Indonesia’s Aceh province bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami. Seven years on, travellers are discovering idyllic islands, rare wildlife and a story of recovery
When the earthquake came we went outside. It was too strong to stand so we sat on the road. People were praying to Allah for it to stop. Twenty minutes later we heard screams: ‘Water, water’.
“I ran with my wife and baby; we met a truck driver and persuaded him to drive away,” continued our guide, Fikri Maxalmina. “But we got stuck in traffic. It was happening so fast. Seawater came rushing up to our necks; I had to lift up our baby. The water receded quickly. There was debris and bodies everywhere. We got off the truck, entered a house and climbed upstairs. Then the second wave came. It was bigger – 8m I think. I was weak with fear; it was sweeping everything away. But it never reached us.”
Teunom, 300km south of Banda Aceh – capital of Sumatra’s Aceh province – no longer existed. In a few devastating minutes, 167,000 Acehnese had died.
“Everybody,” Fikri told me, “lost at least one relative.”
At 7.55am, Boxing Day 2004, an earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale – what geologists called a ‘megathrust’ – shook the Indian Ocean with an energy 23,000 times that of the Hiroshima A-bomb. Twenty minutes later, the Aceh province – 240km east of the epicentre – was hit by the largest tsunami in living memory.
Aceh was wiped off the map – and then placed firmly back on it as news about this isolated Indonesian outpost filtered through. The province was previously off-limits to travellers. Acehnese separatists had been fighting a bloody guerrilla war against the Indonesian military since the mid-1970s, attempting to create a breakaway Islamic republic within Sumatra.
But everything changed post-tsunami. International donors and NGOs arrived to rebuild. And just as the water receded, so did the heart for conflict. In 2005 an agreement was brokered, with the Indonesian government granting greater autonomy to Aceh; Islamic Sharia law was instigated.
“It’s one of the few undiscovered gems left in Asia,” promised Sally Arnold, Australian leader of the first small-group tour to Aceh, which I joined in Kuala Lumpur in June.
We were flying into Medan, in North Sumatra province, to spend ten days travelling north across extravagantly untamed rainforests to reach Banda Aceh.
“Aceh’s been closed to tourism for many years,” said Sally, “so you’re the guinea pigs.”
Sumatra’s a big island: the sixth-largest in the world. Earthquakes, eruptions and tsunamis simply add to its reputation as the wild island of Indonesia. Further fuelled by speculation about Sharia law and the dramatic accounts of the 2004 disaster, anticipation among our group was running high.
“I volunteered four days after the tsunami,” revealed Ishmael – or Smiley – our Batak guide as we drove through North Sumatra.
“I collected bodies for a month for burial. We had little water or food and the smell was terrible. I had headaches all the time.”
When a landslide up ahead halted us in the Gayo Mountains, traffic cop Sgt Akaviano told me that the people of his village, Lhoknga, thought that they’d been hit by a tornado. “No trees were left standing,” he said. “The sea sucked out and a wave taller than an electricity pylon came, resembling a snake.” He curled his hand over to mimic a cobra – not the only time I’d hear the wave attributed serpentine qualities.
It would be wrong, though, to characterise the whole province as being affected. The Gayo district was untouched by the tsunami and is pregnant with potential for adventurous travellers – a beautiful region of transpiring mountainous rainforests and active volcanoes where communities farm coffee and cocoa.
There was no mistaking we were in Aceh, however. The transition from the largely Christian Batak culture of North Sumatra was immediate: there was a sudden abundance of mosques and Arabic script. Also, the Acehnese are lighter-skinned with more aquiline facial profiles; centuries of trading with Arab and Oriental merchants can be read in their faces.
At Ketambe we trekked into 8,000 sq km Gunung Leuser National Park to seek wild orang utans. Tiger and forest elephant also inhabit this stiflingly dense and humid rainforest, where my acquired bee-stings and leech wounds proved a small price to pay for two magical sightings of Sumatra’s orang utan subspecies high in the canopy. That night, we ate jackfruit curry and camped amid the rainforest’s gallery of sounds and smells; next morning we luxuriated in a river heated by volcanic fumaroles.
