Aceh (pronounced AH-chay) is a province on the northwest tip Sumatra with about 5.3 million people. It contains dense tropical rain forests and jungles, rubber, palm oil and coconut plantations and farms with cocoa trees. It is regarded as the most devoutly Muslim area in Indonesia. It is the closest part of Indonesia to Mecca and the Middle East. It was the place hardest hit by the December 2004 tsunami that killed around 250,000, more than 75 percent of whom were in Aceh.

Aceh is a special territory (daerah istimewa) of Indonesia not a province and is more independent and has autonomy than the provinces of Indonesia. It is known today for it strict form of sharia (Islamic law) that includes public flogging and severe punishments for homosexuality. Aceh’s full name is Naggroe Aceh Darussalam. It is known in Indonesia as the "Verandah of Mecca" because it is where Islam first took hold in the vast archipelago centuries ago. Visitors to the region are advised to be respectful to Muslim customs, Both men and women should keep their legs and arms covered. Women should cover their hair. Alcohol is very difficult to get except at the top end hotels and Chinese restaurants.

Aceh contains some nice beaches and grows much of the marijuana consumed in Indonesia. It features specular scenery of the Gayo Highlands and provides access to some of the best trekking areas in Gunung Leuser National Park. Political problems, an Islamic insurgency, then the 2004 tsunami and now strict sharia (Islamic law) have prevented the province from reaching its potential as a tourism destination. Malaria is a problem in some places. That doesn’t help tourism either. When you visit dress casually but be sure to respect the locals. The locals are mostly Muslims, and modest clothing is therefore preferred.

Aceh has substantial natural resources, including oil and gas - some estimates put Aceh gas reserves as being one of the largest in the world. Exxon has had a major presence in the region. Lhokseumawe (on the east side of Sumatra) is the main industrial city and oil and gas center in Aceh. The large Arun LPG refinery here is operated by Exxon. Large tracts of land are still covered by rain forest. The lush southeast Aceh region is blessed with tropical fruits like mango, rambutan, durian, avocado, orange, papaya, and guava. Some parts of east Aceh and south Aceh produce world-class coffee and tobacco.

Banda Aceh is the capital and largest city of Aceh Province. It is only a forty-five minute flight from Medan. If you depart from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, it's best if you use a connecting flight to Medan in northern Sumatra and then to Banda Aceh. If you need to depart from Jakarta, the flight will take about two and half hours from its airport, Sukarno Hatta (CGK).

History of Aceh

In the early sevententh century the Sultanate of Aceh was the most wealthy, powerful and cultivated state in the Malacca Straits region. Aceh has a history of political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government.

Aceh came into contact with the outside world as early as the A.D. sixth century. Chinese chronicles of that time speak of a kingdom on the northern tip of Sumatra named Po-Li. Several Arabic writings of the early ninth century, and later inscriptions found in India mention the area. In 1292, Marco Polo, on his voyage from China to Persia visited Sumatra and reported that on the northern part of Sumatra there were as many as six trading ports including Ferlec, Samudera and Lambri. It is ironic that this area is presently one of the least known of Indonesia.

Islam is reported to have reached Aceh between the A.D. seventh and eighth centuries and the first Islamic kingdom, Perlak was established in A.D. 804. Then followed Samudera Pasai in 1042, Tamiah in 1184, Aceh in 1205 and Darussalam in 1511. In this year the Portuguese captured Malacca and many Asian and Arabic traders sought to avoid the Malacca Strait and called instead on Aceh's port, bringing wealth and prosperity. Aceh's dominance in trade and politics in northern parts of Sumatra began, reaching a climax between 1610 and 1640.

With the death of Sultan Iskandar Thani in 1641, Aceh's decline began. The British and Dutch both started to vie for influence. In 1824 the London Treaty was signed, giving the Dutch control over all British possessions in Sumatra in return for a Dutch surrender of their establishments in India and an abrogation of all claims on Singapore. The Dutch fought a long drawn out struggle in their attempt to subdue the Acehnese. The Aceh War, which lasted intermittently from 1873 to 1942, was the longest ever fought by Holland and cost the Dutch more than 10,000 lives. This struggle has stamped a deep imprint on the Acehnese outlook and mentality. The era of industrialization arrived, and with it has come a more open attitude towards things alien. Visitors should keep in mind, though, that the Acehnese take their religion, their manners and their morals seriously.

