Friday, January 17, 2014

Celebrating Life in Aceh, the Land of Serambi Mekkah

Boxing day, 26 December 2004. The great tsunami. Aceh was an area so badly affected that people from around the world were stunned and moved to help. 

Even before that catastrophic event, which suddenly put Aceh at the center of the world’s attention, I have always been intrigued by Aceh, the land of Serambi Mekkah, the northernmost province of Indonesia. I have heard stories about its great beaches, pristine forests, and its interesting history. 

Aceh was perhaps one of the most cosmopolitan cities in its time. Being one of the most important ports of the world, the centers of trading. And if it was not because of its history, Islam may have never flourished so fast in the whole of Indonesia. 

So to me Aceh is this mysterious land waiting to be discovered. Much like what Papua is to me too. Those tips of Indonesia, the guardians of our country’s sovereignty. 

When tsunami hit Aceh, I was moved as much as others did. Knowing how much of the land has changed because of that catastrophe, intrigued me more to set my feet onto this land. 

Exactly 9 years after the tsunami, on the 26th December 2013, I finally arrived in Banda Aceh.

Tsunami – A Reminder of the Frailty of Life 

Being in Aceh now, knowing what and how tsunami was should definitely be a destination. 

But, I advise you to do exactly this: DO NOT ACT LIKE A TOURIST when you visit any remnants related to tsunami. Do not treat those as tourist attractions. Treat them as reminders that behind every catastrophe, there is always hope for a better life. That God has a much better plan for us, always. A catastrophe does not mean that God is putting His wrath on us, on the contrary, He knows that life will only get better, somehow. Look at them with a thought that humanity is as strong as it is fragile, that is why it is  worth saving. 

Yes. I urge you to not act like tourists when looking at everything related to Aceh’s tsunami. 

At least there are 3 things that you can do to immerse yourself to feel how tsunami affects people’s lives then, and now:

1.      See the ruins left by tsunami, or monuments built because of it. One that moved me so much personally was the one located at Jalan Pocut Baren no. 30, by the main road towards Ulee Lheue harbour. It is actually a mass burial site,  made on what was the site of a hospital – and they leave the ruins of the hospital at the background of the site, giving it a powerful impact to imagine how forceful the tsunami was.
Another ruins are the huge off-shore diesel power station that was stationed at the shore of Ulee Lheue, pushed so far inward by the tsunami wave that it landed 5km at Punge Blang Cut; and another ship on top of a house at Lampulo – which saved 59 people on board.
Around Banda Aceh, and at other locations affected by tsunami, you can also find little monuments (tugu) which depicts how far that particular place is from the sea, how high the waves were at that place, and when were the waves reached that particular place after the earthquake. Many of those are taller than I am (who’s only 150 centimeter anyway...) – giving me a fright imagining what it was like for children..

2.      Visit Blang Padang – see the Aceh Thanks to the World monument. Walk around this park, feel the emotion when people from all over the world came together to help a country in distress 

3.      Visit the Tsunami museum.


When we roamed the city, there were prayers being held at many spots to remember that day 9 years ago. But maybe it’s true: time heals. I did not see any mourning faces. Just hopeful, peaceful, expressions. Coming to terms with the loss so difficult to accept 9 years ago.  

Having my feet on the grounds so shaken and destroyed by that catastrophic event, felt rather surreal. Again, maybe I am a hopeless romantic. But I couldn’t help feeling that way. 

Seeing Krueng Aceh, the great river that flows in the middle of Banda Aceh, the one which 9 years ago was filled with debris and bodies of tsunami victims, awed me. 

Walking around Blang Padang in the afternoon. Looking at the Aceh Thanks to the World monument, shook me. As I stood in front of the wave-like monument that resembles the tsunami waves, I felt helpless. Imagine yourself standing in front of those waves, knowing nothing can help you except God, knowing that you may lose everything there is dear to you, yet knowing that you maybe in good hands, if not the best of hands – in your Creator’s. I felt like crying reading the losses on the floor of this monument – thousands lost their lives, hundreds of thousands. 

Then we walked around the open park, looking at the boat shaped stones bearing the flag and name of the country that contributed to the efforts to rebuild Aceh. England, USA, French, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, Brazil, many countries, big and small. The world came together, with only one purpose: to save what can be saved, to heal what can be healed. I had goosebumps. It was almost a memorial walk – a memorial that the world can come together, forgetting any differences. Unfortunately, it could only happen in times of difficulty. Ah human fragile friendship is...

