local food at Tangkahan Inn

Most of the accommodations have their own restaurant attached. All have the standard Indonesian fare but many have Western options too: think spaghetti, toasted sandwiches, and French fries.

In the visitor’s centre area there are a couple of warungs (small restaurants) serving delicious local food at great prices. And don’t forget the local “juice bar” where you can get freshly pulped fruit of your choice.

Beer is widely available throughout the village, but you won’t find wine or spirits here unless you bring it yourself.

Karonese Culture and the Community Spirit

Tangkahan remains a small, close community. The majority of residents are Karonese (one of the six native Batak tribes found in Sumatra). Everyone seems to be everyone’s brother from another mother.

This is a place that will make you feel welcome instantly. If you’re doing it right, you’ll feel like you have a second family by the time you leave.

Like the other Batak cultures, Karonese people have their own unique language, music, food, costumes and architecture. However, you won’t see any traditional style houses in Tangkahan; you’ll need to go to the heart of Karoland in Berastagi/Tanah Karo for that.

Because Tangkahan is still a relatively small tourist destination, it retains its respect and consideration for guests. You won’t have hordes of guides trying to sell you their guesthouse, treks, or transportation when you arrive. Instead, expect a lot of smiling faces who are generally interested in you and want to give you a special experience in their village.

This means riverside lunches or restaurant tables painstakingly decorated with leaves and flowers and a welcoming community ready to help you with anything you need.

Karo culture is friendly, welcoming and definitely capable of humour and fun. But there is still a traditional air of respect and politeness. also maintains a certain level of respect and politeness. Bikinis are not the swimwear of choice in this village. Respectful guests will swim in shorts and singlets or t-shirts, and not wander around the village or guesthouse in next to nothing.

Amenities in Tangkahan

ATMs and Banks

There is no ATM in Tangkahan. The nearest one is around an hour away in Batang Serangan – if it’s even working! Make sure you bring enough cash with you.

Medical

The nearest pharmacy is 30 minutes away in Titi Mangga; the nearest big hospital is even further afield in Binjai. However, most tourists will want to head back to the bigger hospitals in Medan for anything serious.

If you have aches and pains from trekking, ask a local to point you in the direction of a masseuse. There are a few in the village who practice traditional medicine and work miracles.

Electricity

Although Tangkahan has power, power-cuts are common. Most accommodations have generators for use in the evening if needed.

Police

There’s no police station in Tangkahan but this is one of the safest areas I’ve ever traveled to. There is zero theft or crime, particularly against tourists. The tight-knit community will take care of you as if you were family.

Wifi

The visitor’s centre offers free wifi if you need to connect. However, being a remote jungle village, it’s pretty slow and often doesn’t work! There is some 3G connection in the area; buy a local sim on the way and load it with data if you absolutely must stay connected.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. great information, thanks very much. Looks like a lovely place to visit. Our trip to Sumatra starts end Oct, we cant wait !!

    1. So happy you found it useful! Feel free to get in touch if you need any more info – it’s hard to squeeze it all in 🙂 I’m sure you will love it there, such an incredible destination!

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