December 2004 Tsunami in Aceh

The December 26, 2004 tsunami devastated coastal areas in Aceh, Indonesia's northernmost province. Banda Aceh and other cities on the west coat of Aceh resembled Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. When the waters receded, dead bodies were left in people's yards. Rice cookers were deposited on the roofs of houses. Cars were left in trees. In Aceh land that once houses 120,000 people was permanently submerged under water.

Around 170,000 people were killed (130,000 confirmed dead, 37,000 missing) in Indonesia, most of them in Aceh province. For a while it was thought around 230,000 people were killed there but in April 2005, the government reduced the number of missing from 95,000 to 37,000. The tsunami left more than 500,000 people homeless and caused an estimated $4.5 billion in losses and damage.

In some towns and neighborhoods in Aceh the death rate reached 90 percent. The village of Lampuuk had 6,500 residents before the disaster and only 700 afterwards. Fewer than 20 of the survivors were women. Calang had 7,300 people before the tsunami and 750 afterwards. The only building left standing was a large, white mosque. There wasn't even much debris. Everything was swept away. In the next village to the south, Kreung Sabe, half the 4,000 people that lived there were killed and all but 500 were left homeless. Further south still in Panga not a single house was left standing and around 800 of the 1,100 people that lived there were killed.

The most powerful waves from the tsunami struck Meulaboh, a city of 70,000 on the west coast of Aceh, 170 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh. It was the closest city to the epicenter of the earthquake and was devastated by both the earthquakes and the tsunami. The waves reached three kilometers inland. Tens of thousands died. But the nearness to the earthquake is believed to have saved many people who were driven out of their homes by the quake and heeded warning to run to high ground when people saw the wave approaching. Many of the dead were children, who couldn't swim or weren't strong enough to escape when water engulfed them.

Bodies were strewn in the streets, rotting in the tropical sun and producing a horrible stench. Many were dumped in mass graves, sometimes 60 at a time with bulldozers, without a ceremony or funeral rites. This added insult to injury of the disaster to the largely devout Acehese who were distressed to see their relatives denied a proper Muslim burial. At first many bodies were left unburied because local people wanted them to have a proper Muslim burial. They were then buried en mass after a Muslim cleric in Jakarta issued a fatwa, declaring in a time of crisis it was okay to bury people without proper rites.

A year after the disaster an iman at a mosque in Ulee Lheue in Aceh told wprshippers that the tsunami was a religious warning. “Please forgive the people who have left us for their wrongdoing," he said.

Banda Aceh

Banda Aceh (nine to 13 hours by bus from Medan on the west side of Sumatra) is the capital of Aceh and the main gateway to the region. It was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. Most of the city was destroyed, including the Governor's Residence, built by the Dutch. The Baiurrahman Grand Mosque, the most impressive building in the capital, rebuilt in 1875 after being destroyed in the war, was the only landmark building left standing . Banda Aceh was home to 330,000 people before the tsunami. Now it has a population of around 220,000.

Its auspicious position on the tip of the westernmost point of the Indonesian archipelago has made the town of Banda Aceh a recognized transit point as well as a hub for education, commerce, and government. The Aceh Darussalam Kingdom was established by Sultan Johan Syah in 1250AD following the disintegration of old Hindu-Buddha kingdoms like Indra Purba, Indra Purwa, Indra Patra, and Indra Pura. The capital city of the Aceh Darussalam Kingdom was Banda Aceh Darussalam. Following 70 years of battles with the Sultan the Dutch changed the name into Kutaraja. The town was eventually declared Banda Aceh in 1962. As one of the oldest cities that embraces Islam, daily life in Banda Aceh today is still enormously influenced by Islamic lifestyles.

Although around sixty percent of the towns infrastructure was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and some parts of the city remain permanently submerged, the city is now looking new as considerable developments took place right after the disaster. Infrastructures and activities have resumed as usual, and tourism is becoming increasingly popular as peculiarly fresh attractions spring up to the surface. Ulee Lheue is a shoreline facing Malacca Strait and the Pacific Ocean on the west, and it offers the best sunset views in the country.

