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Banda Aceh

  - darkometer rating:  7 -
A city on the north-western tip of Indonesia's north-westernmost island, Sumatra. It was the place hit worst in the 2004 tsunami – which was one of the worst natural disasters in human history. Today, the city has recovered, but several poignant reminders of the tragedy remain and make a trip to this far-away place worth while for the dedicated dark tourist.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: Of all the dramatic images of the tsunami of Christmas 2004, two stick most in my memory: first, the wall of water rolling in from afar and then washing over tourist resort swimming pools in Thailand, and second, those images from Banda Aceh: first people running down a street in panic without the cause of it being visible initially, then a grey surge of water coming in, full of debris and rapidly rising – all filmed by someone who managed to take refuge on a roof above street level. Soon the entire street was filled several metres high and the force of the water pushed on relentlessly, sweeping away everything and everyone in its path. And all this was miles away from the waterfront. (Only in March 2011 were these images matched in dramatic horror by those of the tsunami in northern Japan.)
On the coastand for hundreds of yards inland, virtually nothing was left standing of the city's buildings. In one suburb only a mosque still poked out of the vast expanse of rubble after the waters had receded. This being the most devoutly Muslim part of Indonesia, the fact that the mosque had been largely spared was of course promptly interpreted as divine intervention. The fact that the mosque was quite a lot sturdier than the buildings around it may also have played a small part, though … (otherwise you also have to wonder about the divine motives involved – wouldn't it look a bit like "sod the people, save MY house!"?)  
The tsunami had been caused by a massive undersea earthquake (a 'megathrust') off the west coast of northern Sumatra where two tectonic plates collide (a 'subduction zone', to give it its more precise technical term). At a magnitude of 9.1 to 9.3 it was one the three largest quakes ever recorded. Since Banda Aceh was the city closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, it was also affected by the tremors directly. 
But by far the worst of the destruction did indeed come from the waters, which arrived here faster then elsewhere due to the proximity to the epicentre. On hitting the coastline, the tsunami waves reached heights of up to 30m! 
But the oceanic tsunami waves also went in all directions across the Indian Ocean, still causing massive destruction as they hit Thailand, the Andaman Islands, the Maldives, India and Sri Lanka. The tsunami eventually even reached the East African coast, though by then it had lost a good part of its force and there had been sufficient forewarning time to avoid a similar tragedy as in the countries closer to the seismic event.  
In Banda Aceh the death toll and scale of destruction was beyond comprehension: some 150,00 dead, about half a million displaced, thousands of houses, roads, bridges, etc. destroyed. It was like an atom bomb had hit. 
For once, however, the international response was swift and effective. Possibly helped by the timing of the disaster, as people in the affluent Western World were at home in festive Christmas mood (and many others were holidaying on beaches in Thailand and Sri Lanka and thus the disaster directly affected Western families too), the televised footage of the tsunami created not only shock and horror but also unprecedented responses in the form of donations: a total of up to 15 billion USD. 
Today, the city of Banda Aceh has been rebuilt to a degree that it is hard to imagine the devastation of 2004. However, a few prominent monuments remain, especially in the form of boats that were carried miles inland by the flood wave. These are probably the most poignant indicators of the forces that were at play in the disaster. Some of these have become veritable local visitor attractions, others remain rather hidden from the mainstream view (as far as there IS a mainstream view in this off-the-beaten tourist-track destination). 
In addition to commemoration, a lot has been done to provide early-warning systems, signposted escape routes and a number of actual escape buildings have also been constructed. Here people could take immediate refuge should another tsunami hit. One new building serves the double function of a rescue building and Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Centre.
