Banda Aceh is the northernmost capital in the northernmost province in Indonesia. Tragically, it gained worldwide recognition on December 26, 2004 when a massive earthquake rocked the city and surrounds, and a subsequent tsunami claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people in the city and more than 170,000 in the province.
Prior to 2004, the province of Aceh was off-limits to visitors without prior government approval due to an armed insurgency battling the Indonesian military in order to gain greater autonomy for the region. After the tsunami, both sides laid down their arms and the Indonesian government gave Aceh its long sought after autonomy, which led to the government of Aceh introducing a modified form of Sharia law.
Sharia law in Aceh can perhaps be best described as Sharia light, with casual visitors likely to not see any evidence of it unless they look closely. The main effect is that local Muslims are prohibited to engage in certain types of behaviour such as drinking alcohol and can be punished if they are caught infringing.
This means, of course, that alcohol is rarely served anywhere in the province because there are so few customers to drink it. If you search hard enough, you'll find the odd restaurant or hotel that can rustle up a beer or two.
Locals are extremely tolerant of visitors who don't wear islamic clothing and as such it is not necessary for women to wear a headscarf, nor is it necessary for either men or women to wear long-sleeved shirts. However, in order to not diverge too far away from cultural norms, it would be appropriate to cover your shoulders, not wear short shorts and not have any underwear showing while in public.
It should also be noted that men and women are not officially permitted to stay in the same room together unless they are married or from the same family, although this is seemingly overlooked by many hotel owners.
Banda Aceh is primarily used by travellers as a transit point for Pulau Weh, with few people sticking around for more than a couple of days. Truth be told, anything more than just a couple of days in Banda Aceh is probably too much, especially when you have the beaches just west of town crying out to be visited and the magnificence of Pulau Weh just an hour away by ferry.
Most accommodation in Banda Aceh is located right in the middle of town, a short walk across the bridge from the central mosque, Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman. Around this area you will also find plenty of eating options while most of the tourist attractions in town are within walking distance.
As a staging point for adventures down the west coast, Banda Aceh can't be beaten. Adventurous types come here to rent motorbikes or cars to set off to explore the rarely touched beaches of the west coast, particularly now that the road has been rebuilt post-tsunami.
ATMs are scattered throughout town, 3G internet is patchy but workable, and all services such as medical and police are available within town.
By Adam Poskitt