This gluten free Sumatra guide includes all the information you need on how you can go trekking for orangutans in Sumatra – without getting glutened!
Sumatra is an island in northern Indonesia. It is one of the last two places in the world where you can see wild orangutans. But is it possible for someone with celiac disease to safely visit Sumatra, Indonesia?
My answer is yes, but it does require planning and limits the kind of activities you can do. However, the extra effort to plan ahead is well worth it in my opinion. This guide shares all my tips for organizing your own gluten free Sumatra adventure.
Gluten Free Sumatra: Why It’s Challenging
I worried a lot about eating gluten free in Sumatra, and rightly so. In fact, Dan and I agreed that we wouldn’t even book our flights until we could confirm that I’d be able to eat safely (more on how we did that below).
Why is Sumatra such a gluten nightmare?
1. Lack of awareness
Sumatra is an extremely remote place, with little to no awareness of allergies and dietary restrictions in general, let alone the complexities of gluten and celiac disease.
2. Lots of gluten in the cuisine
To make matters worse, Indonesian cuisine is full of gluten via kecap manis (their version of soy sauce) and gluten-containing packet seasonings.
3. High cross contact risk
Kitchens are often extremely small, with old pots and pans that have scratches in them, and oil that’s reused, meaning cross contact risk is high.
4. Language barrier
Many people don’t speak English, making communicating the complexities of gluten free and celiac across language barriers very challenging.
You can buy a gluten free Indonesian translation card (which I recommend you do) but I personally don’t believe that this, alone, is enough to keep you safe on an island with both tons of gluten and zero understanding of celiac.
All of those factors combine to make Sumatra a challenging place for celiacs… assuming you just turn up on the island and hope for the best.
However, pre-planning with a celiac safe accommodation could save you the headache (and more…) of being glutened.
Gluten Free Sumatra: Accommodation is Everything
Most people come to Sumatra to trek with orangutans.
Bukit Lawang is the jumping off place for orangutan treks into Gunung Leuser National Park.
While in Bukit Lawang, most people stay in a lodge or hotel, and they book all their trekking tours through the hotel. The hotel also tends to provide all meals including breakfast, lunch while trekking, and dinner. (More about overnight treks to come.)
So, the trick here is to find an accommodation that can cater for celiacs.
That way, you can get all your meals through them and only have to worry about the gluten conversation with one point of contact – rather than at individual warungs (Indonesian local restaurants).
My Recommendation for Gluten Free Accommodation in Bukit Lawang
Before we booked our flights to Sumatra, I emailed about four different accommodations in Bukit Lawang asking if they could accommodate my gluten free diet.
Only one emailed back with a satisfactory answer, and that was Sumatra Orangutan Discovery, an ethical trekking company with three rooms on site.
I was really impressed by their response. A lot of times I find places will be like “yeah we can do that” with no other details, and that leaves me distrustful because, as you all know, making gluten free food (especially with no cross contact) can be complicated.
Ellie, the co-owner, was super honest with me and set me at ease with her detailed response. She said that basically the only way to ensure my food was safe was for it to be prepared separately, and for me to order off a special “gluten free menu” that they devised.
Unfortunately, Ellie was away during our trip but her husband Tyson is a chef, and the plan was for him to prepare all our meals. Ellie did a great job not only over email with me but also sending my gluten free restrictions and menu in a group text and informing other guides and staff too.
EMAIL | Ellie’s email is: [email protected]. Be sure to email ahead of time and confirm they can accommodate you during your dates.
Gluten Free Indonesian Translation Card
As I mentioned above, I recommend you buy this Indonesian gluten free translation card for your trip to Sumatra.
I unfortunately wasn’t aware of that card during my own trip to Sumatra, but I can think of multiple instances it would have been extremely useful (to thoroughly explain my gluten free needs to our trekking guides and other people who speak English as a second language – or not at all).
I have since used Equal Eats’ translation cards in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, and found them really well received. I would send it in your initial emails to accommodations in Sumatra, to complement your explanations of gluten in English.
Note: I DO NOT think a translation card ALONE is enough to keep you safe from gluten in Sumatra. But it is a helpful additional tool.