A bit of general historical info: Banda Aceh is the capital of Aceh region – and this extreme northern end of Sumatra had long been one of the most contested edges of Indonesia. For starters, the Acehnese Sultanate resisted Dutch colonialism longer than other parts of the archipelago. The Aceh War in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century was the biggest military campaign by the Dutch in their colonies. Eventually it did bring victory for the colonizers but resentment remained. After WWII (when the region was occupied by Japan for some three years), Aceh was finally integrated into the new Indonesian state in 1951, but has contested this ever since. In the 1970s a liberation army called 'Free Aceh Movement' (GAM) formed and a long-drawn out local war ensued. It was at its height in 2003 when the region was under martial law, atrocities (apparently on both sites) were commonplace, and the Jakarta government appeared to be set on a final crackdown at any cost. It was the largest military operation of the Indonesian Army since the invasion of East Timor. Needless to say, at that time Aceh was completely out of bounds for tourists. Special permits were required for any foreign visitor to enter the region (and they were hard to obtain – no witnesses were wanted!). This has all changed now.
One good thing that came out of the tsunami is the peace agreement forged in the wake of the disaster between the central government and the GAM in order to facilitate the relief and reconstruction efforts through foreign aid. The thus achieved peace has been holding astonishingly well ever since – but whether for the longer-term future too remains to be seen. 
Anyway, as the GAM rebels gave up their arms, the government in return withdrew the army and granted the region a greater degree of self-determination. One crucial way in which the local leadership used this increased freedom in making their own legislation was by reducing liberties for the general populace, namely by introducing principles of Sharia law. (Of course they themselves see it as an improvement of their Islamic religious position – but I wonder what the non-Muslim minorities who still live in Aceh thought about this. 
It's not quite as strictly enforced as it is in some other Muslim countries, especially in the Arab world, or as ruthless in its measures as some fundamentalists would like to have it, but it still means that e.g. alcohol and homosexuality are banned. Adultery is punished by public lashings. (At least they haven't reverted to stoning – yet – although that is in theory the prescribed punishment for adultery in marriage.) And of course there's a dress code in place. So women in particular must cover up and wear headscarves in public at all times. 
For the foreign visitor, only the latter is really visible – but that applies to many other parts of Indonesia as well. The unavailability of alcohol does apply on the surface – you'll never encounter any openly in shops or bars, but I've heard rumours that in some hotels and restaurants that cater for international guests, beer and wine are actually served, just discretely, out of public view, and that this is thus tolerated even though it is officially illegal. I cannot vouch for this practice from personal experience (my hotel certainly followed the prohibition 100%) but it wouldn't surprise me if that was indeed the case. 
Foreigners are not expected to follow the dress code to the letter either, except in religious spaces such as inside or within the gardens of a mosque, where women should cover up their heads and bare shoulders and legs are unacceptable for men and women. Otherwise you can walk around more or less as you wish, within reason, of course. (Going to a beach topless or in a bikini would not be acceptable!) But a certain degree of decent clothing is a small price to pay for being in such an exotic place.
And exotic it is, especially culturally, but by no means in a threatening or even overly uncomfortable way.  On the contrary, I found Banda Aceh one of the most welcoming and friendly places I travelled to on my 2014 round trip. In fact, the welcome can even go a bit far – if you're a Westerner, and look like one, there's no escaping being a kind of local celebrity as you walk around the city. Everywhere people wanted to take photos with us … and now that everybody has smartphones with built-in cameras such photo sessions can really take a lot of time. But they were all very grateful and polite. It gave us a taster of what it must be like being pestered by the paparazzi all the time if you really are a film star. Taking it with a good dose of humour was the best approach, we found. 
By the way, in other parts of Indonesia the news that Aceh has opened up and is peaceful again has still not necessarily arrived yet. For instance, I had a guide in Kalimantan at one point who reacted with great surprise when we said that we'd been to Aceh … and she even added “but the place is full of terrorists!”. Apparently the old pre-2004 official government propaganda dies hard ... 
What there is to see: More than you would probably expect. While the debris left by the tsunami has long been cleared away, the dead buried, and most houses and infrastructure rebuilt (often stronger and better), a few striking leftovers of the powerful destructive forces of the tsunami have been left in place. Some have been  elaborately commodified as well, and are now amongst the most promoted top tourist attractions of Banda Aceh. Other such sites are more low-key and less commonly visited. 
Here's a list of places that have been given separate entries on his website:
Furthermore, there are various mass graveyards where many of the ca. 150,000 or more victims that the tsunami claimed in this region alone are buried (mostly anonymously). These sites usually come with some form of monument incorporating  wave shapes in some form or other, so they are quite easy to identify. 
