Aceh (pronounced "ah-chey", various spellings include Acheh, Atjeh and Achin) is a province and special territory (daerah istimewa) of Indonesia, in the northwestern part of the island of Sumatra. It has a population of 4.2 million.
Its major towns include: Banda Aceh (Aceh's capital), Lhokseumawe, Meulaboh, Sigli, and Calang. The island of Sabang (an hour's ferry ride from Banda Aceh), considered a diver's and snorkeler's paradise, belongs to the province.
- 1 Banda Aceh – capital city of the province.
- 2 Lhokseumawe – industrial city.
- 3 Kutacane – southernmost city, a place where roads meet. Capital of Southeast Aceh Regency.
- 4 Takengon – mountainous city by Laut Tawar Lake, famous for its fish.
- 5 Sabang, Weh Island (Pulau Weh) – Blue Lagoon, snorkeling, famous for its fish. The westernmost point of Indonesia and Aceh's favorite beach getaway with some of Indonesia's best diving.
- 6 Singkil
- 7 Tapak Tuan
- 1 Banyak Islands
- 2 Lhoknga — surfing within easy striking distance of Banda Aceh. Nearby Lampuuk, is a beach and mountain area with a variety of accommodation and attractions.
- 3 Meulaboh
- 4 Ketambe — The best place to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in the Aceh province. A small, quiet and charming village. However it is an effort to get there.
The province of Aceh is in the northwest of Sumatra, with an area of approximately 57,365 km2, or 12.26% of the size of the island. It includes 119 islands, 73 major rivers and 2 lakes. Aceh is surrounded by the Straits of Malacca in the north, North Sumatra Province in the east and the Indian Ocean in the south and the west. The capital of Aceh is Banda Aceh.
Aceh was long known for its desire for political independence from Indonesia. For many years, travel in this part of Indonesia was restricted by the government, due to a long war between the Indonesian Army and an Acehnese separatist guerrilla force known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM in short).
On 26 December 2004, the coastal areas were devastated by a huge earthquake triggering a tsunami, which is estimated to have killed over 160,000 people in Aceh and completely devastated coastal infrastructure (including the capital city of Banda Aceh), and made over 500,000 people homeless. The devastation in the wake of the tsunami led the Indonesian government and the GAM to declare a ceasefire in order to provide aid to the victims, setting the stage for peace talks to take place.
A peace agreement was signed in Helsinki on 15 August 2005 between the Indonesian government and GAM, in which the GAM agreed to give up their struggle for independence in exchange for more autonomy being given to the provincial government in managing its internal affairs, including the right to enact Sharia law. Since then, the Indonesian government, in cooperation with the European Union, has been working with the local militia to disarm the former guerrilla fighters, with great success. After the tsunami, the UN and numerous international aid agencies moved in to reconstruct the area.
Aceh's shariah laws are stricter than in any other part of Southeast Asia, including Brunei, and even stricter than in Dubai, where non-Muslims are allowed to sunbathe in a bikini on the beach. In 2014, some ulemas spray painted the legs of women who wore tight jeans and trousers, because they felt that the sharia police were ineffective. So far no sharia laws have been enforced upon tourists, and non-Muslims are exempted from having to follow sharia laws, but to avoid unpleasantness for both parties, women should be modest in their clothing and behaviour. Conservative dress is expected, and this means no leggings, tight pants, shorts, or any tight or see-through clothing, but headscarves are not required for non-Muslims. One-piece conservative swimsuits, but not bikinis, are acceptable at some hotel swimming pools.
Although Aceh enforces sharia law, some regencies such as Gayo Lues Regency do not fully support this. They are mostly Muslims, but don't want sharia to be implemented too hard. Some other regencies want to separate from Aceh, but the central government has not given any response to their requests. However, visitors should operate on the basis that Aceh is under sharia law, especially in the northern and eastern coastal regencies. On Friday, some vendors totally close or are open until 11:30 and either open again at 14:30 or stay closed until Saturday morning. Fishermen do not go to the sea and people don't swim on the beach on Friday, so if you want to swim on Friday, make sure beforehand that you won't cause offense.
Backpacking into the back country in Aceh is safe from landmines because the GAM used only pipe-bombs. The areas around Banda Aceh and along east coast are relatively ready for tourists, but along the west coast of Aceh, which has more beautiful scenery, there are fewer facilities for tourists. However, backpackers can use their own tents on the beach as they wish.
Flora and fauna
The largest portion of Leuser National Park is in Aceh Province, and provides habitat for many endangered species, including the Sumatran Tiger and forest Rhinoceros.
Bahasa Indonesia is spoken but sometimes you will hear Bahasa Aceh (Acehnese), Bahasa Gayo (Gayonese), and other more minor languages.
The main airport of Aceh is Sultan Iskandar Muda International Airport (BTJ IATA) near Banda Aceh. There are international flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport by AirAsia, and from Penang by Firefly. Domestically, there are frequent flights from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport by Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air, and from Jakarta's Halim Airport by Batik Air. Other domestic destinations include Medan, Bengkulu, and Batam.
