Indonesia is a huge country, comprised of around 15,000 islands, of which only 6000 are inhabited. Sumatra, the country’s third largest island, is a land of fabulous food, towering volcanoes and of course, the ubiquitous orangutans. Coming from Australia, we finally arrived in Sumatra’s capital, Medan, a dirty, dusty, busy city where no sane person would linger long.
We spent one night in Medan and that was more than enough. To be fair though, our first guesthouse in Medan was great, run by a lovely Sumatran couple who went out of their way to assist us in every way. Breakfast was a real treat, coming complete with a delicious fruit plate and a selection of local breakfast items.
With a half day to spare, we explored some of the city including the Grand Mosque, Istana Maimoon Palace and the Tjong A Fie Mansion.
The following morning we rode back to the airport to catch our onward flight to Banda Aceh at the very tip of northern Sumatra. Banda Aceh is the capital of huge Aceh province and the area worst affected by the 2004 tsunami. In Banda Aceh alone 61,000 people were killed by the Boxing Day tsunami and development outside the city centre was reduced to a wasteland within just a few hours.
Today little physical evidence remains of the disaster, apart from the tsunami ‘sights’ that are strewn throughout the city. Many visitors to Sumatra are put off visiting Banda Aceh because of its international reputation for Sharia Law. This law forbids unmarried men and women from being out alone together after dark, treats adultery as a criminal offense and rules that women ride side saddle on a motorbike rather than astride. Naturally Ollie and I weren’t quite sure what to expect.
We were the only Westerners on the plane and, indeed, throughout our entire time spent in Banda Aceh we didn’t see another foreign visitor. Yet, despite everything we’d read and heard about the city, we were pleasantly surprised. The local people were warm and friendly; everywhere we went we were greeted with genuine smiles and looks of pure curiosity.
Exploring Banda Aceh
We spent five hours on our one whole day in the city on a tour with a local man, who I will call Nasir. A fabulous wealth of knowledge, he was fiercely passionate about his homeland; that is Aceh, not Indonesia. When we asked him about Sharia Law in the city, he was firm where he stood on the issue.
He told us that his people are brought up with their own Sharia Law from birth. They are taught what is right and wrong and do not need Indonesian government intervention imposing such a law, which is policed by the feared ‘Sharia Police.’ He blamed the government in Jakarta for creating the negative connotations of Aceh that the international world sees.
On our tour of the city we visited the following sights:
Masjid Raya Baiturrahman
Opening Hours: 5am-10pm
This stunning 19th Century mosque has gleaming white walls, ebony-black domes and a towering minaret. During Friday afternoon prayers, the entire building and courtyard are filled with people. Following the tsunami, the mosque served as an unofficial crisis centre for survivors; bodies awaiting identification were laid on the public square in front of the mosque.
Opening Hours: Sat-Thurs: 9am-4pm, Fri: 9am-noon, 2pm-4pm
This comprehensive museum details the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami, as well as how earthquakes and tsunamis form. Entering the museum, you’ll walk through a dark, dripping tunnel that symbolises the waves.
Following this there are powerful images of the destruction and a circular chamber engraved with the names of all those who lost their lives. Look out for the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scale models of the city that show how Aceh’s landscape was altered by the disaster.
Opening Hours: Tues-Thurs/Sat-Sun: 9am-4pm, Fri: 9am-noon, 2-4pm
Rumah Aceh is a great example of what a traditional Acehnese home looks like; it’s built without nails and held together by cord and pegs. Inside you can see a typical Acehnese kitchen and living area, whilst out front lies a huge cast-iron bell, said to have been a gift from a Chinese emperor in the 15th Century.
Museum Negeri Banda Aceh
Opening Hours: Tues-Sun: 8am-noon, 2pm-4:15pm
Admission Fee: 5000 IDR
In the same compound as Rumah Aceh, this state museum displays Acehnese weaponry, household furnishings, ceremonial costumes, gold jewellery and calligraphy, among other items. You can also find out about the history of Islam in Aceh, Dutch history and local freedom fighters.
Opening Hours: 8am-6pm
Located around 50m west of the tsunami museum, this cemetery is the final resting place for more than 2000 Dutch and Indonesian soldiers who died fighting the Acehnese. Some graves were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and have since been replaced with plain white crosses.