All the flags of all countries who helped rebuilding Aceh

The symbolisation of the Tsunami waves

Thank you, all brothers and sisters from around the world...

The number of victims and casualties...a great loss to a nation, yet a chance to rebuild and renew our spirit

Visiting the burial site at Jalan Pocut Baren, a site which 9 years ago must have been a very sad place to all that was there, I saw people reciting Al-Quran. In a normal situation, you can do that at the exact tomb. You know the exact site. But in this place, they can only face the land with some rocks here and there. Throwing flowers on the grass, not knowing exactly where their loved one is. 

This particular burial site was once the location of Meuraxa General Hospital complex. They keep the ruins of the hospital at the background. There was an eerie feeling looking at it. Imagining how chaotic it was back then.

The gate to the burial site - with one of the verse from Al-Quran was written on it, translated as "Everything with a soul, will come back to Us one day..."

Sending prayers

The Meuraxa General Hospital - was..

Looking at the off-shore diesel power station at Punge Blang Cut; and the ship at Lampulo – one can only imagine the force of the waves was. 

The diesel generator thrown so far in-land, with only 1 survivor who chose to stay in the ship when it temporarily landed. The other crews got out, not knowing that there was other waves still coming, sweeping everything one last time..

The ship at Lampulo - saving 59 people who were in this ship getting ready for it to be sailed in that particular morning

Then we found the little monuments accidentally as we went to different parts of Banda Aceh.

The one that scared me the most was one we found at Masjid Indra Purwa – which was actually also one of the most important points in Aceh’s history: one of the three Hindu-Buddha’s forts in Aceh. You can no longer see the ruins of the fort, unfortunately. 

This particular monument stated that the waves reached to 9 meter, and the water pool stopped at 7 meter. It is also very close to the sea, only 0.4km from the sea shore. God is great.   

Masjid Indrapurwa - rebuilt after the tsunami. The pole on the left hand corner of this picture, depicts how high the water was

A beautiful site actually. Behind this mosque, there were ruins of the old Hindu-Buddha fort but only pieces of them left, covered in grass. It's actually very unfortunate because this was among the three important forts in Aceh

There was only this placade that explains the existence of the three Hindu-Buddha forts on this land

On each monument, there is always the explanation of how high the wave was, and how tall the water became once the wave subsided

Remembering friends and families who have lost their lives

Visiting the Tsunami Museum, the only one in the world, will not give you the same experience as when you visit other museums. 

If you visit the museum, I urge you to do this: walk SLOOOOOWWWWLYYYY through ‘Lorong Tsunami’ (Tsunami Passage) that is the main entrance to the inside of the museum. It is a dark, 30 meter long, 19 – 23 meter high passage, with the sound of rumbling water, and its walls are covered with water which will splash on you as you walk through it. There is also the sound of someone reciting surahs from Al-Quran. 

This is the Space of Fear – depicting what people felt when it happened. One of the 5 spaces within the museum, each with its own philosophy. Of all 5, I was moved by this passage most. Imagine yourself surrounded by water; dark, filthy, water. Think of yourself in the tsunami itself. Imagine the fear. Cry if you must when doing so.. I almost did. 

The Space of Fear...pitch dark, sound of water all around you and it will also be splashing on to you, the sound of someone reciting Al-Quran.... A very strong emotional experience...

The countries participating in the efforts to rebuild Aceh are forever remembered

These 'remembering tsunami' visits that we made, really reminded me that life, humanity, fraternity, are all very fragile. But often we forget how fragile they are, until a catastrophe happens...


Aceh Beyond Tsunami

Though Aceh was a very important sultanate, unfortunately thanks to years of wars and conflicts in the past, there are only very little left of it. 

If India has Tajmahal that was built as a prove of love, Aceh has Gunongan and Pintu Khop. These were built in the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda for his beloved wife, the Princess of Pahang. She missed her home land so much, and since the Sultan loved her so much, he made a hills like building for her to reminisce her homeland and she could walk around it too.