There are various smaller airports across the province, such as Malikus Saleh Airport (LSW IATA) and Cut Nyak Dien Airport (MEQ IATA), with most of them only having scheduled flights from Medan, operated by Garuda Indonesia and/or Wings Air.
The road from Medan to Banda Aceh is in reasonable condtion. Especially the express night buses from Medan 10 hours, Rp200,000 are a good deal. Non-express day and night buses are cheaper (Rp150,000) and take longer - 12-14 hours.
The ferry from Penang has stopped running. Instead, take the ferry to Medan and continue from there.
There is no need for travel permits anymore in Aceh. Taxis, rental cars and motor taxis are available in Banda Aceh.
There are many hotels and also other types of accommodation available in Banda Aceh and the surrounding area. There are many cheap guest houses in the popular local beachside areas of Lhoknga and Lampuuk, there are a range of very affordable guest houses which cater mostly to international tourists, particularly surfers and adventurers.
Aceh is rich in events, attractions and unique cultures that will fascinate anyone. Aceh is also rich in natural beauty, waves and sea gardens which are suitable for diving. However, some of the most beautiful Aceh tourism and historical sites and beaches were damaged by the massive earthquake and the tsunami in 2004.
Highlights: the Baiturrahman Great Mosque, Aceh State Museum, the Graves of Sultan Iskandar Muda and of Teungku Syiah Kuala, Salahuddin Graveyard in Bitay (Turkey village), Ujong Batee and Lampuuk Beaches, Tjut Nyak Dien Museum, Rubiah Sea Garden, Simpang Balik Hot Water Pool, Linge Isaq Hunting Area, Leuser National Park, Cakra Donya Bell, remains of the Samudra Pasai Kingdom and Teungku Chik Di Tiro Heros Cemetery.
Nature and outdoor lovers who arrive in Medan can travel from Medan to the jungle resort of Bukit Lawang and from there, go to the more remote Tangkahan. From Tangkahan, you can travel to the mysterious Danau Laut Tawar near Takengon were you can hike and climb some spectacular volcanoes. From Takengon you can travel to Banda Aceh. There you can visit some great beaches and go mountain biking and hiking. Banda Aceh is also the place to get a ferry to Sabang or Pulau Weh where you can dive and snorkel.
There is fantastic diving on Pulau Weh (called "Sabang" by the locals, the name of the city on the island). If you're certified, expect to pay €25 for your first dive, €20 for every dive afterward.
Aceh is also great for hiking and mountain biking and bicycling.
Surfing is great at Lhok'nga beach where you can also rent boards and do surfing courses. Also in nearby Lampuuk (3 km NE of Lhok'nga) a variety of beachside and mountain recreational attractions and activities is developing very rapidly. There are many restaurants and fresh seafood stalls. Some of the restaurants provide very affordable accommodation, some with panoramic views of the mountains, beaches and seaside area.
Arab, Persian, and Indian traders influenced food in Aceh although flavours have changed to a point where they are no longer similar to their original form. Amongst these are curry dishes known as kare or gulai, which are rich, coconut-based dishes traditionally made with beef, goat, fish or poultry, but now also made with tofu, vegetables, and jackfruit. Popular Acehnese food includes roti cane and mie Aceh.
New restaurants and seafood stalls are popping up all the time in the local Lhoknga and Lampuuk seaside areas of Banda Aceh as the local economy develops.
You will have trouble finding food during the daytime during Ramadan, and also 2-3 days immediately before and after the Islamic holy month.
The insurgency may be over, but Aceh remains a somewhat unsettled place, with a rate of violent crime higher than average for Indonesia. In 2009, a German Red Cross worker was shot in broad daylight in Banda Aceh. In 2014 the situation was relatively safe.
Aceh has adopted a strict version of the Shariah law, which prohibits, among other things, drinking, homosexuality, intimate contact outside marriage, gambling, adultery and wearing revealing clothes in public spaces (including public beaches). Since 2016, such laws have been applied both to Muslims and non-Muslims, so make sure you don't violate them. If you do, the punishment for Muslims who drink alcohol or are together with a person of the other sex to whom they are neither a close relative nor married is to be publicly whipped and fined or imprisoned, whereas non-Muslims can choose which of these punishments to suffer, and even playing online games in public can be punishable by getting whipped.
- To the south: take a flight from Banda Aceh to Medan, if you are in a rush. You can also use the bus, but there are no special views along the trip. From Medan, you can spend one day in Brastagi or you can spare more time, if you want one day to hike to or climb Sibayak Mountain and one day more to hike to or climb Sinabung Mountain. Neither of these mountains is too difficult to hike, if you are fit, but you need a guide to avoid getting lost. Spare two days in Lake Toba, even if you are not going anywhere around the lake.