Stranded In Sumatra During The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Jeff and Zuzi sitting by the edge of the river in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. The cover photo for Stranded In Sumatra

What’s it like to be stranded in Sumatra during the coronavirus pandemic? This wasn’t exactly the kind of question we thought our friends and family back home would be asking right now.

We preferred to tell them about the amazing sites we’d seen and the incredible experiences we’ve had. Instead, I’m writing about a completely new situation. One that has forced the whole world to change their entire way of life.

Having The Adventure Of Our Lives

couple taking a selfie in a hot air balloon in Myanmar
Hot air ballon ride in Bagan, Myanmar

From spending Christmas Day with Komodo dragons, and sipping cocktails on pristine Thai beaches, to magical hot air balloon rides in Myanmar, and sunrises over Angkor Wat. Travelling through Southeast Asia was everything we had dreamed it would be. There were also some questionable meal choices in Cambodia (yes, we got the shits) and a near-miss as we, and our semi-functioning motorbike, were ran off the road.

Everything was going to plan (or it would’ve done if we actually had a plan!) Every site that we visited, every local we chatted to, and even every bad experience we had, just made the journey more life-changing.

Then, all of a sudden, the most life-changing event of our lives, maybe in everyone’s lives, brought our travels to a halt. Just like it did with the entire world!

Learning About The Coronavirus

The first time we had even heard about the coronavirus wasn’t until the end of January. One of my friends back in the UK posted a news article about the virus on his Facebook account!

Staying ‘connected’ wasn’t exactly a priority for us. Our phones were mainly for taking photos and using offline maps. We didn’t want local SIMs as we weren’t interested in being engrossed in social media during our excursions. So when we did finally have WiFi, the last thing we wanted to read was the news!

It turned out that the coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak was spreading throughout Asia rapidly. Without knowing how bad it would get, we carried on travelling as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

What Was It Like Travelling During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

Zuzi walks through an empty garden
Walking through empty landmarks in Laos

The first time we felt that something just wasn’t quite right was at the end of January. We’d just arrived back in Bangkok from Chiang Rai. It was our first time back there for three weeks and we saw more people wearing face masks than before. And this was a place where people regularly wear face masks. We were even given free masks by some nice Thai police officers! We also noticed that there were barely any Chinese tourists around. Now that was a rare site in Bangkok!

Although we still weren’t aware of the seriousness of the outbreak, news of the virus had clearly affected people’s travel plans. Every country we visited from the end of January was suffering from a supposed, slow decline in tourism. This wasn’t something we saw so easily in real time though. It wasn’t like we had visited those places when world wasn’t on the verge of a pandemic!

Empty lanes at a bowling alley in Luang Prabang
Empty bowling alley. The dog still beat me!

We were constantly being told that there were usually a lot more tourists around, especially from China. We knew it was in poor taste but we counted ourselves to be lucky travelling at such a time. In fact, we wondered why more tourists didn’t cancel their trips so we could have the entire place to ourselves.

Why Were We In Sumatra?

Zuzi trekking through the forest in Bukit Lawang
Jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang

Indonesia was supposed to be our last destination before we returned to the UK. The plan was to start in Sumatra, then Java and finishing in Bali where we had hoped to treat ourselves to some relaxation (travelling isn’t always easy, you know?)

Bukit Lawang was our first port of call. A small village in the middle of Sumatra, it’s famous for being the entry point to the Gunung Leuser National Park – home to wild orangutans!

There are only two places left in the world where wild orangutans can be seen. Sumatra and Borneo. After reading up on both locations we thought Bukit Lawang, in Sumatra, would be a more authentic choice. We arrived after a long day that included two flights and a five hour car journey before meeting our host at the guesthouse.

The next day was supposed to be spent relaxing after our long journey. Unfortunately, there was an announcement from local authorities that the Gunung Leuser National Park would be closed due to the coronavirus. We did go jungle trekking that day but we would be one of the last tourists to enter the national park for weeks. Maybe for months!

Jeff and Zuzi stare out into the jungle in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra
The last tourists to trek through the national park?

Travel Plans On Hold – Frustration!

For the next few days we reluctantly read the news to try and decide our next move. It looked increasingly likely that we would be stranded in Sumatra. We would have to wait a while before we could continue our incredible journey in Java and Bali.

The date of our return flight was creeping up on us so a decision had to made. In the end, we decided to stay in Bukit Lawang!

The thought of leaving Indonesia without really seeing any of the country was something we didn’t want to think about. We still had hope that there would be positive news in the weeks to come. Bali, after all, had one of the lowest number of cases in Asia.

The outbreak was also starting to take it’s toll on South America. We had big plans to go there next but the news coming out of the continent looked worse than Europe.

We had to accept that thoughts about travelling would have to be put on hold. For now!

Why Didn’t We Return To The UK?

Two backpackers at Singapore airport
We weren’t ready to return yet!

We thought about returning to the UK for a long time. Hours were spent trying to figure out what would be the best solution for both of us. The list of questions seemed to go on and on… Where would we live? How would we find jobs? Is it even possible with what was happening right now?

The situation in Europe didn’t exactly entice us back either. Slovakia had already introduced a compulsory 14-day quarantine for returning Slovakians from 13th March. Then, the UK was put into lockdown on the 23rd of March.

