Aceh, North Sumatra: Time for Disaster Tourism?
By Mike Smith
Let me be brutally honest. Aceh, in North Sumatra at the western tip of Indonesia, was not on my bucket list. In fact it didn’t even feature on the radar despite being very accessible from Singapore and only a 45 minute flight from Medan.
Chances are I would never have visited if Visit Indonesia Tourism Office and Tourism Indonesia Mart and Expo 2014 hadn’t invited me to see what it had to offer at the event at the Hermes Palace Hotel in Banda Aceh.
I liked what I saw. Aceh has culture, beautiful undeveloped natural charm and a nascent “Disaster Tourism” industry but needs to improve its infrastructure.
For years the people of Aceh suffered in brutal misery as the Free Aceh Movement and the TNI Indonesian armed forces fought a bloody war. Then a freak of nature occurred which caused utter devastation but eventually resulted in a peace accord.
The Deadliest Tsunami in Aceh
“At 7.55 am on December 26th 2004 our lives changed forever” stated Pak MahlizarZakaria the director of Great Wall Tour in Banda Aceh. “I was reading in my house, 4 km from the sea when the earthquake happened. 15 minutes later the tsunami came.
I got on my motorbike to escape but it came too quickly. I was swept along in the water but somehow grabbed a tree and clung to the top. But a second wave followed and carried me away.
I swallowed a lot of water and thought my life would end but I managed to get on a house roof and survive. The sights were terrible with lots of bodies in the water. When the water receded I met up with two other survivors and made for safety in the hills”
The 10th anniversary of the tsunami is on boxing day 2014. Aceh will remember over 125,000 dead citizens and thank the countries who helped rebuild the province. Pak Mahlizar led us on a tour of the tsunami route giving his own personal insight as a survivor and now a successful businessman. The museum was closed for a holiday but is apparently a wonderful but harrowing memorial.
The Rolling Dome
First stop was at the dome of the mosque from Gurah which had been moved over a km away by the waves and now lies in a paddy field. It is watched over by local families who make a small living selling souvenirs and drinks.
Floating Diesel Power Plant
This massive floating power plant ship weighs 800 mts but was still shifted 4 km inland by the tsunami and is now on show as a memorial. The power of the tsunami was simply unimaginable!
This fishing boat saved many lives as the tsunami retreated before being stranded on a house roof where it still stands ironically besides a no parking sign.
The nearby river where the boat was originally anchored has an active fishing fleet and interesting specimens of shark skins, fins etc drying along the banks. Well worth a brief stop!
Life’s a Beach
Lampuuk Beach is the most famous near Banda Aceh and attracts locals at the weekend for relaxation and bbq’s. You can get great seafood and enjoy people watching. Midweek it is very quiet now.
Islamic New Year
The timing of our visit to the mosque in Banda Aceh was perfect because it was the Islamic New Year and both devotees and picnicers were in their best outfits and in a party mood. Shame about the litter though!
A Day Trip to Sabang, Aceh
The most established tourist area in Aceh is Sabang on PulauWeh. It is an hour by fast ferry to PulauWeh a quiet island popular for diving, snorkelling and simply chilling out. It’s the ideal place for total relaxation. The water is clear and the coastal scenery is stunning.
Accommodation is limited on Sabang but aa couple of places stand out. PulauWeh Dive Resort has good facilities and access and a wonderful location right on the beach with snorkeling on the doorstep and near to BateeTokong and Shark Plateau dive sites.
CasaNemo owned by Balqis and Gianluca is special too with great views from the terrace. Moreover Gianluca is a font of knowledge on Aceh’s culture, history and tourism spots and a great guy to have a chat with over a cold beer.
For a change of scenery we visited Iboih Beach with its colourful glass bottom boats enabling us to see the rocks, coral and small fish below us.
All too soon it was time to head back to Banda Aceh and prepare to pack our bags, stopping briefly to buy “Aceh grapes” (they look like grapes but don’t taste like grapes!)
TIME or Tourism Indonesia Mart and Expo attracted 60 travel package buyers from 18 countries and 60 sellers of travel tours from all round Indonesia. It also gave Aceh a platform to show what it has to offer.
It’s always a challenge to dispell negative percetions but Aceh has awoken, it is safe and peaceful and offers tourism opportunities for the adventurous or special interest traveller. The fighting and tsunami are part of Aceh’s history and will never be forgotten but time moves on as does Aceh.
Mike Smith is a freelance photographer-writer & permanent resident of Singapore. Born in the UK, he left in 1986 on a two-year contract with a chemical company & just never made the move back. You can see more of his photographs at AsiaPhotoStock.com.