Aceh (pronounced "ah-chey", various spellings include Acheh, Atjeh and Achin) is a province and special territory (daerah istimewa) of Indonesia, located in the northern part of the island of Sumatra, with a population of 4.2 million.
The province of Aceh is located 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.
A devastating tsunami struck the area on 26 December 2004. The tremendous loss of life also influenced the thinking of political figures of the province, and the Aceh Government became more open to peace talks. The 29 year long struggle for special control (autonomy or independence) subsequently ended with the Helsinki Peace Agreement which was signed on 15 August 2005, and the decision to remain a province of Indonesia. In return for dropping their demands for independence, the Indonesian government agreed to give the Aceh provincial government greater autonomy in their internal affairs. Since then, the peace process has been quite smooth, without major incidents.The "AAM" (Aceh Monitoring Mission) funded by the EU oversaw the process.
There are a number of major towns, among them: Banda Aceh (capital), Lhokseumawe, Meulaboh, Sigli, and Calang. Also the island of Sabang (an hour ferry ride from Banda Aceh), considered a diver's and snorkeler's paradise, belongs to the province.
- Banda Aceh - capital city of the region.
- Lhokseumawe - Industrial city.
- Kutacane - Southernmost city, a place where roads meet.
- Takengon - mountainous city by Laut Tawar Lake, famous for its fish.
- Weh Island - Blue Lagoon, Snorkeling, famous for its fish.
- Banyak Islands
- Lhoknga — surfing within easy striking distance of Banda Aceh. Nearby Lampuuk, is a beach and mountain area with a variety of accommodation and attractions.
- Pulau Weh (Sabang) — The westernmost point of Indonesia and Aceh's favorite beach getaway with some of Indonesia's best diving.
- 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.
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). More recently, on 26 December 2004, the coastal areas were devastated by a huge earthquake triggering a tsunami, which is estimated to have killed up over 160,000 people in Aceh, completely devastated coastal infrastructure (including the capital city of Banda Aceh), and made over 500,000 people homeless. However, the devastation in the wake of the tsunami led both 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 eventually 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, in a quest to reconstruct the area.
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.
Aceh is a province, but in fact is a state which has own strict sharia law, which is stricter than in any other part of Southeast Asia, including Brunei Darussalam. 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 (some pictures can be seen in Facebook). So far no sharia laws have been enforced upon tourists, and non-Muslims are officially 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, semi-stretch jeans, shorts, tight or translucent oblong or t-shirts, but headscarves are not required for non-Muslims. One-piece conservative swimsuits, but not bikinis, are acceptable at some hotel swimming pools.
Aceh is a big province of almost 60,000 kilometers square. Although Aceh officially uses 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.
Bahasa Indonesia is spoken but sometimes you will hear Bahasa Aceh (Acehnese), Bahasa Gayo (Gayonese), and other more minor languages.
Banda Aceh is now a visa-on-arrival entry point. There are two direct international flights to Banda Aceh. Air Asia offers flights from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while Firefly connects four times a week from Penang. Prices of tickets range from 15 to 70 USD. Indonesian consulates and embassies abroad also issue 60 day tourist visas.
Domestically, there are daily flights between Jakarta and Banda Aceh by Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air via Medan and Sri Wijaya. Sri Wijaya is the cheapest but Lion Air and Garuda fly generally newer aircraft.
The road from Medan to Banda Aceh are now reasonable. Especially the express night buses from Medan 10 hours,200 000 IDR are a good deal. Non express day and night buses are cheaper (150 000 IDR) 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. Many restaurants and fresh seafood stalls have been established since 2008, with some of the restaurants providing 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 are 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.
2 or 3 days before fasting month to 2 or 3 days after fasting months you will still find difficulty in getting food in day time, and visit in this time is discouraged.
The insurgency may be officially over, but Aceh remains a somewhat unsettled place, with a rate of violent crime — partly political, partly not — exceeding most of the rest of the archipelago. In 2009, a German Red Cross worker was shot in broad daylight in Banda Aceh. In 2014, situation is relatively safe, no more foreign tourists as a target, except some rare pure criminal.
Homosexuality is illegal for Muslims in Aceh, and while non-Muslims are officially exempt from this law, same-sex couples are advised to be discreet to avoid offending local sensibilities.
- 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.