Aceh invites you to come and experience this beautiful, provocative and picturesque part of the world. A return to tourism is essential for the region to grow and flourish in the aftermath of devastation. Aceh was thrust into the international spotlight amid the devastation of the earthquake and resultant tsunami which killed over 130,000 Achenese on 26 December, 2004.
Despite the tragedy the Achenese have shown their resilience and passion for life. With the help of the numerous international aid agency operating in the region, Aceh is recovering well and is back on the tourist map.
If you are after beaches, culture, history and the great outdoors look no further than Aceh.
When you try to speak Indonesian, just a few phrases and greetings can help you to break the ice and make local friends. If you can master a few phrases in Acehnese, then you will have people really impressed in no time. Getting to know the locals will definitely enrich your experience in Aceh.
The Aceh province is the westernmost province of the Indonesian archipelago. It is strategically located with the Indian Ocean in the West, the Malacca Straits in the and the Sea Of Bengal in the North, representing a strategic position for international shipping lines. The Simpang Kiri river in the East and the Tamiang river in the West serve as the natural borders between Aceh and North Sumatra province.
Aceh covers an area of almost 60.000 square kilometers including 19 islands, mainly on the west coast. The inland is dominated by the Bukit Barisan mountain range with its plateaus Tangse, Gayo and Alas. The higest peaks include Leuser (3.466 m), Ucop Molu (3.187 m), Abong-abong (3.015 m), Peut Sagoe (2.780 m), Bur Ni Telong (2.624 m) and Bur Ni Geureudong (2.295 m).
Most well-known lakes are Aneuk Laot in Pulau Weh, Laut Tawar in Central Aceh (60 square kilometers) and Laut Bangko in the Southern part of Aceh.
Aceh has a tropical climate with a dry season between March and August and a rainy season between September and February. Variations occur as Aceh is a big province with central highlands as both a west- and east coast. The temperature in the coastal areas range between 23 degrees celsius and 32 degrees celsius, with a relative humidity between 65% and 75%. The temperature in the central highlands range between 20 degrees celsius to 23 degrees celsius.
Since 65% of Aceh is covered by rainforest, perhaps the greatest attraction of all is its wildlife. Many of the most endangered species can be found in Aceh, such as the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the orangutan. Other rare animals are the Malayan sun bear, elephants, the Sumatra forest goat as well as a large variety of monkeys and birds.
One of the richest expanses of tropical rainforest left on earth, the forest ecosystems of Aceh contain an extraordinary mix of biological diversity with at least 127 mammal species and about 8.500 plant species. These 33.000 square kilometers of forest are contained within the Leuser and Ule Masen ecosystems.
Gunung Leuser national Park is one of the biggest and most diverse national parks in the Indonesian archipelago (950.000 hectares), covering 7.927 square kilometers. The nattional park – named after 3.466 m height of Mount Leuser – protects a wide range of ecosystems. It comprises more than 100 kilometers of the Bukit Barisan mountains untill the Sibayak volcano in North Sumatra province. Because of that, the park consists of steep – almost inaccessable mountainous terrain. The altitude ranges from 0 meters in Kluet (South Aceh) to 3.466 meters, on top of the Gunung Leuser (Southeast Aceh). The Alas river cuts the park into an eastern and western half.
Apart from mountains, you find several other ecosystems: Beach forest, swamp areas, lowland rainforest, alpine & mountain forest.
Together with Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan and Kerinci Seblat national parks it forms a world heritage site. It is the only place on earth where 4 of world’s most spectacular animals – the orangutan, rhinoceros, elephant and tiger – are found together.
The Ulu Masen ecosystem stretches out from Lhoknga until Meulaboh on the west coast.
The National Marine Park in Pulau Weh consists of various coral reefs and colorfull fish. It’s one of the top dive attractions in the world. Another great place is national Marine Park Pulau Banyak in the Southern part of Aceh where green turtles and leatherback turtles can be seen laying eggs.
Aceh is located in the west corner of the Indonesian archipelago and near the Malacca Strait. It has been know by merchants from India and China since the 6th century. It also served as a traffic point to Hindu and Buddha religion to China and its surroundings.
However, the existence of Aceh became familiar in the context of Southeast Asia after the spread of islam brought by Koromandel or Gujarat and rapidly developed in the 9th century. The first islamic kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago were founded in Aceh, i.e. the kingdom of Peurelar in 804 and Samudera Pasai. The report of Marco Polo’s journey – conducted t the end of the 13th century – also mentiones the existence of both islamic kingdoms.