A further day’s drive north and we arrived at the striking Lake Laut Tawar, by Takengon. We spent a day exploring caves and waterfalls, ate grilled perch at a stilted fishing village and browsed the fecund market brimming with rambutans, mangos and jambu bol (water apples).
But eventually, towards the tip of northern Aceh, the mountains flattened into rice paddies, fringed by the ocean. And we finally arrived in Banda Aceh – the city that has been to hell and back.
On first impressions I found Banda Aceh epitomising calm normality: 60% was destroyed, so the orderly, rebuilt suburbs and impressive new public buildings instantly surprised me. I sensed a city immersed by a new tidal wave of Westernisation.
It was as if the tsunami had ravaged 800 years of historical distinctiveness and the new Banda Aceh had been reborn to cosmopolitanism: intenational hotel chains, KFCs and Pizza Huts, reflecting the imported tastes of foreign workers.
Yet the longer we stayed, the more I enjoyed the distinctive Asian and Muslim vibe. I blinked at the glinting aluminium, onion-domed mosques and I headed down to the night markets around Peunayong to eat local dishes of spicy mie Aceh – fried noodles with crab and satay in fiery peanut sauce.
As for Sharia law, well, it’s to be respected, and visitors must certainly cover up when visiting mosques. But it was nothing like the experience of travelling in Saudi Arabia – foreign women are not expected to wear headscarves. The Acehnese are warm, friendly and tolerant: I’ve never waved so much to complete strangers or encountered so many smiling faces when firing off a ‘Salam alaikum’.
City authorities are actively promoting tsunami tourism, so we spent a day exploring the memorials dedicated to the tragedy. Our tour was hosted by local charity, Network for Tsunami Aceh (NTA), which would financially benefit from our presence, and was led by coordinator Muslim Amiren and guide Fikri. It was one of the most intensely emotional days I’ve ever experienced in Asia.
Early that morning, I strolled alone around Blang Padang Park. Acehnese soldiers were performing PE near a shiny blue-and-white 1949 Dakota mounted on a plinth. I’d later see a disturbing image of the park, chaotic with corpses and wreckage while the Dakota remained undisturbed. “The wave came 4km inland but lost energy and swept everything into this park,” said Fikri.
After breakfast, we drove several kilometres towards the Indian Ocean coast to visit structures that had survived the full brunt of the tsunami. The wave reputedly peaked here at around 20m high before sweeping inland at several hundred kilometres per hour, with the flat coastal hinterland, all rice paddies and shallow lagoons where fishermen cultivated tiger prawns, doing nothing to slow its terrifying progress.
They call the mosque near the port ‘the miracle mosque’ because, though just 100m from the shore, it survived while every structure around it was annihilated. Inside the mosque was the most sobering image I saw all day. Some poor soul in their last moment on earth had photographed the wave’s foaming fury overtopping buildings by at least 10m. The camera survived.
I wondered how the mosque stayed standing? A worshipper leaving prayers in his white peci cap intervened. “Only with God is this possible,” he said, pointing skywards.
The wave’s force is best seen at two remarkable locations that have been dedicated as tsunami memorials.
Shipwrecked amid a once-residential suburb is the 2,600-tonne PLTD Apung. We joined Acehnese visitors, posing cheerfully for photographs, in climbing the rickety iron ladders to the vessel’s top deck. From there, gazing back towards the ocean, we could see the new houses that have filled the path this behemoth cleared as it surfed 3km inland.
“I lost my sister-in-law and her five relations as their house was in the ship’s path,” mused Muslim. “We only ever found the eldest daughter’s body.”
On a smaller scale, a wooden-hulled fishing boat remains precariously perched on a rooftop in Lampulo. Muslim called it Noah’s Ark – the boat saved 56 people who clambered aboard it. One of those was Gaya Tiana.
