We still had 5 days of our trip remaining & we were unsure where to go next. The Lonely Planet lists Pulau Wey in the top places to see in Sumatra, so why not?
Pulau Weh (Weh Island) is a volcanic island off the coast of Northwest Sumatra. It is well known for its ecosystem, diving and is considered off the beaten track compared to its distant relatives of Bali or the Gillis. It is home to the famous Zero Kilometer Point, where Indonesia starts.
To get here, we took a 50min flight from Medan to Banda Aceh. We arranged a car in advance to pick us up & the driver, Mr Fidos, also arranged ferry tickets for us. There are only two fast ferries per day (8am & 2pm), so we ended up catching a slow one which took 1 hour 40 mins. To get from the port to Iboih village there are many drivers waiting. We however, arranged a driver in advance (through a local dive resort) who gave us a number of an English speaker.
Our trip coincided with the start Eid al-Adha & the ferry was packed, with standing room only; we were grateful both drivers sorted out tickets for us. Everything in the village was closed for two days due to the holiday, so we were grateful the family at our place we’re cooking food.
Our host Nani was a good cook (making a few simple ingredients into a tasty meal) & her daughter, Ami dealt with all the guests. Both were amongst the warmest & loveliest people we’ve met this trip.
Accommodation is spread across Pulau Weh, but the largest cluster is in the village of Iboih, apparently near the best dive sites. Here most guesthouses are basic beach shacks, although more solid structures are being built each year. We stayed at Pele’s Place in a budget room for £9 per night (as all they had available) but there were a couple of shacks on stilts above the water which looked quaint & chilled.
Accommodation here is definitely basic; cold water only, rustic rooms & grubby around the edges, but we had Aircon which we were extremely grateful for.
What To Do?
In short, there is nothing to do here unless you want to dive (this is why people come here), snorkel or chill out. The village is very small & there are only a few places to eat; most attached to Homestays. The beaches are rocky although apparently there are a few small sandy ones by the dive resorts.
Sunbathing is not the norm here & conservative clothing must be worn when swimming (see below). Local men swim in shorts & T shirts. I saw no women swimming until the last day; when they do, they swim fully clothed complete with Hijab or Khimar headcovering.
It is important to be aware that the region of Banda Aceh, including Pulau Wey, is governed by strict Sharia Law. In 2002, the province was granted permission to enforce Sharia Law by the National Government, which hoped to calm previous fighting & unrest with the right to govern itself under the Quran. We did not know about this until after we booked our tickets ( it is not publicised & we met a couple of tourists who turned up in hotpants, who had no idea).
If however, you research online there are many recent articles about Sharia Law in the region (some by the major UK papers) but it is not clear the exact standpoint as to non-muslim residents or visitors & where the laws can be applied. Some articles are based on fact, some hearsay & of course are to be read with an open mind as well as caution.
Facts as we experienced them:
– There are signs on the beach advising:
* no bikinis or trunks
* to dress modestly in the village
– There is no alcohol (according to LA Times a strict stance has been taken on people who have sold alcohol & recently the first non Muslim resident also received a public canning).
– You will get stared at (however modestly you are dressed & with your hair inside a baseball hat)
– Most locals we encountered we’re very welcoming. I did encounter a few disapproving/hostile looks on the ferry & in the village (strangely from women)
– The family we stayed with were lovely. They seemed pretty relaxed & dressed casually in the presence of their guests.
– Our driver said that 2017 has seen the most tourists since the region opened its doors & there have been approximately 100. Therefore it appears, tourism is still a very new concept for the people here
The ferry to Pulau Wey leaves from the village of Banda Aceh. Returning, we caught the 8am fast ferry so had time to kill before our flight at 4pm. Therefore our driver suggested a half day tour & we accepted.
Out of all the countries that were hit by the 2004 Tsunami, Sumatra particularly the village of Banda Aceh were hit the hardest as nearest to the epicenter. The entire village was wiped out with 127,000 dead & approximately 90,000 missing.
Our driver lost 16 of his family to the Tsunami but has a very philosophical attitude about it: “The tsunami was a very bad thing, but it was also very good. After the tsunami ‘they’ realised that we should live in peace & so the agreement was signed with the Government to stop the fighting’.
He sat through the video montage with us of the traumatic photos of death & destruction (Asians always seem more matter of fact to me. Children sat in the audience, where we tend to protect them from such images).
In tears, I asked him how he could sit through such images having had such close loss. He told me “For four years I was bereft. Then I realised I had to get on with life. I read the Quran & from other religions & I realised I must live: Allah had a purpose, we have to move on”.
We later visited the memorial, next to the huge electricity generation ship that was washed 6km inshore & now rests where the water left it (on top of two crushed houses).
We said our goodbyes at the airport & thanked him for sharing his morning with us & I received the most genuine hug I’ve experienced here (despite him being a man & a Muslim & Sharia Laws).