In the past Banda Aceh was named Kutaraja and was called Rencong Land,, has 9 district, namely:; 1) Baiturahman; 2) Kuta Alam; 3) Meuraxa; 4) Syiah Kuala; 5) Lueng Bata; 6) Ulee Kareng; 7) Banda Raya; 8) Jaya Baru; 9) Kutaraja; Tourism Office: Jl. Tengku Cik Kuota Karang No. 3, Banda Aceh. Phone. (62-651) 23691, 26206, 21108 Fax. 33723

December 2004 Tsunami in the Banda Aceh Area

Banda Aceh lost around a quarter if its 223,000 people. The main hospital for Aceh, located there, lost 40 percent of its medical staff. Many patients were killed too. The tsunami occurred while the hospital was treating victims from the earthquake. Two islands off the northwestern coast of Aceh broke into four and in the process lost 7,000 of its 11,000 people. The island of Malinggei was completely swept clean of people. After the disaster none of the 500 people that lived there were left. The only large animals were dogs feeding on corpses. Aceh Province as a whole lost about 5 percent of its population of 4 million people. Almost all the deaths were along the coast. A few people living inland were killed by the earthquake.

The tsunami waves that inundated Banda Aceh were a mixture of saltwater, dirt, sewage, garbage and debris. In some places, in 10 minutes a three-meter-high wall of mud, water and debris swept almost 10 kilometers inland. Densely-backed, inhabited water front areas were swept clean, leaving nothing but a few foundations among puddles and ponds. Many of dead that did not drown were thrown against buildings or cut by flowing pieces of tree, wood and metal.

The Los Angeles Times reported: “What had seemed to be a moderate earthquake shook residents of Banda Aceh, a city of about 150,000 at the northern tip of Sumatra, around 8 a.m. local time. About half an hour later, many of them were outside inspecting their houses for damage when, on what had been a clear, sunny day, the sky filled with water. Survivors remembered a sound like the drumbeat of a driving rain. "Water! Water! Big water!" some screamed, unable to articulate the nature of the phenomenon. This was water like nobody had seen — snarling, tall as a four-story building. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

"It was like Armageddon," remembered Zukarnaen Buyung, a strapping 30-year-old construction worker. "We didn't know it was a wave. We thought it was some kind of rain. Everything behind us was black. The sky, the water." Buyung ran. Little high ground exists in Banda Aceh, which is built along a palm-studded coastal plain, but Buyung managed to scramble up a bridge, dragging his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. They watched, horrified, as the strangely voracious water swallowed up relatives and neighbors. A brother and a nephew disappeared as Buyung looked down, helpless. "I watched. I couldn't do anything," he recalled, his voice choked with grief. [Ibid]

“The tsunami obliterated a swath of the city stretching three miles from the sea. It lifted 75-foot fishing boats and dumped them in the middle of the city, deposited hundreds of bodies in front of what had been brightly lighted shops on Panglima Polem Street. Single-story wooden houses were dismantled as if they were made of sticks, and trees were pulled out like blades of grass. South along Sumatra's long Indian Ocean coastline, entire villages disappeared without a trace. [Ibid]

Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman and Sights in Banda Aceh

Among the sights in Banda Aceh are: 1) Aceh Tsunami Museum; 2)Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman; 3) The mausoleum of Sultan Iskandar Muda; 4) Krueng City Park; 5) Kerkhoff Dutch Cemetery, which is the largest Dutch Soldier Cemetery after the one in its mother country, Holand) It is where the Dutch soldiers were buried after Aceh War in 1873-1902); 6) Aceh House; 7) Syiah Kuala Cemetery; 8) Baiturrahim Mosque at Ulee Lheue, Visiting the central market of Banda Aceh is interesting. On sale are street food and dishes, fruits, and local vegetables, some souvenirs, clothes and household items. Aceh Adventure is specializing in Aceh city tour and adventure. It can be reached by contacting: +62 813 9957 8873 or E-mail:

With its bright white walls and majestic black domes, the 130-year old Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman is a magnificent site. It was here that hundreds of people sought refuge during the 2004 tsunami that flattened most of the landscape of the city. The fact that it survived while so many other building were destroyed gives special significance to the Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman in the city of Banda Aceh. It is more than just a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, it the nation, it is seen as direct intervention from the divine that allowed people who sought refuge in to survive.

