Banda Aceh is located at the very tip of mainland Sumatra in the province of Aceh. To the west lies the Indian Ocean while Malaysia is to the east of Sumatra. Pulau Weh is located approximately one hour’s boat ride north east of Banda Aceh.
I was only able to savour a morsel of Banda Aceh in two half days while travelling to and from Pulau Weh (Sabang), but what I saw I enjoyed very much. Banda Aceh was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami, which wiped out almost all the town’s infrastructure. Our becak driver told us five of his family members are missing, presumed dead from the 2014 Boxing Day Tsunami. Banda Aceh it is very clean compared to other Indonesian cities and is flat and surrounded by rolling hills. It easy to see how the tsunami had such a catastrophic effect.
Banda Aceh is dotted with boats that are moored well away from the current shoreline, carried there from the tsunami. They have been left there as a reminder of the devastation caused. The Tsunami museum is well worth a visit, it is of German design and also acts as an evacuation point in the event of another tsunami. It even has earthquake simulation machines and lots of information relating to how tsunamis occur. There is also a room full of confronting local artwork depicting the tsunami coming ashore. Asking locals about the tsunami can be distressing and also a reminder of how vulnerable people are. However at the same time it also shows the resilience of people. When the community of Banda Aceh had come to their knees from disaster there was a global community there to help them back on to their feet.
After the tsunami the area was a buzz of activity within incoming NGO workers flooding the city. During the time of reconstruction prices in the city for everyday goods skyrocketed and left some basic goods being far too expensive for local Achenese to afford. NGO workers left after 2009 and our becak driver, who also speaks Japanese, spoke about how there is now a severe lack of work due to the departure of the NGOs.
We paid 150,000Rp for the becak driver to take us around Banda Aceh for about 90 minutes. Coming back from Pulau Weh I paid 200,000Rp for the becak driver to take me around for 3 hours, this included going out to the airport once to drop my friend off and then he dropped me off at the airport again three hours later.
Banda Aceh is an Islamic region and is ruled by Sharia Law. While I found wearing a headscarf unecessary, it is a good idea to cover your body well past your elbows and knees. Clothes are better loosely fitted because Banda Aceh is steamy hot. Jeans are banned and when we visited Masjid Raya Baiturrahman we were kicked out, most likely for wearing jeans. If you do enter the grounds of the Masjid (mosque) and are a lady, cover your luscious head hair out of respect. If you stand still for too long you will be asked to have your photo taken with hoards of Indonesian tourists. It is okay to refuse albeit politely.
How to get here
We travelled to Banda Aceh from Ketambe and this can be achieved in two ways, bus or plane. From Ketambe you need to get back to Medan first in order to fly. Usually there is a flight that can be taken from Kutacane (about one hour south of Ketambe) to Banda Aceh.
At the date of writing, Susi Air did not fly from Kutacane to Banda Aceh, however in previous years this flight has been possible. According to Ketambe locals, the contract is being negotiated between Kutacane airport and Susi Air to continue this route.
Because air travel was not possible, we took a private taxi to Medan which cost 250,000Rp for two people for the 6-7 hour car ride.
Garuda Airlines and Lion Air have many daily flights to Banda Aceh from Medan. We took a Garuda Airline flight, which was surprisingly excellent. The flight was less than an hour, included food and a checked in baggage. Kuala Namu airport in Medan is very new and very clean, maybe a bit sterile compared to everything else I saw in Medan.
The Sultan Iskandar Muda International Airport in Banda Aceh is about 30 minutes from central Banda Aceh.
To get the bus from Ketambe in Gunung Leuser National Park to Banda Aceh you need to travel north. It takes two-three days to get there with the bus. You can travel straight through the middle of Aceh or head towards the Western Coast. Having not done the trip I cannot impart any wisdom, but the trip is possible by bus, it just takes forever, being patient is handy.