Gluten Free Sumatra: What You Can NOT Eat
Quite a few Indonesian dishes are off limits to gluten free folks because of just a couple problem ingredients.
The main culprits are kecap manis and packet seasonings.
Kecap manis (pronounced “ketchup man-is”) is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce that contains wheat. Be sure to specify both no soy sauce, and no kecap manis.
Packet seasonings, like Knorr and Maggi, are very popular in Indonesia. These seasonings are basically a vehicle for MSG and are a cheap way to add more flavor – unluckily for us celiacs, they also frequently contain wheat.
It’s a nightmare to keep track of which seasoning brands in which flavors contained gluten, so I just asked for a blanket “no packet seasonings” to make life simpler for everyone. Note that these are also sometimes called “powder” in Sumatra.
Adjusting Dishes to be Gluten Free: Harder Than it Sounds
Honestly, most Indonesian dishes contain kecap manis, packet seasonings, or both, making life a struggle for celiacs in Sumatra.
Hypothetically, if you remove these (and other) sources of gluten, then dishes can be safe. But in reality, most warungs will not be able to change their recipes. Understandably so: their kitchens are small, staff are busy, pots and pans are limited, and the food might already be prepped before you order it.
That’s why staying at a celiac-friendly accommodation that could prepare all my food throughout our time in Sumatra was sooooo important. This opened up a ton of food options for me that would not normally be available to celiacs at the average restaurant in Indonesia.
For example, nasi goreng is a popular Indonesian fried rice dish. It always contains kecap manis, as well as wheat-containing prawn crackers, so it’s not safe for celiacs.
I was lucky enough to have Sumatra Orangutan Discovery make me special gluten free nasi goreng, without the kecap manis, for lunch during our jungle treks! You will be hard pressed to find any restaurant or other accommodation in Bukit Lawang who would do this for you.
Gluten Free Menu at Sumatra Orangutan Discovery Villa
As I mentioned, Ellie at Sumatra Orangutan Discovery Villa created a special gluten free menu for me. I was sooo pleased that it had so many options! I will share it below so that you have an idea of what you’ll be able to eat while in Sumatra.
- Fruit salad
- Vegetable omelette, regular omelette (no cheese because it’s highly processed and unsure of exact ingredients)
- Fruit juices, smoothies, fresh coconut
- Vegetable curry, tofu curry, tempe curry, chicken curry served with rice (must have fresh oil, no packet flavors or MSG)
- Egg, aubergine , tofu, tempe sambal served with rice (must have fresh oil)
- Nasi goreng vegetable, nasi goreng chicken, nasi goreng egg (must have fresh oil, no MSG, no packet flavor, no powder on chicken)
- Chicken salad with olive oil and mustard dressing (chicken fried in fresh oil, no powder)
- Daun ubi (tapioca leaf) curry with fried fish served with rice (must have fresh oil, no MSG, and no powder on fish)
- Chicken vegetable soup (no MSG, no packet flavor)
- BBQ chicken (no kecap manis marinade)
Snacks and side dishes:
- Sayur lodeh (boiled vegetable and tofu in coconut) (must have fresh oil, no MSG)
- Patatas bravas with garlic mayonnaise dip (must have fresh oil, no powder)
- French fries (must have fresh oil, no powder)
- Pisang kolak (cooked banana in coconut)
Keep in mind, their menu may change so you should confirm this over email before your stay. You can book your stay online here. Be sure to email them at [email protected] to let them know that you are gluten free.
Eating Gluten Free at Sumatra Orangutan Discovery: My Honest Experience
I’ll be honest that eating gluten free during our stay was not totally without its hiccups. Saying that, I never got sick.
Gluten is a very complicated subject and I was their first ever gluten free guest (what an honor!). I can understand why some mistakes were made. I did have to be on high alert… but that’s life as a celiac. You’re not going to travel to a place as remote as Sumatra without having to work a bit!
And honestly, without the Sumatra Orangutan Discovery team being so willing to work with me and learn about celiac disease, traveling to Sumatra wouldn’t have even been an option!