Royal scriptures day first mosque built at the sight of the Great Mosque was built from wood in 1612 under the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda. Some say that a mosque was built even earlier in 1292 by Sultan Alaidin Mahmudsyah. During the Aceh war in 1873, the 1612 mosque was burnt to the ground. Realizing the value and its importance to the people of Aceh, in 1879, Dutch Major General Vander rebuilt the mosque as it was once promised by Governor General Van Lansberge in 1877. Two more domes were added by the Dutch in 1936 and another two by the Indonesian government in 1957.

The Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman is located in the center of the city of Banda Aceh. Characterized by a 35-meter tower, 7 grand domes and 7 minarets, the Baiturrahman is probably the prototype for many mosques in Indonesia and Malaysian peninsula, supersede the layered roofed-style mosque that was common before it was buil. The best time to visit this mosque is during friday afternoon prayers whem the entire mosque and yard are filled with people.

The city of Banda Aceh, capital of province of Aceh, is 18,5 kilometers from the site dand takes about 20 minutes by car. The local International airport is about 30 minutes away by car. Many surfers around the world are frequent the nearby of Lhok Nga village during the winter moths. Climate after 10.00 am it gets quite hot but seldom-above 30º C in the shade.

Visit an inhabited house with a deserted fishing boat right upon its roof. No one would want to relocate the vessel as it has its own dramatic story. The story has it that 59 people were saved by the boat during the tsunami. Do not miss the marvelous and well documented Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman that stood still and saved hundreds of people despite its aged structures. There are hundreds of amazing stories to uncover as you cycle around the city that was recently dubbed as one of the cleanest cities in the country.

Aceh Tsunami Museum

The Aceh Tsunami Museum is a museum designed as a symbolic reminder of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami disaster, as well as an educational center and an emergency disaster shelter in case the area is ever hit by a tsunami again. Designed by Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamil and opened in 2009, the museum is a 2,500 square meter, four-story structure with long curving walls covered in geometric reliefs. Inside, visitors enter through a dark, narrow corridor between two high walls of water — meant to recreate the noise and panic of the tsunami itself. The museum walls are adorned with images of people performing the Saman dance, a symbolic gesture dedicated to the strength, discipline and religious beliefs of the Acehnese people. From above, the roof resembles a tsunami. The ground floor is modelled on the kind of traditional raised Acehnese houses that were best equipped to survive the tsunami. [Source: Wikipedia]

The building acknowledges both the victims, whose names are to be inscribed on the wall of one of the museum's internal chambers, and the surviving members of the local community. In addition to its role as a memorial for those who died, the museum also offers a place of refuge from future such events, including an "escape hill" for visitors to run to in the event of another tsunami.

Exhibitions at the museum include an electronic simulation of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, in addition to photographs of victims and exhibits featuring stories from survivors of the disaster. Adequate funding for the ongoing maintenance and use of the Aceh Tsunami Museum has not been forthcoming. The museum is one of a large number of so-called "tsunami assets", the precise legal ownership of which has been in dispute between different levels of Indonesian governments since at least 2009. As of late 2010, the Museum was only open intermittently and was poorly patronised. It is supposed to be open daily: 10:00am to 12:00pm, 3:00pm to 5:00pm but is often closed.

Restaurants and Shopping in Banda Aceh

Nasi Gurih is a must when you stay overnight in Banda Aceh. It is rice steamed in coconut milk. It has exotic flavor and sold in many coffee shops. Traditional markets offer fresh tropical fruit and traditional side dishes and snacks. Dodol (some kind of sweets made of certain flour, sugar, palm sugar and sometimes fruit), chips, cake and bread can be found.

Try to sample Mie Aceh (special noodle from Aceh) and it is best served and sold in : 1) Mie Razali, Jl T Panglima Polem, Peunayong, Banda Aceh; 2) Mie Lala, Jl. Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh. Malay food can be found in Canai Mamak KL Restaurant on Jalan Teuku Umar no. 51, Seutui. Also visit a naturalist café in SHIDQI Café on Jalan Malikul Shaleh, Lamlagang, on the left side of the Red Crescent Hospital. Restaurants: Interesting items and snacks can be found at the back of the mosque as Pasar Aceh (Aceh Market).

