It was a hot afternoon in the middle of May when I reached Sabang, a city on Pulau Weh, popular for being the rst word in an Indonesian national song that describes the thousands of islands making up the archipelago, from here on the western edge to more than 5,200km away at the easternmost edges of Papua.
Pulau Weh – an island anked by the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea – is located closer to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia than Jakarta. Fittingly, Weh means ‘separated’ in the local dialect.
“Imagine, this city has a population of just 30,000 people,” said my guide, Solpa Puji Harsagi, as he unfolded stories of his home and told me what a great city it is to live in. Solpa introduced me to Muhammad, a tall young Sabang native who did not speak much but was generous with his laughter. Together, we left Balohan Port.
“I haven’t been here for three years, and yet it feels like everyone knows me,” Solpa joked in the car. Muhammad sat patiently behind the wheel as we cruised along quiet winding roads, where monkeys from up the hills could occasionally be seen, past white sandy beaches and along Sabang Bay where the water shimmered in tones of blue as far as the eye could see.
In historical records of Indonesia’s colonial era, Nanggroe Aceh was highlighted as the region that the Dutch found most di cult to conquer, which moved them to send the Arabic- speaking Dutch scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje there. His knowledge of Islamic culture helped them to look for weak spots to be able to penetrate the region’s defences.
Today, the war is part of the diverse history of the region, and modern life in Aceh goes on in peace, as peaceful as it is under the waters of the Batee Tokong (Central Rock). Colourful sh, coral reefs, sea turtles, jelly sh and myriad other creatures make up this giant aquarium, thriving in the crystal-clear waters around Pulau Weh, which has long been popular with snorkellers, scuba divers and kayakers. In fact, to see many sh and
coral, you don’t even need to get wet, such is the clarity of the ocean here.
In one of the sites we visited (a quiet bay between Krueng Raya and Iboih), I found myself captivated by air bubbles zzing from the ocean oor. These geothermal bubbles rise out of tiny gaps on the sea bed, bringing with them hints of sulphur and making the water feel a little warmer on the skin.
“There is a volcano at the bottom of the sea in the Pria Laot area,” says Anwar, captain of the boat we were on. “Its peak can be seen nearby above the water.” Anwar was taking me to several dive sites from Gapang to Batee Karang. “What do you think? Is it beautiful?” he asked, but there was no need for an answer.
I asked Anwar about e orts by local residents to keep their waters safe.
“Here we have a system called the Panglima Laot (Commanders of the Sea). Each region along the coast of Aceh has one. The Panglima Laot is in charge of making sure no one causes damage to the sea. This system has been around for a long time,” Anwar answered, as the western wind began blowing our way, rocking our boat.
After exchanging stories with Anwar, I met with Muhammad Abdul Gani, the Panglima Laot for the Iboih region. It is a large region to handle, about one- fth of Weh’s waters, and all of it is Abdul’s responsibility. The 40-year-old shared his knowledge about the communal e orts being made to keep the marine ecosystem safe from dynamite shing and other harmful activities.
One of the unexpected pleasures of exploring Sabang is that nothing is too far away. From the underwater volcano, our next stop was the top of Gunong Jaboi, where smoke and the smell of sulphur lled the air. In a single day, I strolled along the charming Pantai Sumur Tiga (Sumur Tiga beach); visited the Pria Laot waterfall, which is surrounded by tropical trees and chirping birds; sat and watched boats criss-crossing along Aneuk Laot Lake, a quiet body of water surrounded by lush hills; and dived o Pulau Rubiah! Really, I could have spent the many days at any location soaking up the atmosphere, but it also makes this area perfect for a long weekend lled with variety.
One afternoon, as I was passing time at Anoi Itam – a resort located at the edge of the Kampong Anoi Itam cli southeast of Sabang – I noticed Mt Seulawah in the distance, and the island of Sumatra outlined softly beyond the fog. Solpa, still with me as my guide, approached with a map, and I pointed to an island not too far away. “How do I get here?” I asked. He stared at the area I was referring to, the Pulo Aceh islands in the Aceh Besar district, located at Indonesia’s westernmost tip.
“We will need patience to go there. Not a lot of tourists go there, especially now that it’s the western monsoon season. The waves are big,” Solpa said with some gravitas. The wind and the waves were at their strongest this time of the year, but it only added to my sense of adventure.
There are no boats to Pulo Aceh from Sabang, given the few tourists who seek to explore the area; yet as I pondered my options, a solution presented itself in the form of a man named Fauzi Umar, business investment development director for Sabang’s Regional Business Bureau (BPKS). I met with Fauzi early in the morning, and headed out in raging waters as part of a local police patrol boat.
Just a few metres clear from the calm of the port, the west monsoon wind greeted us. The waves seemed to knock on every side of our boat, and we spent nearly two hours bobbing up and down before nally docking on Pulau Breueh, part of the Pulo Aceh islands. I walked to the nearby hills, and within an hour, by the edge of ragged cli s, I came upon the 85m-high Williams Torrent lighthouse, built in 1875, which still functions today.
“Sabang is very close to the Malacca Straits, the busiest sea transportation track. On December 2, 2017, Sabang Bay will be the transit and embarkation site for cruise ships and yachts sailing the Malacca Straits from Europe to Australia or vice versa. The President will perform the inauguration,” said Fauzi, out of breath from the hiking and sunny weather.
Later, Fauzi took me on a trail bike ride to Gampong Maulingge, where the locals live modest lives. “Around February to May, people work in the elds. Not a lot of people go to the sea during the west monsoon season,” said Dahlan Wahab, a man who serves as an imam for three local villages.
Back in Sabang, big waves crashed onto the clis of Anoi Itam, and I’d recommend waiting for the end of the monsoon for your own visit! As the day ended, shermen returned to land, and Sabang was surrounded with quietness and tranquillity.
Almost half a century before Indonesia claimed independence, Sabang had its rst lm theatre built, the Rex Bioscoop. According to the Sabang Heritage Society’s Historical Data and Analysis, the theatre, built in the early 1900s, would screen movies every day, including children’s movies. Today, the theatre no longer exists.
But, to look for a cinema or a night club would be to miss the point of Pulau Weh. The region’s endless beaches, its cli s and its sea life remain treasures worth seeking out and preserving.
A variety of maritime activities will take place at Sail Sabang 2017, from November 28 until December 5. The range of events will allow residents and travellers alike to fully enjoy and experience the picture-perfect oceans and beaches of Sabang.