I say this to show that I deeply appreciate their accommodations, but also to warn you that you will have to advocate for yourself and be watchful of any potential gluten. I explain more below.
Gluten Beware! Things to Watch Out For
As I mentioned, Ellie was out of town during our visit. When we arrived, Tyson, her husband and co-owner, did not at first seem aware of my gluten free needs and so we had a long conversation about it, which cleared some things up.
Below are some of the issues we ran into during our stay, and how we handled them together in order for me to have a safe and completely gluten free experience!
1. Cross Contact Education / Advocacy
I wasn’t sure Tyson totally “got” cross contact. Having been
stuck to a toilet for 72 hours burned before along our travels, I played it cautiously and asked if I could sit in the kitchen and watch him prepare our first meal.
He happily let Dan and I do this and honestly everything was fine. He was sure to prepare my meal first and use clean pans and cutting boards.
CELIAC TRAVEL TIP | I always recommend sitting in the kitchen for the first meal if you’re staying in a homestay that doesn’t have prior knowledge of the gluten free diet. This will set your mind at ease and help the staff better understand celiac, too!
2. Double Check Processed Ingredients
There were a couple questionable ingredients that Tyson asked me if they were safe or not. I used the Google Translate image-to-text feature to scan the ingredient list and check for myself.
These ingredients included mayo (safe), ketchup (safe), chili sauce (not safe), prawn crackers (not safe), kecap manis (not safe), fried onions (not safe), and more.
I was grateful that Tyson always asked me first rather than just using them!
CELIAC TRAVEL TIP | Download the Indonesian language on the Google Translate app before you get to Sumatra, because wifi there can be spotty.
3. Mistakes Happen, And Meals Have to be Remade
During our stay there were a few mistakes, like my omelette twice coming out with toast on it, or the rice coming out covered in the gluten-containing fried onions.
As my fellow celiacs know, it’s not as simple as just removing the toast or the onions. Nope. The whole meal has to be remade because of the cross contact.
Sometimes, this is a really hard concept for non-gluten free people to “get,” and restaurants can make you feel like you’re high-maintenance for asking this.
During our stay, I had to ask Tyson to remake my meals a few times as a result of these mistakes… but he was always extremely accommodating.
Not once did he make me feel bad or like a burden for asking this. He was always very apologetic and the vibes were always positive!
Despite these (fixable) mistakes here and there, I did eat safely the whole time, and had a great experience with good vibes from all the staff. And never got sick!
Check out my other gluten free travel guides…
Read all my gluten free travel guides here.
Day in the Life as a Celiac in Sumatra
Below is a quick look at what I ate during an average day in Sumatra, so you know what to expect. Note that this is quite specific to our stay at Sumatra Orangutan Discovery Villa. If you stay elsewhere you likely won’t have any many options.
We always ordered breakfast the night before, and then ate it around 8-8:30am in the little dining area. My normal breakfast was a big vegetable omelette (no toast, no powder seasoning), a fruit plate shared with Dan, and a french press coffee.
Side note, the coffee here is freaking delicious.
Two of my lunches were out in the jungle during our full-day treks. Both times, Tyson prepared me a gluten free nasi goreng (no kecap manis, no prawn crackers). This came wrapped up all nicely in a banana leaf!
During our treks, we also had a snack break consisting of various fresh fruits: watermelon, passionfruit, banana, orange, and more.
On the other days, I just ordered lunch at the villa, eating everything from aubergine sambal to french fries to patatas bravas to chicken salad to coconut curry and more.
We ate dinner around 7:30-8:30pm back at our accommodation. I tested a few things on the menu but toward the end of our stay, I found it very difficult to not just order my favorites: a banana milkshake, french fries, and aubergine sambal.
Tyson makes a mean sambal, which is an Indonesian chili paste sauce. The chilis are literally plucked straight from their garden, steps away from the kitchen!
Warning, it’s super spicy, but soooo good.
Gluten Free Orangutan Trekking
One limitation that I think is important to note is overnight jungle treks may not be possible with a gluten free diet. This is because the food on these treks is cooked family-style for a full camp of people.