Among the the restaurants that serve Indonesian and Western food are: 1) Bene Restaurant, Jalan Bhakti no. 33 A-B. Kampung Laksana, Tel. +62 651 31035; 2) Aceh Barat Restaurant, Jl. Khairil Anwar I no. 16, Kampung Baru, Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 23250; 3) Istana Restaurant, Jl. Teuku Iskandar no. 64, Lambuk, Syiah Kuala, Tel. +62 651 21512; 4) Kartika Restaurant, Jl. Nyak Adam Kamil IV no. 1, Ateuk Pahlawan, Baiturrahman, Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 21749. 5) Pujasera Restaurant, Jl. Jendral Ahmad Yani Laksana, Kuta Alam, Tel. +62 651 23308; 6) Rodya Restaurant Mini, Jl. Teuku Daud Keuramat, Kuta Alam, Tel. +62 651 28408; 7) Tropicana Seafood Restaurant (Chinese Restaurant), Jalan Ahmad Yani no. 90-92, Peunayong; 8) Imperial Kitchen (Chinese Restaurant), Jl. Teuku Umar, Banda Aceh; 9) Country Steakhouse, Jalan Sri Ratu Safiatuddin 46D; and 10) Putra Jaya, Jl. Tgk Haji Abdullah Ujung Rimba No 14 (off Jl. Muhammad near Masjid Baiturrahman).

Shopping in Aceh is as ordinary as you can expect. Products sold revolve around daily fare and agricultural commodities. Visiting the central market of Banda Aceh is interesting. On sale are street food and dishes, fruits, and local vegetables, some souvenirs, clothes and household items Come in the morning when the market is at its busiest time. Souvenirs can be found in several places: 1) Pusaka Souvenir is on Jalan Sri Ratu Safiatuddin no. 78, Peunayong, Banda Aceh. Tel: +62 651 741 1510: 2) Pasar Aceh is right at the back of the Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman. Meet the locals selling and buying in the market; 3) Rencong Aceh is on Jalan Mohd. Jam, no. 1-E Banda Aceh. Phone the owner at +62 852 6010 1687; 4) Nyak Ni Usaha Souvenir is on Jalan Singgah Mata 10 Blower, Banda Aceh. +62 651 48474; 5) Lhoong Raya Souvenir is on Jalan Malikul Shaleh no. 56 Neusu. Phone them at +62 651 21357.

Accommodation in Banda Aceh

Some of the hotels in Banda Aceh are listed below:

1) Hermes Palace Hotel Banda Aceh Jln.T.Panglima Nyak Makam, Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 755 5888, fax: : +62 651 755 6999

2) Hotel Grand Nanggroe, Jl. T. Imum Lueng Bata, Kel. Cot Mesjid, Kec Lueng Bata. Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 35788, fax: : +62 651 35778

3) Hotel Lading Banda Aceh J1. Cut Meutia No.19 Kota Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 638321 / 635123, fax: : +62 651 635123 Other webpage:

4) Hotel Oasis Banda Aceh, Jl. Tengku Lueng Bata No.115 Kota Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 636999, fax: : +62 651 635333

5) Hotel Sultan Banda Aceh, Jl. Sultan Hotel No.1, Peunayong, Tel. +62 651 22469, fax: : +62 651 31770

6) Hotel Madinah Banda Aceh Jln. T Daud Beureueh, Banda Aceh, Tel. +62 651 21415 / 21416

7) Hotel 61 Jln. T. Panglima Polem No. 28 Banda Aceh Phone (+62) 651 — 638866 Fax (+62) 651 — 638855

8) Hotel Medan, Jl. Jend. A. Yani No. 15 Phone(0651) 33851, 21501 Fax (0651) 32256

Getting Around and Getting to Banda Aceh

Taxis are available in Banda Aceh., other public transportation are Labi-labi (local public transport by using minibus/van). You can also hire car with a driver or a motoped rider to take you around town. It is also possible to get around by foot or hire a bicycle, motorcycle, or rental car that you can operate yourself.

Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport (BTJ) is the major airport in Banda Aceh. The airport serves several airlines: 1) Garuda Indonesia; a) Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES) — Banda Aceh (BTJ); b) Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES); c) Medan (MES) — Banda Aceh (BTJ); 2) Lion Air; a) Jakarta (CGK) — Banda Aceh (BTJ); b) Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES) — Banda Aceh (BTJ); c) Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES); 3) Sriwijaya Air; Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES); 4) Air Asia; Jakarta (CGK) — Medan (MES); 5) Firefly; George Town (PEN) — Banda Aceh (BTJ); 6) Malaysia Airlines; George Town (PEN) — Banda Aceh (BTJ);

As you arrive in Banda Aceh, walk out the airport and you will find choices of transportation. Taxis are available and have different providers, like:; 1. PT Asa Taxi — Tel: +62 651 7408686; 2. Cempala Taxi — Tel: +62 651 43354; 3. Mulya Taxi — Tel: +62 651 635441; 4. Pidi Taxi — Tel: +62 651 31330; Labi-labi is a local name for public minibus or ‘angkot’ in other parts of the country. This is the most economical means of transportation available to the public and travelers.

Diving at Pulai Weh and Places Near Banda Aceh

Nearby Banda Aceh is Kerkhop cemetery where 2000 Dutch soldiers were buried. About 10 miles out of town are nice, uncrowded beaches with white sand and clear blue water. The sunsets are said to be quite good here. When you visit dress casually but be sure to respect the locals. The locals are mostly Muslims, and modest clothing is therefore preferred.

Pulai Weh (just north of Banda Aceh) is lovely island once regarded as the main tourist draw of Aceh. Before the tsunami it boasted some excellent beaches and fine diving and snorkeling spots. The conditions are best in the dry season but whales are often seem in the wet season. Sabang is he main town on the island; Iboih is the most popular beach. Before the tsunami 24,000 people lived in the island. Points of interest include a waterfall, volcano and hot springs, Japanese bunkers from World War II, the historical graveyard, Durian Keramat (sacred Durian) and Sabang town.

Pulai Weh (Weh Island) is relatively untouched despite its small size and convenient access. The westernmost island of the Indonesian archipelago, siituated at the entrance way of the Malacca Strait, it offers blue water and views of tanks and huge freight ships passing through the Strait At dive sites like the fabled Sea Garden in Rubiah Island, manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins and sea turtles are often spotted.

Iboih Beach (opposite the west bank of Pulau Weh) is known locally as Pantai Iboih and also called Teupin Layeu and is located on the left side of the arch on horseshoe-shaped coastline. The town of Iboih, located on Pulau Weh is the most westerly point of Indonesia. Iboih Beach has forests and golden sands strewn with giant boulders. The shallow ocean water is bluish-green and relatively clear. Near the town of Iboih is a large protected forest reserve.

Various accommodations are available. Iboih Beach is frequented by backpackers, world travelers, and divers Some of the guesthouses along the beach is O’ong Guesthouse, Yulia Guesthouse, Erick Guesthouse, Ayub Guesthouse, Anna Bungalow, Fina Bungalow, Fatimah Bungalow, and Mamamia Bungalow. Gapang Beach is another place in the vicinity of Rubiah Sea Garden.. Among the available accommodations are: Gapang Jaya and Ramadila. Some of the dive operators are: 1) Lumba-lumba Diving Center at at Gapang Beach, Weh Island. Call them at +62 652 3324 133 or +62 811 682 787 2. Sumatra Eco-Tourism at

Getting There: From Banda Aceh, you can take a ferry in the morning in Ulee Lheue Sea Port and arrive in Gapang Beach. The trip will only take a couple of hours, or 45 minutes if you decide to ride a speedboat. From Banda Aceh, make your way to the Ulue-lue port where you have the options of either a ferry or speedboat to Sabang, on Pulau Weh. The speedboat costs Rp. 50,000 and takes about 45 minutes to get to Sabang Port with departures twice daily. The ferry ride will take around 2 hours and costs Rp. 18,000. When you get to Pulau Weh, you can catch a bemo (minibus) to Iboih which is about 40 minutes away via a picturesque, hilly drive through a number of rustic villages.

Gayo Highlands

Gayo Highlands (13 hours by bus from Medan) is scenic area on the central mountains of Aceh. Inhabited by the the Gayo people, it is an area of coffee and tobacco plantations and forests with monkeys, snakes and a few tigers. The Gayo are farmers, and like the Acehnese, are strict Muslims. The Gayo Highlands are sometimes called the “Countryside above the Clouds.”

