The moment I saw that we could fly into Banda Aceh, Indonesia, I jumped at the opportunity. Firstly its close proximity to Pulau Weh appealed but in many ways it was its fascinating if traumatic recent history that made me change the flight plans instantly.
For much of the 1990’s it had been under martial law and after failed peace talks in 2003 it had witnessed the largest military operation by the Indonesian army since 1975. A tiny tourist quota existed, but largely it remained a place outside of the radar of the west. It all changed in 2004 and the Boxing Day tsunami killing around 200,000 people. Sixty per cent of the city was destroyed. Banda Aceh had no choice but to seek the support of the outside world. More recently amongst the huge rebuilding success it has courted controversy by implementing Sharia Law in 2009. It is not uncommon for stonings to occur and alcohol is banned amongst many other things. A couple of days before we arrived I read in a Malaysian newspaper how a Muslim extremist training camp in the province had been infiltrated and its leaders arrested. It promised to be like a place that I had never visited before.
On getting off the plane, amongst the paddy fields and mountain range in the background I was struck by the queue that soon developed around immigration. It was huge, nearly stretching back to the plane. Above the desk read ‘Indonesian passport holders.’ To the right sat a desk, with two officials and no one in sight, ‘foreign passport holders’ this one read. Despite first and only in queue it still took a lengthy time to get through with the officials seemingly perplexed by the two month visa I held. Eventually I was allowed in and Paul soon after thanks to a relatively smooth visa on arrival process.
We made our way to our hotel which had had a makeover in recent years converting itself into a residential block awash with Indonesian families and us. The first thing that strikes you about Banda Aceh is the incredible rebuilding work that has taken place in the last six years. If you were just passing through you would be none the wiser as to the tragedy that struck. There are though a few signs still left. One was a 2km walk from our hotel. A large fishing boat sits precariously on top of a house, a long way from the ocean. It’s become one of the enduring images of the tsunami and helped to put into context what happened on that day.
Very recently Banda Aceh has completed its tsunami museum. One of the finest museums I have been to, it’s very avant garde. Upon entering you pass through a darkened room, along a narrow path, with two waterfalls spraying water over you from a great height. Wet, you enter into a room of mirrors with computer screens showing images taken during the tsunami. Harrowing, they told their own story. The rest of the museum was dedicated towards videos, many more pictures and selected information. It really was a very good museum made that much more sobering by the realization that most of the people we were sharing it with had lived through it.
Indonesian is the most populated Muslim country in the world. Aceh in many respects Indonesia’s most devout. To gain a greater understanding we visited the Masjid Raya Baiturrahman. The mosque is spectacular, so dominant in the city it is a wonderful example of architecture. We didn’t get to see much of the inside other than peering in through the odd door, but it looked every bit as good as the outside. As we walked around we were greeted by families and others asking for us to appear in photos with them. The warmth and friendliness of the place was infectious. After reading the lonely planets ten things not to do in Banda Aceh it was amusing at one point to find myself posing for a photo with a Muslim lady surrounded by a group of watching local men with the mosque as the backdrop. It was the only moment in my time in Banda Aceh when I thought to myself ‘have I just gotten myself in trouble?’I needn’t have worried, they found it hilarious.
If there was to be one negative it would be the general sleep disturbances which I am sure will become the norm in Indonesia. Firstly you’ve got the expected morning prayers from the mosques. It’s actually quite a nice way to wake up and I always enjoyed it in India, just shame it’s not a little later. Then there are the mysterious men and their whistles paid to help cars park and get back out onto the road. It’s a job that I can think of no comparisons. Mind boggling and enough to drive a man insane when trying to drop off to sleep to the sound of the repeated blowings of a whistle.
Banda Aceh is one of those places that the perceived negatives put off many from visiting. For us however it was an absolute pleasure. The sights were interesting and the people just lovely. The city never felt unsafe. A great start to Indonesia.