A rather curious memorial site of sorts is the top of a mosque dome in the middle of a field in a western suburb. It apparently got displaced by the tsunami and ended up in its present location when the waters receded (but it is otherwise surprisingly intact). At the site there is also a kind of shrine, including large photos of the devastation caused by the tsunami and a glass cabinet containing shredded sheets of Arabic writing (presumably from copies of the Koran destroyed in the disaster). 
En route to the coast at Lampuuk you cross a bridge that runs parallel to a former bridge that was washed away by the forces of the tsunami – you can still see the stumps of the bridge supports in the water and where the bridge would have met the land. 
In the village of Lampuuk itself you can see the refurbished mosque which was the only building left standing in this part after the tsunami. It didn't escape entirely unscathed obviously, but at least it was still standing tall amongst a sea of debris (see also the references to the “survivor mosque” in the Tsunami Museum and the PLTD Apung 1 tsunami memorial park). I didn't see it with my own eyes (we didn't stop at the mosque on my tour), but I've meanwhile read that one corner of the mosque has apparently been left in its tsunami-battered state as a kind of monument, together with photos of and info panels about the disaster. The half-moon and star at the top of the mosque dome is said to be slightly bent, indicating that the waters must have reached such a height!
Here and there you can also still encounter complete ruins of buildings that were destroyed or severely damaged in the tsunami and just left there in their hollowed-out and broken state (see also Tsunami Mitigation Centre). Along one road, three wrecks of lorries have even been put up on poles and now form part of an art installation of sorts (with a giant fish mural below). 
Coming in by plane from the north, i.e. with a good view of the coastline, will give you a very sobering first impression of both the vulnerability of this stretch of coast as well as of the lasting changes this coast has sustained through the tsunami. In places it looks like the waters have only just receded, leaving huge puddles of water where once fields and fishing ports had been. You can see some rebuilding, new roads, attempts at planting mangroves and also some reclaimed agricultural fields, but still: the watery mark the disaster has left on the coast is clearly visible even today.
Finally, the airport itself also has a dark element ... diagonally across from the civilian terminal building you can make out a trace of the Indonesian military presence and campaign against the Aceh liberation movement, namely a retired A-4 Skyhawk ground attack plane on a plinth. 
Location: right at the northern tip of Sumatra, the north-westernmost of the main islands of Indonesia. Such is the size of Sumatra that it is a whopping thousand miles plus (1700 km) to the other end of the island and another hundred (140 km) from there to Jakarta. Kuala Lumpur over in Malaysia is only a third of that distance away (as is Port Blair in the Andaman Islands – but there is no travel connection to those islands from Banda Aceh).
Individual locations:
[5.553, 95.319] –  Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the city centre
[5.511, 95.367] – largest mass graveyard by the road to the airport
[5.5554, 95.2861] – another mass graveyard and monument
[5.4647, 95.2459] – and another one in Lampuuk with big monument
[5.5323, 95.2632] – mosque dome displaced by the tsunami
[5.46978, 95.24325] – stumps of ruined bridge
[5.491, 95.229] – Lampuuk beach
[5.5458, 95.3162] – Gunongan 
Access and costs: easy and fairly inexpensive by plane; on the ground a little more expensive than other parts of Indonesia.  
Details: Getting to Banda Aceh is easiest by plane, either from within Indonesia (e.g. several daily flights to/from Jakarta, usually via Medan) or, internationally, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just across the Strait of Malacca to the east. These flights can be quite competitively priced, so they are definitely the best way to travel to this far-away location. The distance Banda Aceh is from anywhere else more or less rules out overland travel, unless you don't mind days of bumping along on hot, crowded buses. There are no train lines. 
The post-tsunami NGO presence inflated local price levels with regard to accommodation for many years after the disaster, but there is again a relatively decent choice, and prices have begun to come down a bit again. Even so, they are still not as much value for money as in so many more touristy places on Java or Bali. So do not expect flawlessly appointed boutique hotels at low rates. The places at the more affordable end may be a bit basic or are in noisy or otherwise not so good locations. At the higher price end, the Hermes Palace provides a calm oasis with a superb pool and very decent restaurant. But it is a bit out from the centre. 