The Gayo live predominately in the central highlands of Aceh Province in northwest Sumatra. Also known as the Gajo, Utang Gayo, they have traditionally been rice farmers and traders and have been Muslims since the 17th century. They number about 250,000 with about half them being Gayo speakers. They have traditionally had a strong ethic identity but have been under nominal Aceh suzerainty. Under the Dutch they developed coffee agriculture as cash crop and achieved high levels of education and were involved in the Islamic modernism and Indonesian nationalist movements, participated in the massacres of 1965 and 1966 and were local Suharto and Golkar allies.

In the old days many Gayo lived in longhouses but few of them do anymore. Most of the Gayo that remain in villages live in single family dwellings with palm leaf of corrugated iron roofs. Most farmers raise rice to eat in paddies with water buffalo and grow coffee as a cash crop. Households may consist of nuclear families or extended families, with adolescent boys living in the village prayer house. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Gayo society is divided into two kinds of groups: 1) intra-villages kin categories associated with different village offices; and 2) inter village kin categories associated with linkages to common villages somewhere else. Marriages are generally between people no more closely related than third cousins and may or may not involve an exchange of goods. The ceremony involves a ritual exchange goods and speeches. ~

The Gayo have a reputation for being fairly serious Muslims. In the 1920s, there was a movement to rid the religion of animist practices. Even so such beliefs persist in some rural areas. Most religious practices are in line with those of traditional Islam. Important life cycle events include a ritual bath, introduction to the spirit world and naming ceremony seven days after birth, circumcision for boys and girls. In the arts, there is a long tradition if songs, poetry and ritual chanting, often with individuals or teams competing against one another. ~


Takengon (in the Gayo Highlands) has a nice cool temperature. The main feature of the town is Lake Lait Tawar which features soaring cliffs that rise up from the shores. There is cave by the lake and hot springs in Simpang Balik and Lyang Koro. Mount Geureundong is passed on the way to Takengon. Takengon is situated at an elevation of 1,200 meters. Year-round, the average temperature is around 20 degree Celsius (68 degree Fahrenheit) with chilly nights and hot afternoons

Takengon is the capital of Central Aceh district and home to about 230,000 people. The food is unique and agro-tourism is promoted in the area. There is fairly good selection of hotels and restaurants and is too far from Medan and Banda Aceh to attract the weekend crowd. Takengon is a quiet place, far different from Banda Aceh. When Banda Aceh becomes merrier as the night comes, the opposite happens in in Takengon.

To get to Takengon from Banda Acehyou can take a bus or a rented car. In some cases, labi-labi (the local public transport in Banda Aceh) can also be rented for a trip to Takengon. It takes 8 hours to get there. From Banda Aceh, a traveler usually passes Bireun, which is an easy drive as the long road is almost straight. From Bireun to Takengon, a driver must pay extra attention to the road as it is winding and gorge is right at the side of the road.

If you depart from Medan, take a bus from bus station going to Banda Aceh, and stop in Lhokseumawe. Medan — Lhokseumawe trip is about 4 hours. From Lhokseumawe to Takengon you can take a minibus and it takes 3 hours to get there. If you happen to be in Kutacane, there is also a public transportation going to Takengon.

Sights and Activities in the Gayo Highlands and Takengon Area

Lake Laut Tawar (meaning “Sea of Fresh Water”) is the most visited attraction in Takengon and is the symbol of the town, followed by the Loyang Putri Pukes Cave. Lake Laut Tawar is rich with trout and fishing is possible. Waterskiing and boating are done in several spots. On the soaring cliffs around the lake some people do rock climbing. Archeologists have found several caves around the lake and they were inhabited 3,500 years ago and discovered stone axes and fossils inside.

Loyang Putri Pukes is a cave featured in the local legend about a girl named Putri Pukes, who was supposed to marry a man from a neighboring village. As she embarked on a new life, she was very sad about leaving Even though her mother told her specifically that ‘you shall not turn your head back to our home as you are heading for your husband’s village’ She failed to follow the warning, and was suddenly turned into stone.

Central Aceh is well known for its flavorsome Arabica coffee production and Takengon is center of the region’s coffee production. Agro-tourism tours and homestays may be arranged at local coffee plantations and pineapple farms. At the coffee plantation, together with its factory in Bener Meriah you can learn how coffee beans are plucked and processed into a product ready for export. Takengon is a center for traditional horse riding. They don’t call their horses by names, but they know how to ride them. Children are taught to ride horse since the earlier age. Go to Pente Menye — Bintang if you are interested horseback riding.