As a result, Dan and I did two separate full-day treks, returning to the accommodation each night after rafting back down the river.
Tyson packed me a gluten free nasi goreng for lunch and then we ate dinner back at the accommodation in the safety of their kitchen.
Ultimately, to me, this wasn’t such a huge loss because I actually believe most orangutans hang out in the first day’s area.
We ended up seeing 10 orangutans total across our two full-day treks, and also got the comfort of our accommodation whereas the camps are quite rustic with no toilets or showers.
Of course sleeping in the jungle would’ve been a very cool experience, but honestly for me it wasn’t a big loss. I enjoy camping but for this trip, my main goal was to see and photograph orangutans (and eat safe gluten free foods).
If, however, your goal is to trek overnight in the jungle, I do think you could work harder than I did to make it possible. For instance, you could book a private trek, or pack dehydrated camping meals from home (one of my go-to’s for remote/adventurous celiac travel – check out my recommended products below!).
Gluten Free Packing List For Sumatra, Indonesia
Sumatra is a remote place and as you can tell from this article, it pays off to plan ahead when you’re visiting this island with a dietary restriction.
I recommend packing some items from home, to make your gluten free experience easier.
Gluten free packing list for Sumatra:
- Gluten free soy sauce (useful for trying nasi goreng and other dishes the “normal” way!)
- Epic jerky bars
- Probar meal replacement bars
- Collapsible tupperware (I’ve been traveling with this exact set for two years and they come in handy when you least expect it!!)
- Sea to Summit travel cutlery set
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Dehydrated meals (see below)
My recommended gluten free camping meals:
- Good To-Go: A Maine-based camping meal company that is 100% gluten free!! I’ve tried nearly all their flavors. My favorites are the mushroom risotto, pad thai, thai curry, and breakfast hash.
- Backpacker’s Pantry: Many of their flavors are gluten free but not all. My favorites are the Kathmandu curry and Summit breakfast scramble (possibly my fave of all time).
- Mountain House: Again, not a dedicated gluten free company but quite a few of their flavors are GF. I really enjoy their beef stew.
Other things to pack for Sumatra:
- Deet bug spray wipes (MUST HAVE!!)
- Camera with a good zoom lens (I used this camera with this lens)
- Dry bag (to keep your camera and phone safe when you raft down the river)
- Reusable water bottle
- GRAYL filter water bottle
- Long pants for trekking
- Tall socks (to prevent leeches)
- Hiking boots with goretex (I swear by these Salomon ones)
- Rain coat
- Bandana (to wipe your sweat – trust me!)
- Kindle paperwhite, cards, and other entertainment
- Anker portable battery (there are not many outlets so we used ours a LOT)
Feel free to leave me a comment below if you have any other questions on what to pack for Sumatra. I’ve only linked to products that I’ve personally bought and loved!
RELATED | My 35 Best Photos of Sumatra Indonesia
Gluten Free Sumatra: Beyond Bukit Lawang
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time on my trip to Sumatra to explore beyond Bukit Lawang.
I’ll be honest that even though I typically love exploring off the beaten path, I also just didn’t feel like doing all the required planning (and I was coming from Japan, so couldn’t order the dehydrated camping meals that I believe are your gateway to gluten free travel in Sumatra beyond Bukit Lawang).
Sumatra Orangutan Discovery do offer help with booking 5, 9, and 14 day (and more!) trips within Sumatra. My approach would be to reach out to them for help with planning your itinerary. Now that they have knowledge about celiac disease after my own visit, I’m sure they can provide some helpful guidance.
If you have any tips of your own for gluten free restaurants or accommodations in Sumatra, please leave a comment below!
Gluten Free Sumatra: Final Thoughts
I absolutely loved my visit to Sumatra. Seeing wild orangutans in their natural habitat was a memory for a lifetime and I want to thank Ellie and Tyson at Sumatra Orangutan Discovery for making that possible for me.
Without their kindness and willingness to learn about the gluten free diet, I would not have been able to visit Sumatra. I highly recommend staying with them in Bukit Lawang to make your gluten free Sumatra dream a reality!