Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh Island

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September 18th 2015
Published: September 18th 2015
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Pulau Weh

It’s like swimming in a fish bowl when snorkeling in Pulau Weh. I am sitting on our bungalow balcony, the view is stunning. I look down at the golden sand with palm trees stretching out over the beach, people eating lunch on the deck, others reading on deck chairs, local mums swimming in their clothes, head scarfs still in place. Children are laughing, splashing, swimming and jumping off the platform anchored out in the sea. Tourists’ are snorkelling, the water so crystal clear we can see their entire bodies in the water and the shadow of the coral underneath. Local wooden fishing boats motor past looking for the next spot to put their line out. Local boys snorkelling far out spearing fish for dinner. A “cock a doodle do” crows in the background, as the 3 mosques start bellowing across the beach. I am in Indonesia – loving it – wish you were here!!

We are staying at Freddies Bungalows, a beautiful tranquil spot, relaxing bungalow with a sea view and you could walk a couple of feet into the water and see vibrantly coloured tropicalfish. There was a platform out in the water and I would sit on it and watch the colourful fish swimming under the aqua water, it was so crystal clear. We spent the week relaxing, although Carl was suffering from a head cold picked up off the plane back from London, so a great place to spend a low key week. I spent a few hours taping up 100 plastic bags so they could transport coral to be planted into the existing coral outside Freddies.

We went on a snorkelling tour and I could honestly this was the best snorkeling we have ever experienced. We were the only boat out there. We saw over 100 different tropical fish, it was just amazing, and many schools of hundreds and hundreds of fish swimming with us. We got dropped around rocks or small islands in the ocean and saw reef sharks, sea eels, stingray and many beautifully coloured fish, I loved the one with big white polka dots. I wish I had an underwater camera! Pulau Web is a volcanic island and there is a volcanic underwater area where it was magical swimming through the air bubbles that were escaping the vents in the ocean floor.

Freddie does an amazing buffet meal every night, four courses of delicious food. We dined a couple of nights with a lovely couple from UK, Nicky and Ian, who are travelling for 15 months and having some amazing adventures, if you are interested their blog is

Banda Aceh

We entered Pulua Weh though Banda Aceh and stayed a night either side. Our research offered limited help with what to wear in Banda Aceh as it is governed by strict Sharia Law which recently had been enforced also on the minority of non-Muslim locals. Unmarried men and women are not allowed to be alone, or ride on a motorbike, together. A breach of the Sharia Law could result in lashes of the cane! Recently the Jakarta Post reported "Three couples were publicly caned in Indonesia’s Aceh after the unmarried university students were caught spending time alone together in violation of the province’s strict Islamic laws." Another article reported "she, who was with a married man in her house at the time, was closely observed by nine villagers who were suspicious of their movements. When the woman and her male companion went inside, the villagers immediately followed, tying up the woman’s companion and placing him in a cupboard before alledgedly taking turns to rape the woman." So gang rape is ok but not being alone inside a house with a married man!

We expected the streets to be a sea of black gowns with full burkas so I dressed in long pants, long sleeve sweatshirt with a sarong and dress at the ready. Of course, Carl, being a man, could have got away with strutting around in his boxers! Well not really, men are not allowed to wear shorts. So we were really surprised when we never saw one Burka, all women wore long skirts or trousers, long sleeve shirts and head scarves (hijabs). I was so hot, and seeing tourists in singlets and shorts, I was hoping to shed some layers of clothing in the 34 degree heat, so I checked at the tourism counter at the Ferry Terminal. They confirmed - wear clothes that cover your knees and elbows and what the other tourists were wearing was disrespectful. Bummer.

We spent the day and evening with a driver, who took us to try the local food and visit a local café that makes coffee with egg yolks. Very sweet. We are not fans of Indonesian food, but he promised us the local food is amazing, not like the food cooked for tourists. But after 3 meals of trying about 20 different dishes, resulting in sickly stomachs, he did not change our minds. We found the town extremely clean, very different from the other places we had visited in Indonesia, we saw street cleaners; actual people sweeping the streets.

Banda Aceh was the worst hit area of the Tsunami in 2004, being the closest to the earthquake epicentre. The earthquake tore down many buildings in the town and sent people running out of their houses onto to the streets, many travelling into town for support and to see the now crumbled buildings. So when the Tsunami hit 2 hours later they did not stand a chance, it ran at 60-80 km per hour 5 km inland, hitting heights equal to a 10 storied building. They lost 167,000 people, the 2000 census recorded 220,000, so they lost 75% of their population.

