Pulau Weh (Iboih)
Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I headed north passing through Medan and Banda Aceh, before taking a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. The town of Iboih was half developed and most everything was closed due to Ramadan. However, this didn’t cause any problems as we spent the majority of our time underwater. Known to be the best place in the Indian Ocean to dive, it’s unnecessary to say that we had a blast. Larry, Kaitlin and Nick went on multiple fun dives, while I completed my open water diver certification. Although a small achievement, I was extremely proud of myself for getting over my fear of scuba diving. After a handful of dives, we spotted: reef shark, sting rays, moray eels, turtles, puffer fish, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lionfish, catfish, rainbow fish, and a million other unknown colorful creatures.
On some of my dives, I saw motorbikes and cars sitting on the ocean floor as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. We spoke with Norma, the owner of our bungalow, about the affects the Tsunami had on a Pulau Weh. She said that 11 people had died, the island wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Banda Aceh where over 61,000 people were killed. She told us that the people on the island stopped eating fish because they were finding human parts in them and that they began to eat a lot of dried sting ray as so many washed up onto shore. She made it clear that the natural disaster was tied to religion, she mentioned people being saved maybe because they were good muslims and mentioned how she didn’t see many children in the mass graves, she didn’t know why, maybe they were spared. She remembered people climbing up coconut trees and after the destruction, individuals from Medan coming and stealing family land from the deceased. The destruction on Sumatra was unimaginable and we were looked forward to learning more in Banda Aceh.
We all like to think that we are open-minded and have global perspectives, however we all make preconceived notions, and I am no different. After watching a VICE episode filmed in Banda Aceh about Sharia Law, to be honest I was a little nervous about visiting. I recalled them interviewing a man who had pledged his alliance to ISIS and the strict law that forbid public display of affection, western dress, non- conservative dress, drugs and alcohol, the meeting of non- married couples, and homosexuality. The episode showed a man receiving 80+ canes in the town square for breaking what felt like a petty crime. I checked the state department site to make sure there were no dangers for tourists and was eager to learn more about these differences. It turns out, it felt just like many other Southeast Asian cities. It wasn’t dangerous and didn’t feel oppressed. We had to be mindful of our actions, dress appropriately, and avoid eating in public due Ramadan. However, wherever you travel you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. Locals were friendly and shouting, “Good morning!” and “What’s your name?” as they sped by on their motorbikes. We thoroughly enjoyed the wealthy city (from oil) and explored the markets and many colorful fishing boats.
On our first night, we met up with a CouchSurfer who took us out for street food and when his phone flashed 6:40, we heard the mosque sirens and broke fast. He left for 2 hours to pray and we reunited around 11 pm. He picked us up with his friends to eat a second meal as most individuals fasting eat very late then again at 4am before prayer. We ate Aceh noodle soup with seafood and drank juice that consisted of avocado, jackfruit and coconut. He showed us around the Masjid Raya, which was the most beautiful mosque I have seen on our travels. The intricate marble screens were beautiful, the complex was enormous and it was immaculately maintained. 12 umbrellas modeled after those in Medina (Saudi Arabia) made it feel very modern. We learned that the small Banda Aceh airport, which offers 6 flights a day, has 2 direct flights to Medina per week. Our CouchSurfer told us how difficult and expensive it was to make a pilgrimage there or to Mecca, but anyone that did was extremely lucky.
The next day, Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I visited the Tsunami museum, which was not only well done, but also heart wrenching. Between fighting with the Dutch, a civil war and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, this city had a hard history. As we entered the museum we walked through a dark hallway with 98 ft. walls of dripping water, this represented the height of the waves in Aceh.
- Both earthquake epicenters (9.2 magnitude and 7.5) were only 250 km from the state of Aceh, however its affects were seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia and Seychelles.
- Of the 250,000 people that were killed from the tsunami, 61,000 were in Banda Aceh.
- Similar to stories we heard in Sri Lanka, locals walked out on the exposed ocean floor collecting fish, unsure of what was happening. The ocean receded 900 ft. before the initial 98 ft. wave crashed the shore.
- 4 mass graves are located in Banda Aceh, where the victims of the tsunami rest.
- In Aceh history, tsunamis are known as le Beuna, a warning from Allah to all of human society to get back to the right side of life.
We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banda Aceh (and in every other town we’ve visited in Sumatra) but had to catch our flight to Jakarta. We boarded the plane to an announcement stating, “Any trafficking of drugs will end in the penalty of death.” It was obvious that all of our bags had been thoroughly searched as zippers were opened, clothes were moved and books pages were ripped.
Olala & Oong Bungalows (Iboih) – both offer cheap accommodations with great meals; also try Dee Dee’s Kitchen next to Rubiah Divers
Rubiah Tirta Divers (Iboih)- the only locally owned dive shop on the island, you get lots of personalized attention, but don’t expect the staff to start early. They offer great Ramadan specials, open water PADI certification 3,200,000 rupiah ($240)
Ramadan street food (Banda Aceh)- at 4pm (only during Ramadan) the streets are lined with delicious sticky rice, sweets, fruit soup, noodles, fish curries, fried tofu, peanut salad and fruit. By 6pm, everything is sold out and everyone is closing shop. Take it to go and eat in private or wait until sunset to eat with the locals.