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Aceh Travel Guide
Posted On Thursday, October 23, 2008 at at 3:18 PM by Travel Guide
Of all the regions in Indonesia, Aceh, at the northwestern end of Sumatra, is the first to have come into contact with the world outside. Chinese chronicles of as early as the sixth century A.D. spoke 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 also mentioned the area. In 1292, Marco Polo, the famous Venetian adventurer, on a voyage from China to Persia visited Sumatra and reported that on the northern part of Sumatera there were as many as six trading ports including Ferlec, Samudera and Lambri. The irony is that this area, which had for so many centuries maintained contact with others, is at present one of the least known of Indonesia even among Indonesians.
Islam is believed to have reached Aceh somewhere between the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. and the first Islamic kingdom, Perlak was established in 804 A.D. Others followed: Samudera Pasai in 1042, Tamiah in 1184, Aceh in 1205 and Darussalam in 1511. In 1511, the Portuguese captured Malacca, when 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 its 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 establishments in India and an abrogation of all claims on Singapore. It was a long drawn out struggle for the Dutch in their attempts to subdue the recalcitrant Acehnese. The Aceh War, which lasted intermittently from 1873 to 1942, was the longest ever fought by Holland, costing the Dutch more than 10,000 lives. This background has stamped a deep imprint on the Acehnese outlook and mentality.
The era of industrialization has 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.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Around Banda Aceh
Banda Aceh is the capital of Aceh and also the main gateway to the province. The Governor’s Residence, was built by the Dutch in 1880 on the spot where the palace of the sultan once stood. This building is known as one of the historical sites with a unique architecture and completed with traditional house equipments.
This place is of course a restricted area and entering it must be with a kind of permission from the security guard.
Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is one of the most out-standing landmarks in the capital city. The old mosque that stood there before it was burnt down at the beginning of the Aceh War, was rebuilt in 1875, taking its present shape after a number of renovations and expansions.
Museum Negeri is another charm of the city. The museum is filled with antiques. Among the exhibits is a big clock, a gift from the Emperor of China and brought to Aceh by the famed Admiral Cheng Ho in 1414.
Gunongan and Pinto Khop which are located at a few steps from the Pendopo are also charms of the city. Gunongan was erected around the 16th century during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda.
Kerkhof or Churchyard is a much visited site especially by Dutch visitors where the remains of more then 2,000 Dutch soldiers lie buried.
The Syiah Kuala Grave is another popular visitor’s object. Teungku Syiah Kuala was one of Aceh’s great Moslem Ulamas of the past. His grave stands near the mouth of Krueng Aceh River about 2 kilometers from the city, visited by local visitors and other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indra Patra Fortress. This old fort was built during the time of Iskandar Muda. It probably functioned as a defense against invaders.
Museum Cut Nyak Dhien is a historical object. The house is a replica of the heroine Cut Nyak Dhien, from the Aceh War. The house was burnt down by the colonial forces but a replica was built later, after Indonesia’s independence. This house in Lam Pisang, about 6 kilometers from Banda Aceh, is now a museum.
Un-crowded Banda Aceh has many beautiful beaches. The most popular ones are Ujong Batee beach, Lam Puuk beach and Lhok Nga beach. Those beaches are located about 16 kilometers from Banda Aceh. They have clean waters and white sands. Sunsets are quite impressive there.
Sea Gardens are located offshore from Banda Aceh at about 45 minutes by speed boat. Some can be enjoyed around Rubiah island in Sabang, and the others are around Beras, and other small islands around them.
Lhokseumawe is a town located 274 km from Banda Aceh which is now being developed as an industrial zone. Many gigantic plants are constructed following the discovery of huge LNG resources in the area. Touristic features of the town is a.o. Samudera Pasai. It was the first great Islamic kingdom of Indonesia. All that remains of it, however, is a graveyard 18 km east of the town. One of the graves belongs to Malikussaleh, as Samudera Pasai’s first king. Other objects for visitors are Blang Kolam Falls and Ujung Blang beach.
Takengon is a town located in the central area of Aceh. It is being promoted as a tourist resort since its temperature is about 2O degree C (68F), cool enough for a holiday resort. The main feature of the town is Lake Laut Tawar. It offers soaring cliffs around the shore which are ideal for rock hiking. The lake is also stocked with trout.
A warm water pool at Simpang Balik, Loyang Koro and Loyang Pukes caves by the side of Laut Tawar are also interesting objects.
The National Park of Gunung Leuser is probably the wildest in Indonesia, located in Southeast Aceh, can be reached from either Kutacane, or Takengon. This magnificent national park has a wealth of flora and fauna. The park also has research facilities for the study of primates, birds, insects, and other animals. Basic accommodation facilities are available at Ketambe. The rapids-infested Krueng Alas river inside the park is popular with rafters.
The monkeys were out in full force this morning, shimmying along the electrical wires strung through the trees, leaping nimbly up tree trunks and swinging from branch to branch. Tiny hairy human beings with an equal lack of morality. Looking for bananas and whatever else they can find.
It is Friday, the Muslim holy day, today. No boats will be out on the water until noon. I sat under the thatch-roof gazebo around the communal restaurant table, sipping my morning Acehnese coffee with a couple of interesting blokes from London I met last night. They had displayed an impressive knowledge of Trailer Park Boys, just about the funniest thing going in Canadian comedy (and with exports like Jim Carey, Eugene Levy of American Pie fame, and Mike Meyers, “Austin Powers,” Canada has a hell of a lot of good stuff).