The Kingdom of Aceh became bigger after the Sultanate of Malacca fell into the hands of the Portugese in 1511. The trading activities in Southeast Asia – centralized in Malacca – were shifted to Aceh. This is in accordance with the founding of the Aceh Darussalam Kingdom by Sultan Ali Mughayatsyah around 1541
Under the rule of Sultan Iskandar Muda Meukuta Perkasa Alam (1607-1636) the Aceh Kingdom was very well-developed and served as an interface between the East and Western world.
After the death of Sultan Iskandar Muda the Aceh Kingdom went downhill, till the signing of the London Treaty in 1824. The treaty gave the authority to the Dutch to govern the areas in Sumatra that were colonized before by the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the Dutch submitted its trading posts in India and would not compete with the United Kingdom to gain control over Singapore.
One provision of the Treaty of London was the independence of the Aceh Sultanate. But Aceh controlled a large portion of the pepper trade and alarmed the Dutch by actively seeking with other Western countries. In 1871, a new Anglo-Dutch treaty gave the Dutch a free hand in Sumatra concerning Aceh in return for Dutch confirmation of Brittain’s right of equal trade in the East Indies. Two years later, talks between the United States consul in Singapore and Acehnese sultanate representatives gave Batavia the pretext for opening hostilities.
The Netherlands-Indies goverment – considering Aceh as within their sphere of influence – decided to conquer the area and sent two expeditions to Aceh in 1873. Dutch gunboats bombarded the Sultanate’s capital Kutaraja (now Banda Aceh) and troops were landed. The palace was seized and shortly afterwards the Acehnese sultan died. The Dutch suspended military operations and concluded a treaty with the new sultan who recognized Dutch sovereignty over Aceh. A “castle” strategy, which provided fortified bases for the Dutch troops was then introduced. However, the sultan was unable to control his subjects and Dutch forces became involved in a prolonged guerrilla war in the countryside. This drained the colonial treasury and public opinion in The Netherlands became increasingly critical of the colonial administration.
The administration eventually realized that their ignorance of the region has let to to commit serious judgement errors. Mr. Christian Snouck Hurgronje – professor of islamic studies at Leiden State University – was invited to undertake a thorough study of Aceh and published a book in 1893. Under the leadership of general J.B van Heutz, who was appointed military and civil governor of Aceh in 1899, the sultanate was quickly subdued. The conquest of the entire region was accomplished by van Heutz in 1904.
In March 1942, the Japanese imperial army conquered the Dutch East Indies. In August 1945, just days after the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces, the Republic of Indonesia proclaimed its independence. Soon, however, both the British and Dutch were back in the region. The Dutch conquered again Pulau Weh but did not enter mainland Aceh.
After Indonesia’s independence, Ir. Soekarno made Aceh a financial capital area based on the supporting role of the Acehnese to the independence of Indonesia. The decision by the central goverment to integrate Aceh with the province of North Sumatra caused a rebellion led by Tgk. Daud Beureuh.
The declaration of the Free Aceh Movement (aka GAM) by the last Sultan of Aceh Tgk. M. Hasan Di Tiro in 1976 in Gunung Halimum (Pidie District) and Indonesian military operations that followed, brought a dark period to the Acehnese. After the tsunami hit on 26 december 2004, a series of endeavors were undertaken to create a covenant for peace. The Helsinki Peace Accord was signed on the 15th of August 2005, ending 30 years of conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian goverment.
The Acehnese are descendants from various ethnicities and tribes. The origin of the Acehnese is considered to be from South-Vietnam, Kucing (China), Cambodia and Malaysia. Later on, Indian traders settled, followed by Arabs, Turks, Persians, Europeans, etc. and over the centuries assimilated. Due to the arrival of these newcomers the indigenous people of Aceh – Proto Malay – eventually moved into the central highlands and today the two ethnic groups form Gayo and Alas.
The Acehnese language as well as a variety of local dialects is as much as a mixture as the people themselves. There are elements of Cham, Malay and Sanskrit. The vocabulary was enriched with the arrivval of Arab traders as well as colonial powers with their languages, such as Portugese, English and especially Dutch. At present, the Indonesian language – bahasa Indonesia – has the most linguistic influence on the Acehnese language.
The dominant religion in Aceh is islam. No wonder, Aceh is often called “Serambi Mekkah” (the frontporch of Mekkah). 98% of Aceh’s 4 million inhabbitants are muslim. The remainder are christians, buddhists, hindu’s, etc.
