Visit Aceh – Sumatra’s hidden gem
October 9, 2019 | 5:15 PM
by Ismael David Mujahid

Nothing beats a pleasant surprise and that couldn’t be truer than in the case of Aceh, Indonesia. As our plane prepared to land in this corner of Sumatra, the view gave way to long stretches of coastline and verdant fields. Walking out of the domed Sultan Iskander Muda Airport, we were greeted by a troupe of traditional dancers twisting and turning rhythmically to the drum beats. The warm welcome set the tone for our exploration of the province’s historic past and inspring future.

Located just west of Java, Sumatra is one of the largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago and has long been renowned for its coffee, wildlife and rich history.

Our journey began in Banda Aceh, a coastal city of around 200,000 people and the former capital of a historic sultanate that challenged the domination of the Portuguese in Southeast Asia. But as we drove through the city for the first time, we couldn’t help but think about a different part of Aceh’s history: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

It took only minutes before the city was consumed by monstrous waves. Neighbourhoods, farms and families were swallowed. The once thriving capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province lay almost completely bare, its future buried under the weight of debris left by one of the 21st century’s greatest disasters.

The images we saw of Aceh in 2004 in the wake of the tsunami told a story of devastation. And they could not be more different than the city we encountered. Those memories of mourning relatives and emergency services racing against time, were a stark contrast to the serene city before us. Tuktuks, cars and motorbikes hummed across asphalt, passing cafés brimming with life.

No part of the city represents its revival more than the modernist Tsunami Museum. Renowned for its intricate curves and circular design, the edifice built by Ridwan Kamil is a stunning piece of architecture no matter which angle you see it from. Inside, it tells the story of that terrible day on December 26, 2004, one that would end with over 200,000 deaths in Aceh alone. Its exhibits, which include footage of the disaster and a wall of memory, is a humbling experience.

Our local guide, Fadhlan Amini, Secretary of the Aceh Tourism Board, said, “Everything has been built back even better than it was before the tsunami. There was a time when we used to believe that Aceh would be a dead city. That no one would want to come here.

“But since the tsunami we have come back even stronger. As a community we are much closer. Together we are preserving our culture and local customs, protecting our environment and ensuring that tourism benefits local stakeholders,” Amini said.

But this city is much more than the sum of its recent past. Aceh’s arabica and robusta coffee have made their way into cups around the world. Light, aromatic, and rich in flavour, arabica would be the first to enchant us. Mixed with milk, it seemed perfect for lounging around in a café, watching the day go by. Robusta, on the other hand, was undeniably strong with enough kick to make it the perfect morning drink.

In Aceh, rice and cloves are also farmed. Yet despite the relative fame of its other crops, coffee remains Aceh’s proudest export.

City of minarets

No visit to Banda Aceh is complete without a trip to one of its mosques, like the massive Baiturrahman. Elements of different Islamic architectural styles can be traced from its iconic black domes to folding umbrellas. The sound of schoolchildren studying the Holy Quran and Arabic could be heard in every direction. Teachers loudly recited phrases before the decible rose each time a dozen or so students responded.

Hamed Al Ruqeishi, owner of Gulf Tourism and Rent A Car, said: “As my first trip to Indonesia, I have been stunned by the things I’ve seen. A lot of it is new for me. The people here have authenticity and history and I was really happy to learn about them. The respect they showed me as a visitor was beautiful.”

Historic Aceh

But as a lover of history, you cannot leave without seeing the tombs of Aceh’s sultan. The unique stone tombs are covered in intricate calligraphy and verses from the Holy Quran.

Adventure to Sabang

From the port of Ulele, ferries head back and forth from We Island. There we boarded a ship to the Island’s city of Sabang.

Sabang’s evergreen forests and tranquil coast made for the ideal island adventure.

“The diving and snorkelling are really world class. You see a totally different world underneath the water,” Salim Al Ramadhani, Director Manager of Mesken Tower Travels said.

As we looked towards the beach and watched the lustrous waves dissappear into the sand, it seemed only a matter of time before word got out about this hidden gem.

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