Banda Aceh is located in northwestern Sumatra and was historically a major hub for traders in the region. It was also from this island that Islam spread to Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Banda Aceh, like most trading hubs, has a very violent history; in the late 18th century the Dutch failed to take control of Banda Aceh with an army of several thousand, so they came back with an army of 13,000 (largest Dutch army ever assembled in Indonesia) and successfully seized power - at least in strategic locations that ensured their control over valuable spices and eventually oil reserves. The Dutch did not cede their power until 1949, at which point power transferred to the Javanese-dominated government and the Acehnese fight for autonomy began. Even when finally achieving autonomous status for Aceh, key government and military positions were held by Javanese, which led to a rebellion by the Free Aceh Movement. The war for control over Banda Aceh raged between the military and various incarnations of the Free Aceh Movement from 1976 up until the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, and caught at the center of the battle were the citizens of Aceh.
Until we began researching Banda Aceh, Indonesia for our visit I wasn’t aware that it was the closest city to the epicenter of the 9.1 - 9.3 earthquake that triggered the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. In the center of the city now stands the Tsunami Museum which we visited and were reminded of the chilling facts from that day. The earthquake struck at 7:58am and lasted for about 10 minutes, the third strongest Richter measured earthquake in history. The first of three tsunami waves hit Banda Aceh only 15-20 minutes after the earthquake began and without any warning other than the tide which had rapidly receded. The tsunami waves reached 20 meters high (65 feet) at landfall and went inland for 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles). There was no warning and no precedence for an event like this there. Despite many earthquakes in Sumatra, major tsunamis are extremely rare (the last one took place in 1883). In Banda Aceh 167,000 people were killed in the Tsunami and the town of Lhoknga (were we stayed) was completely wiped away. Everyone in Banda Aceh lost family and friends in the Tsunami.
The museum is in a modern, airy building (quite unlike everything else in the area) and its also an emergency shelter in the event of another tsunami. At the museum all of the countries that donated to rebuild Banda Aceh are listed in an exhibit, in total $655M in international aid. Our hosts Sam and Alice said each country rebuilt a specific area of infrastructure; for example USAid rebuilt the roads. Almost all of the modest structures in Lhoknga are new, as is the Pine tree grove that was planted along the shoreline to protect residents from future tsunamis.
Unlike some of the other predominately Muslim places we visited, I found the people of Banda Aceh to be very friendly towards foreigners. When we visited the Museum, I went to take pictures from a distance and when I got back I found James completely surrounded by group of teenagers who were asking him questions and taking pictures with him. When Alice and I rode bikes to the beach we posed for no less than 10 pictures with various teenagers and families, Alice confirmed that this is almost always the case when she’s there. At the stores and markets we shopped in, we were usually treated with friendly curiosity even when there was a language barrier.
When recounting our experiences later with James' Stepmother Carey, she pointed out that maybe the foreign assistance that they received to rebuild their homeland left them with a positive impression of foreigners unlike some of the other places we visited. I think Carey's theory is probably accurate. The residents of Banda Aceh are also relieved to finally live in peace after such a long and brutal civil war. I always kept my sholders and legs (past the knees) covered when outside of the resort but even covered up in Semporna, Malaysia Kelsey and I still got a lot of dirty/disapproving looks. Despite the Muslim laws that govern Banda Aceh (prayer times throughout the day are strictly adhered to and even shops close up) as a guest there I didn’t feel judged or oppressed by peoples religious beliefs. That said, it is not the place to go for beach bikini time or alcohol fueled partying. Banda Aceh is a destination to visit if you are looking for a different cultural experience, world-class kite surfing, surfing, SUPing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, wildlife expeditions and restorative, peaceful relaxation. After 2 weeks there I finally felt cured from my sinus infection and we were both sad to leave such a wonderful place.