A tropical island, tsunami evidence and sharia law in Aceh (Pulau Weh & Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia)

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April 20th 2009
Published: April 20th 2009
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(Day 381 on the road)The island of Pulau Weh is as far north as you can travel in Indonesia. Located just off the very tip of Sumatra in the infamous Aceh province, it is a quiet and very beautiful place. People come here to snorkel, dive and relax. And that is exactly what I did for a few days (on Iboih beach on the island).

The island also attracts a very mixed crowd, more diverse than I have seen in a long time. Apart from the usual backpackers, there was the French couple with a seven year old daughter, who have been travelling the seven seas on their yacht for the last five years (so their daughter effectively grew up on the boat, without any friends or schooling). Then there was the Australian couple who had leased a small patch of land and were building their own bungalow. Or the British guy, who lives in Cambodia and comes to Pulau Weh a few times each year to escape the rainy season and for a change o scenery. And the Swiss camera man who was working for Al Jazeera and took a break from his work. Or the middle-aged Swedish female journalist who had been travelling around Aceh for four month on a motorbike and complained bitterly about how she had been ill-treated by so many male Muslims during her trip. Or the local Muslim tourists, who told me (he was dead-serious) that "of course" he has had sex with various girls in his life, and "of course" he expects his future wife to be a virgin. Also, there were a lot of people who have come to the island for years, and they keep coming back to its beauty.

And then there were the locals here. The Aceh province has been the focus of intense fighting for a long time now, with the GAM rebels fighting the Indonesian army for their independence. Then the 2004 tsunami hit the area (Aceh was the hardest hit part of the tsunami with waves as high as 30 metres), killing an estimated 130.000 people in the region, and the disaster did what years of fighting did not accomplish - it united the people. The rebels laid down their arms and a cease-fire was agreed upon, and today Aceh is relatively peaceful and open to tourists again.

After the Tsunami, the province was put under strict Sharia law, which causes a fair bit of conflict amongst the population. The story goes as follows: After the tsunami, the only building left standing in the provincial capital Banda Aceh was the mosque (no surprise there, as the mosque is massive and all the houses are tiny structures, many of them wooden). This was interpreted that God was angry at the Muslims for not obeying his teachings and for having become too materialistic. Others say that it was punishment for Muslims killing Muslims in the separatist war. In any case, stricter religious laws were put into place after the disaster. I am not sure how far this story is true, but nobody I have spoken to approves of the law, quite the contrary. Especially the women voiced very strong opinion against the oppression, fearing the conservative religious Sharia police, which frequently stops them on the streets for not dressing modestly enough and threatens them to shave their heads if they are ever caught again.

But having said that, Sharia law is still interpreted rather moderately here in Aceh, compared to the beheadings in Saudi Arabia or the stonings in Nigeria that occasionally make the news. Here in Aceh (certainly in the city of Banda Aceh), women are allowed to walk the streets alone without a male companion, and it is no problem to talk to a women either. Then again, there was the French guy and his Indonesian girlfriend who were caned in public in front of the mosque for having sexual intercourse before marriage. I was also shocked to learn that the majority of women in Aceh are circumcised - most are only cut a little to draw blood in a ceremony, but sometimes the whole clitoris is cut off. So it remains a difficult subject and is certainly quite hard to comprehend for people with a different upbringing.

After a few days on the island I made my way back to Banda Aceh, where I spent a long day tracing the horrendous effects of the 2004 tsunami. In the city alone, 61.000 people were killed. Five years on, the destruction is still visible in many places. Apparently, thousands of people still live in shelters, and the reconstruction of homes continues. I also saw a huge ship displaced by the tsunami, which now sits located many kilometres inland. But the most chilling reminder of the havoc of the tsunami are four mass graves, where an estimated 100.000 unidentified bodies are buried. I visited a site with about 15.000 bodies, and it was a deeply moving experience.

Next stop: Berastagi (Sumatra, Indonesia).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


20th April 2009

Hey Ben, this is a really interesting entry, as I am considering heading this way as soon as I settle in in Singapore. Do you think traveling the area would have been any different had you have been female?
21st January 2011
View from my bungalow on Pulau Weh

were exactly
hello, i am in java for the moment but i taka a plane for banda aceh the next week, and i saw this photo... Can you say me if this place is in a big resort or no? i want to find a place like this but not in a big resort, can you tell me more about this place?
12th April 2011

Which Resort Do U Stayed at Weh Island
Hi Ben, May i know which Bungalow did u mention from your blog.

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