Pulau Weh – a tropical island paradise but don’t expect any beer!

Pulau Weh is a tropical island paradise but with a catch: it is part of the extremely conservative province of Aceh, the only place in Indonesia where sharia law is enforced. What this means is that unlike in Bali you won’t be sinking endless bir bintangs or having a good time in a dodgy nightclub. In fact, you won’t be drinking any booze at all since Pulau Weh is as dry as a krupuk prawn cracker. For me, the prospect of no alcohol wasn’t that much of a big deal (I can survive a week without any bir bintang - just). But what did worry me was the thought of religious zealots looking to create trouble for my Indonesian wife and me. That European?! What’s he doing with an Indonesian woman? And is she Muslim or not?

Unfortunately, things have gotten pretty out of hand in some parts of Aceh, and in the regency of Bireuen, for example, restaurants are now obliged to ensure that male and female customers who are “not married or related to one another” do not share a table. More recently in Banda Aceh, a couple of teenagers were flogged for “having a cuddle”. And then of course there’s the whole dress code thing: Aceh’s sharia law says that women must cover up and not wear tight clothing. But does this apply to Pulau Weh as well or only mainland Aceh? And if the former, does the law apply to all female tourists on Pulau Weh or to Muslim females only? It isn’t really clear. Would the religious police drag away my wife while she was snorkeling and looking for clown fish, just for the crime of wearing a swimsuit?

Eventually, though, we decided to go. Yes, the concerns remained but sometimes you have to take a bit of a risk. After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, being flogged in public judging by the media reports. Not fun but I could always try the old school trick of stuffing a thick telephone book down my pants. Things would be alright!

It’s a very long way from Jakarta to Pulau Weh (over 1,800km) and one end of the island actually marks the northernmost point of Indonesia’s territory - a fancy monument has even been built there to celebrate this fact. To reach Pulau Weh you first need to fly to Banda Aceh, the province’s main city, which was of course completely devastated by the huge tsunami back in 2004.

We took a very early morning flight with Lion Air (???) so that we would be able to reach Pulau Weh the same day and not have to spend a night in Banda Aceh. As not many tourists visit Aceh, the airport was mercifully free of the taxi mafia types who blight so many airports in Indonesia (especially Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport!). This is also when the females need to put on the headscarf. Just in case.

The fixed-price taxi for the trip from the airport to the small harbor where you can catch the ferry to Pulau Weh is a reasonable Rp140k. What immediately struck me about Banda Aceh is how incredibly quiet it is. There is virtually no traffic at all. The scars of the past still run deep, however, and the taxi driver was keen to tell us about the relatives he had lost in 2014 and how there were so many dead bodies in Banda Aceh that they had to be buried in a huge mass grave, which he pointed out to us on the way to the harbor. Don’t expect to find any shopping malls in Banda Aceh he added. We had seemingly not just flown across the huge island of Sumatra but also gone back in time. A long way back in time. Things are clearly very different here.

At the harbor, we got out of the taxi and the driver took us to the locket where we could buy tickets for the ferry. He must want a tip I thought. But no. He refused any extra payment and politely bid us farewell. I was gob smacked. What was going on? A taxi driver in Indonesia refusing money!! How could this possibly be?

The ferry was much larger than I had expected and, reassuringly I might add, in good condition and not overloaded with a ridiculous number of vehicles. I mention this as one of my friends in Jakarta had, many years ago, been on the ill-fated Gurita ferry, a more dilapidated rust bucket you cannot imagine, which sank in a storm on 21 January, 1996, with the loss of 340 lives despite being only six miles from the shore of Pulau Weh. Unlike most Indonesians, my friend was a good swimmer and this ability ultimately saved his life. Many of the dead were never found. There are said to be many sharks in these waters.

Our crossing was uneventful and the ocean was so calm it almost seemed as if we were sliding across a huge sheet of glass that shimmered under the fierce Indonesian sun. As a volcanic island, Pulau Weh is very striking visually as it is extremely mountainous and covered in lush tropical rainforest. For these reasons, most people live along the coast. The island’s main town is Sabang, as made famous in an Indonesian song that celebrates the astonishing expanse of the Indonesian archipelago which spans from Sabang on Pulau Weh in the west to Merauke in the east.

From Pulau Weh’s harbor, the final leg of the journey was to Iboih, the island’s main tourist spot. There are no taxis to take you there but bashed-up microlets (minivan) do the trip at very affordable rates. No need to even haggle. It was at this point, however, that my wife realized that she had left her “favorite” jacket back in the taxi we had taken from the airport. She won’t see that again I thought to myself. But at least she still had her headscarf!

We hadn’t pre-booked any accommodation at Iboih, as I thought it would be better to check out the places on the spot and take it from there. This worked out well as there were plenty of accommodations and many available rooms. Most overlooked the sea and despite not being fancy had a certain “rustic charm” to them. I could, for example, overlook the fact that the bathroom door handle simply fell off when I tried to use it or there was a huge hole in the ceiling to allow access to the air conditioning unit!

During our stay we ate at a number of restaurants and were never overcharged. The locals were also extremely friendly. In fact, the vibe on the island is very mellow and unlike on mainland Aceh it appears that the strict interpretations of sharia law are not applied here. Swimming costumes were certainly not a problem. Just be sensible and avoid doing things like making out in public or wandering around bare chested in areas away from the beaches (that goes for the men as well as the ladies! hahaha).

Another plus was that the diving was far better than I thought it would be with plenty of interesting coral and a wide range of marine life including large numbers of moray eels and reef sharks, as well as octopus and many species of fish – including the largest stone fish I have ever seen. The only real disappointment was that the snorkeling in Iboih itself wasn’t that great as the coral near the shore had still not grown back after being decimated by the 2004 tsunami. There was, however, good snorkeling at nearby Rubiah island, which can easily be reached by boat in a matter of minutes (for Rp100k they will take you there and bring you back later when you want to return). You may be tempted to swim across as the island looks so close. Don’t. When we were there a solo female tourist tried this and couldn’t get back because of the strong currents.

On our last day, the place we stayed at helped to arrange for transportation back to the harbor. However, just before going to sleep we received a telephone call to inform us that one of the ferries had broken down and that there were going to be only three crossings the following day rather than the usual five. We would therefore be picked up a couple of hours earlier than previously agreed to. As a result, we managed to catch the ferry and consequently didn’t miss our flights back to Jakarta either! And about a week later we had another surprise: a telephone call from the taxi company in Banda Aceh. They had found the jacket and were going to send it to us free of charge. Pulau Weh? I’ll definitely be going back again soon!

Sunset in Pulau Weh

pulau weh

pulau weh gua sarang

Eat. We found three decent restaurants in Iboih: Olala Café (reasonably priced western food - but slow service so take a book or electronic device), Babah Alue Restaurant (moderately priced seafood) and the simple and unnamed restaurant just by the pier.

Dive. Rubiah Tirta Divers is a popular dive resort which offers very affordable dive packages including full equipment rental. Snorkel at nearby Pulau Rubia.

Visit. Pria Laot waterfall, the Kilometer Zero Monument, Gua Sarang (a cave complex by the sea which resembles a mini Raja Ampat, and the sleepy town of Sabang. Motorcycles can be rented in Iboih for Rp100k per day.

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