PLTD Apung 1
Opening Hours: Sat-Thurs: 9am-noon, 2pm-5:30pm, Fri: 2pm-5pm
PLTD Apung 1 is the 2500-tonne power generator vessel that was carried almost 5km inland by the 2004 tsunami. Preserved as a memorial, you can climb up on deck and explore the small museum inside.
The most famous of the tsunami sights, this small fishing boat rests on a house in Lampulo village, around 2km north of Banda Aceh and 1km from where it was moored. Supposedly, 59 villagers survived the tsunami by climbing into the trapped boat.
Other Sights in Banda Aceh:
Siron Tsunami Memorial Park
This is the largest of the 2004 tsunami mass graves, where 46,000 unidentified bodies were buried. Stop by on your way to/from the airport.
A city landmark, this squat water tower stands as a legacy of Dutch rule.
Former Governor’s House
The former governor’s house lies just south of Banda Aceh’s centre.
A prominent Banda Aceh landmark.
We also enjoyed walking through Banda Aceh’s local markets, in which Nasir procured generous free tasters of local fruit for us to try. He happily told us about the 17 varieties of banana and the 9 different types of mango available. He was clearly in his element here, waving and greeting all the locals in that way that one can when one knows everyone!
At lunch time he took us to one of his favourite haunts, an unassuming place on a quiet city centre street. It was here that we tasted a true local Acehnese noodle dish in a soup-like broth, completely different from any other noodle dish we have ever tasted before, full of local flavour.
Spending the day with Nasir in Banda Aceh was certainly a sobering experience. We both remembered seeing the devastated city on the news all those years ago, so to actually be there, seeing the place for ourselves, certainly felt a little strange. Having watched the short video at the Tsunami Museum, filmed after the tsunami hit, Nasir later pointed out the various roads where the water had flowed.
Although some buildings survived that fateful day in 2004, much of the city has been completely rebuilt with the aid of NGO workers. A few structures remain in two halves or with partly demolished roofs, legacies to an event that forever changed the landscape of the city.
We are glad to have had the chance to visit and see this captivating part of Indonesia with our own eyes; it is only when you see somewhere for yourself and only when you meet its people that you can truly understand a place.
If you ever get the chance, Banda Aceh is certainly worth a visit. Right now it is untouristed and perhaps one of the few remaining gems in South East Asia, ripe for exploration.
From Banda Aceh Ollie and I caught the slow ferry to Pulau Weh, a beautiful rustic island and the furthest point west of Indonesia. We’ve spent the past few days exploring the island by scooter and chilling out in our quiet bungalow by the sea. Far from being a tourist hotspot the island has a very ‘local’ vibe.
Driving around, we saw quaint wooden homes, the occasional warung on the side of the road, huge swathes of forest crowning mighty hills, volcanoes and the odd cow. It is a beautiful island with some great snorkelling spots, although the beaches sadly aren’t so great for swimming.
Points of Interest on Pulau Weh:
Kilometer 0 Monument
Atop a hilltop viewpoint, this gaudy monument marks the northernmost tip of Indonesia, ignoring the outlying islands. At the bottom of the hill, boardwalk platforms offer peaceful views over the ocean.
Pria Lot Falls
Roughly 8km from Gapang are these beautiful falls; set amid the jungle, there’s also a swimming hole to enjoy.
Japanese WWII Bunker
Lying on the east coast of Pulau Weh, this bunker is one of several remnants of the Japanese occupation during WWII. You’ll find it 7km south of Sumur Tiga Beach.
A rocky beach on the western side of Pulau Weh that’s perfect for watching the sunset.
A nice beach in the south of Pulau Weh; cover up if going for a swim, however, as Keuneukai is a conservative village.
Stop by Gunung Merapi to see the steaming sulfuric vents that bubble from the rocky landscape. You’ll find the volcano in Jaboi, in the south of Pulau Weh, a short drive from Keuneukai Beach.
A pretty cove that is well set-up for families; activities include swimming, snorkelling and a flying fox.
Where to Stay on Palau Weh
We stayed at Freddies Santai Sumurtiga, a mellow place run by a South African expat that overlooks Sumur Tiga Beach. Accommodation is in wood/bamboo bungalows and the on-site restaurant serves up tasty meals; there’s an extension of the main site just down the road, an alternative place to stay that is slightly quieter.
Tomorrow we catch a boat back to the mainland and then fly to Medan, where we will spend one more night. Then it’s on to Bukit Lawang and those ubiquitous orangutans!
Check out our next post to read about Encountering Orangutans in the Sumatran Rainforest!