Gunongan - the shapes are said to resemble the views of the hills at Pahang, Malaysia

Pintu Khop - now becomes a public park

There is also the tomb of Sultan Iskandar Muda and Rumoh Aceh, and several tombs of the family of the sultanate are also located in the same complex of Rumoh Aceh. Unfortunately not well kept – to the extent that they seem to be ignored. 

This particular model took part in the Colonial fair in Semarang, in 1915. It won several prizes as the best pavilion. It was brought back to Aceh and became part of Aceh Museum

Tombs of the Sultanate's family. Unfortunately there was no explanation about it

The tomb of Sultan Iskandar Muda next to the museum

And I have to say this: knowing how ruined the city was, and a lot of other places too, I was amazed at how good many things look now!. Very smooth roads, strong bridges, people’s houses looked neat. If not for a few beggars in intersection, in the harbour, and a few other places, we would say that there is nobody with a hard life in Aceh. 

Banda Aceh itself still has its provincial feel here and there. For us Jakartans, this is very refreshing. Far from the hustle and bustle of a big city, but not feeling that we were too far from everything. 

Many old stores in Banda Aceh - made us wondered what would happen to them if the modern retail stores decide to expand heavily. Hopefully they will resist just like they always did in the colonial times!

Maybe to some people these are not charming. To me, these are a symbol of preservation of a simple way of living, not wanting MORE, but happy with fulfilling what is needed. Uncomplicated

Krueng Aceh. Krueng - sounds so Thai. I suspect Aceh's closeness to the shores of Thailand has some infuence in their language... well as in the shape of their traditional boats. If you look at some of Thailand's tourism pictures, you'll see the resemblance

You can see the colourful traditional boats at Lampulo

And they also have a smaller version of Taman Mini - or the  huge park that we have just outside of Jakarta that show cases various traditional houses. This particular park in Aceh shows various traditional houses around Aceh

a sample of the house from Bener Meriah

A mosque that survived the waves of the tsunami at Ulee Lheue

What I also enjoyed so much, is the spectacular views of Mother Nature. 

Even within only 20 minutes drive from the city, the view was stunning!. Peaceful, clean, beaches. Rows and rows of hills. Very thick forests. Clean rivers. Seriously a place to get away and refresh yourself. 

A view at Ulee Lheue

The road to Meulaboh - smooth, wide, with spectacular views all around it

The view along the road

Ceumara beach

Sarah River...
...where we ended up joining the locals to have a swim in that very hot day. It felt great!

I don't remember what the name of this particular point was

The road towards Banda Aceh

And of course, in Aceh, there is Weh Island. Where Kilometer 0, the exact spot of where Indonesia’s sovereignty starts, is located. 

But Weh Island is not just about Kilometer 0. 

Sabang - a forgotten past

Historically it was a more important port than Singapore was, until before the 2nd World War. Sabang was once a door for trading in the western part of Indonesia. And nature provides just the right condition to make it an ideal harbour. The colonial Dutch made it as a Free Trade port, which was lifted by the Indonesian government in 1985 due to the concerns over illegal tradings. 

Going around Sabang, could not help wondering if there was a heritage walk, as there are still buildings from the past Sabang Maatschaapij time, to remind people that here once stood one of the most important harbours in the world, the door to Indonesia’s most western point, unfortunately forgotten.
The view at the port

This used to be Rex a cultural centre, or, supposed to be. Because every time we passed, we saw no activities

The smooth, peaceful, road at Sabang

One of the houses of the employees of the Sabang Maatschaapij

This now belongs to the Navy

The Japanese bunkers

Given its location and importance, it is not a wonder why the Japanese worked so hard to build bunkers all around the island to watch for any unwanted intrusion.

Many of these bunkers are no longer taken care of. But there is a particular spot where it is not just well kept, but its location is just stunning. It's at Anoi Itam.

A bunker at Sumur Tiga beach

A bunker I accidentally found at the beach behind our hotel
The bunker at Anoi Itam
The road to the bunker

The view was stunning...

And you can play at the meadow down below the bunker..

...under the big trees...

...looking at the raging waves that splash onto the big rocks

The lovely beaches - and breathtaking underwater life

You'll miss a lot if you don't explore the beaches and the underwater life at Weh Island. If you don't dive, snorkel. Even when you can't swim, or not used to snorkeling, you can use life jackets, ask a guide to help, and enjoy the underwater life. On a good day, you can see as far as 5m. I snorkeled both on a sunny day, and another on a very windy and cloudy day. Even on a cloudy day, I could still see well until 2-3m.

