The Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary is a hidden paradise in Indonesia where you can wash and play with semi-wild Sumatra elephants in their natural environment.
This riverside elephant sanctuary sits on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is one of the most important (and threatened) rainforests in the world, and the jungle has a great variety of rare animals.
The Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary is easy to visit from the popular orangutan trekking hub of Bukit Lawang, or there’s even some Tangkahan accommodation starting to pop up for people who might want to stay with the Sumatra elephants longer.
This travel guide will explain how to get to Tangkahan, where to stay, and everything else you need to know before you go!
Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary: What To Expect
The Gunung Leuser National Park is a protected jungle area in North Sumatra where you can see all kinds of animals, including tigers, rare birds & lizards, orangutans, and much more.
This rainforest, and the animals in it, are threatened by illegal deforestation and poaching, and the Sumatran elephants are critically endangered.
At the Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary, they have 9 rescued elephants (a new baby was just born) and you can pet them, feed them, and help bathe them in the river. It was a great experience!
They also let you do elephant rides, which is an important source of exercise for the animals since they aren’t quite as active in a sanctuary as they would be in the wild.
From what we saw, the elephants are well cared for, have lots of freedom of movement, and seemed very happy when we visited.
I’ll discuss the ethics and conservation aspect a bit later in this article.
• Tangkahan Elephant Washing
One of the main activities here is the Tangkahan elephant washing, where you can bathe and scrub a Sumatra elephant in the river.
Sadly they weren’t doing the elephant washing when we visited, because it was during the covid pandemic and we were the only visitors.
We’ll have to come back for this sometime!
• Tangkahan River Lunch
We booked a Tangkahan half day tour through our hotel, and one of the things it included was a lunch by the riverside.
They made a hilarious jungle crown for Intan using fern leaves, and then fixed a meal for us that included fresh fruit, veggies, rice, chicken, and fish.
It was fun, and the scenery at the river was amazing. The water was a clear turquoise color.
• Tangkahan Waterfalls
There are a bunch of small waterfalls near Tangkahan, including some where you can swim.
The waterfalls are very close to the village and barely require any hiking, but they may involve stream crossings, so a waterproof bag is a good idea for your electronics.
• Jungle Trekking
The most popular place for jungle trekking is Bukit Lawang (which is where we did our treks), but you can also trek at Tangkahan and the experience is similar.
Gunung Leuser is an amazing jungle habitat where you can see wild orangutans, gibbons, Thomas leaf monkeys, long tailed macaques, monitor lizards, giant ants, limestone caves, spectacular banyan trees, and other jungle sights.
There’s also the possibility of seeing rare birds, Sumatran tigers, rhinos, sun bears, pig tailed macaques, vipers, cobras, kraits, and many other things.
Sumatran Elephant Conservation
Sumatran elephants are critically endangered because of illegal deforestation and poaching. Their native habitat in Sumatra is being destroyed by humans and replaced with crops.
Even though the elephant is protected under Indonesian law, the government hasn’t done much to enforce it, and 50% of the world’s Sumatran elephants died between 1985 and 2007.
Sadly, conservationists think that the Sumatran elephant may become extinct in the wild in less than 10 years if the poaching isn’t stopped.
This is important to understand, because rescue sanctuaries like this one at Tangkahan are a necessity. They give the elephants a place where they can live and reproduce in peace.
Tangkahan isn’t perfect, but the hope is that the tourist money flowing into places like this will help incentivize the proper protection of these animals so we can keep enjoying them in the future.
We never noticed any kind of distress from the animals, and they actually seemed really happy and healthy. You can always tell if elephants are in a good mood by the wagging tail, just like dogs.
Are Tangkahan Elephant Rides Ethical?
One of the popular things to do at Tangkahan sanctuary is to ride the elephants, but is it ethical?
People’s opinions on this are all over the place, so if you don’t feel okay about riding elephants at Tangkahan then you don’t need to do it. There are lots of other good activities at Tangkahan.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the ACEWG international elephant conservation group believes elephant riding in certain cases is ethical and definitely doesn’t hurt the animal.
