A decade after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Banda Aceh has been resurrected & rebuilt – but memories & monuments of the disaster still linger around every corner.
Just past midnight on 26 December 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck the west coast of Sumatra, followed closely by a catastrophic tsunami. Banda Aceh was the closest major city to the epicenter & bore the brunt of the damage & destruction.
The first tsunami reached the shores of Banda Aceh just 20 minutes after the earthquake. Residents were taken completely by surprise, as surging waves over 30m travelled 4km inland.
The houses & buildings that managed to survive the earthquake were now either completely destroyed or swept away by the tsunami.
The people did not fare much better. 61,000 people died in Banda Aceh alone, out of 167,000 in Indonesia & a total of 230,000 deaths worldwide.
While the tsunami brought tragedy & catastrophe, it was also the catalyst for peace. It brought to an end to decades-long fighting between the government & separatist rebels (Free Aceh Movement) & so far peace is still holding.
These days, Aceh keeps 70% of its oil & gas revenue & is the only province allowed to have local political parties in elections.
Sharia law has also now been enforced, something for travellers to keep in mind.
Undoubtedly, the people of Banda Aceh are devoutly Muslim but in this part of Indonesia, the locals are laid-back & life is more agreeable.
Countries all over the world pledged US$14 billion for affected regions of the earthquake & tsunami, & the spoils of this aid can be seen in the complete reconstruction & modernization of the city.
And for the first time, many locals also had the opportunity to make money. Alongside the paved roads & freshly painted buildings are new cars, motorbikes & cellphone shops.
In Banda Aceh, the Boxing Day disaster is never far from your thoughts, but the future is deservedly bright for this city that has endured so much.
DIY Self-Guided Tsunami Tour
Seeing Banda Aceh with your own eyes allows you to understand the scale of the disaster. While some might find it distasteful, Tsunami Tourism is something that Banda Aceh itself is promoting.
If you are coming from Pulau Weh, take a morning ferry & spend half a day visiting various tsunami landmarks across Banda Aceh, before taking a night bus to Medan.
It’s not a bad place to spend a night or 2 either, if you have the time.
- Ulee-Lheue Mass Graves
The main road from the Ulee-lleue ferry terminal passes one of several mass burial grounds in the city. We walked or you can take a becak. The site is on your right, marked by a large green entrance.
The place is also known as “Tsunami Ground Zero” as the Uleh-lheue village was the worst-hit area when the waves struck.
The graves are on the site of an old hospital, which was treating victims of the earthquake when the tsunami arrived less than 1 hour later.
Today, the grounds are a mass grave where over 14,000 people are buried.
- Tsunami & Disaster Mitigation Research Centre
At the back of the hospital/mass graves is the Tsunami & Disaster Mitigation Research Centre (TDMRC).
It was established by the University of Syiah Kuala, with the purpose of minimizing tsunami & disaster risk. The Centre also facilitates the co-ordination of reconstruction & rehabilitation between the government & the community.
We didn’t visit the centre, but there’s a helicopter wreck nearby.
- Aceh Tsunami Museum
The Aceh Tsunami Museum was built as a symbolic reminder of the Boxing Day tsunami. It’s also a museum, education center and an emergency disaster shelter in case of another disaster.
The entrance sets the scene – you walk through a darkened passageway of noises & walls seeping water, meant to recreate the dread of the tsunami.
The architecture is impressive, designed by Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamill.
Its long, curving walls, over 4 levels, resembles a large ship or something like a Noah’s Ark.
The museum is well laid-out, with many different exhibits such as the international aid effort & geological rooms explaining how tsunami’s & earthquakes happen. The children’s educational focus, with animated videos, is particularly commendable.
But overall it feels a little detached, hollow & cold. It’s like the museum is still coming to terms with its scope & scale & hasn’t quite found it’s groove. Oh & it needs more English explanations.
Nevertheless, it’s free to enter & definitely still worth a visit. You can leave your bags at the entrance when touring the museum (or even for the day) but they’re unguarded. There are no lockers.
- Dutch Kerkhoff Poucut Cemetery
Next to the Aceh Tsunami Museum is a Dutch military cemetery, the final resting place of over 2,000 Dutch & Indonesian soldiers who died fighting the Acehnese.
It’s the largest Dutch military burial ground outside of the Netherlands. The site has been well-maintained – by the colonized of the graves of the occupiers, none the less.
Inscribed tablets on the walls of the entrance gate list the names of the dead soldiers.
The cemetery suffered only minor flooding from the tsunami.
Entrance is free, it’s conveniently located & well worth a quick stop.
- PLTD Apung 1
The PLTD Apung 1 is one of the symbols of post-tsunami Banda Aceh. This 2,600 ton electric generator ship was at sea when it was swept 2-3km inland by the tsunami. When it stopped, it crashed into 2 homes, killing those inside.
The vessel stopped near Uleh-lheue but has since been moved closer to the city centre. It’s about a 1km walk from the Aceh Tsunami Museum.
In 2012 the ship was renovated, with a monument, viewing platforms & a walking path. The inside has been converted into a museum with information about the tsunami & the ship itself – most of it is in Indonesian but the images speak for themselves.
You can also walk around & climb to the top of the ship, which has good views of the city:
This “Floating Diesel Plant” is one of the more unusual tourist attractions you’ll ever come across but it’s also absolutely fascinating.
Entrance is free & so are the toilets.
- Monument of Thanks to the World
A large park in the city centre displays the Monument of Thanks to the World, a sculpture of a wave. It’s extremely ugly & crude in every way, from design & material to execution & paint job. Surely, a tribute to one of the world’s greatest humanitarian efforts deserves much more.
Around the park, 53 small pillars mark each individual country that contributed to the relief & reconstruction of Banda Aceh.
There are several other monuments in the park, including the Indonesian Airline Monument & Plane.
- Baiturrahman Grand Mosque
Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman was built around the 13th-15th century, burnt down in the Aceh War & rebuilt again in 1875.
The architecture is characterized for its 7 domes, 8 minarets, and 32 pillars. It can hold 9,000 people.
The mosque was one of few major structures, if not the only, that survived the tsunami, a sign taken by many Muslim locals as direct intervention from the divine.
When we visited, there were a lot of renovations going on & not much to see.
- Fisherman’s Boat on Top of a House
Lives were saved when this fishing boat was thrown by a wave from a nearby port & became wedged into the top of a house.
59 people were able to make their way to onboard. They were on safer, higher ground but could do nothing more than watch helplessly as the tsunami engulfed their homes & neighbourhood.
Entrance is free.
We travelled to the Fisherman’s Boat by becak for a quick stop before heading to the bus station.
This concludes your Banda Aceh Self-Guided Tsunami Tour!
Getting In to Banda Aceh
From Pulau Weh, return to Banda Aceh by ferry:
- Slow ferry: 25,000 IDR + 15,000 IDR island tax
- Fast ferry: 80,000 IDR + 15,000 IDR island tax
Read about our island adventures at our post Pulau Weh: Diving on a Backpacker Budget.
Getting Out of Banda Aceh
From Banda Aceh, we caught a semi-deluxe evening bus to Medan for 135,000 IDR, 12 hours. There are more economical options during the day.
Read about our final stop in Indonesia at our post Medan Stopover – Get In & Out ASAP!
*** The Final Word: don’t miss this unique experience in this incredibly resilient city ***
How do you feel about Tsunami Tourism?
Easy DIY travel outside city centres using public transport (becak)
Visited in November 2015