Gaya is a guide at the brilliant new Tsunami Museum. This stylish design project has been funded by international donors and resembles a woven basket. It’s one of the most innovative and intelligent museums I’ve visited, and designed with cavernous upper-storey space – an assembly point in the event of a repeat tsunami.
The museum’s entrance directs visitors through a narrow steep-sided slit reminiscent of the Siq entrance to Petra. Dark, with water cascading down, it places visitors inside the vortex of a tsunami. It was deeply unsettling. Elsewhere, a hydraulic simulator enabled me to experience a 9.1 Richter scale earthquake while a room of video consoles flashed through a heartbreaking stream of images taken during the tragedy.
The museum’s upper level then takes visitors out of the gloom and onto a sunlit floor focusing on Aceh’s reconstruction.
It was here I met Gaya, looking radiant in her pink jilbab. She was 19 when the Boxing Day tsunami struck.
“That was my family’s house,” she said, recalling the rooftop fishing boat memorial. “We were at home when it happened. We climbed onto the roof as the water rose but I couldn’t imagine this was high enough. Then the boat came and we jumped aboard... it was a miracle. But I lost my younger sister. We looked for her for six months but never found her.”
Early afternoon, we drove down to the affected western Aceh coast. It was serenely benign, not angry: calm blue ocean and golden beaches backed by forested limestone peaks noisy with siamang gibbons.
All of western Aceh’s fishing villages were obliterated. Muslim took us to one, Layeun, where his NTA foundation has been assisting orphaned children. The village lost one-quarter of its population but has been rebuilt further inland by a German NGO. The NTA has built a restaurant for tourists where we ate red snapper and listened to testimonies of the village’s reconstruction.
Our tour ended on the paradisiacal island of Pulau Weh, off northern Aceh. Here, South African Freddie Rousseau runs Freddies: 12 cliff-side chalets camouflaged by coconut palms on a 2km-long caramel-sand beach that borders the sea and perfection. There’s a backpacker-circuit buzz about this dreamy Acehnese island, a 45-minute ferry journey from Banda Aceh, but for now it remains blissfully uncorrupted.
I swam in a bathtub-warm sea, snorkelled coral reefs and hiked along the foreshore to a seaside village where fishing boats with pointed bows brought in wahoo and yellowfin tuna. In the village I drank coffee with a local fisherman called Redwan.
“I was at sea when the tsunami came,” he told me. “All I noticed was a swell under my boat, but something felt strange. The winds were mixed up and made the hairs on my arm stand on end. When I returned here my friends told me the sea had withdrawn to the coral reefs but the wave was just 1m high.”
That puzzled me. How could Pulau Weh have avoided devastation when it lay directly in the tsunami’s trajectory?
“He’s right – there was little damage here and no lives lost,” confirmed Freddie later that night as we tucked into his cornucopian buffet. The relatively mild impact was due to marine topography; unfortunately, beyond Pulau Weh a gentle submarine plain allowed the wave to gather murderous momentum.
“I arrived shortly after the tsunami on a contract with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to help get people back into paid employment,” Freddie continued. “My first decision was how much to pay the corpse collectors.
It was an awful time.
I’m a Boer and we don’t cry too much but I’ve never felt so emotional hearing so many hard-luck stories. I would come to this island and walk this beach to clear my head. Eventually I built this place”.
Then Redwan said something that took me aback. “You know, you’ll hear the Acehnese say, thank God for the tsunami. During the civil war the locals couldn’t even pray after 6pm or they might be shot for missing curfew. Ironically the tsunami gave them new freedom and they now rationalise the event by saying if it hadn’t happened, the civil war would have claimed as many lives anyway.”
“This is why Aceh is so special,” he reflected. “It’s unspoilt, unpolluted, there’s no crowds or harassment. Just very friendly people with incredible inner strength.”
The author travelled with Intrepid Travel on its 15-day Sumatran Highlights tour