Our driver was lucky, living 5 km inland, he, his wife and 2 children were swept up by the waters. He managed to pluck his daughter out of the water and put her up on his shoulders, then hung onto a tree until the waters subsided. He then found his wife hanging onto a pillar, and went in search of his son, who he found a few hours later. He kept repeating how no one knew what to do and they were so grateful when the next morning they saw the international ships arrive bringing aid and some organisational skills. Government Aid agencies and NGO’s have left now but spent many years rebuilding Banda Aceh’s housing and economy.

We visited the mass grave where 146,000 bodies are buried and a few buildings that remained standing after the waves hit, including a Mosque. The Tsunami Museum was interesting although seemed more like a memorial and a thank you to the many countries that provided aid, New Zealand was higher on the list than I expected. There were many horrific pictures, to scale models, and some amazing stories, like a families reunited years after being split by the tsunami. We saw the 20 tonne boat that the water torrent picked up from the ocean and floated 5km inland to land on top of a house. It’s still there. Apparently as it was swept inland on the ride of one of the 3 waves the crew plucked people out of the water saving 56 lives, including the woman and her 5 kids from the house it landed on. One report states "of the 600 junior school children in Lampu'uk before the tsunami, only five survived". How devastating is that statistic.

We were told of the billions donated to the Indonesian Government to help the Tsunami victims and how a lot was spent on military buildings, cars for military personnel and military weapons. Aceh had been at war with the Indonesian Government fighting for independence for decades, the Tsunami bought a peace agreement. Some of the houses built are now in a very dilapidated state caused by the government officials and contractors splitting the profits left over by using sub-standard materials. Locals talk of their government “they are corrupt” they say.

We visited the Aceh Museum and saw the Dutch history which explained why Aceh people are quite tall. Our driver would point to people who were grubby from work, sitting in motorbike cart being take home from work, or a man just finished clearing a drain, wiping the dirt from his face on the roadside. “These are not Aceh people” he said “they will be from Burma or Java, as Aceh people would not do that type of work, Aceh people do not work that hard!” He was so proud, being Aceh himself.

We had a rest for 2 hours as on a Friday everything closes between 12-2pm so everyone can go to the Mosque. In the evening we walked around the market, we found the people so very friendly and happy. As much as we loved the beautiful Sri Lankan’s we feel the Aceh people even more friendly. The men loved the camera and as we walked around they would immediately pose for you, or with you, for a photo. Everyone smiled and laughed, but the children, gosh, they just thought we were hilarious. So much so, they were rolling on the ground with laughter!

A great day in Aceh, loved it, but with less than a month left we are going back to spend the last few weeks in Thailand. A week is lost in Koh Samui sitting out the unexpected rain, but discovering the beautiful beach lapping around the huge boulders and the un-commercialised area of Lamia. Then we will headover to Koh Phanghan tomorrow to revisit our favourite beaches. Saddened to read that in August a 31 year old Thai tourist died when stung by a box jelly fish at Ban Tai Beach the evening of the full moon party, a year after the 5 year old French boy died on Bottle Beach at the same time of the year. That totals 5 deaths since 2002, although many more tourists die from drowning, drugs and motorcycle accidents.

We have blogged many times about these islands, so will sign off now and see most of you in October when we arrive back in New Zealand. Thanks for reading and see you next time.

Freddie Santai

If you are thinking of going to Freddies here is some info on costs: (NZ$1 = 8500 after bank fees)

Bungalows were 300,000 per night. It cost 75,000 each from Banda Aceh on the fast ferry which took 45 minutes to get there, and we paid 25,000 each to share a taxi there. Freddies buffet breakfast was 35,000 and dinner 65,000. There is also an a la carte restaurant on the deck which does great food. Chicken curry 45,000, hamburger 25,000, pasta 40,000, Salad 30,000 and pizza 60,000, the best French fries I have ever had were 15,000. Fresh fruit juice 12,000. Beer 35,000 per can and glass of bottle wine was 50,000 (don’t try the cask wine). Freddies buffet dinner is fantastic, its soup, entrée and dessert served to your table with buffet main course. We did opt out sometimes as it was just too much food to have every night. There was only one meal that I did not like and that was when Freddie was away, otherwise every dish was delicious. He thinks of every little detail in the bungalows with a water cooler (all included and kept refilled), safe, fridge, coffee, tea, jug, toiletries, etc. My only complaint was the deck furniture was not comfortable, the hammock being too old and wirey and the bench seat having no cushions. I recommend for complete relaxation, there is no-where to go on the island, except diving or snorkelling is a must do.

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