Tapaktuan: on the Indian Ocean in Southwest Aceh

Tapaktuan is a fairly remote and rugged town on the coast of southwest Aceh Province facing the Indian Ocean that has been affectionately dubbed by many foreign tourists as “the prettiest town in Sumatra.” The coast of Tapaktuan is lined with large boulders that are struck by the large waves striking the shore. There are some beautiful white sand beaches but be careful the swimming may be dangerous. Beyond the beaches are a string of high mountains with excellent hiking and views. The sunsets here are particularly beautiful.

Tapaktuan is known as the Dragon City which comes from a legend of the Dragon Princess and Tuan Tapa. The Dragon legend is about a pair of male and female dragons that are believed to inhabit the bay of Tapaktuan. Both had been banished for being unable to produce offsprings. As chance would have it, one day the dragon pair happened upon a baby girl floating in the sea. They took her in and raised her as their own, with the child returning the affection and recognizing them as her parents. You can find, scattered along the Tapaktuan beach, many black, heart-shaped rocks (known as Batu Itam), which are believed to be remnants of the dragons’ body, and red stones (Batu Merah) which are said to be the dragons blood.

There is a monument in South Aceh in the shape of a nutmeg (Myristica fragrans Houtt). That's because the nutmeg tree grows naturally in South Aceh. Nutmeg is one of the most popular spices here. It is used to flavor local food, and is used for medicinal purposes as well. Obtained from the distillation of nutmeg, the oil is used for ointments, herbs, and seasonings.

Getting There: Tapaktuan airport is the main gateway to Tapaktuan outside driving along the Trans-Sumatran highway. There are limited flights from Medan (North Sumatra) and Banda Aceh,, with connecting flights from Jakarta and other destinations in Indonesia. Minivans run from Medan (4 hours) and Banda Aceh (6 hours).

Beaches, Sights and Activities in the Tapaktuan Area

The main attractions of Tapaktuan are its beaches. Lawang Beach (20 kilometers north of Tapaktuan) is good for surfing and is known for its massive crashing waves and crystal clear water. The best waves are found between July and November. Tui Lhok Beach (18 kilometers north of Tapaktuan) is very nice quiet beach for swimming, sunbathing, and watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean. For those of you who prefer a fresh water dip, or even those who want to wash away the sea salt, pop over to the waterfall nearby. There is also a pool available there. Pasir Setumpuk Beach is a quiet beach with a large variety of turtles.

If you are looking for some wonderful scenery, you don’t have to far. Bukit Pelita (Pelita Hill) reached by a trail that starts behind the local bus station of Tapaktuan, offers great views of the entire town, the coastline and beaches, and waves and water of the Indian Ocean.

Tingkat Tujuh Waterfall, literally translated, the 7 Story Waterfall, is located approximately 7 kilometers from Tapaktuan. However, 2 kilometers from the waterfall, you will have to continue by foot as the roads are not wide enough for vehicles. This waterfall is appropriately named, being that it makes 7 falls, into a separate pool of its own, one at each level. These fresh, private pools definitely make the short trek worth it!

One site associated with the Dragon legend of Tapaktuan is Makam Tuan Tapa (Mr Tapa's Tomb), located near Bukit Pelita directly in front of the mosque Tuo, at Kampung Padang of Tapaktuan City. Make sure you visit this cemetery to see his grave, which is 10 meters long, about the size of a dragon foot print.

Another exciting excursion is Gua Kalem (“Dark Cave” in the local dialect). Located a few kilometers from Tapaktuan, it is a 50-meter long deep tunnel with a small stream running through it and many small bats. A bit of light seeps in but it is recommended to take a flaghlight. Follow the river upstream, climb over the rocks, and squeeze yourself through the narrow passages to find an amazing little hidden paradise. The fresh clean water is perfect for swimming, sun bathing and there is also an area where you can have a picnic and just relax. There are often monkeys around. If you continue further you will come to Panton Luas, which has a great view over Tapaktuan and the ocean.

If you enjoy jungle treks, there are two places in Tapaktuan which are worth more than at least one visit. Panton Luas, 13 kilometers. north of Tapaktuan, has a dense forest area and a clean river. It is quiet and peaceful with nice views from the mountains. Go to the village and continue for one kilometer up to Gunung Tuan where you can see monkeys and other wild animals.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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