Five and a half years after the tsunami destroyed the city, Banda Aceh has started to stretch itself. Rehabilitation and reconstruction of Islam’s former gateway to Indonesia and one of the oldest Islamic cities in Southeast Asia have finished, meaning it is time for the city to become a tourist destination yet again.
Aceh and its Islamic kingdom was known on the international stage as a prosperous country and was listed fifth in the world in the expansion of Islam. When it was built in 225 Hijriah, Perlak was the first Islamic kingdom in Nusantara and also the first in Southeast Asia. Its first king was Sultan Alaidin Saiyid Maulana Abdul Aziz Syah. After the kingdom of Perlak, only then did the Islamic kingdoms of Samudera Pase and Aceh Darussalam emerge.
According to old manuscripts and historical notes, the Kingdom of Aceh Darussalam was built on the ruins of the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Indra Purba, Indra Purwa, Indra Patra and Indra Pura. Several remains of these kingdoms can be seen at sites around Banda Aceh.
In Kampong Pande there is the tombstone of Sultan Firman Syah, the grandson of Sultan Johan Syah, that has an inscription stating that Banda Aceh was the capital of the Kingdom of Aceh Darussalam and that it was built on Friday, 1 Ramadhan 601 H (22 April 1205) by Sultan Johansyah after he defeated the Hindu and Buddhist Kingdom of Indra Purba whose capital was Bandar Lamuri.
Five and a half years after tsunami destroyed the city, Banda Aceh begins to rebuild the main potential for tourism. Many interesting places can be visited by foreign and domestic tourists.
The Islamic ambience was immediately apparent when I landed at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport. The characteristic domes of mosques welcome visitors to Banda Aceh. In this region, the women commonly wear veils. Another different thing is that when the call to prayer is resounding around the city, it goes quiet because all the inhabitants worship in the mosques, which are the centre of the people’s activities and the most often visited places in Aceh.
The Aceh Tsunami Museum building.The Baiturrahman Masjid Raya (the Grand Mosque) is one of the main tourists destination and it’s the main symbol of Banda Aceh and is located to the south of Krueng Aceh River. This mosque, as is usual for a major mosque, is huge and grandiose and full of the faithful worshiping and carrying out various religious activities from Taman Pendidikan AlQuran (Koran education), reciting from the Koran, manasik haji rehearsals, weddings etc. The mosque, which was built during the glorious era of Sultan Iskandar Muda, was once used as the headquarters for the military in their defence of Aceh against the Dutch.
A new place of interest in Aceh is the Aceh Tsunami Museum that was built on a site covering about 10,000m2 on Jalan Iskandar Muda Blang Padang, Banda Aceh. This unique museum, built by local people, was inaugurated by the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on 23rd February 2008. The museum, which is open twice a day from 10.00–12.00 and 15.00-17.00 (except Friday) really deserves the admiration it gets.
In addition to being a museum that contains a collection of pictures about the tsunami in Aceh, it is also a tsunami research and learning centre. It has an Escape Roof, an evacuation area for the public should there be a flood or tsunami. The roof area of the museum building is designed so that it can be planted with grass. The museum also comes complete with a public park called The Hill of Light, a small hill that can be used for initial rescue efforts in the eevent of a tsunami.
Unfortunately, the museum does not have a complete collection yet and there are only two floors people can visit while several rooms still look empty. Up to now the museum management is still encouraging people to register artifacts belonging to individuals, government and private agencies and also tsunami remains for the museum’s collection.
Right next to the museum is a cemetery complex for the members of the Dutch military who died in battles against the people of Aceh. The cemetery is called Kerkhoff and is evidence of the heroism of the people of Aceh in defending their region from Dutch colonialism. Kerkhoff was built in 1880 and the complex has about 2,200 Dutch military graves, from members the ordinary ranks to generals. General J.H.R. Kohler, who was shot dead by Acehnese troops in front of the Masjid Raya Baiturrahman, is buried here. The cemetery is adorned with lines of Bungong Jeumpa trees on the left and right of the road. The flowers are well known from the lyrics to an Acehnese song and are really pretty and fragrant.
Kerkhoff, The Dutch soldiers cemetary in Banda Aceh.Not far from Kerkhoff there is one of Iskandar Muda Sultanate’s legacies, Gunongan, a place of recreation for members of the royal family at that time. This place is the symbol of the strength of the Sultan’s love for his beautiful wife, Putri Phang (Putroe Phang), who hailed from Pahang, Malaysia. The white building, laid out in the form of a flower, is both unique and attractive.
Another interesting place in Banda Aceh is International Park where the aircraft Seulawah known as “RI-1”, as well as “RI-2”, can be seen. The monument provides real evidence of the support of the Aceh community for the Republic of Indonesia’s journey towards securing its independence. Seulawah, which was the first aircraft of Garuda Indonesia Airways, was paid for with money donated by business people and other ordinary citizens from Aceh.
Banda Aceh also offers opportunities for food tourism. Typical Acehnese food is a blend of various cultures such as Arab, Indian, Siamese, Spanish and Dutch. Its ayam tangkap has a special flavour and the spiced chicken fried with herbs has a fragant aroma that is enticing as well as being very delicious when served with sambal kecap and hot rice. And there is Mie Aceh with its special spices making it very tantalizing with its mixture of squid, crab and beef.