We stayed at Iboih (the first circle from the left on this picture), because we heard Gapang beach (the circle next to it) was no longer attractive. Gapang and Iboih actually used to be the two most popular beaches in Weh. But some mismanagement has made Gapang less attractive due to a monopoly sistem applied by a so-called resort,which in my opinion doesn't do a good job at keeping the place well-kept. Sumur Tiga (the third circle from the left) was another recommended beach just to have a swim, but we were advised to be more careful because the currents are a lot more stronger. Anoi Itam (the last circle from the left) is not for a swim as it is very rough - but the view is gorgeous especially from the place of the bunker.

Sumur Tiga is also supposed to be a nice, white sandy beach. Unfortunately when we went there the weather was cloudy, there was a very strong wind so we could not swim at this beach.

Sumur Tiga beach

Iboih (read as eboh) and Rubiah island on the other hand, stay relatively calmer hence it is nice to swim in whatever weather. At Iboih there are two parts of the beach. One is where it is easily accessible by car - basically this one is near the car park. This is sandy and easier to swim in but it is also a place for boats to come in and out so it is very busy.

Another part of the beach is the one right in front of Rubiah island. You'll need to walk and climb a little bit but it's worth it. It's less hectic, unfortunately you'll have to wear beach shoes even when going into the water because there are rocks everywhere.

Snorkeling is best at this beach in front of Rubiah, and around Rubiah island itself. What I found very interesting was that the coral reefs were actually not that great. The impact of tsunami's underwater currents, and some changes in weather, has somehow ruined a lot of the reefs in this part of Aceh. Efforts have been made to let the reefs grow again and some results have shown.

However, the variation of fishes and other underwater animals has really made both of my snorkeling days. There were Murray eels, giant squids, parrot fishes, lion fishes - big ones!, puffer fishes, huge sea urchins, and other fishes that I've forgotten what they're called (my diving days have gone soooo long ago....) all just within hundreds of meters from the seashore. It was just amazing. Unfortunately I didn't have an underwater camera (yup, what a stupidity....cursing myself as I snorkeled...).

Iboih beach

From Iboih to Rubiah, it only took about 15 minutes boat ride. If you take the glass bottom boat, they will take you around for a bit. For IDR 250,000, they will take you to Rubiah, leave you there and when you're finished, you can just call them up and they'll pick you up taking you back to Iboih

Rubiah island

This is the other side of Iboih beach - one facing right to Rubiah island
Enjoying the Ruggedness of Weh Island

A lot of forest areas within Weh Island are now protected. So when you drive here and there, you'll find yourself amidst the thickness of the forest (but the road quality is excellent!). Some curves and bends need some skill to maneuver.

But at every point of this island, there's always something to enjoy.

We were actually lost. We tried finding our hotel, and we drove and drove and drove but found nothing but thicker and thicker forest

And at some parts it was clear that there are not many people travel on this road. We in fact did not meet any cars. But it was really nice to be on this road. We saw some interesting looking monkeys - black and white face with looong white and black tail. Sounds of birds that we've never heard before. And the air was just gorgeous. We could feel our body thanking us for the fresh air

We stayed at Pade Dive Resort - wanting to be in a place that is far from the crowds at Iboih. And this hotel, keeps a lot of  big trees on its property

...which at night, depending on how you look at it, is a wonderful site with the lamps under the trees

At 0 Km - you can enjoy a lovely sunset actually. Unfortunately it was a heavily cloudy day

Welcoming the twilight at Iboih, looking at Rubiah island

Twist and turns of the roads around Weh

The view to Aneuk Laot lake - this is not far from Balohan

From areas once ruined by the great tsunami, to a place that feels almost untouched at Weh Island, I think Aceh has a lot to offer. It really is a place to celebrate life in all its dimensions: from ruins to being awakened.

A place that from afar has always fascinated me, has truly left me fascinated.

Thank you, Aceh. Thank you our friends from around the world, for helping this beautiful land once devastated by the disaster, to now be alive and kicking... 


If you wish to rent a car, both in Banda Aceh or Sabang, contact Bang Faidzin +6285373330232, or BB Pin: 29d920d5

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