Since the outbreak in Europe was brought over from Asia, we didn’t want to risk being asymptomatic and taking the virus home to our families. There are also less cases and deaths in Asia (excluding China) as people were less likely to break lockdown and social distancing regulations!

Finally, at the beginning of April, it was confirmed that we wouldn’t be returning any time soon. An email from Etihad stating that our flight from Singapore to the UK had been cancelled. With Singapore closing their borders, this news was to be expected. The only problem is that it’s now been nearly two months and we’re still waiting to hear about a refund!

How Has Indonesia Dealt With The Pandemic?

Indonesia has the one of worst COVID-19 infection rates and mortality rates in Asia. The absence of widespread testing and poor public health management have been a major contribution since the countries first case in March.

Instead of an enforced lockdown, large-scale social restrictions have been introduced. Something that has been heavily criticised by other nations. However, with domestic transportation cancelled, meaning freedom of movement between major cities, the virus is theoretically contained.

We don’t work for the WHO so it’s not for us to say whether this will work or not. We just know that since we’ve been in Bukit Lawang no visitors have been allowed in or out. The reduced number of infections in recent days seem to indicate that there is hope yet!

What Is It Like In Bukit Lawang??

Jeff standing above Bukit Lawang

The first few days seemed pretty normal. Small groups of tourists were still walking around. Locals were still working in the few shops that were open and there was still live music being played on some evenings. Everything seemed to be open as usual, for us anyway, but it wasn’t long before the pandemic pretty much shut down the entire tourism industry here.

Dog walks through closed shops in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

The shops have all but closed in the days that followed except for two or three determined owners. Most of the tourists have returned to their home countries with only a handful that are sticking it out (like us!) The area is usually busy at weekends with locals from nearby villages but even they’ve decided it’s safer avoid large crowds.

I could go on, and on, about how being stranded in Sumatra seems like a bad dream but the truth is that the word stranded is a pretty harsh adjective. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Bukit Lawang is basically a jungle paradise!

Our Jungle Paradise

Image of thr river running throug Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

Most of the days in Bukit Lawang are sunny and hot (and humid) but we get a refreshing hour or so of rain in late afternoon to cool us down! We are living in the rainforest after all!

Our accommodation at Soul Guesthouse is super affordable and the owner, Leli, has become our close friend (or our jungle brother!) His sister cooks us delicious food everyday at the restaurant, which we eat along with our two adopted, and watchful, cats! More importantly, we are not confined to our room and are free to walk around the village.

Zuzi stares at a monkey on the rooftop
Greeting our jungle neighbours!

We often open our door in the morning to see monkeys playing on our terrace or colourful birds flying around in the garden. On our walks we’ve encountered a variety of lizards, snakes, frogs and, best of all, we once saw a mother orangutan and her few-week old baby!

Even the negative things have a positive side to them. For example, we don’t have hot water but who really needs it when it’s over 30°C and humid everyday? Then there’s the romantic evenings where the place is lit up with candles due to the power cuts. And who doesn’t love an adventurous thirty-minute motorbike ride just to get to the nearest cash machine?

What Have We Been Doing?

Zuzi sits next to the river in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

To begin with? Not a lot! There was always that small possibility that our travels could begin again so we spent the first few days, and weeks, just relaxing. When it became clear that it would be travel of any kind would not be an option, we both knew we had to do something a bit more productive.

Aside from reading the odd book and watching the odd movie, we tried to be more active and take advantage of the situation rather than look for excuses!

Couple spot an orangutan across the river
Orangutan spotting by the river

We go on walks along the river pretty much everyday. Often along the river where we, can sometimes, see a variety of animals who visit us from the jungle. Sometimes we need to go for supplies so we walk through the village to the nearest mini-mart, some two kilometres away. We often just walk down to the river and chill with a beer. It’s the perfect place to spot orangutans!

Lastly, I was always complaining that I never had any time to work on my blog. Well, now was as good a time as any! The last few weeks have been spent re-familiarising myself with the blog. Sorting and editing photos (thanks Zuzi,) trying to grow my social media and, of course, writing informative, engaging posts.

Normally, I don’t usually go into detail about our personal lives but I wanted to tell our story to whoever wanted to listen. I wanted our friends and family to know that we are safe and still enjoying ourselves and trying to make the best our of a bad situation.

When Can We Travel Again?

Jeff is thinking next to the river

That’s the question we ALL want to know the answer to!

It’s so difficult to answer that at this moment. Even now as we approach June it’s unclear as to what, or where, will be open for tourism. Some countries in Europe are planning to open up to tourists while most countries in Asia have no plans to allow foreign visitors yet. The situation is changing every day and we are still hoping that there will be some positive news in the coming weeks.

For now, we are quite happy to be stranded in Sumatra a little bit longer. We might be able to travel again at some point but the reality is that this might not happen until next year. And we accept that! This thing is bigger than all of us and travel plans go out the window when people are losing loved ones every single day. The most important thing for us, and all our family and friends back home, is to stay healthy and stay safe.

So the coronavirus might have caused us to be stranded in Sumatra, but hat’s not an excuse not to stay positive! I hope this post has given you an insight of what we’re going through and that you now know that we are both safe and happy. If you liked this post, or want to know anything else, then please leave a comment. Thanks!

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