Banda Aceh to Sabang

In the city of Banda Aceh, the past is well preserved. The JHR Köhler plaque embedded at the majestic Baiturrahman Grand Mosque complex is a poignant reminder of the colourful and intriguing story of the region’s past.

Aceh is believed to have been the place where Islam was first introduced to Indonesia almost eight centuries ago. By the 17th century, the Sultanate of Aceh had become a formidable power, the richest and most powerful state in the Strait of Malacca. But Aceh became a coveted strategic position for the Europeans as they expanded their maritime kingdoms, leading eventually to the Dutch General Johan Harmen Rudolf Köhler invading in the hope of building a fort at the mouth of the Aceh river in the late 19th century.

Köhler was killed in action, trying to take control of the mosque. The Dutch tried a number of ways to establish their dominance, from a naval blockade to forts, with limited success.

While the plaque at the mosque remembers the fate of JHR Köhler, Aceh’s rich Islamic legacy is alive today, not only in the beautifully designed and decorated mosques, but also in the population and culture – Aceh has the highest percentage of Muslims in Indonesia. The province has become one of Indonesia’s top Islamic tourist destinations, and, as word gets around about its beautiful vistas and gorgeous beaches, Aceh is becoming increasingly known to visitors from across the globe.

In Banda Aceh, the region’s capital and largest city, I sat with a European visitor who was busy taking photos in the shady square of Baiturrahman Grand Mosque. The mosque you see today was actually built by the Dutch and completed in 1881 to replace the original grand mosque, which caught fire during the fighting in 1873.

Another two domes were added by the Indonesian government in 1957. The new mosque was built in the grand Mughal revival style, topped with eye-catching black domes, its grandeur heightened by the addition of marble floors and a staircase from China, stained-glass windows from Belgium and beautiful bronze chandeliers. The largest mosque in the province, surrounded by pool and parkland, it has become a welcoming place for everybody, Muslim or non-Muslim. Visitors need to wear modest dress: non-Muslim women do not have to cover their heads, but must cover their shoulders and wear loose fitting long trousers. Men are forbidden to wear shorts.

Walking outside the grounds of Baiturrahman, you will notice that the Krueng Aceh River divides the city, with wide streets and green trees on either side. There are also many peaceful parks in this coastal metropolis: Blang Padang Park, Sari Gunongan Park and Putroe Phang Park among them. Every evening, the city’s residents enjoy strolling in the verdant green spaces, where food vendors are in happy abundance for those with an appetite.

Not far from the parks is the Tsunami Museum, which tells the tragic story of how the western coast of Aceh suffered some of the worst effects of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

As I enter the museum, built to resemble a ship, I am moved by the sound of the roar of waves that emanates through the corridors. Visiting this space is like praying for the victims of the disaster. In a room called Space of Sorrow, I contemplate the long list of names of local people who died. Afterwards, I go to see the uncanny sight of a fishing boat stuck on the roof of a house in Lampulo village, two kilometres from Banda Aceh. Locals say 59 people survived the tsunami by sheltering in the boat, which had been carried inland by the force of the waves. Seeing it makes me appreciate how powerful and big the waves had been.

The next day, in the company of a young local tour guide, Wahyu, I travel around the city. We visit the white-sand beaches at Lhoknga and Lampuuk,and go as far as the Geurutee hills in the south. We eat a variety of foods then move to another beach; the beaches of Banda Aceh are charming and picturesque. As dusk approaches, the towers of the mosques broadcast the call to prayer, and the aroma of coffee wafts out to the streets. “In Banda Aceh, life begins at night, and all conversations here take place in the coffee stall,” states Sayed Emil, a man approaching middleage who sits in front of me. We shake hands. Around us, old and young, male and female, customers sit on the benches of the food stall. Food stalls and coffee are an integral part of Acehnese culture.

It seems as if coffee cannot be separated from the life of the people of Aceh, and there is even a saying that, before going into battle with the colonial forces, the Acehnese commanders had to first drink coffee. The coffee, which comes from the layered Gayo hills in Central Aceh, is enjoyed at restaurants and cafés around the city.

“The number of coffee stalls in Banda Aceh? Thousands. Countless. No one can count them. The total number would be too many and wouldn’t make sense when compared to the number of residents in the city. Everyone is competing for the taste,” Sayed explains.

At Gaster Café, I tried a taste new to me, called sanger. It’s a mixture of Aceh black coffee and condensed milk, with a unique smooth, sweet taste. The city’s many coffee stalls boast all kinds of variants and flavours.

From morning until night, the coffee stalls emit their aroma, while restaurants waft the flavour of spices into the air. I move from one stall to another. At one, I meet Rima Melati, who was awarded the title of Miss Tourism for Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam last year. She is also nicknamed ‘Miss Coffee’.

“Seven out of ten of my female friends are coffee drinkers. Coffee has prestige, coffee means status here,” Rima tells me in the corner of the crowded stall. She goes on to discuss Aceh’s status as a tourism destination, in the context of its conservative laws and culture. “In Jakarta, my friends often ask me if Aceh is safe. Yes, it is safe. Aceh is totally safe and has been for a long time,” she stresses.

“The sharia rules do not restrain us,” says Rima, “but visitors must respect the sharia rules in Aceh by covering certain parts of the body. And Aceh is more open to family visitors or married couples.” I also speak to Pasha, a make-up artist, whose main advice to visitors is not to wear shorts or anything too revealing.

The next day, I return to the coast. At Ulee Lheue beach, I drink fresh coconut juice while gazing at the timeless view of the wide blue sea. The waves crash on the edge of the cliff and I can see the green of Weh Island in the distance.

North of Banda Aceh, Weh Island is home to the city of Sabang, the northernmost and westernmost city in Indonesia. A two-hour ferry ride away (or one-hour for the express), it is in stark contrast to the capital; the island is huddled in silence, far from the hustle and bustle and with few vehicles. There are no malls and no cinemas, and just 30,000 inhabitants on an isle of just over 150km2.

However, the waters here are a magnet for divers, and the beaches attract plenty of visitors who want to get away from it all. Sabang has a more relaxed attitude to sharia than other places in Aceh – here, tourists can wear shorts freely.

I wear shorts to ride in a boat around Arus Balee, a dive spot between Rubiah Island and Seulako. At a bay between Krueng Raya and Iboih, my guide invites me to dive in. Wearing swimming trunks, I do so. My female friend; she snakes between the warm bubbles that spurt out from the seabed.

Weh is a volcanic geoheritage site: the smell of sulphur gushes from the sea floor through fumarole holes that emit bubbles of warm air. The colourful fish cross back and forth. This was the first time I had seen the heat of the Earth come out through a gap in the sea floor, making the seawater warm.

At Pria Laot village in the south of Weh Island, a fresh waterfall awaits. In Sabang, nothing is too far away. From the Zero Kilometre Monument, I spent only half an hour getting to Aneuk Laot lake. For a relatively small island, Weh has a wide variety of destinations. And once again Aceh’s past has been preserved intact.

As in Banda Aceh, quiet Sabang is busier in the evening. The cafés are full; the aroma of delicious food fills the air. I eat octopus satay while sitting facing the wide sea, the street lamps shining onto the road. As I sit contemplating lazy days on the white-sand beaches and exploring the beauty of the coral reefs surrounding the island, with their abundant marine life, I realise I have truly found a small patch of paradise on Earth. Aceh may begin to be well known as a tourist destination, as the word is getting out there.

From Travel Colours November 2018