Bubbles is my favourite. He has big bug eyes behind Coke bottle glasses, a love for cats and a sweetness betrayed only by his evil ventriloquist’s doll, Conky (my favourite episode). His buddies Ricky and Julian are always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money, which usually end up in a little lighthearted gunplay or a trip to jail. J-Rock, a white rapper who’s convinced he’s black, reminds me fondly of friends back in Surrey, British Columbia, among the original Slim Shady’s before Eminem became a big a name in the home of gangsta wannabes everywhere.
Other subjects of conversation: the two Canadian kids in South Park, Terrence and Phillip, who have no jaws so their heads look like cracked eggs when they talk, and the episode of the Simpsons when the kids end up on an island in a remake of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (also the episode where Ralph Wiggum eats poisonous berries and cries, “It tastes like burning!”-a quote that can be utilized often when sampling Indonesian food.)
All the while, glowering at me from the corner, was Diar, the local trouble maker whose attention was making me nervous. The yellows of his eyes rolled like egg yolks in their sockets. He sucked on his cigarette; the tobacco crackled and sparks flew up to the roof. He spoke in Indonesian so the others wouldn’t understand “Kamu sombong,” he said, using the familiar kamu instead of the formal anda (saying anda is a sign of respect when you don’t know someone well, like using vouz in French).
He accused me of being arrogant, like a westerner. Maybe I am part of some national character. Maybe the arrogance of westerners is my birthright. I, too, see it in numerous but not all, tourists, who act like every place they go is their god-given right. An old sentiment hung over from colonial times, still lingering but not dead yet. The brutality of the Dutch, who killed so many in their conquest of this land for trade and profit, has not been forgotten; some have a lingering mistrust. But the Achenese got on with the English. In Elizabethan times, the powerful Sultan Ala-uddin of Banda Aceh once greatly admired Queen Elizabeth I, and they exchanged letters and gifts.
Arrogance is also a self-protective mechanism, to avoid letting in people that might possibly hurt you in some way. Larger picture aside, I think my mistake was being too friendly at the outset. Besides, what have Canadians ever done to people abroad (aside from what happened to our own First Nations) on a mass scale?
“Kamu guru, Wendy. Tapis tidak sopan. You just throw me out like that,” he said of my efforts to get him off my balcony without making a scene. Then, something unintelligible because Diar speaks partly in Indonesia, Acehnese, English and something else his own altogether. He didn’t grasp the fact that his aggressive behaviour toward guests would make them naturally wary of him. One of the English guys looked at me as if to say, “What is going on?” Diar then launched into the same story he had told me, about being in GAM, and fighting in the jungle, and how he left the country to work on the shipping lines.
Two things struck me about this scene. First, that many people like Diar and Felix, the guide from Bukit Lawang, have a story to tell. It may be arresting; it may or may not be embellished, true or accurate. It may be a sad story or full of adventure and intrigue. It may be told to show off, threaten, or gain sympathy, and maybe some sympathy cash. The old, “Poor me! The world owes me!” sob story.
Another thing is that the teller gets to be the hero or anti-hero of the story with each telling. I wonder if Diar sees himself as a kind of freedom fighter, like Che Guevera stood up for the people of Latin America. Che’s visage, proudly looking out on the horizon of a better future, is a common sight on T-shirts around Indonesia. His image and what it stands for has become so iconic that it has become a national archetype. Multiple replications of Che peer out in newspaper photos of demonstrations in Jakarta and around the country. Freedom, rebellion, the common man standing up in the face of corruption and adversity. The men here sense it, even if they don’t consciously think about what it means. It is what Aceh stands for.
“Aceh is rich,” Diar said. Resentment cut into his sunken cheeks, making two large creases down the sides of his face. “Jakarta take, take take. But it is ours. The oil, the gas, the coffee. If no Aceh, no Indonesia. Indonesia would not exist without Aceh.”
He has put in a nutshell why GAM formed to fight the Indonesian army. Since the 1970s, an estimated 12,000 people have gone missing in this province, “disappeared” by militia forces. Their families and loved ones never saw or heard from them again. The tsunami brought about a peace deal between the two sides, ostensibly putting a stop to the fighting.
“Is there not peace now, since the tsunami?” I asked.
He was quiet, and took another slug of beer. Diar is a very small man. Standing next to me has the stature of a young boy. But his face is older than his years, wizened and a little crazed. His good side and bad side chase each other across his face like the currents on the surface of the Andaman.
“No worries,” he said. “I see the police in Sabang all the time. We remember. We went to school together.” They may have gone to school together, but they are also on different sides of the fence ideologically . Nothing is ever black and white. I think about how many friendships and betrayals have occurred, how many have still yet to occur, especially during the coming elections.
But this is all so serious compared to when I started out talking about Trailer Park Boys. That’s how it is here; so many funny things happen, and serious things at the same time. Nothing like a little TPB or Southpark to keep it all in perspective.
The boys left to go to the beach, and I started down the path, heading for some hammock time. Just as I reached my bungalow, a monkey crossed my path and hissed at me. I looked up to find four others crouched on a rock, glowering at me and baring their teeth. They had been getting into the box of garbage I collected, lifting the t-shirt I found drifting in the coral, and dumped it in the dirt. Alas, no food. The one on the ground came at me and hissed again. Paul, the schoolteacher from England, had told me he encountered them on the path one morning, so I guess today was my turn. I swung my broom at them, an angry mother shooing off a pesky gang of schoolchildren, and they scampered away.