Hanging out with the NGO's

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April 6th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh.Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh.Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh.

This mosque is a major landmark in the centre of Aceh. Amazingly it survived the earthquake and tsunami intact, which was interpreted by many residents as a direct intervention from the divine.

"We advise you to exercise caution when travelling to Aceh, which is emerging from a long-running internal conflict. You should exercise particular caution when travelling to remote areas. You should also monitor all available information on the local situation."

(The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.
Still Current at: 6 April 2007
Updated: 4 April 2007).

Don't take the Foreign Office's advise on Aceh too seriously. The Foreign Office are always very conservative in their advise...they are probably covering their backs should anything happen. That said you should always monitor all available information on the local situation wherever you travel. But to be honest, a Saturday night pub crawl in the centre of Leeds in England where I used to live is probably more dangerous than a visit to Banda Aceh now. But, things do change.

The tsunami, mass graves and civil war

At the time of the tsunami in Dec 2004 the current governor of Aceh was in jail. Irwandi Yusuf, the separatist leader of GAM (Free Aceh Movement) was elected as governor of the province in December 2006, which was the culmination of the peace process between GAM and the central Indonesian Government. One of the results of the peace agreement is that Aceh will keep 70%!o(MISSING)f its oil and gas revenues. Which is important because much of the resentment against Jakarta was because so much of the provinces wealth
A work in progress...central Banda AcehA work in progress...central Banda AcehA work in progress...central Banda Aceh

This building was within 100m of my hotel in the central business district of the city. It is only a few doors away from an upmarket seafood restaurant favoured by ex-pats.
went to the central government. Aceh is a long way from Jakarta - it can feel as if Indonesia is a Javanese Empire.

The tsunami was a disaster that dwarfed any damage that 30 years of civil war did to Aceh. The epicentre of the earthquake was just off the coast of Aceh. Banda Aceh was the nearest large city to the tsunami's epicentre. It's estimated that 60,000 people died in the city on the day that the wave hit. There are mass graves around the city where nameless victims are buried. Much of the city is still in ruins...it may be some years yet before the last of the NGO's (non government organisations) leave the region. The scale of the disaster did concentrate minds...and the Indonesian government and GAM signed the Helsinki Peace Agreement on the 15th of August 2005.

Aceh is poised for a great revival, it has a wealth of natural resources which it has ensured won't be entirely stolen by Jakarta and the international aid organisations are rebuilding what was lost and helping develop an intelligent and ambitious workforce. In a few years time Aceh may be a very different place.

At the end of my last blog (Missionaries impaled on Batak spears) I had arrived back in Medan after my tour of Northern Sumatra. Just part of my multi-year trip around the world. In Medan, I uploaded the blog and then flew to Banda Aceh. I chose to fly because it cost only slightly more to fly than to go by bus. The roads are bad, the buses terrible and to add to the misery, the bus journey would have meant enduring 13 hours sat next to chain smokers. Indonesians smoke everywhere, all the time. Even when there are no smoking signs they ignore them. I don't mind overcrowded buses that break down on pot holed roads, and screaming babies with leaking nappies. I can live with that. But 13 hours sat next to a chain smoker is too much. At least the airlines enforce the no smoking rules on the planes (although not in the airport terminals). I saw a uniformed airport employee smoking directly beneath a non smoking sign in the airport terminal!

Banda Aceh

I stayed a couple of nights in Banda Aceh. The city is one of the oldest Islamic cities in South East Asia. It was established on April 22, 1205 by SultanAlaidin Johansyah . Back then Aceh competed with Melaka on the Malay Peninsula for control of the spice trade route. It was also the gateway into the archipelago for Islam. Aceh is still one of the most Islamic part of Indonesia. You don't come here for hard core boozing. Aceh was wealthy and important; its power started to decline in the 17th century, but it remained independent until the Dutch declared war in 1871

Pulau Weh

The main purpose of my visit to Aceh was to visit the island of Weh, which is just off the coast of Banda Aceh. The Lonely Planet guide describes the island as one of the best diving sites in the Indian Ocean. I can't comment on that as I haven't visited all the other Indian Ocean diving sites! I can tell you that I saw a lot of big fish, including manta's and turtles. I stayed at Gapang beach in a bungalow that cost me 150,000 rupiah (about 9 pounds sterling or $US17). A group of turtles lives near the Gapang beach. Unfortunately I don't have any underwater housing for my camera...so you are just going to have to believe me when I say that the sea life in Pulau Weh is awesome!

I was on the island mid week, so the beach was fairly empty. This is a tropical island that hasn't sold out. At the weekend lots of tourist appear from Banda Aceh - most of them aid workers from the NGO's based in the city. If you are looking for a remote cast away island, with great views and diving, this is the place. If though you want to party and drink till you drop with gangs of Europeans then stick to the overcrowded Thai beaches.

Additional photos below
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Renovations, Medan Hotel, Banda AcehRenovations, Medan Hotel, Banda Aceh
Renovations, Medan Hotel, Banda Aceh

To be fair to the hotel, my room was nicely renovated. This scene was the corridor just beyond my room. Many of the rooms were obviously still being renovated. During the day I heard a lot of noise in the hotel. The hotel had a picture at reception of the hotel back in December 2004 with a boat in the car lot in front of the hotel.

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