You don’t see too many foreign tourists in Banda Aceh (pronounced Atch-ay). That is, apart from those who are passing through from the airport to the pier on their way across to the tropical island of Pulau Weh.
This city on the northern tip of Sumatra came abruptly to the world’s attention on Boxing Day 2004 when the third-largest earthquake on record cracked the earth’s crust some miles offshore, creating a monumental tsunami which hit Banda Aceh harder than any other place in the Indian Ocean. It’s estimated that a wave as high as 20 metres struck the shore. Over 170,000 people lost their lives in the province of Aceh alone and the city itself was flattened.
More than ten years on, the city has been pretty much rebuilt from scratch, while permanent memorials to the disaster remain. Together with its beautifully tropical surroundings, it would seem like an obvious place for at least a steady trickle of tourists to seek out and explore. But we saw none during the twenty-four hours we were there.
To understand why you need to look no further than the fact that the city is governed by Shariah Law. This is a law that, for example, forbids unmarried males and females to be together alone after dark, treats adultery as a criminal offence, and requires female passengers on a motorbike or scooter ride sidesaddle rather than astride – as that would be “inappropriate behaviour”. And if you’re in any doubt about how serious the authorities take it, well here’s an example of what happens if you dare to break the law.
We initially had some reservations about spending any time there as it appeared on the surface to place so many restrictions on women. But we decided to take a tour with a local guide to see for ourselves what Banda Aceh is like for western tourists and how it has managed to recover from the tsunami of 2004.
The tour started early as our guide, Naseer (not his real name), picked us up from our lodgings (the underwhelming Medan Hotel) and took us to a local cafe for breakfast. Naseer had promised us that we’d get to taste a full range of local food during the day and breakfast certainly didn’t disappoint. He’d already picked up what turned out to be a sensational spicy chicken and coconut rice steamed in a banana leaf from a nearby street vendor and we were soon having to choose between a variety of dishes brought to our table. Such is the way they do things in this part of the world – everything is brought to you and you are left to just choose and pay for what you want to eat.
As the only westerners in the cafe, it was a bit surprising to find that people pretty much just let us get on with things rather than pay us any undue attention. Naseer warned us though that if anybody on the street started hassling us, and particularly anybody in a uniform, then we should point them out to him and he would “sort it out” for us.
Our main concern was making sure we were wearing “appropriate” clothing, or at least clothing that wouldn’t cause anyone to get upset with us – particularly the controversial and generally unloved “Shariah Police” who patrol the streets in their bottle green uniforms ready to pounce on unsuspecting “law-breakers”. So, long trousers for me (even though it was 30-plus degrees outside) and long trousers, top and cardigan for Nicky so that her shoulders were covered up. Sharia Law requires that women have their heads covered and we’d read westerners are advised to follow suit – but this was a concession that Nicky was clear about refusing from the start.
Next, we were off to the fish market – a place heaving with the types of fish I’d only previously seen while diving or snorkelling. It’s certainly the first time I’ve seen filleted stingray for sale and there was also a huge shark’s head which only began to give us a clue as to the size of the shark itself.
The fruit and vegetable market next door was a vibrant and colourful spectacle, too. Naseer was clearly in his element telling us about the 17 different varieties of banana on offer, along with the 9 varieties of mango. There was even a whole section dedicated to eggs – ranging from freshly laid to aged eggs covered in salty mould. And, of course, the ubiquitous “king of fruits”, the incredibly pungent durian.
Now that we’d been fed and had the chance to wander around these two markets, which are central to daily life in Banda Aceh, Naseer took us to see some of the sights which have defined the city following the tsunami. Along the port area, he described to us how a group of fishermen were out in their boats when the tsunami struck and were completely unaware of what had happened until they returned to port the following morning to find a scene of devastation and bodies littering the harbour.
Naseer also described how he tried to lead his daughter and six-year-old son to safety when the huge wave hit, by securing them all to a telegraph pole and coconut tree. He told us that despite his efforts, he and his son were separated by the force and he resignedly expected the worst. It was three hours later when he was told by a friend that his son had been found, swept out to sea, and was then later reunited with him. Powerful stuff coming from the lips of someone who was there when it happened and lived to tell the tale.
About a kilometre inland from the sea, in the village of Lampulo, we reached the incredible sight of a fishing boat which had been carried inland and lodged itself in the roof of a house. Apparently, it saved the lives of 59 people who were trying to escape the rising water and who used it as a sort of impromptu ark.
Even more incredible was the sight of a huge 2600 tonne off-shore generator barge, which had again been deposited by the ferocious waves some 1.5 kilometres inland. If anything could demonstrate the sheer power of the sea it was this.
