Everywhere I walked in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, I was met with the same greeting: "Hello! NGO!" The locals said it with a smile and a sing-song cadence, safe in the assumption that I, like most Westerners in the area, worked for one of the numerous non-governmental organizations that descended upon the city after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Others saw me as part of a new wave of travellers visiting the area in search of a destination off the backpacker trail. Local hawkers offered me taxi rides and "tsunami tours," which consisted largely of visits to ships that were swept several kilometres inland by 10-metre high waves. (The best known is a large fishing boat that rests on top of a house in the Lampulo district. The ship has become something of a makeshift monument to the tsunami and its victims.)
While large swaths of Asia and Africa were affected by the Boxing Day tsunami, no area suffered more than Banda Aceh, the city closest to the epicentre of the earthquake that set off one of the greatest natural disasters in modern history. Approximately 160,000 Acehnese died and another 500,000 were left homeless.
Banda Aceh became an international symbol of the devastation. In the five years since the disaster, NGOs rebuilt the infrastructure throughout Aceh province. They also rebuilt a tourism industry, spending their downtime on the tranquil beaches of Pulau Weh, a small island 20 kilometres off the coast of Banda Aceh.
"The peace and quiet is very important," says Freddie Rousseau, a retired NGO worker who runs Santai Sumur Tiga, a popular eco-resort in Sabang, the largest town in Pulau Weh. "No pollution, no traffic, no high-rises. The fact that it's underdeveloped and not commercialized is a very big calling card for this area. You can go to the beach and not be harassed. This is what Bali was 15 years ago."
Local diving instructor Udi Djamil laughs at the comparison to tourist-heavy Bali, Indonesia. "Fifteen years?" he says to Rousseau. "More like 50 years ago."
Rousseau's eco-resort is about as flashy as it gets on Pulau Weh. He offers clean beachfront bungalows, made entirely of local materials, for about $25 a night. When the lanky South African first opened his doors back in 2006, his clientele consisted almost entirely of NGO staff. Now he sees all kinds of travellers looking for an unspoiled paradise.
While many visit Sabang to relax, others trek to Pulau Weh's northeastern peninsula for diving. "I've worked as a diving instructor in places like Thailand and Bali, and Pulau Weh really is world-class diving," Djamil says. "You get manta rays, whale sharks, really nice bottom topography. It's not like any other place in the world."
The diving may be near perfect on Pulau Weh, but the amenities leave something to be desired. The towns of Iboih and Gapang don't offer much in the way of creature comforts. During my time in Iboih, I stayed in a 270-square-foot bungalow that was a temporary shelter erected by the Canadian Red Cross after the tsunami. Divers, though, seem willing to endure the inconveniences to visit one of diving's forgotten gems.
Back on the mainland, Aceh Explorer offers jungle tours led by former rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka - GAM), who sought independence for the Aceh province. The near three-decade-long struggle between GAM insurgents and the Indonesian military did more damage to Aceh's tourism than the tsunami ever did: During the conflict, foreigners were banned from entering Aceh province.
But during the Aceh Explorer trek, my tour guides -each with a cigarette in one hand and machete in the other - led me through their former rebel base in the Lampuuk jungle.
Aceh Explorer founder Mendel Pols insists that hiring former teenage soldiers is not a novelty act, but a means of community engagement.
"I hope that by giving them jobs, I give them something to look forward to so they won't turn back to their old way of life," he says.
He believes such interaction can help stem the recent spate of violence against foreigners. Last month, two American teachers had their homes fired upon. Weeks earlier, a German Red Cross worker was shot and seriously injured.
Djamil believes the attacks are isolated incidents, but the Canadian government has advised against non-essential travel to Banda Aceh, and has asked those who travel there to register with Foreign Affairs and remain in touch with Canada's embassy in Jakarta.
Despite the violence, Djamil believes Banda Aceh's potential as a travel destination is limitless; that the area is a blank slate that can develop a sustainable tourism industry designed and managed by the Acehnese.
Some who make the journey share his enthusiasm.
"The people are what make the place so cool," says Mike, a laidback backpacker from Alaska. He planned to stay in Aceh for a few days and ended up staying more than three weeks. "People here are so gracious. When you eat in a restaurant, it's like you're in someone's kitchen. After a couple of days, you feel like you know everybody. You're really made to feel like you're part of the community."
Banda Aceh may be what Bali was 15 or 50 years ago. The question today is whether the area wants to become the next Bali, or blaze its own trail.
"I don't really see any big investors coming here to build huge hotels," Djamil says. "We've got to give a chance to help the local community establish its own businesses. The island is not too spoiled yet. Now is the time for us to catch up and grow tourism here in our own way."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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If you go
Most travellers come to Aceh via the Indonesian capital of Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Air Asia offers bargain direct flights directly from Kuala Lumpur. Canadians require a visa to enter Indonesia. A seven-day visa on arrival is available at major ports such as Jakarta and Medan for $10.60. Visas are not available at the Banda Aceh airport.
Where to stay
Hermes Palace 62-651-755-5888; www.hermespalacehotel.com. Banda Aceh's only four-star hotel. Rooms from $105.
Santai Sumur Tiga 62-0-813-602-55001; www.santai-sabang.com. Weekday rooms from $23.
Lumba Lumba 62-652-332-4133; www.lumbalumba.com. The local dive shop in Gapang also offers the best accommodation for divers in Pulau Weh. Rooms range from $5.30 to $38 a night.
Fatima's Bungalows Witness firsthand where your Red Cross donation dollars go by staying in one of the many temporary Red Cross shelters that have been converted to bungalows in the town of Iboih. Bungalows cost $8 per night. For information, contact Rubiah Tirta, a dive shop that acts as a hub for travellers in Iboih (62-652-331-144; www.rubiahdivers.com).
When to go
Like many countries on the equator, Indonesia has a dry season, which runs roughly from May to October, and a wet season, from October to April. Even during the rainy season, though, Sumatra's climate remains relatively dry. Diving generally takes place in Pulau Weh year-round.
Aceh Explorer Jungle tours, led by former GAM soldiers, in and around Banda Aceh. www.acehexplorer.com Lumba Lumba Provides information about Pulau Weh and its surroundings. www.lumbalumba.com