Aceh is Indonesia’s western-most province, the gateway for those coming from the South and West Asia such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and even the Arabian Peninsula to the Straits of Malacca and the Malay Archipelago. It is rich with resources like minerals, especially uranium and natural gas. It also boasts high quality beef due to the good cattle feedstock. The capital of Aceh is Banda Aceh.
Due to its strategic location, which lies within the lucrative West-East maritime trade route, Aceh has historically been receiving travellers from Arabia and South Asia who were not just traders but also Islamic scholars who help establish Aceh to become the region’s major centre for Islamic learning. The South Asian influence can be seen from the act of pulling hot tea and coffee by wing kopi (coffee baristas) at many local coffee shops, especially the Solong Mini Coffee Ulee Karing branch during the preparation of kopi sanger (frothy hot coffee with a spot of condensed milk and sugar).
The Acehnese are known to be prudent, hardworking and enterprising people. We were told that they would normally work and save for the whole year to spend during the holy fasting month (Ramadhan), including the celebratory day that follows (Eid al Fitr) and the festival of sacrifice to commensurate the peak of Hajj (Eid al Adha). Since the Acehnese are devout Muslims, Aceh’s urban landscape is punctuated by many mosques, mostly built and maintained by the local communities rather than the government.
The city on maritime crossroads
Banda Aceh was one of the first places in Indonesia to receive Islam back in 1250 A.D. and became pivotal for the religion to spread throughout the Malay Archipelago. It is also called the Corridor of Mecca (Serambi Makkah) because Banda Aceh and the off-coast islands served as the hub for Muslim pilgrims from the whole of Indonesia to prepare themselves prior to leaving for Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage), as well as the place where they dock the ship to Jeddah, the port in Saudi Arabia that serves as the gateway to Mecca, before the advent of jetliners in 1970s.
Tip: Since Aceh is predominantly conservative Muslim, travellers are expected to respect local mores such as dressing up modestly and behaving accordingly because local authority enforces the shariah (Islamic law). However, lady travellers should not worry or feel apprehensive when exploring Aceh for fear of being strictly policed.
Banda Aceh receives the moniker as the ‘15-minute city’ because it seems to take around a quarter of an hour to get from one place to another. Parts of it are marked by the beginnings of the majestic Barisan Mountains, the range that runs the entire 1,700 kilometres along Sumatera’s west coast, all the way from Banda Aceh down to the island’s southernmost province called Lampung.
Banda Aceh is also dubbed as the city with a million warung kopi (coffee shops or stalls) since Aceh grows world class coffee beans in its highlands. Coffee grows well in Aceh highlands because of the soil, which contributes to the quality of the coffee beans. Travellers must savour late night coffee at NA Coffee Premium to learn more about the world-famous Kopi Gayo, which comprises 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta. On top of that, the Arabica Gayo variants produced in Aceh are among the most expensive in the world. We were informed that it is better to consume Arabica than other types of coffee; the Arabica coffee bean contains low caffeine and tastes acidic and sour leading towards sweet, while Robusta is high in caffeine, up to four times compared to Arabica.
Tip: When drinking coffee, it is recommended that travellers choose Arabica over Robusta beans due to their flavour and healthier properties. The world-famous coffee produced in the Aceh highlands called Kopi Gayo is primarily made from Arabica beans. Aceh coffee also makes a worthy souvenir to give family and friends back home.
What is Banda Aceh all about?
- Good coffee and local culinary
- Commemoration of the 26 December 2004 Tsunami and empathising with those affected by the tsunami – hearing the tale from those who survived the tsunami also enriches travellers’ experience
- Conservative and hardly racy compared to destinations like Phuket and Bali
- Safe and low crime rate due to the implementation of the shariah
- Family-friendly, but infrastructure such as walkways for strollers/prams and places for parents to change diapers are still lacking
- Energetic cultural performances such as rapa’i geleng and tarian saman
- Potential for investment because Aceh welcomes foreign investments to further contribute to its rising economy; however, investors need local partner to navigate through government bureaucracy
The 26.12.2004 tsunami etched forever
Though it happened nearly 13 years ago, the memory and evidences of the 26 December 2004 tsunami remain strong. Travellers would be able to notice the various mass graves around Banda Aceh of those who perished during the tsunami.
The epicentre of the earthquake with the magnitude of 9.1 on Richter scale that triggered the 26 December 2004 tsunami was at Simeulue island, around 200 kilometres from Banda Aceh, which occurred at 7:50 a.m. Before the tsunami hit Aceh, the tide along the beaches ebbed as far as two kilometres. Once it came, the tsunami brought three successive waves, the last being the largest. It eventually killed 197,000 Acehnese. In response, 54 countries, including Malaysia, sent the much-needed humanitarian aid and rescue mission.