Perhaps the most famous of Banda Aceh’s sights is the Tsunami Museum itself. To be honest, overall there’s not that much to see there, apart from some fairly poor quality photographs and a number of artefacts from that fateful day (mangled motorbikes and bicycles etc). But, for a real sense of what it’s like to be confronted with a 20-metre wall of water, the walkway leading inside from the entrance is hard to beat.
For approximately 50 metres you walk through a narrow “gorge” with 20-metre walls on either side, each featuring a water cascade. To stand there for a few moments and look up at the sheer scale of what that mother wave must have been like was just chilling – and a testament to the power of the imagination. In fact, it was worth visiting Banda Aceh for that moment alone.
But, of course, Banda Aceh and the province of Aceh itself has a much longer history than the past 11 years. At the Banda Aceh Museum, Naseer took us through how the Acehnese had been fighting against colonial rule from the Dutch for the best part of 70 years before the Japanese invaded in 1942.
After the Second World War Indonesia eventually achieved its independence from the Dutch and the Kingdom of Aceh was annexed to the new Indonesian republic – even though it had never been part of the Dutch empire. The resultant guerilla warfare between Acehnese militants (who wanted an independent state) and the Indonesian government continued right up to the Boxing Day tsunami – after which a peace deal was agreed in return for a certain amount of autonomy in the region.
Since then, the role of religion in everyday affairs has escalated, in part due to the perception among many Muslims that the tsunami was, in fact, a punishment for a lack of piety. We’re also guessing that the fact that the Grand Mosque was virtually unscathed by the tsunami was another sign. And so, the introduction of Shariah Law was an inevitable result.
Naseer was very definite where he stood on the issue. “We Acehnese have our own Shariah Law which is taught to us when we are born, ” he says. “We know from birth what’s right and wrong and we don’t need a law imposed on us to do that”. He suggests that the real driver behind what’s happening is the government in Jakarta rather than Aceh, but that it serves Jakarta better that the rest of the world thinks that Aceh is the small provincial trouble-maker with extreme religious views.
As he took us through the rest of the museum, he showed us paintings of Acehnese leaders from centuries past and pointed out the lack of headwear present on the women. Again, he believes this is something that’s been imposed on modern Acehnese rather than something that’s central to their religion.
As if to emphasise the point we then came across a school party largely consisting of girls, whose school uniform was about as conservative as you could imagine. But when I agreed to have a selfie photograph with them they giggled and preened themselves just like any other group of schoolgirls from the west would do.
After the sight-seeing and fascinating insight into Acehnese culture and history, we returned to our favourite pastime of eating for England. Lunch consisted of another gargantuan meal of various dishes. But before we arrived at Naseer’s choice of warung he took us to another of his favourites to pick up a shark curry (one of a bewildering array of dishes on display) so that we could have that too.
Not satisfied with that he then took us to a street vendor for a “Banda Aceh fruit salad”, which consisted of papaya and a range of seasonal fruits, all mixed together in a hot tamarind sauce. Outstanding!
Back in the taxi, I asked Naseer if there was unease about what was happening and particularly how he felt about the public floggings. I could sense that he was getting quite emotional about the whole subject as he began to tell us less about what he thought and just resorted to facial expressions that didn’t need much interpretation at all. Our impression of Naseer was of someone who is deeply passionate about his homeland (that’s Aceh, not Indonesia), but who is extremely dissatisfied with how his homeland is being treated and depicted to the rest of world by the Indonesian central government.
Whether that’s typical of Acehnese as a whole we wouldn’t know. Overall, we were treated very well by the people of Banda Aceh, apart from one guy in the fish market who definitely “crossed the line” with Nicky (bad decision).
And so, after six hours of being taxied around the cultural, historical and gourmet sights of Banda Aceh, Naseer dropped us off at the pier in time for us to catch the afternoon ferry across to Pulau Weh. En route we passed further examples of buildings that had somehow survived the tsunami. But the overwhelming image was of new replacing the old. Of clean, tree-lined streets that would have looked more at home in Western Europe than Indonesia.
I told Naseer that I’d write about our experience in Banda Aceh on our blog but that I’d protect his identity in case of any potential recriminations. Which is a shame, really as this was a whistle-stop tour that we’d love to recommend to anyone thinking of visiting Aceh, and in particular it’s previously war-torn and tsunami-battered capital.
Although we initially had huge concerns about visiting, we were treated with genuine warmth and friendly curiosity by the city’s people, who’ve suffered so much at the hands of one of our generation’s greatest natural disasters. We can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to have been there on that day in December 2004, but the city and it’s people definitely left an impression on us that won’t be quick to wash away.
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What did you think? Have you been to Banda Aceh? What was your experience there? Or maybe you’re thinking of visiting soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.