More than a decade after the 2004 tsunami, Banda Aceh still seems beset by all things tsunami. The city – located in Aceh, a province within Sumatra – was badly damaged during the tragedy. However, Banda Aceh’s true hidden gem is an unexpected one – its food.
Start your Acehnese food trail by asking the tour guide, “Where can we get a good cup of coffee?” This led me to the discovery of Solong Coffee, a family-run café in Ulee Kareng, which is packed with locals enjoying their daily cuppa.
Operating since 1973, the coffee shop exudes a kopitiam atmosphere. As we admire the place, a staff busily prepares our order – the bizarre but delicious Kopi Kocok Telur (coffee egg mix) which uses two raw eggs as ingredients. Believed to be an energetic drink, the “breakfast in a cup” is delicious and the aftertaste of the egg is subtle. The shop also offers a variety of Arabica and Robusta coffees priced at no more than RM5 per cup and served with a variety of kuih.
I also had Kopi Sanger – coffee with milk, served hot or cold. The coffee is filtered through a cloth sieve lifted up high over the cup, just as it was done during the Aceh Sultanate era in the 17th century.
Fast-food chains are aplenty in the city centre but traditional Aceh food dominates, whether it is sold on pushcarts or in restaurants. There are a few must-try cuisines. The food here is heavily influenced by various cultures such as Arabic, Indian, Siamese, Dutch and Spanish.
The Ayam Tangkap, which loosely translates as “caught chicken” in Indonesian, is my favourite. Pieces of chicken are deep-fried, then placed in a plate full of fried pandan and curry leaves, green chillies and shallots. It’s as if you need to “catch” the chicken hidden underneath the pile of leaves.
Another notable dish is the Kari Bebek, or duck curry.
Fancy a bowl of noodles? Try the popular Mie Aceh – yellow noodles drenched in sauce loaded with spices, reflecting the Chinese and Indian influences of the dish.
Quench your thirst with a glass of Es Timun (cold cucumber drink) which is a sweet drink with shredded cucumber in it. There are also versions of this drink with water chestnut and watermelon. It is an Aceh speciality and a good thirst-quencher.
A visit to Banda Aceh would be incomplete without visiting the many tsunami-related “attractions” – mass graveyards, sites damaged by the tragedy, newly built villages and monuments in gratitude of countries which contributed aid during the recovery stage.
The most famous tsunami “landmarks” are the boat on the roof in Lampulo and the 2,360 tonne electric generator ship, PLTD Apung 1, that was hauled 3km inland by the waves, as well as the newly opened Aceh Tsunami Museum.
During my visit to Lampulo, villager Mundiyah, 65, shared stories about witnessing the tragedy first-hand and running to safety with her grandchildren.
“I saw cars and boats being flung across the land and bodies all over the place. I am grateful to be alive,” she said.
At the Tsunami Museum, visitors can walk along a 300m walkway which simulates high waves approaching land. It gave me goosebumps.
The tsunami is definitely a conversation-starter but Aceh also has a rich history from the days of the Sultanate, to civil wars, to being a target for its rich resources when Indonesia was colonised as well as when a militant group was attempting to take over the province.
“The tsunami brought a lot of changes to Banda Aceh’s political scene as, prior to it, the province was under the influence of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Then after the tsunami, there was a lot of pressure on the central government to fix the problem.
“Back then, we couldn’t even leave the house once it got dark at around 6pm. We lived like this for more than 30 years. The tsunami was a blessing and a curse,” said our tour guide.
A visit to the Aceh Museum gives the visitor an overview of the history of Aceh, the province with the highest population of Muslims in Indonesia. Banda Aceh is a holiday getaway for those who enjoy history and the rich Islamic influence.
During my stay there, we could not visit the famous Baiturrahman Grand Mosque as it was under renovation.
Visitors should not have high expectations but the accommodation is generally decent with pleasant hospitality and sometimes comes with a good backstory.
Usually tourists would spend a few days in Banda Aceh before heading to the other parts of Aceh for snorkelling, diving and hiking. Locals and foreigners gush about Sabang Island’s pristine beaches. The island is also known for its sate gurita, or squid satay.
It was unfortunate that our ferry ride to Sabang had to be cancelled due to rough waters and bad weather. All the more reason to make plans for a second trip to Aceh.
This trip was sponsored by the Aceh Cultural and Tourism Department, in collaboration with Firefly and the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Penang. Firefly operates daily return flights from Penang to Aceh.
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