You may be wondering how we ended up considering Sumatra holidays with kids – not somewhere many people (let alone families) visit? To explain the background to our choice; my wife is Japanese and we had decided that we wanted the kids (aged 9 and 7) to experience a school term in Japan, with a family holiday during the Easter holidays beforehand.
We were looking for a destination that was new for us, having previously travelled in Malaysia, Thailand and the southern parts of Indonesia including Bali. We also wanted somewhere less travelled, with lovely beaches and also some time near the jungle where the kids could see some wildlife. After some research, a trip to Northern Sumatra in Indonesia fitted the bill perfectly for us.
If you’re heading off the main tourist routes there are likely to be no direct flights, which means you have the opportunity for a stopover. We chose Kuala Lumpur, an easy to navigate city with great food – the perfect soft landing in Asia.
We flew with Emirates and my tip here is to book on to the A380 aircraft if you can. Some of their A380’S have an Economy Class cabin upstairs, so we pre-booked our seats up here where there is more room, plus going upstairs gives you the illusion of being upgraded. Ask us, and we can give you best advice for seating. Emirates are well known for the incredible ICE entertainment system that’s packed with movies, TV and music so the kids where happily entertained throughout the long flight.
After the flight we expected the kids to be tired, so we booked a night in KL to break the journey. Number 1 child loves high speed trains so we took the train from the airport, although a private car transfer is very affordable in Malaysia.
We stayed in The Aloft, a great option for families with spacious rooms that can sleep 4 and kids will love the roof top pool on the 30th floor. It’s a centrally located opposite the central train station, modern and comfortable KL hotel, which is a welcome break after a plane journey with kids.
Once we had all recovered from jetlag and were able to drag the kids out of the pool, we took a local train a few stops to see KL’s most famous attraction - the Petronas Towers, which were once the tallest buildings in the world. Feeling fully recharged after our brief city stay, the next day we hopped back on the KLIA Express train to the much newer and nicer KLIA2 low cost terminal, for our 90 minute flight to Banda Aceh.
Flying from KL over to Banda Aceh, you can appreciate how the deadly 2004 Tsunami caused so much destruction, because the city is situated on a pancake flat plain, but more of that in a minute. This part of Indonesia is south of the Nicobar Islands at the southern end of the Andaman Sea, south west of Phuket in Thailand.
Again, we chose to spend a night here, to break up the journey and the simple Hotel Grand Permata Hati did the trick.
In a slightly comedic episode, we manage to squeeze the whole family onto a ‘Becak’ (a 3 wheeled motorbike taxi) for a truly Asian style journey. We made a sombre, but interesting visit to see PLTD Apung 1, which is an awesome memorial to the power of the Tsunami. Incredibly, you can still see a 2,600 ton Electric Generator ship that was swept kilometres inland by the tidal wave and left stranded utterly out of place in a residential district. They’ve kept it here to serve as a memorial, but after our brief visit, it seems the spirits of the people of Banda Aceh have been rebuilt after such a devastating disaster.
The next day we took a quick boat trip to the island of Pulau We (more commonly known as Sabang). Mirroring the friendly, unhurried atmosphere we’d enjoyed in Banda Aceh, the port experience was easy too. We splashed out an extra £1(!) to book VIP tickets for the boat. The difference? The air conditioning was a notch colder and seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they felt important! They’d already been in countless selfies with locals, and had started picking up a few words of Indonesian from the local tourists, so the ride was fun!
Sabang is very relaxed and we chose to spend a week at Freddies, in a deluxe bungalow that is set right on the beach. The accommodation here is clean and simple and you’ll have lovely views and your own private space to admire them from. It was very spacious with an interesting bunk bed/mezzanine level, which the kids could escape to. When it comes to meals, the owner Freddie is a great cook. Breakfast and dinner are served as a buffet of partly western and partly local dishes, so kids can try different foods as they please, but enjoy reassuring favourites too.
This place is ideal for a laid back beach break. We spent the days mostly swimming in the sea, as you can snorkel directly off the beach and the water here is shallow, calm and safe for the kids. You can arrange diving trips, rent a motorbike or hire a taxi for the day to explore more of the island but keep an eye out for the cheeky local monkeys, who have become adept at spotting the tourists with food!
I should point out that Sharia Law applies throughout Aceh province, which isn’t as concerning as you may think, as it only applies to Muslims. As long as you show the usual respect to local culture in your behaviour and dress modestly away from the beach, you will not notice any difference to other South East Asian Islands. The exception is, some activities won’t operate on a Friday and you’ll probably be drinking your beer discretely from coffee mugs. To be perfectly honest, travelling as a family, this more modest situation was actually preferable to me than the excesses you can encounter on some of the party islands.
Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the delights of Sabang; in particular the incredible marine life and the tasty coffee. We took a quick flight from Maimum Saleh Airport in Sabang (my new favourite as it only has 2 flights a day) to Medan. Medan is in Northern Sumatra and from here we booked a private transfer for the 3-4 hour journey to the jungle, taking a lunch stop en-route.
We arrived in the jungle of Bukit Lawang and crossed a suspension bridge over a roaring river to our next stay – an eco-lodge. Immediately we were greeted by a troupe of Thomas Leaf monkeys crashing through the trees in the lovely gardens, which the kids loved!
For this more active part of the trip, we’d pre-arranged a few day tours, including bukit lawang jungle trekking. The next day was an early start for a trek into the jungle in the Gunung Leuser National Park with our private guide. Through his skill we were able to get close to Orangutans, White Handed Gibbons, Thomas Leaf Monkeys, and Pig Tailed Macaques, all within a couple of hours!
By now the kids were better adjusted to the time zone, so we chanced an even earlier start the next day for a bouncy, 2 hour jeep ride to Tangkaghan to help some Elephants with their morning ablutions. We were able to hang out with a family of 11 Sumatran Elephants in the sanctuary, with just 4 other tourists to help the elephants bathe in the river. Certainly the best bit for the kids was seeing Daddy and Mummy getting drenched by an elephant shower. It was fantastic to have such a personal experience with such majestic beasts – as other people have discovered in Thailand.
After several days in the jungle, it was now time to wind our way home. We booked another private transfer back to Medan, and since it’s a city not exactly packed with highlights, we chose to stay in the Grand Swiss-Belhotel. I’d promised my wife and the kids a little spot of luxury and cake, after the simplicity of the jungle and this hotel is conveniently joined on to the Cambridge City Square Shopping Mall, which has plenty of shops and coffee and cake options. Again the pool and TV were all the kids really needed, and we ended our trip with the best meal so far, in an outdoor, back street seafood café on Jalan Wazir.
The next day we took another quick flight back to KL for one last night, with the kids (now seasoned travellers) taking the lead back to the Aloft hotel and getting straight into the pool. Then it was home alone for me, and an exciting new Japanese adventure for them!
If you’re interested in Sumatra holidays, trips to Indonesia or a family trip elsewhere – I can help arrange everything. From personal experience with my family, I can find you the most convenient international and domestic flights, transfers, accommodation and tours to suit your style and budget.
These small group trips give you an idea of itineraries in Sumatra; we can book a group trip, or make tailor-made arrangements to suit your family and include all the places you’d like to see.