View of ‘Freddies’ hotel on Sumur Tiga beach, Pulau Weh (Sabang), Aceh.
When working on Johnny Wijaya’s Island Explorer 25 years ago, I visited dry, desolate Merauke, Indonesia’s easternmost town. Since then I have always wanted to visit Pulau Sabang, Indonesia’s westernmost town off, the coast of Banda Aceh.
You can now get to Sabang quite easily, on a Garuda ATR from Medan. You can even connect straight through on the morning Silk Air from Singapore, if you are lucky.
The island, also known as Pulau Weh, is geographically superb — not unlike a small volcanic island in the Caribbean, but without the calypso (in fact there are signs in Arabic every 50 metres or so advising against calypso). The roads are good and there’s plenty of attractions. Most Indonesian tourists just visit Kilometer Nol, the equator, and get a certificate which some think you can use to borrow money from the bank.
View of the east coast of Pulau Weh, Aceh.
There is excellent diving, a great waterfall for bathing, and good food at the Chinese restaurants in town. I stayed near the main town and airport at Sumur Tiga Beach at Freddie’s, a charming, cliffside all-bungalow hotel ($30/night). Freddie’s is an hostelry as close to heaven as any you will find in Indonesia.
The island is blessed with constant breezes: I ended up just lolling in the hammock, recovering from my last cup of Acehnese coffee, gazing out at the azure Andaman Sea.
After two bliss-filled days I took the afternoon fast boat ferry-cum-karaoke lounge to Banda Aceh. The city is now back in full operating order after the devastating tsunami of 2004.
I stayed at the charming Hotel Pade on the outskirts of town, but just ten minutes from everywhere ($100 for a mountain-view suite).
‘Everywhere’ is Dhapukupi, the 24 hour diner on Simpang Surabaya — centre of the known Acehnese universe. They serve therapeutic coffee, roti canai, and other greasy things that help one get back to the car.
Scenes in the fabulous Peunayong market, Banda Aceh.
The first morning I went to the multi-ethnic Pasar Puenayong which is more Porgy-and-Bess than pasar (see the locals shimmy and shake in my video http://youtu.be/VR8iur3u22s ).
In the ‘Hakkah’ Chinese alley at the centre of the market one finds the best mie kocok noodles, fish curry, and fresh lumpia basah (oh mama).
As Chinese New Year was coming, the lane was hung with festive lanterns and lined with old Chinese grannies slurping noodles. The market’s coffee shop is adjacent to a billiard hall where Banda Aceh’s finest spend their lives. ‘Minum kopi…mata molek’ is their motto.
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(Top) 1930s photograph of the original Dutch-built Masjid Raya in Banda Aceh and (below) a photo of the mosque today.
A visit to the Tsunami Museum is mandatory, to pay respects and get mortified; the architecture is slightly disappointing but looks very imposing viewed from afar across the Dutch cemetery, like a great beached whale. A better museum is the Museum Aceh on the grounds of the old kraton palace — the Dutch having scattered all the old dynastic families to the four winds in the 19th century.
The Museum Tsunami.
It features a traditional nobleman’s stilt house (Romah Aceh) and an excellent historical museum which traces the province’s development since the Stone Age. And what a history it has been: Tome Peres, Marco Polo, Gadjah Mada, Christine Hakim; Pahang Princess Cut Pu Titin — just a sprinkling of key players.
The Museum Aceh
Little miss beauty queens at the Museum Aceh, Banda Aceh.
Doreen and Jessica
On the day I was at the Museum, a pre-teen Miss Sharia Lolita contest was in progress, hosted by two young men called Doreen and Jessica. It was a hoot! See my video http://youtu.be/g8u4Ca_Bu5E
Travelling around Indonesia, one is often rewarded with such unexpected treats.
The 17th Century Gunongan and Taman Sari pleasure gardens of Sultan Iskandar Muda, Banda Aceh.
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On my second day I got up early with the birds and the blaring mosques (mostly melodious) and drove to the G.A.M. stronghold of Indrapuri, just 30 minutes out of town.
Dawn snap of the countryside on the way to Indrapuri, outside Banda Aceh.
The countryside — rice fields and blue mountains — was sublime, as was the early 17th century mosque built on the river-bank site of an old Hindu-era fort.
At the beginning of the 16th century the old Hindu-era kingdom of Samudra Pasai was subjugated by the East Javanese Hindu Empire of Majapahit for just four years. Since then nearly all remnants of Aceh’s Hindu past have disappeared.
Masjid Tua at Indrapuri, Aceh
The rural villages near Indrapuri are well worth the detour, as is the gulai kambing at the Indrapuri alun-alun stalls.
It is easy to rent a car and driver and tour Aceh (I paid Rp. 500.000/day for an Avanza) — the roads are great and the countryside sublime. On a future trip I want to visit the old Indian port town of Sigli and the old Portuguese entrepôt at Lamno.
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Hanging luggage as public area art in the new Medan airport.
After Aceh I went to Medan to check out the new airport (appalling) and the new airport-to-city train (fabulous). The new airport train terminal in the centre of town even has a smart boutique-style hotel ($40/night) with gracious rooms and good service. The good news is: one can now get from Medan’s airport to one’s hotel without fear of being beheaded by a Batak (local joke).
New Medan Airport train
The nicest thing about both Banda Aceh and Medan is the full integration of the Chinese communities. In Medan I spent a delightful hour, very early morning at Jalan Selat Panang, watching the place come to life.
The noodle-shops here are buzzing by 6 a.m., full of a colourful cross-section of Medan’s citizenry. One Chinese elder was burning a pile of fake money in front of his shop, while a terrified Nias Christian maid looked on.
Hokkien – Medan shopkeeper doing his morning offerings.
At noon I took the bullet-train back to the airport (there’s even a Starbucks near the platform!) and then walked the endless malls of glitter that define the modern Indonesian airport experience. It’s ingenious the way the architects enforce a long-march policy making sure that every departing passenger enjoys every square inch of the facility.
The Garuda lounge has special acoustics so one can hear Hokkien-Medan businessmen screaming on their hand-phones as one descends from the train.
The diarist in a Teuku Umar hat in a Banda Aceh artshop.
The public art is likewise inspired, and culturally-referenced: in one mega-mall-sized hub, all the suitcases stolen at the old Polonia Airport are hung on wires from the atrium ceiling in chaotic cluster. I mean who thinks up these things?
From Medan I got the Garuda’s new bombardier jet service straight back to Bali via a 20-minute stop in Palembang, thus avoiding the obstacle course that Soekarno-Hatta has become.
Frequent travellers should investigate these new routes to avoid ugly airport fatigue.