ACEWG is an elephant conservation group that includes some of the world’s top elephant specialists, scientists, and conservationists. Here’s what they have to say:
As for elephant riding, the ACEWG notes that while veracious studies have not been conducted on elephants specifically, it is known that horses, dogs, and donkeys have a weight-carrying capacity of about 20-to-25 percent of their body weight. For a 6,600-pound elephant, that’s at least 1,320 pounds.
“If the working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle (less than 10 percent of the elephant’s body weight) will not be an undue stressor for an elephant,” the organization reports. “The weight of one or two people without a saddle (less than 4 percent of body weight) would hardly be noticed.”
Source: CN Traveler
Again, even if you don’t want to ride the elephants at Tangkahan, there are plenty of other good activities to do here.
We didn’t have time to ride or wash the elephants, but we still enjoyed our visit very much. The scenery is really nice, and we got to see elephants up close, so that was good enough for us.
How To Get To Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary
The Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary is located in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
The nearest international airport is in the city of Medan (KNO). Medan gets daily flights from places like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta starting at $40 USD for a one way ticket. You can shop for flights to Medan at Skyscanner.
Tangkahan is a 3+ hour drive from Medan city, or 2 hours from Bukit Lawang. If you’re coming from the Medan airport in heavy traffic, it can be 4+ hours of driving.
Most of the road to Tangkahan is in good shape, but the last hour is on bumpy dirt roads with potholes. Your hotel can arrange a driver to pick you up from Medan, or you can book a driver online here.
The other option is to book a tour to Tangkahan from Bukit Lawang. This can be a good idea because Lawang has better hotels and more things to do.
Best Tangkahan Tour
Here’s a top rated Tangkahan tour package with Klook for seeing the elephants at Gunung Leuser National Park, starting from either Bukit Lawang or Medan.
They have a one day Tangkahan tour starting from Bukit Lawang, or a 3D2N tour starting from Medan that also includes the orangutan trekking at Bukit Lawang.
This tour is a good option if you’re staying outside of Tangkahan, but want to spend at least one day seeing the Sumatran elephant sanctuary.
We’ve used Klook for lots of tours and activities around the world, and they’re great! Highly recommended.
Book Now: Tangkahan Elephant Tour
Tangkahan Accommodation – Where To Stay
Tangkahan has a bunch of budget friendly hotels that are basic, but comfortable.
Here are some of our top picks:
- Green Forest Tangkahan – Single rooms and family rooms available plus free breakfast – 160k IDR ($11 USD)
- Green Lodge Tangkahan – Garden views on the north side of Tangkahan village – 150k IDR ($10)
- Mountain View Cottages & Restaurant – Garden or mountain view with free breakfast – 200k IDR ($14)
These prices are current at the time of posting, but may fluctuate from time to time.
There’s also the option of staying at a hotel in Bukit Lawang or Medan, and doing a day trip to Tangkahan from there.
Bukit Lawang has more hotel options than Tangkahan, and more things to do, so it’s generally a better place to base yourself.
The main reason to stay at Tangkahan accommodation would be to get more time with the elephants, because this is the only place you can see them.
Other Tangkahan Tips
- ATM: There’s no ATM in Tangkahan, so make sure you bring enough cash. The nearest ATM is the one outside of Bukit Lawang. You can also pay things by bank transfer. Credit cards aren’t accepted.
- Hotels: Tangkahan accommodation is very basic. Expect cold showers and fan only, no A/C. The fan should be enough to keep you cool at night. Electricity is stable, but sometimes there are short outages.
- WiFi: There’s almost no WiFi in the village or at any of the Tangkahan accommodation, but that may change before too long.
- Cell Service: Telkomsel has decent 3G/4G reception in the village. We were able to use this for a hotspot at times.
- Restaurants: There aren’t really standalone restaurants yet, but you can eat all of your meals at your Tangkahan accommodation. Many of the hotels include free breakfast.
