Is Indonesia a Family-Friendly Destination?

Apr 29, 2019

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When considering Indonesia as a family vacation destination, you probably think of Bali. This is a great option, but only one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands. While only around 6,000 of these are inhabited, this still leaves you with enormous travel possibilities.

It’s hardly possible to “do” Indonesia in a single trip, even if you’re a hardened traveler. The best way to approach Indonesia as a travel destination with kids is to simply pick one of the islands to visit. But which are suited for a family trip?

Here are some places that should be on the radar of family travelers.

Kids will enjoy the dance and music performances in Bali (Photo by Elen Turner)
Kids will enjoy the dance and music performances in Bali. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Bali

First things first: Bali is an excellent choice for family travelers. You don’t need to have any Southeast Asian travel experience to feel comfortable bringing your kids to Bali. Gorgeous beaches, a wide range of accommodations, fascinating culture, and mountains and terraced farmland for a change of scene from the beach… You’d be easily forgiven for opening the Indonesia guidebook straight to the Bali section.

Some family-friendly activities in Bali include:

  • Swimming and snorkeling at the beach
  • Cycling through the countryside from Ubud
  • The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud
  • A traditional dance performance at a temple in Ubud
  • Waterbom Water Park
  • Surfing lessons
  • Visiting a treehouse restaurant or treetop adventure park
  • The Turtle Conservation and Education Center, Denpasar
  • Balinese cooking classes

Bali is also an easy destination for travelers wanting to utilize their points and miles. Check out our article on The 8 Best Ways to Get to Bali on Points and Miles to find out more. Plan on flying into Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS).

Accommodation in Indonesia ranges for budget backpacker to luxurious resorts (Photo by Elen Turner)
Nusa Lembongan island, off the south coast of Bali. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Nusa Tenggara

Bali is undoubtedly a convenient destination for family travelers, but overtourism is becoming a problem there. If you’re seeking a more ethical beach destination with a slightly higher “rugged” factor, head to the province of Nusa Tenggara instead, east of Bali.

The Gili Islands (Trawangan, Meno and Air) in particular are a great option for family travelers. These tiny islands are white-sand-beach paradise. Family travelers should head to Gili Meno, which has less of a party scene than Trawangan and Air. You don’t even have to stay on the Gilis, as they can be visited on day trips from Lombok (LOP).

Nusa Tenggara province also includes Lombok, Komodo and Flores. You can’t stay overnight on Komodo — famous for its incredible Komodo dragon lizards — but can take a day trip when staying in Flores’ Labuan Bajo. (Just be aware that the Indonesian government is considering closing the island for one year, starting January 2020. This is an effort to protect the Komodo dragons that are being stolen and sold overseas. Keep an eye on this situation if you have your heart set on a visit to the island.)

As well as the beautiful beaches, Lombok is home to Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, Mount Rinjani. While climbing it might be a bit too much for most kids as it’s a multiday trip, if you have older kids who like hiking, Lombok offers a balanced mix of beach time and jungle hiking trails.

Visit the famous dragons on Indonesia
Visit the famous dragons on Indonesia’s Komodo and Rinca Islands. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Java

Many people consider Java to be Indonesia’s heartland — the island is home to some of Indonesia’s most important cities, including the capital, Jakarta, and the de facto cultural capital, Yogyakarta. Note that Java is seriously populated, with more than half of Indonesia’s population squeezed onto a relatively small island. Whereas in some Southeast Asian destinations you may be used to traveling through the countryside between villages and towns, in Java there isn’t really any “in between.” That’s not to say that the whole island is one big city, because there’s still smaller, more chilled out places and nature. But on Java, you will never be far from other people or settlements. If you have older kids who would be interested in cultural and natural attractions, don’t overlook it.

Yogyakarta (commonly called Jogja), in central Java, is a comfortable base for checking out the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Borobudur (a Buddhist site) and Prambanan (a Hindu temple). Both have been compared to Angkor Wat in terms of historic and architectural style and importance. Although they get a steady stream of visitors, you won’t have to hustle for space here in the same way as you do at Angkor. Plus, they’re not as enormous as Angkor, so you won’t risk “templing out” your kids as much. Yogyakarta is itself an attractive city, with old palaces and water gardens, markets and artsy attractions.

Another highlight of travel in Java is Mount Bromo, in East Java. This active volcano is constantly smoking away. If your kids are up for it, sunrise here is especially beautiful, and you can go for walks and Jeep rides over the lava fields. Older kids may be fascinated to learn firsthand about the science of volcanoes.

Sunrise over Mount Bromo in East Java (Photo by Elen Turner)
Sunrise over Mount Bromo in East Java. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Borneo / Kalimantan

The island of Borneo is the largest in Asia, and shared by three countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — with the largest portion being Indonesia’s Kalimantan province.

It’s more common for travelers to visit the Malaysian portion of Borneo, with the states of Sabah and Sarawak offering gorgeous beaches, diving, jungle hiking and wildlife experiences like orangutan rehabilitation centers. (Indonesian Borneo offers some of the same natural features, but without much infrastructure for travelers, or widespread English proficiency  as Indonesia wasn’t colonized by the British like Malaysia was.) Unless you have experience traveling in more rugged regions of Southeast Asia, we recommend traveling with your kids to Malaysian parts of Borneo instead. You’ll probably have an easier time and will still get a good idea of what Indonesian Borneo looks like.