Seeing the various sights/sites in Banda Aceh on an independent basis can prove a bit tricky. While the museum, Thanks to the World Park and some of the stranded boats are fairly easy to locate and/or centrally located, the less well-known sites and those further from the centre can be much harder to find without help from a guide. Also some of these really do benefit from being put into context by information provided by a guide. 
Anticipating such potential logistical difficulties (and being quite limited for time) I had pre-arranged a complete guided tour of Banda Aceh when I went to Indonesia in 2014. I had asked for it to include the museum and stranded ships, which I had known about before coming here. As it turned out my guide also took us to various further sites in addition to what I had asked for, including some real hidden “secret” gems. So my thanks go to Mahlizar Zakaria (of Aceh Great Wall Tours) for doing such a brilliant job much beyond the call of duty. The tour was arranged as part of the larger itinerary I had put together with the help of Experience Travel Group (see under Indonesia, and this sponsored page), so you could also go through them.
Time required: To see all the sites mentioned here you'll need at least a full day, so plan for a minimum of two nights accommodation. It's doable in a single day only if you have a guide/driver (for both see above). If you intend to visit all these places individually and independently, you have to factor in significantly more travel time (and logistical complications).  
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing much in the vicinity, unless there are maybe places further down the west coast affected by the tsunami and offering visitable sites or memorials. But I know of no such commodifications. In general, the devastation in those west coast towns was so complete that absolutely nothing at all was left and everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. 
So after having seen Banda Aceh you'd have to get back on a plane and head to other dark attractions within Indonesia, meaning you almost inevitably would have to go via Jakarta, so you could just as well continue there (as I did in 2014).    
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Banda Aceh, like most South-East Asian cities, doesn't immediately appeal that much by its looks. But it does fare a little better than average on that front as it does offer a few proper architectural gems. 
The jewel in its crown is probably the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque. Whereas so many of Indonesia's countless mosques are mostly new and often colourful (if not downright garish in design), this one is a model of elegant restraint and symmetry: just a snow-white facade and shiny black tiles on top of its five onion-shaped domes. It was actually built by the Dutch in the late 19th century, as sign of reconciliation, since they had previously destroyed the earlier mosque during the Aceh War. Originally it had just one central dome. The other domes were added later. The mosque survived the 2004 tsunami virtually unscathed (and thus even served as a relief centre in the immediate aftermath). The minaret, however, which stands detached from the mosque within its landscaped garden forecourt, did sustain some structural damage, which makes it lean ever so slightly. It has since been closed and remains inaccessible.  
A bit further to the south there is a curious old monument looking not entirely dissimilar to a stranded iceberg. It's a windowless, brilliantly whitewashed pyramid-like structure called Gunongan. It was apparently a gift from Sultan Iskandar Muda (whose name appears all over Aceh!) to his wife of Malayan descent, who missed the sight of snow-covered mountains … or so the story goes. In the vicinity you can see some of the very few remaining houses in Dutch colonial style. Nearby is also the colonial-era Kherkhof (churchyard, i.e. graveyard) with the graves of Dutch and Indonesian soldiers who died in the Aceh War.
The only two Christian churches I spotted in Banda Aceh, however, were decidedly bland in their (modern concrete) architecture compared to all the brilliant mosques. But maybe that's strategic … 
Banda Aceh also has a couple of museums of a more traditional sort, as well as a couple of traditional houses, or replicas thereof. This includes one that was allegedly the house of a national heroine (and that in such a deeply Muslim area!). This was one Cut Nyak Dhien, who led guerilla warfare activities against the Dutch in the Aceh War for 25 years, after her husband's death and until she was finally captured and exiled. She was "canonized" as a National Hero by Sukarno in the 1960s. 
Very popular, locally, are the beaches … again. Now that they've slowly lost their threatening aura after the 2004 tsunami (not to mention the debris and corpses-strewn horrific scenes immediately after the disaster) they are again frequented by swimmers and other beach-fun lovers. Unlike in other parts of the world, however, local dress code rules require women to remain covered up, and even many men and children go into the water fully clothed. 