Though the tsunami was a great tragedy, it can also be considered as a silver lining because it draws the world’s attention towards Aceh and make the province even more relevant in the post-modern Indonesia narrative. It also makes more people become curious about Aceh, intriguing local and foreign travellers who have never been to that part of the world before.
The Aceh Tsunami Museum (museumtsunami.blogspot.my) is a must-visit for all travellers to understand the scale of devastation that the 26 December 2004 tsunami brought onto the people of Aceh. Opened to the public in May 2011, the Aceh Tsunami Museum is one of the only two tsunami museums in the world (the other one is in Kobe, Japan) and located only six kilometres from the sea. The architect (Ridwan Kamil, who is currently the mayor of Bandung) designed it to resemble the tsunami’s swirling wave as a way to remind the public to always respect the might of nature. The museum comprises different exhibition spaces such as the long dark and wet corridor to simulate the feeling of being overwhelmed by the tsunami; the 26 podiums at the Memorial Hall that screen still images of the gripping scenes after the tsunami hit Banda Aceh; and the Chamber of Blessings with names of the dead or lost from the tsunami gracing its walls with soaring 32-metre ceiling to indicate the height of the tallest wave that hit Aceh, engulfing travellers.
Though visiting the Aceh Tsunami Museum is a humbling and melancholic experience, it also iterates hope since it serves as an educational institution to remind the world to always be prepared for calamities and emergencies by putting in place disaster-mitigation procedures nationwide. Interestingly, this MYR27 million museum also functions as an escape building for the surrounding communities in case Banda Aceh is hit by tsunami again. There are currently six escape buildings already constructed in Banda Aceh alone. The museum also carries the message that humans should also submit to God when searching for strength to face calamity, be grateful for remaining alive and continue to endure by picking themselves up and moving on.
Learning point: When you see the tsunami heading towards you, run as fast as you can to higher ground and never look back!
Another important venue for travellers to understand what happened on 26 December 2004 is the ship-turned-museum called Kapal PLTD Apung, which was carried five kilometres inland by the tsunami from the Port of Ulee Lheue and became stranded in the middle of the Punge Blang Cut village. This ship – weighing 2,600 tons, 63 metres long and containing 1,900 square metres of space – was formerly used to generate electricity for the local communities around the Indonesian islands. Similar to the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Kapal PLTD Apung also serves as the place where travellers can learn more about tsunami, its impact and society’s need for disaster preparedness. The museum stresses time and again on the importance of preparing for any sort of calamity and building emergency response capabilities.
Travellers should also make way to Lampuuk beach – the site where the tsunami first hit, located 20 kilometres from Banda Aceh – that faces the beautiful Indian Ocean and now attracts local and international surfers and surfing enthusiasts from July until September every year. On the way to Lampuuk Beach, travellers would pass by the house of Cut Nyak Dhien, Indonesia’s lady warrior who strongly defied the Dutch colonisers. The house has now been turned into a museum for travellers to understand the Acehnese’s fiercely independent psyche.
Close to Lampuuk beach, around 500 metres from the sea, is the mosque called Rahmatullah, which miraculously survived the tsunami onslaught save for some of its outer parts that can still be witnessed to this day, purposely left for posterity. This mosque is also known as Turkey Mosque since the Turkish government assisted in repairing it. The surroundings of the mosque were reduced to rubble by the tsunami, and only a handful of villagers who sought refuge at the mosque survived. Already rebuilt, Lampuuk village now has two dedicated tsunami evacuation sites: Rahmatullah mosque itself, and a four-storey escape building.
Turkey’s relations with Aceh go as far back as 1511, when the Ottoman Sultanate sent reinforcements to the Sultanate of Pasai (which Aceh was part of) to weaken the Portuguese siege on the port of Melaka but unsuccessful. It was told that the Ottoman soldiers who survived assimilated into local community. The tombstones of those soldiers could even be identified to this day. Modern-day Turkey also extended its help to Aceh during post-tsunami reconstruction. All structures constructed with the help of Turkey bear the crescent and star emblem.
Once back in Banda Aceh, do remember to also visit the iconic Baiturrahman Grand Mosque that has survived since the times of the Sultanate of Aceh in the 17th Century until today. During the 26 December 2004 tsunami, just like Rahmatullah in Lampuuk, Baiturrahman mosque also remarkably escaped destruction and harboured devotees who survived the tsunami. The mosque with its seven black domes is important to the Acehnese because it symbolises their resilience, determination and devotion to Islam.
