Banda Aceh is the capital of Aceh province, until recently off limits to tourists due to instability with political and religious problems culminating in civil war.
The boxing day tsunami in 2004 heaped further problems on the area, devastating much of the town and killing more than 60’000 people.
The silver lining on these otherwise very dark clouds are that the religious and political problems have been resolved, at least for now and in the aftermath of the tsunami, NGO’s & MDF’s (non governmental organisations & multi-donor funds) have helped to rebuild this small, walkable and by Indonesian standards, pretty city.
It’s an enjoyable place to stay for a day or two as well as the jumping off point for Pulau Weh.
Note : Banda Aceh is a staunch Muslim city, but it’s also a friendly city, with welcoming locals and almost everyone you speak to has lost immediate family to the tsunami.
Although governed by a modified sharia law, it should have little impact on you as a tourist – You will spend a couple of days without alcohol and should dress a little more conservatively than you’re used to in a lot of South East Asia.
Previously, visitors to Aceh Province needed a special travel permit but 30-day visa on arrival is now available at airports.
Having some grasp of Bahasa Indonesia would be helpful, but we found that some people only spoke the regional Acehnese language.
Where to stay:
The city has several cheap but soulless hotel compounds. Previously, the aid workers and NGO staff kept them full and the prices high, but they’ve all left and the pricing is now more competitive. Expect to pay between 100’000 & 150’000 for a basic twin room with attached bathroom.
Another option are the beaches Lhok Nga & Lampuuk, around fifteen kilometres from town, where days can become weeks along the stunning beachfront in simple accommodations.
What to see & do:
The aftermath of the tsunami has created an unusual tourism relationship, with those seeking to see and know more of the effects on a tsunami tour.
The tsunami museum is the main attraction, a large modern building which must have cost a fortune to build, housing photographic and video accounts. The higher floors have interactive, educational installations which are sadly falling into disrepair and looking pretty sorry for themselves. There seems to be no interest by the staff to maintain or rectify this, but it’s still worth a visit. Free entry, but closed at lunchtime.
‘Boat still on the roof’ is probably one of the more famous images of the tsunami, which washed several boats into the town itself. This boat settled on top of a house, and the single fisherman not only survived but rescued several people also. NGO money has turned this little boat into a safe and secured site which is a bit of a tourist attraction. There are other boats still stuck inland ten years later which tuk-tuk drivers will happily offer to take you to.
The mosque, in the centre of town is a beautiful, large building which miraculously survived with little to no damage from the tsunami.
For the surfers, there’s plenty of waves, fifteen kilometres from town at the beach and boards are available for rent.
What to eat & drink!
There’s a lively streetfood scene all around some of the hotel complexes and local specialties are the sate (western spelling is satay) and mie aceh, a localised variation of mie goreng.
Getting around & where to go next?
The bus station is around a fifteen minute drive, several miles from the city. You’ll need to take a tuk-tuk and it’s worth negotiating the journey into pricing for a day trip to some of the attractions. Tuk-tuk drivers will generally press to sell day trips to visit the various boats and often the beach, which is apparently very beautiful but some way out of town, barter hard as their prices start very high, especially if they speak good English!
Tuk-tuks, labi-labi (small buses, like songthaews, in Thailand) and becaks (motocycle taxis) are all methods of inexpensive local transportation
Buses leave Banda Aceh for Medan, taking between ten and fifteen hours with varying levels of comfort and price. Landslides and road problems can make the journey longer. There are overnight express ‘VIP’ buses which have Wi-Fi and reclining chairs with blankets and pillows. Flying is quicker, but the Indonesian government charge an ‘airport tax’, even for domestic flights and the airport in Medan is some way out of the city making a taxi necessary.
Ferries leave from the port of from uleh-leh for Pulau Weh.
Travel north to the furthest tip of Sumatra, Pulau Weh for some excellent, but challenging diving or from Medan you can travel to some of Sumatra’s tourist highlights such as Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang and Berastagi. More off the beaten track destinations include Ketembe and Pulau Banyak!
About the author: Ben is a keen traveller who is currently eating and photographing his way around South East Asia and writing about his experiences both on his own website and for us as an ambassador. You can follow more of his writing on his personal blog.