Further afield, a bit offshore from the Sumatra mainland's northern tip, there is the famous small tropical island of Pulau Weh, which is a divers' and snorkellers' paradise, apparently. Some regard it as the best such place in the whole South-East Asia region, even.  Banda Aceh serves as the gateway to this island, with fast ferry services running to the island's port of Sabang. For many rather more "regular" travellers this is the only reason for coming to Banda Aceh at all. Me being anything but a “normal” traveller, I didn't even go to Pulau Weh, but concentrated almost exclusively on the dark sites (much to the puzzlement of some locals I talked to). In hindsight, I may have given it a chance had I already known that I would actually enjoy snorkelling. But that I only learned a few days later on my Krakatoa tour ...
  • Banda Aceh 01 - flying in over the seaBanda Aceh 01 - flying in over the sea
  • Banda Aceh 02 - some parts still look damagedBanda Aceh 02 - some parts still look damaged
  • Banda Aceh 03 - Skyhawk on a pedestal at the airportBanda Aceh 03 - Skyhawk on a pedestal at the airport
  • Banda Aceh 04 - tourist mapBanda Aceh 04 - tourist map
  • Banda Aceh 05 - tsunami monumentBanda Aceh 05 - tsunami monument
  • Banda Aceh 06 - at a victims mass burial groundBanda Aceh 06 - at a victims mass burial ground
  • Banda Aceh 07 - another tsunami markerBanda Aceh 07 - another tsunami marker
  • Banda Aceh 08 - street where the most dramatic footage of the flooding was filmedBanda Aceh 08 - street where the most dramatic footage of the flooding was filmed
  • Banda Aceh 09 - today the sea looks calmBanda Aceh 09 - today the sea looks calm
  • Banda Aceh 10 - new evacuation route signs in placeBanda Aceh 10 - new evacuation route signs in place
  • Banda Aceh 11 - mosque dome displaced by the tsunamiBanda Aceh 11 - mosque dome displaced by the tsunami
  • Banda Aceh 12 - signposted sightBanda Aceh 12 - signposted sight
  • Banda Aceh 13 - tsunami debris in a display cabinetBanda Aceh 13 - tsunami debris in a display cabinet
  • Banda Aceh 14 - cars wrecked by the tsunami and fishy artBanda Aceh 14 - cars wrecked by the tsunami and fishy art
  • Banda Aceh 15 - remnants of a bridge destroyed by the tsunamiBanda Aceh 15 - remnants of a bridge destroyed by the tsunami
  • Banda Aceh 16 - remains of a house ruined by the tsunamiBanda Aceh 16 - remains of a house ruined by the tsunami
  • Banda Aceh 17 - harbourBanda Aceh 17 - harbour
  • Banda Aceh 18 - Baiturrahman Grand MosqueBanda Aceh 18 - Baiturrahman Grand Mosque
  • Banda Aceh 19 - symmetryBanda Aceh 19 - symmetry
  • Banda Aceh 20 - minaret now leaning and closedBanda Aceh 20 - minaret now leaning and closed
  • Banda Aceh 21 - Islamic rules applyBanda Aceh 21 - Islamic rules apply
  • Banda Aceh 22 - there is also a Catholic churchBanda Aceh 22 - there is also a Catholic church
  • Banda Aceh 23 - Gunongan, ancient mountain monumentBanda Aceh 23 - Gunongan, ancient mountain monument
  • Banda Aceh 24 - elephants that wayBanda Aceh 24 - elephants that way
  • Banda Aceh 25 - military baseBanda Aceh 25 - military base
  • Banda Aceh 26 - Dutch colonial-era houseBanda Aceh 26 - Dutch colonial-era house
  • Banda Aceh 27 - old train monumentBanda Aceh 27 - old train monument
  • Banda Aceh 28 - people have returned to the beachBanda Aceh 28 - people have returned to the beach
  • Banda Aceh 29 - beach life sharia-law styleBanda Aceh 29 - beach life sharia-law style
  • Banda Aceh 30 - powerful waveBanda Aceh 30 - powerful wave

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