Where to dine in Banda Aceh:
- Syiah Kuala for Aceh culinary style that uses natural ingredients and less coconut milk in the dishes compared to traditional Padang or Peninsular Malaysian Malay cuisine
- L’pante for traditional Banda Aceh cuisine over water and enjoying the marvellous Aceh sunset
- Late night coffee at NA Coffee Premium to learn more about Aceh coffee
Where to stay at Banda Aceh:
- Hermes Palace (www.hermespalacehotel.com), a four-star hotel with upmarket efficiency and conveniences, considered as one of the most established in the city
- The Pade (www.thepade.com), Banda Aceh’s first boutique hotel with contemporary elegant West Asian-inspired style
Where to buy souvenirs in Banda Aceh:
- Pustaka Souvenir, including shops along Jalan Sri Ratu Safiatuddin in Peunayong
- Pasar Atjeh (Aceh Market)
Sobering island getaway
Pulau Weh, an island twice the size of Singapore, is 45 minutes’ boat ride off-coast Banda Aceh. To get there, travellers need to board the ferry from Ulee Lheue in Banda Aceh to Sabang, Pulau Weh’s capital. Sabang faces the waterways into the Straits of Malacca, strategically located within the international maritime trade route. It also has been earmarked by the Indonesian government as an upcoming hub for international trade logistics.
On Pulau Weh, the natural environment is conserved, therefore indiscriminate cutting of trees is not permitted because the trees hold water and form water catchment areas crucial for the supply of potable water, especially for 30% of its residents who depend on agriculture for livelihood. Travellers can be rest assured that many parts of Pulau Weh remain unspoilt. They should catch lovely sunset views from designated spots around Pulau Weh, particularly in Sabang, including Balohan lookout point. Those who prefer to dine amidst green and serene surroundings should head to Putro Ijo restaurant, situated next to Anuek Laut lake, also in Sabang. Travellers should take note that it takes around 30 minutes to one hour to get from one place to another on the island.
One of the attractions that travellers should not miss when visiting Pulau Weh is Gua Sarang (Cave of Swallow’s Nest), located in Iboih. To access the cave, travellers need to hike down from the roadside heading towards the collection of caves surrounded by stone-laden beach and rocky outcrops. Prior to going down, many travellers tend to firstly enjoy the surrounding view because the landscape reminds them of Raja Ampat islands in West Papua, Indonesia’s best rated diving spot. When exploring Gua Sarang on foot, travellers must be ready to tread along absolutely rocky and uneven surface. Once they reach the outcrops, they will be rewarded by visually arresting scenery that is great for taking selfies. For those who are interested to visit more of the Gua Sarang cave system, they can opt to do so by boat because various parts of the cave are inundated by seawater.
Tip: Be sure to wear suitable footwear that is highly comfortable, flexible and have good traction to walk on the rocks leading towards Gua Sarang. Slippers and sandals are not recommended!
Another must-visit spot on Pulau Weh is Indonesia’s Kilometre Zero, which is demarcated by a modest geographical marker (Latitude: 05° 54’ 21.42” LU; Longitude: 95° 13’ 00.50” BT) to signify Indonesia’s starting point on the map, as well as a 43.6-metre tall monument (Tugu Nol Kilometer), still being constructed during time of writing. The place has tropically bosky surroundings that travellers would find relaxing. They are welcome to plonk themselves on chairs or benches set on the decks that jut out into the greenery overlooking the sea from the eateries that line the cliffside where the marker is situated.
There are also various beaches where travellers can languor over while taking in the waves and sea such as Sumur Tiga (Three Wells), dubbed as Aceh’s Hawaii due to its sandy form instead of rocks found at the other beaches on Pulau Weh. The three wells located on the beach are crucial because they have been providing freshwater to the local community since time immemorial. Another beach that is popular among locals during weekends is the intriguing Anoi Itam (Black Sand), which faces the open Andaman Sea, the start of the Straits of Malacca and the northern-most tip of Sumatera. The nearby Anoi Itam Resort also offers breathtaking vistas of the sea, which travellers should relish from gazebos erected above water.
For those who love to snorkel, the best spot for snorkelling is at Pulau Rubiah, located next to Pulau Weh. Snorkellers claim that they can easily witness various types of marine life like angel fish, gigantic clams, parrot fish and lion fish, among others. To get there, travellers need to take a boat from the convivial seaside village called Teupin Layeu in Iboih. Alternatively, travellers who are too lazy to snorkel (like the Gaya Travel Magazine Editor-in-Chief) can instead ride on a glass-bottomed boat to witness underwater life in dry comfort.
It is time that travellers discover the gems of Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh, which are still under many international travellers’ radar. Aceh is a safe and alcohol-free destination that offers delicious world-class coffee, Acehnese cultural performances, friendly locals who share stories about the tsunami, family-friendly attractions, serene tropical greenery, fantastic sea views, relaxing beaches and rich underwater marine life. Banda Aceh’s and Pulau Weh’s down-to-earth and value-for-money characteristics are bound to charm travellers, especially those who seek unpretentious, unadulterated, sensible getaway.