I first heard of Aceh, Sumatra, when doing a school project on the Middle East. Whilst investigating whether Islam and democracy could work, I looked at Indonesia, and the province of Aceh came up. A balanced opinion on the internet can be as hard to find as a needle in a hayfield, so of course it was made to look like the extremist corner of the country – it is under Sharia law. Long story short, I never thought it would be my introduction to Indonesia.
I had done well in my travel spending; with plenty of cash left to spare, I decided it might be worth my while going after the last major group of animals I had yet to see; tropical fish. In the Mediterannean, I’d only ever see a few here and there – I wanted to feel like I was in an aquarium. And so, my research on island paradises took me to Pulau Weh, the very western edge of Sumatra and Indonesia itself.
The trip out here began with my flight being delayed by two hours, and for the first hour I had no clue what was going on. Another flight at roughly the same time had been delayed by five, and some folks were actually crying as they talked on their phones. Once I landed, I called my hotel as they had arranged a pickup service – only for my phone’s credit to run out halfway through the call. I had to hope they got the message for about forty minutes of sitting on the kerb outside whilst dealing with passive-aggressive taxi touts. In the end, everything went OK, but I then had another early start to catch a ferry. I told myself that the journey to paradise is never easy, and that it would all be worth it.
Arriving at Gapang Beach from the ferry was made easy when I split costs with a German couple I had met. Unfortunately, the dive centre where I had hoped to stay was full, but I got myself a decent enough place right next door. I got a bit of culture shock, though, when I encountered a Sumatran bathroom; the toilet was normal, but I quickly realised that the pan laid beside a tap was the flush and my shower. Joy of joys. I was definitely not in Thailand anymore. Or even Sri Lanka.
Set up, I headed over to the dive centre to try and find out what I could do. My situation was awkward; basically, the license I had gained from my university’s dive club had not been signed off yet, so I was technically still a beginner. Which meant, the only dive I could do was from the shore, and then out to the reefs, but the shore dive alone cost more than three snorkeling trips out on the boat. It was a no-brainer this time around.
Not partaking in the diving meant I missed out on some things, like lower level fish and corals, including a zebra moray eel. However, from the surface I still saw a fair bit; the first special thing was a lionfish, making its way across the rocks. The lionfish hunts by making its presence known and moving slowly, causing prey around it to grow careless – until it strikes. In other words, the lionfish is an exam.
Even though the coral around the island isn’t tip-top, Nemo was still here. We found out that evening that clownfish are technically known as clown anemone fish, and Nemo is a false clown anemone fish. A moray eel, swimming around, at one point showed me its teeth – I kept my distance, but luckily it wasn’t chasing me. The highlight of the day was a sea turtle, at which point I went free-diving. I was able to spend ten seconds up close to it before mask-squeeze, air supply and him not liking the look of me ended our meeting.
I spent the better part of my life teaching myself that sharks do not attack people, but every time I enter a shark-inhabited area, Jaws pops into my head. This time round, though, I felt more reassured by the presence of other people in the same area, AKA alternative meals. The current at the second site was much stronger, so I wore a life-vest. There would be no free-diving here. I made my way around an island, which drops suddenly into the sea. The divers were at the bottom, taking in the corals down below, and Dory appeared here.
I didn’t spend the last paragraph talking about sharks without the possibility that they would come into this story, now did I? Well, sure enough, out of the blue (literally) came a fair-sized blacktip reef shark. Brucey patrolled the edge of the sea cliff before descending again, possibly scared of me. I wouldn’t know. I usually laugh through my snorkel when something like this makes my face light up, so maybe that was it. Much to the chagrim of some of my diving friends, who lucked out on this one.
All this was in addition to the countless colourful fish I saw, some of which were later identified back at the centre. Some lovely names, such as parrotfish, lipstick fish and powder blue surgeon fish were added to my list. Black and yellow is the colour of choice for many fish, but others go for blues and greens. Needlefish were also quite common, though I got up close to one landed by a fisherman. I gently touched its teeth – so little pressure, and yet there was a very real chance of me cutting myself.
Coming here is now less painful; Airasia do direct flights from Banda Aceh to Kuala Lumpur, and to be fair some of my difficulties were on me. So would I say the trip is worth it?
Pulau Weh is OK value for money; my room had lots of ants and the famous bucket, but the mosquito screens, AC and double bed made up for it – all for the price of £10/night. Food can be expensive around here, depending on whether you can find a street food stand. There are few buses on the island, so taking a becak (motorbike with a seat beside it) or taxi is the only way to get around, which can be expensive unless you find someone to split costs with. Beer is hugely expensive, because it’s officially illegal; for foreigners, it’s a grey area on paper and generally tolerated – sometimes, a few palms must be crossed with silver though.
In my opinion, the snorkeling was great, but I can’t say how it compares to other, more reachable places. Much of the coral is dead from warming seas, so it ain’t exactly a colouring book down there. When I asked one of the centre staff, she told me it’s the diversity of life here that makes it special. There are a number of sites, and I saw the shark and blue tang at Batee Tokong, while everything else was at Rubiah Seagarden.
In an area where I’ve got more expertise; Acehnese coffee is beautiful. When you get to heaven and see volcanoes up there, it’s so that they can grow this elixir. Yep, thanks to the fertilised volcanic soils, the coffee here is rich to the right level – I will never be able to drink instant again.
Pulau Weh is definitely not The Beach; not many foreign tourists, but plenty of domestic ones, come here. Beaches are still clean enough, but rubbish piles exist by the road.
Pulau Weh will definitely be on more people’s lips in the future. The high beer prices will probably keep the crowds at bay for now, but nonetheless I almost guarantee that it will become Aceh’s tourist trump card. One day when I’ve dived enough reefs and been to enough island paradises, hopefully I’ll be able to say there’s nothing like Pulau Weh. For now, I’m just going to base my judgement on a cup of coffee.