Banda Aceh’s history lessons
By John Aglionby
Published: February 14 2009 01:15 | Last updated: February 14 2009 01:15
Clambering over a decommissioned, rusting 3,500-tonne floating power station would not usually be high on my holiday to-do list. Particularly when the facility is no longer afloat. And there is no shade from a searing tropical sun. And I’m travelling with my mother, wife, daughter, aged five, and three-year-old son.
But the four-storey-high metal monster in Banda Aceh is no ordinary power-generating installation. Carried 2.5 miles inland into the city centre, it is one of the most striking illustrations of the power of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that devoured large chunks of this city on the northern tip of Sumatra.
More than a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean were affected by the tsunami and the 9.2-magnitude earthquake that triggered it. But nowhere more so than the Indonesian province of Aceh, the closest land to the quake’s epicentre. Here 167,000 people were killed and half a million displaced, 3,000km of roads destroyed and 60,000 hectares of agricultural land rendered unusable.
Four years on, Aceh’s reconstruction has been so successful it has arguably become one of south-east Asia’s hidden holiday destinations. This was post-atrocity tourism with no guilt attached.
For the children it was a fascinating lesson on the power of Mother Nature – combined with adventures few of their friends’ holidays could match. From the power station’s upper deck we could see for miles and appreciate what those mind-boggling death toll statistics meant. The corrugated iron roofs of thousands of new houses sparkled in the afternoon sun; the patchwork quilt of colours and construction styles testament to the hundreds of agencies that flocked here from around the world.
Near the shore, several tsunami-proof “escape buildings”, that look halfway between a multi-storey car park and a millefeuille dessert, rise reassuringly above the houses. In the other direction is the almost-completed tsunami museum.
But the tsunami and its aftermath is only half of Aceh’s recent history. For while exploring the informative and tastefully planned tsunami education park at the base of the power station we were forcefully reminded of the other half of the story.
Alongside us, also learning about tsunami were two dozen pre-teen orphans and their teachers. But these children had not lost their parents on December 26 2004. Their parents were victims of the 29-year separatist conflict waged by the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) that ended in August 2005, when the tsunami focused both Gam and government minds on what was really important in life.
The fighting had effectively killed off tourism, except for a few brave backpackers who risked travelling to Sabang island off Banda Aceh to feast on the still gloriously rich underwater life. Thus a large part of Aceh’s attractiveness is that it has not been on holidaymakers’ radars for, quite literally, decades.
Any worries about insensitive gawping were quickly put to rest. People were keen to share their stories and explain what happened, although more so over the tsunami than the conflict that left some 12,000 people dead.
One of Banda Aceh’s must-see sights is the fishing boat that came to rest on top of a house in Lampulo. The man living in the house next to it spent 20 minutes answering our questions on what happened that fateful Sunday.
Some 60 people had sought refuge on the first-floor of his house watching the water rise ever higher. “Then this boat was carried towards us,” he said. “We thought it would crash into us but it stopped right next to the house. We were all able to clamber aboard. It was the difference between life and death.” The boat is now supported by concrete pillars and a ramp has been built so visitors can see inside it.
But Banda Aceh is a tiny fraction of what the province offers tourists. The west coast beaches offer glorious white sand and stretch for miles. Many of them are now deserted apart from herds of water buffalo struggling to find shade amid the tree stumps. “Where are the houses?” my daughter Tara asked as we tucked into delicious shark curry at a beach shack. “Did the tsunami take them away? And where are the people that lived here?” she persisted with the unrelenting but innocent fascination of a five-year-old. “Will we find them if we swim in the sea?”
“Can we swim please, Daddy?” Julien, my son asked immediately. He was clearly excited by the prospect of stumbling on something unexpected. At Lampuuk, a village made famous by the photographs taken of it from the air in the days after the tsunami, we did find something unexpected. No building was left more than 1ft high except for the mosque, which amazingly remained largely intact.
Julien could only be dragged away from the 27ºC water by the prospect of watching a freshly-caught snapper being barbecued at a beachside café.
Most visitors arrive in Aceh at Banda Aceh’s Sultan Iskandar Muda airport. AirAsia flies daily from Kuala Lumpur, Firefly, a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines flies four days a week from the Malaysian city of Penang.
We stayed in the Hermes Palace, one of four perfectly satisfactory four-star hotels in Banda Aceh.
John Aglionby is the FT’s Jakarta correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009