To enjoy Acehnese food in Banda Aceh is not difficult because there is a restaurant on almost every street. Some of the more interesting eateries are in Rex Peunayong, an open area in the city centre that offers various foods and drinks typical to Aceh such as Mie Aceh (Aceh noodle), Kerang Rebus (boiled clams), Sate Matang, Nasi Briani, Ayam Tangkap, Martabak Aceh as well as Aceh coffee. Rex only opens in the evening and there are inexpensive hotels and souvenir shops in the area.
Engaging in food tourism in Banda Aceh wouldn’t be complete without enjoying a cup of Acehnese coffee widely available in the coffee shops around the city. With the unique taste of this local coffee at a reasonable price, the snacks and WiFi facilities in almost every coffee shop, no wonder people like to linger here. There is always a new coffee shop in Banda Aceh, and there is no coffee shop without customers.
Rencong, Gunongan and Aceh embroidery
Buying rencong and Acehnese embroidery as souvenirs is a must. These two local specialities are available in the souvenir shops that you will find all over Banda Aceh in addition to Gampong Sibreh in Aceh Besar, a kampong whose population are almost all rencong artisans and Aceh embroidery makers. Apart from being full of traditional artisans, this kampong has the ambience of a typical Acehnese village with rumah panggung (houses on stilts) and local culture that is well preserved. Tourists visiting this place will always receive a warm welcome.
After the tsunami, the signing of the peace Memorandum of Understanding in Helsinki between the government of the Republic of Indonesia and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement or GAM) on 15th August 2005, has made Aceh very safe and open to all, including domestic and international tourists. The feeling of safety and fun have made tourists want to stay longer in this city of Serambi Mekkah or “the verandah of Mecca”.
Going to Banda Aceh:
Garuda Indonesia flies the Jakarta-Banda Aceh-Jakarta route 7 times per week, Jakarta-Medan-Banda Aceh route 7 times per week.
Where to stay in Banda Aceh:
1. Hermes Palace Hotel
Tel. +62 651 755 5888
2. Oasis Atjeh Hotel
Tel. +61 651 636 999
3. Grand Nanggroe Hotel
Tel. +62 651 35788
4. The Pade Hotel
Tel. +62 651 49999
Coffee stalls in Banda Aceh
are spread throughout the city, from Ulee-Kareng, Taman Sari, to Tepi Kali.
Visit Banda Aceh 2011
Ir. Mawardy Nurdin, MEngSc – Mayor of Banda AcehBefore the tsunami and the peace Memorandum of Understanding, it could be said that Aceh was not developing at all. During the armed conflict which lasted from 1974 until 2005, tourism was completely ignored and one could safely say that almost nothing happened in terms of tourism although there were in fact a few friendship visits. Local people and those from outside thought Aceh had a lot of tourist potential because of its beautiful beaches and the relatively untouched remains and relics of the sultanate and colonial eras.
After the tsunami, Aceh started working on things that could restore prosperity to the people of Banda Aceh. To do that Banda Aceh cooperates with Aceh Besar and Sabang through a scheme called Basajan (Banda Aceh, Sabang, Janto – the capital of Aceh Besar).
Tourism in Banda Aceh places emphasis on spiritual, cultural and tsunami tourism. Aceh, as a region that has adopted the the Islamic sharia law and has diverse cultures, has become a special attraction for domestic as well as international tourists such as those from Malaysia. The tsunami natural disaster that struck Banda Aceh created its own uniquely dramatic monuments: PLTD Apung, mass graves, and the boat on top of a house are a few of the places you can visit.
In Aceh Besar there is adventure tourism allowing visitors to enjoy natural challenges or take a look places where GAM people went into hiding, to see where they lived, how they lived, and what they did.
Sabang will become the centre of marine tourism thanks to the beautiful and very widely known Weh Island and Rubiah Island, scuba diving sites that some people say are superior to Bunaken. The waters are very clear and there is diversity of fish species. These three regions could be offered to tourists in one package. So, actually there are a lot of things to draw people to visit Banda Aceh.
Up till now, people have visited Banda Aceh for only two or three days at a time, but the Basajan scheme is expected to extend the length of stays. Through the program Visit Banda Aceh, tourists will fill up the hotels and there will be an economic knock on effect for the population such as the increase in demands for prawns, fish, vegetables etc. The same goes for demand for transportation, traditional souvenirs and food that in turn will help small industries in Aceh to prosper. This will cause a multiplier effect which will energize and lift the population’s livelihoods.
The adoption of the Islamic sharia laws will not restrict tourists as they explore Aceh, because sharia is only applicable to followers of Islam, and not outsiders. Tourists visiting the region will feel safe and comfortable; for example, they do not have to wear veils while in Banda Aceh.
In supporting Visit Banda Aceh 2011, major events such as Banda Aceh Birthday Celebration, Taman Sari Festival, Baiturrahman Festival and Aceh Cultural Week will be held.
Developments that support the tourism industry will also be implemented continuously such as the tsunami museum, the floating PLTD and the tsunami site house. Renovation is also carried out on the tombs of famous ulamas (Islamic scholars/teachers) and kings and Hotel Aceh where President Soekarno accepted the money from the people of Aceh to buy “RI-1”, the Republic of Indonesia’s first aircraft. We hope that with this vision one day Banda Aceh will become one of Indonesia’s great tourist destinations.