The jungles of Indonesia offer fun activities for older kids. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Sumatra

Sumatra is Indonesia’s largest island by land mass, so there’s a lot to see and do here. If you and your kids are really keen on seeing orangutans in the Indonesian rainforest, the town of Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra is a good place to head. The town is right beside the densely forested Gunung Leuser National Park, which is not only home to orangutans but also monkeys, lizards and birds. The ecological diversity here is incredible, and a day hike will be a great science, biology and geography lesson for kids. There are options to walk one way through the jungle, and then raft back to the starting point, along the Sungai Bohorok River.

Fly into Medan (KNO), but don’t hang around there for long. Medan is a big city, and it’s easy to fly there from other parts of Indonesia, as well as from Kuala Lumpur (KUL), Penang (PEN) in Malaysia, and Singapore (SIN).

A Note on Accommodations

Bali offers the widest range of accommodations, including many top-end resorts and hotels that can be booked with points. Check out some of the following guides:

Outside of Bali, and outside of Indonesia’s major cities (which we don’t recommend family travelers stay in for long unless you are experience and know what you are getting into), lodging is mostly limited to smaller, independent and local brands, including family-run guesthouses and boutique hotels. Lovely, affordable options are available throughout the country. If traveling to more remote places, it’s usually necessary to take the luxury level down a few notches.

Homestay accommodations are also a great option for family travelers, and available in some more out-of-the-way places, like Bukit Lawang. Although not luxurious, you’ll be welcomed into the family and will get a chance to see how ordinary Indonesians live. This is an especially valuable experience for kids.

The Buddhist site of Borobodur, near Yogyakarta, will interest older kids (Photo by Elen Turner)
The Buddhist site of Borobudur, near Yogyakarta, will interest older kids. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Practical Tips

Clothing

Outside Bali, both women and men should dress conservatively, covering knees and shoulders. It’s not necessary for women to wear a headscarf in most places, and many Indonesian women don’t. Even in Bali it’s a good idea to err on the side of modesty when outside beach areas, as the locals dress conservatively to visit temples. In any case, most of Indonesia is hot, so wearing loose clothes that protect you from the sun is sensible.

Like many places with a hot climate, waterparks are popular family attractions around Indonesia, and not just in Bali. Modest dress is expected at these places — absolutely no bikinis or even “regular” bathing suits. You’ll see local women wearing “burkinis” or full-length tops and leggings, so follow suit at these destinations.

Transportation

Unfortunately, some forms of transportation in Indonesia don’t have a great reputation for safety. Long-distance buses can be slow and uncomfortable, and trains are restricted to Java and parts of Sumatra. Inter-island ferries sink or have accidents with terrifying frequency. Domestic flights are frequently delayed, and also have a poor safety record (notwithstanding the horrific Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crash in October 2018, which is the subject of ongoing investigations into the Boeing 737 Max airplane’s safety).

None of this is to put family travelers off visiting Indonesia — most travelers have an incident-free trip. However, you might want to limit the amount of domestic travel you do within Indonesia with your family. Stick to one or two main regions.

Health

It’s not generally safe to drink the tap water in Indonesia, so bring some refillable bottles and a filtration device, so you can cut down on the number of single-use bottles you have to buy.

The general immunizations for travelers are recommended for Indonesia. Unless you’re going off the beaten path, you don’t have to worry much about malaria, although it is present in eastern areas, including parts of Nusa Tenggara. Dengue fever is more of a concern, even in Bali, and has seen a spike in cases in the last year or so. It doesn’t have a vaccination or cure, so do all you can to prevent you or your kids from being bitten by mosquitoes.

Potty Facilities

Many parts of Southeast Asia offer restrooms that can present a challenge to children — and even some adults. Learn how to prepare your kids for the “squatty potty” and more.

Local Interactions

Indonesians all over the country tend to be warm and welcoming of kids, and Indonesian society is very family-oriented. You’re also likely to encounter groups of Indonesian school kids in many tourist attractions, who are keen to practice their English with native English speakers. They often have little questionnaires written down on sheets of paper so they’re always ready for an interview! If your kids are outgoing, they’ll likely have many chances to interact with local Indonesian kids.

Bottom Line

With so many natural and cultural attractions, Indonesia is a beautiful and interesting destination that adults and kids will enjoy. The beaches are a particular draw, but the forests and cultural sites shouldn’t be overlooked.

Indonesia is massive, diverse and very spread out. It’s rugged and underdeveloped in parts, and extremely well set up for family travelers in other parts. If you and your kids don’t have much (or any) experience traveling in Southeast Asia, sticking to Bali and nearby areas like Lombok and the Gili Islands may be the most comfortable option. Families who are up for roughing it a bit have an almost endless collection of islands to choose from, where they’ll find spectacular nature, landscapes and culture.

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Featured image by Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

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