BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters Life!) - Banda Aceh, the northwestern tip of Sumatra island ravaged by the Indian Ocean Tsunami five years ago, has bounced back, and is increasingly becoming a tourist destination.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the more out of a short stay in Banda Aceh, which is the only place in Indonesia to implement strict Islamic sharia law.
6 pm - Walk around Ulee Lheue, a beach known as the “zero point” of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It was from here that giant waves crashed into Banda Aceh, killing some 166,000 people. There is now a stone embankment which is often crowded with families, young people and fishermen enjoying the sunset.
7 pm - Dinner at Rumah Makan Hasan’s, an eatery on stilts that specializes in fried chicken. It’s a 15 minute drive out of town, but worth the trip. The goat curry here is also popular: Acehnese have long used marijuana as a tenderizer to make goat more palatable and while restaurants will never admit to using it as it is illegal, everyone knows the secret ingredient.
Banda Aceh is staunchly Muslim and almost completely dry, but non-alcoholic beer is available.
9 am - After breakfast, head to the fish market, where the catch is from the depth of the Indian Ocean, including tuna that would meet the approval of Japanese sushi chefs. It’s a wholesale market, so if you want to buy, you’ll have to buy by the basket.
10 am - Aceh prides itself as being “Mecca’s Veranda.” It is said that Islam entered the archipelago through here, and Islam dominates much of the way of life. Visit the main Baiturrahman Mosque, the city’s main mosque, originally built in the 12th century to get a feel of the spiritual side of the city. Visitors are welcome, but women need to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, as well as a headscarf.
11 am - Have a look at the diverse cultural elements which shaped Acehnese culture over the centuries. The flora and fauna section at the Aceh Museum is a bit moth-eaten, but the upstairs has a nice display of traditional costumes and jewelry. The Indian, Arab and Chinese influences are apparent in the designs and colors. Next to the main museum building there is a traditional wooden house. Climb the stairs in the back to see how people used to live in the olden days.
1 pm - For lunch, tuck into a plate of “mie Aceh” or Aceh noodles at Razan Mie on the main street in Chinatown. There is a dry and a soupy version, but both are a mélange of fiery chilies and aromatic spices, egg noodles and a whole crab hacked into chunks. If crab is too messy, you can get prawns or squid. Neutralize some of the heat with cucumber juice, a local specialty of shredded cucumber, lemon, sugar and ice water.
2 pm - Tsunami tourism is a developing industry and the fishing vessel tossed by the giant waves on top of a house, kilometers away from the sea, is a star attraction. The site, in the middle of a residential area, has been turned into a memorial with a ramp that takes you up to where the ship is.
3 pm - Next on the tsunami tourism track is the floating power plant. The 2,600-tonne facility was berthed out at sea, but the tidal waves carried it 3 km inland and it’s still there amid the houses. Souvenir shops have opened beside the vessel where you can buy tsunami T-shirts and shell mosaic wall hangings.
4 pm - Take a coffee break and try a “sanger,” a local latte made of sweet condensed milk, at Black and White, the newest coffee shop in town. The waiter will fill your table with small plates of cakes, spring rolls and other snacks the minute you sit down, but customers pay only for what they eat.
5 pm - Round off the tsunami tourism with a visit to a memorial to those who died in the disaster. There is a small park and a giant, wave-shaped monument to commemorate the victims.
6 pm - Shopping in Banda Aceh remains limited, but there are a number of stores selling local handicrafts around Rex, the outdoor food court in the city center. Bags, in all shapes and sizes and decorated with intricate metallic thread designs typical of the region, make nice gifts. There are also Acehnese daggers, with scabbards and handles made of carved water buffalo horn, scented wood and brass.
8 pm - Catch your dinner at the nearby Rumah Makan Cut Dek. The specialty here is “Ayam tangkap” or “chicken catch.” Customers are served bowl heaped with fried herbs and customers have to “catch” the morsels of golden fried chicken hidden inside. “Ikan Kayu,” a hot coconut curry made with dried tuna and another popular Acehnese dish, is also served here.
9 pm - Round off your meal, and the evening, with dessert from any of the plethora of stalls that specialize in sweets. Try the stall diagonally behind Baiturrahman mosque. It’s a modest, nameless place, with a few tables and benches that makes delicious “serabi,” tiny pancakes doused with coconut cream and palm sugar syrup topped with bits of jackfruit.
8 am - One of the city’s most famous coffee shops, Solong Ulhee Kareng, is a good place to start the day. The barista strains hot water through a giant cloth sieve filled with grounds, injecting scalding coffee into glass mugs. Locals like to drink their coffee poured over a raw egg. It’s stirred with a few spoons of sugar, condensed milk is optional. Otherwise, you can have your egg steamed into a custard made of coconut cream and palm sugar in a dish called “srikaya.”
10 am - Tee off at the Padang Seulawah Golf course. Located near the sea, it was buried in tsunami rubble until a few years ago when intrepid local players cleared the green. It is still a bit rough, but the caddys will help you navigate the nine-hole course and shoo away cows which act as a natural lawn mower.
1 pm - After working up an appetite on the golf course, head to Nasi Uduk Lamongan near the Aceh Museum. The meal to eat here is “nasi uduk” which is a mound of coconut-flavored rice with various toppings. It’s something eaten all over Indonesia but the toppings vary according to region. In Aceh, “beef dengdeng,” or crispy slices of spicy dried beef, is the norm. You can also have a deep-fried boiled egg and a dollop of stewed vegetables. Wash it down with a glass of fresh terong belanda juice, made from a fruit the locals call “Dutch eggplant” and which tastes a bit like sour plums.
3 pm - The beach was feared and hated by locals after the tsunami. But now, the crowds are back and Lam Puuk, which is about 15 km from Banda Aceh is the place to go. Rent a beach hut and a hammock for an afternoon nap or enjoy the water, take a banana boat ride or rent a surf board. But beachgoers beware - this is Aceh and speedos and bikinis will cause embarrassment. Local men wear baggy swimming trunks and women wear bathing suits which resemble a wetsuit that covers from head to feet with a small frilly skirt or else they go in fully clothed and veiled.
6:30 pm - More people will arrive at the beach around this time to watch the sun set and the food stalls behind the beach huts will start readying the charcoal for seafood barbeque. There’s no menu, but you can have a look at the icebox to see what’s on offer — it’s all fresh and everything is eaten with a squeeze of lime and fiery chilies.
Editing by Miral Fahmy