Banda Aceh, on the north west tip of Indonesia, isn’t really known as a tourist destination. Possibly because it’s quite industrial, or perhaps because it’s the main town in the most conservative Muslim State in Indonesia. Unfortunately, it’s more likely because Banda Aceh is better known for being the epicentre of the Indonesian Earthquake, and the worst hit area in that horrific natural disster of 2004. Banda Aceh lost around 61,000 people in the Boxing Day Tsunami; around a quarter of its population. The whole town was razed to the ground by the wave; in fact, the only thing left standing pretty much was the 12th century Grand Mosque – some say an act of God.
So, all in all, a rather interesting place, but probably not your first choice of places to be stranded in a mini monsoon. But that’s exactly what happened this heavens opened, and combined with gales to force the Banda Aceh to Sabang ferry to be cancelled two days running…something, I’m reliably told only happens once a year. Lucky me.
Rebuilding a town
Technically, Banda Aceh is an ancient city, dating back centuries, but of course looking around the place, everything has been rebuilt over the last 6 years. Not that it’s totally obvious, a lot of the buildings look like they could do with a lick of paint and some new gutters already, but that’s living on the equator for you. But what is obvious is people are just getting on with their lives. After only 6 years, and after the who place was obliterated, entire generations wiped out, you’d never know it had suffered. The traffic is typically South East Asian, in that people take their lives into their hands on motorbikes, children hang off the back of them, the highway code is a distant concept, and junctions are just there to join two roads together. Shops are small, basic, family run, usually food, furniture or stalls of fruit, and no one seems to be in them. Ever. Yes, it really is just like nothing happened. To the lay person, that is. Had I seen the city before the disaster, that observation may be different.
But I’m stranded here for a day, nothing’s getting outta this place, and the reason for the lack of maritime transport is currently falling out of the sky in some considerable volume. Best make the most of it.
So just how do you fill a day in Banda Aceh?
Not surprisingly, the main attractions are tsunami related. As it was absolutely chucking it down, we decided for the indoor option. The Tsunami museum was just recently finished in 2009, and was built more as a local icon than a tourist attraction – it’s free to enter in fact. Indeed, being the only five westerners in the whole place, we were constantly followed around by a girl’s school trip, trying to stealthily take photos of us. It’s not often I become the main attraction in the museum, but I imagine the girls went home with more photos of me than they did of the photos of volcanos.
The museum itself is part monument, part educational centre. The entrance is a sloping walkway down into the belly of the museum, surrounded by a wall of water, cascading down both sides of you. Dark and eerie, it sets the mood for the sombreness to come. the Memorial Hall contains some harrowing photos of the immediate effects, and there is a room containing names of some of those who lost their lives – not all, as there quite simply wouldn’t be enough wall space. And as i was also told, quite horrifically, the tsunami wiped out whole families, generations, and the was simply no one left to log the deaths. The province of Aceh itself lost around half of the total victims of the tsunami. Even still, the room with is eerie music, massive high rising funnel roof and dimmed lights is very sombre and thought provoking.
The rest of the museum is an educational tour through earthquakes and tsunamis. Photos from the event, complete with mechanical exhibits (there are buttons to press! And they make volcanos go bang!) are all mildly amusing, but I did learn that Indonesia has the most earthquakes in the world, and the strongest. It’s a pretty big fault line.
The main focus of the museum is a shallow pool, around and above which the names of countries who donated money to the relief are on show. Its a profound collection of diverse names and flag, from the Falklands to Saudi Arabia; proving that nature is indeed the great leveller.
Of course, there’s a souvenir shop, but none of us felt like buying the equivalent of a holocaust memoir, but simply left feeling very humbled.
Anything else to do?
Non-tsunami related? Er…. Very little. The Grand Mosque is visitable as I understand, and donning my head scarf and taking off my shoes, I may go there later on the way back. There’s a water park (which I really want to visit to learn more about Islamic Culture, if I’m honest – what does one wear to a water park governed by Sharia Law?). There’s a house that a famous Indonesian feminist used to live in. Or at least a replica, I think we’re going back a few centuries now. But hey, the mosque is 800 years old, so who knows?
There’s the boat on the roof…. A small fishing vessel that was dumped on someone’s house by the wave, and has since become a bizarre tourist attraction. The house beneath is now rubble, with only vague outlines of walls, and a toilet. All around the houses have been rebuilt, so this strange alien statue stands in the middle of what is essentially a residential estate, reminding the locals of the day the ocean came in.
In addition, Apung 1 is a much bigger 2 ton electric generator ship, swept 2km inland, and now, like it’s smaller fishing relative, sits in someone’s back garden. All very weird and unsettling, slightly comical, but overall just very difficult to imagine the sheer power of a force that could do that so easily.
Well after a nervous morning at the ferry terminal, the harbourmaster decided it was okay to run his boats, and we managed to leave Banda Aceh for Pulau Weh, and the promise of diving. I understand the tsunami hit the reefs quite badly too, so I’m not sure what to expect when I get there, to be honest, but at least the boats are still on the water, and not on someone’s roof.