- Safety: We spent months traveling as a couple in North Sumatra and overall it’s very safe. Just take normal precautions. If you’re a solo female traveler, you can ask about joining a trekking group with other tourists.
- Mosquitoes: According to this Lancet study from 2018, Malaria is rare in this part of Sumatra. I’ve never heard of a tourist getting Malaria from mosquitoes in the Bukit Lawang area. However, it’s still a very good idea to sleep inside a mosquito net and wear repellant while out and about, just in case. Malaria can be nasty and dangerous.
More Things To Do Near Tangkahan
• Bukit Lawang: Orangutan Trekking
Bukit Lawang is the main trekking town at the Gunung Leuser National Park, and it’s one of the best places to see the Sumatran orangutans in the wild.
Don’t forget to check out my complete guide for orangutan jungle trekking at Lawang! This is a must do on your visit to North Sumatra.
It’s only a 2 hour drive from Tangkahan to Bukit Lawang, or vice versa.
Read More: Bukit Lawang Orangutan Trekking
• Batu Katak: Rafflesia & Titan Flower Trekking
Batu Katak is another small village on the east side of Leuser where you can do flower trekking to see the giant Rafflesia and Titan Arum, two of the biggest flowers in the world!
This was one of the best highlights of our visit to North Sumatra. The Titan Arum flowers can grow to be 3 meters (10 feet) tall! There’s also several limestone water caves to see near Batu Katak, but I had an injured leg so we didn’t get to do the cave treks yet.
Batu Katak is 3 hours south of Tangkahan, or 40 minutes south of Bukit Lawang. You can message Joe on WhatsApp (☎ +62 812-6340-3452) and he can arrange your pickup, trekking, and other info. He was a huge help for planning our trip.
When To Visit Tangkahan
Gunung Leuser National Park has a tropical rainforest climate that doesn’t follow the same weather patterns as the rest of Indonesia. You can find a monthly breakdown here.
I wouldn’t stress about when to visit. Every month is rainy at Tangkahan, because it’s a rainforest! The driest months are February, March, June, and July, but the rainfall is still much higher than places like Bali.
We went in December and the weather was good for seeing the elephants. The rain usually comes in the evenings or at night, and only lasts a few hours max.
Most tourists come in June – August, so if you want to avoid the crowds, pick a different month. Happy travels!
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Useful info! How recent was your visit?
This was in mid December 2020, right after they reopened.
Hi! just wondering about the internet connection there. Did you get an internet connection at your accommodation? With Telkomsel? Was the signal good? Me and my friends are planning to go there next week, and one of us might need to make a call (over Zoom) while we’re there so we’re just wondering whether that would be possible. Thanks!
Hi Annisa! Yeah, in the main part of the village we had some 4G connection with Telkomsel. It would be good enough for normal calls on WhatsApp etc, but I’m not sure about Zoom. Good luck!
That myth has been debunked many times. As long as the elephant is only carrying a small percentage of its body weight (i.e. 1 or 2 people), riding does not hurt it at all. It’s equivalent to a person carrying a 10 pound backpack. But you don’t have to ride the elephants if you don’t want to.
These elephants would be dead without the sanctuary at Tangkahan, so there’s no question it’s good for them. By avoiding the sanctuary because it’s not perfect, you’re actually hurting elephant conservation, even if your intentions are good.
“As for elephant riding, the ACEWG notes that while veracious studies have not been conducted on elephants specifically, it is known that horses, dogs, and donkeys have a weight-carrying capacity of about 20-to-25 percent of their body weight. For a 6,600-pound elephant, that’s at least 1,320 pounds. “If the working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle (less than 10 percent of the elephant’s body weight) will not be an undue stressor for an elephant,” the organization reports. “The weight of one or two people without a saddle (less than 4 percent of body weight) would hardly be noticed.”
From here: https://www.cntraveler.com/story/is-it-ever-okay-to-ride-elephants-while-on-vacation