Eventhough the Acehnese are devout believers and often called fanatics by their fellow Indonesians, they are very open-minded and understanding towards other people’s religious needs. Every major city in Aceh has churches and buddhist temples.
The cultures of Aceh are strongly influenced by islam but there are still traces of hinduism, the former religion of Aceh. The hindu flavor is mainly notised in traditional ceremonies.
There are 3 major ethnic groups in Aceh: Acehnese, Gayo and Alas. The Acehnese inhabit mainly the coastal areas of the province. In the Western and Southern part of Aceh they intermingled with the Minangkabau, which is reflected in language, design and customs. The Gayo and Alas who inhabit resp. the Norhern and Southern highlands of Aceh are smaller in numbers. Their local languages are very distinctive and correlated to the Bataanguages in North Sumatra. In Aceh there are 50 types of dances, 20 kinds of music, 10 forms of literature and 9 traditional arts. For more insight information, try Barbara Leigh’s book “The Crafts Of Aceh”.
The traditional dress
The standard traditional dress for Acehnese men includes full cut black trousers, a black top with long narrow sleeves and with one single button at the neck. A silk cloth (kain songket) is tied around the waist and a dagger (rencong) is tucked in behind it. On the head a “kupah meukeutob”, topped with a “tamkop keupiah” (a gold star shaped ornament). The Acehnese women wear gold embroidered black trousers, narrow and the ankles are very wide at the waist. The blouse is red or yellow and also embroidered. The sarong is of a woven silk fabric, decorated with gold or silver thread and held in place by a wide gold belt. The head is adorned with an array of golden flowers. Necklaces cascade from the neck to the waist. The arms are adorned with several bracelets and the fingers with rings, preferably golden ones.
Acehnese villages usually lie in the middle of cultivated areas: The houses hidden among the trees for shade and coolness. An older traditional house is built without using any nails. The house is held together with cord (aka tali ijuk) or pegs. Every peg is made too small for its hole and is kept in place by large wedges.
The house is raised on stilts. about two and a half meters above the ground. The stilts are round with a diameter of about 25 cm. The number of stilts varies from one house to another; there may be 16, 20, 24 or 30 depending on the economic condition of the family.
Roof thatches are made from sago palm leafs with a two-slope gable. The gable ends in two heads with a triangular form at each. The triangle is called “Tulak Angen” which is covered by an triangular ornamental wall.
Another special feature of the traditional houses relates to the position. They lie from east to west and never the reverse, so that the person living or visiting them never need to ask the direction of Mecca (Qiblat) to perform daily prayers.
The traditional house is usually completed with many kinds of decoration. The designs are mostly of leafs, fruits or other parts of a tree.
The designs on traditional houses are usually found around the bottom of the wall, which is called “Kindang” and on the “Tulak Angen”. However, some houses also have designs on the wall and at the head of the roofs.
A traditional house consists of three main parts:
- 1. Seuramoe Keu (the front verandah)
- 2. Seuramoe Likot (the back verandah)
- 3. Rambat (a hall which is about 30 cm higher than the seuramoe).
Visitors have to be carefull when entering the house, otherwise they could hit their heads. However, when through the door they can see how wide and comfortable the house is. This may symbolize the fact that every newcomer to Acehnese society finds it difficult at first, but after some time when he gets to know the people he may find it hard to forget the hospitality of the Acehnese.
There are many specific Acehnese handicrafts and they can be classified as either coastal (Acehnese) or highland (Gayo/ Alas). The main coastal crafts are gold embroidery, silk weaving, dagger production, mats and wood tracery. The highland crafts are know for their multi-colored embroidery. Pottery is found in both areas but very different in both style and usage. The gold thread embroidery is used for decoration of reception rooms at weddings, mats, bed covers, pillow covers, wall decorations, etc.
The raw material used is pandan (seukee) or kertan. Prior to use, the material has to be dried in the sun and hung up inside the house. Some of it is colored maroon, green, yellow and black. Examples of finished produtcs include decorated mats, (computer)bags, office presentation maps and wall decorations.
The oldest records of Acehnese goldsmiths date back to the period between the 13th and 15th century. During this period the Samudera Pasee Kingdom used gold coines. Later, Sultan Iskandar Muda engaged 300 goldsmiths at his palace in Kutaraja (now Banda Aceh) to produce high quality artworks in gold for the royal court. The Acehnese are still very fond of gold, therefor it is easy to find interesting gold works with traditional design in Aceh.