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Pulau Weh: North Sumatra

Across the archipelago of Indonesia there are literally thousands of islands besides the larger better known islands such as Java, and some of them fantastic to explore.

Renowned intrepid traveller, expat and writer, Jonathan Dart, visited a beautiful island recently and wrote an excellent article in the JP. Jonathan is also a brilliant satirist as you will read:

Pulau Weh: Unspoiled island devoid of golden arches
Jonathan Dart, Weh Island, N. Sumatra

Traveling around Indonesia, I have come to live by what I call the “McDonald’s Index”.

This index is a system of measuring a city’s development, and can be deduced by dividing the size of a city by the number of McDonald’s fast-food outlets therein; or put simply, it’s the distance to the nearest cheeseburger.

Personally, Ronald McDonald has always exerted a certain aura. When he’s around I know that whatever happens to me — whether it be a lost passport or a major cardiac arrest — I’m within walking distance to one last, greedy Big Mac.

So it was that my first impression of Pulau Weh was not pleasant — it was actually much closer to disgust. On the McDonald’s Index it was given the rating of “Stagnant Backwater”, ranking it alongside the remote farms of East Java and the mountain tribes of Papua.

This is the defining feature of Pulau Weh — an island that is as close to a deserted tropical paradise as one could hope to find.
Sure enough, all thoughts of hunger were quickly lost on the 30-minute taxi trip (more accurately, a 30-minute ride into town with one of the locals who were waiting at the ferry wharf) into Sabang, the main center of Pulau Weh.

Rainforest is everywhere on the island, in every shade of green. It rises and then drops like a curtain onto inland lakes and bright white beaches; it imposes itself on every building and road. Driving around Pulau Weh is an event in itself, like stepping back to some forgotten prehistoric land.

Geographically, the island is the northernmost area of Indonesia. As Sumatra stretches out like a finger pointing north, the island lies just above the fingertip — a 45-minute ferry trip from Banda Aceh, capital of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam.

It is here that Eric Ramawidjaja came from Bandung 13 years ago. He went on his first snorkeling trip along the coral reef here and was caught in a grip from which he still hasn’t broken free.

“People say it’s one of the best dive sites in Indonesia,” Eric said. “The sea garden (coral reef) was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen — that’s what brings most people here.”

On his third trip to Weh, Eric bought a plot of land — abandoning both his business and the hustle of city life — and he now runs a four-room guesthouse on Iboih Beach.

Iboih is the place where most tourists end up, and is also one of the top dive sites on the island, its coastline dotted with bungalows, small restaurants and dive shops.

For years, locals like Eric survived off itinerant backpackers who came here for the diving, and some places still retain the backpacker atmosphere.

Pulau Weh is frighteningly cheap — a bungalow overlooking coral reefs can be rented for Rp 60,000 a night (smooth talkers have been known to negotiate better deals) while a dive with Padi instructors costs 25 euros.

A local driver can also be hired for the day from as little as Rp 150,000 — something which is not to be missed. A day-trip around the island is an absolute must, for no other reason than to look out the car window in awe.

There are a number of sites that should be seen: Gunung Merapi, the island’s volcano; Monkey Hill (although the monkeys are seriously aggressive); and the hot springs at Pasar Putih are all worth visits.

But the buyer beware: Like most things in life, you get what you’ve paid for, and while beach bungalows might seem romantic, the reality is often quite different.

“Many times I’ve had tourists run to the guest house looking for me,” jokes Eric Ramawidjaja. “They say, `Eric can we use your toilet, I just can’t use our (kamar) mandi (bathroom) — it’s too dirty”.

But even on Pulau Weh — a place seemingly removed from the modern world — life is changing.

The tourist industry was nearly wiped out when martial law was declared in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam in March 2003, a measure that restricted foreign tourists from entering the province.

Then in December 2004, the tsunami threatened to wipe out the island itself, though it proved resistant — the main settlements on the eastern side of the island were buffered by the island’s huge mountains, and damage was minor compared to the mainland capital, Banda Aceh.

Locals such as Eric — who turned to fishing to survive through the dark days of martial law — were soon confronted with a new breed of traveler: NGO and foreign aid workers.

There is now a weekly tide of tourists that flows in on the weekend and ebbs out with the early Monday morning ferry.
While genuine tourists have the island to themselves for five days in a week, don’t expect to book a spare bungalow on a Saturday or Sunday.

These weekend wanderers are also having an effect on the island’s businesses, and the main haunts on Iboih Beach are losing ground to smaller boutique resorts.

At the nearby Gapang Beach, there are a number of larger bungalows, including those at the Flamoboyan Gapang Resort (prices range from Rp 250,000-400,000 per night, with all creature comforts provided).

One of the highlights of the island is the newly opened Santai Sumur Tiga resort, which is closer to Sabang near Ie Meulee village. This self-styled eco-resort was built almost entirely from local materials — right down to the pillow cases, which were crafted in Aceh — and the bungalows (Rp 250,000 per night) overlook the guests’ own private beach.

More recently, a number of projects have been undertaken to improve the quality of drinking water, and the first Internet connections on the island have started to pop up.

According to locals, the island did not even have electricity until 10 years ago.

Aceh’s sharia law is also not enforced on foreign tourists, and guests are able to buy local beers at some resorts.

There also seems to be a lot of land for sale throughout the island — obviously aimed at tourists who want their own slice of the tropics for ridiculously little money.

Despite these trends, though, Ronald McDonald still has not erected his famed golden arches on the island, and the place has lost little of its charm.

Love him though I do, Pulau Weh is one of the few places on earth where Ronald just wouldn’t fit in.

Travel Tips

Getting there:

Garuda flies directly to Banda Aceh from Jakarta. The Baruna Duta ferry leaves for the island every day at 4pm (an economy class ticket costs Rp 60,000).

Accommodation:

* Eric’s Guest House, Iboih Beach. Rooms from Rp 60,000/night. Phone: (0815) 33828419

* Santai Sumur Tiga, Ie Meulee village. Guesthouse rooms from Rp 175,000; bungalows from Rp 250,000. Phone: (0813) 60255001. Email: santaisumurtiga@yahoo.com

* Flamboyan Gapang Resort, Gapang Beach. Bungalows from Rp 250,000. Phone: (0813) 60272270

Diving:

* Rubiah Tirta Divers, Iboih Beach. Dive courses in English and German cost 200 euros; single dives at 25 euros. Snorkeling equipment can be rented for Rp 30,000/day.
Phone: (0815) 34020050.
Email: info@rubiahdivers.com
Web: www.rubiahdivers.com

Jonathan Dart