James planned our travel route based on optimal surf conditions in the surf-friendly countries we planned to visit (Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Portugal, etc). After Bali we’d explore surf-less South East Asia before heading to Europe in time for springtime and swell but after 3 land locked months he was going crazy, so we started exploring the closest places that we could visit with surf but without breaking the bank. The Chinese island Hainan had great reviews by surfers of beautiful empty waves and was so close to Hanoi but logistically proved impossible to do at the last minute. Travel agents warned us that a visa could take weeks due to strained relations between Vietnam and China. Instead we took another look at Banda Aceh at the top of Sumatra, Indonesia where we had considered going after Malaysia.
Cheap plane tickets, visas on arrival and a beautiful bungalow that offered surfers boat rides to the waves made it an easy choice. 48 hours later we left Vietnam and after a quick night in Kuala Lumpur, we were in Banda Aceh being picked up at the airport by Sam, owner of Lhoknga Riverside Resort, and Alice the Manager. Sam and Alice gave us the full tour, showing us Banda Aceh, stores and the surf spot at Lhoknga beach. On the drive from Banda Aceh to Lhoknga (about 25 minutes) there was an incredible valley with rice fields and bright green mountains above.
The resort was paradise, with lovely private bungalows, communal open-air buildings for dining (some over looking the river) and flowers in bloom everywhere. The fresh ocean air was literally what the doctor ordered. My ear was still bothering me in Vietnam, so I went to the doctor who prescribed a forth antibiotic (!!) and was advised to leave Hanoi, where the pollution was probably impeding a full recovery. After so many months without a place or the tools/ingredients to cook for ourselves, I can’t fully convey my joy to have a kitchen.
Just days before we arrived, the motor was stolen off of the Lhoknga resort boat, which meant that James would need a different form of transport to/from the beach unless he wanted to walk it (25 minutes). After having avoided driving a motorbike for all of South East Asia, James decided that if he were only driving himself (and not endangering me) he would give it a go. Since the boat wasn’t available Lhoknga Resort gave James a motorbike to use (for free) for our entire visit. James quickly learned how to drive a manual motorbike, ONE HANDED – as he had to hold his surfboard.
While James was off surfing I had the opportunity to get to know the family that runs Lhoknga Resort. In his ‘retirement’ Sam has opened up the resort, which features a Kite Surfing school (in season) run by French Kite-surfers Regis and Alice. Sam’s primary residence with his wife Maha "Chi-Chi" is in Medan, so he splits his time between both homes. While Regis focuses primarily on the Kite-surfing school, Alice manages all aspects of the resort. They treat one another like family and by extension, the guests too! Chi-chi normally prefers to stay in Medan but happened to be in Lhoknga during our visit and I had a great time bonding with her and Alice. On the road one of the things I missed most was spending time with my girlfriends. I happily accepted Alice and Chi-chi’s invitation to go shopping with them and we had such a great ‘girl time’! First we went to the traditional local market for fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs, and then we visited the brand new western style supermarket. Even though the selection wasn’t nearly as big as a first world supermarket, it was totally insane to walk-through the aisles after 5 months of living in SE Asia. The three of us could have stayed for hours! Alice’s favorite part of Chi-chi’s visits to Lhoknga is her delicious Sumatran cooking. We were lucky enough to enjoy two dinners whipped up by Chi-chi and each one was fantastic! She made this delicious flat bread that was similar to Naan, I could not get enough.
Banda Aceh is under Sharia (Islamic) law, so women (foreigners excluded) are required to wear headscarves and traditional Jilbab dress, the sale of alcohol is tightly controlled, and prayer times/attendance is strictly enforced. We happened to be in Banda Aceh for New Year’s Eve, which is a divisive issue there. Since Islam doesn’t recognize western calendar, locals are forbidden from celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st. The anti-celebration is enforced by outlawing the sale/consumption of alcohol, playing music and fire (as in no fireworks) on this day. Since Lhoknga Resort is entertaining foreign guests they hosted a very special steak frites (fish for me) NYE dinner and as foreigners we were allowed to drink alcohol. It turned out to be an almost exclusively French gathering and we had a great night. In the middle of the night I heard fireworks, the next day I asked who would have been brave enough to set them off? The answer: the Indonesian military.