Welcome to Banda Aceh… and its coffee shops

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Aceh.  You’ve heard of it, surely?  It’s famous for quite a few things.

1. Tsunami.  In the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, just a bit over five years ago now, some 70,000 people in Aceh province lost their lives and the capital Banda Aceh was pretty much totally trashed by the earthquake and huge wave that followed.  The main mosque in the city, that stunning construction in the very first picture, was one of the few things that was left standing… some saw this as a sign of God being angry… which in some ways has kinda led to…

2.  Caning?  Stoning?  Whack laws about people who wear pants that are too tight?  Shariah Law?  Fundamentalist Islam?  Terror cells training in the countryside?  Yes, that’s Aceh too.  Known as the verandah of Islam, it was one of the first places where the religion arrived in Indonesia.  And thanks to regional autonomy laws, the province now has Shariah Law, which means that all Muslim women wear headscarves and courting teenagers can get into big trouble for holding hands.

3.  Wasn’t there, like, some sort of war in Aceh for a while?  Yes!  There was that on-and-off separatist conflict that killed around 10,000 people.  It started heating up in the mid 1970’s, if I’m not mistaken.

4. Coffee.  Aceh is pretty famous for its coffee.  The alcohol-free culture also means its a pretty popular way to get a buzz around these parts as well.

5. Pulau Weh.  Not far off the coast of Aceh lies this island with stunning reefs for diving and snorkeling.  I will be heading out there in a few days.

6.  Food.  Aceh’s food isn’t that well known to those outside of Indonesia, but I’ve eaten it before and loved it, so this, along with all of the above, was part of my reasons for coming.

I have really had a compulsion to come to Aceh since I arrived in Indonesia, just to see what it was like.  A place that was so severely impacted the tsunami, a place that has Shariah Law and is the most Islamic in Indonesia… I just had to see.  And here I am.

I will wait until I’ve spent a bit more time here before I write about how it “feels” to me.  But for now…


Coffee shops are the main social sphere for Banda Aceh-ites.  I’ve been here for twelve hours and have already visited two of them.  Alcohol is a no-no and the region is known for its coffee, so why not?  The coffee shops are relaxed, filled with the young and the old (but a lot more men than women), many of them have WiFi, and when you arrive delicious cakes are plonked down on the table.  You only pay for what you eat, just like at a Padang (or Acehnese) restaurant.  Pandan or banana flavoured cakes seem to be the default.


These little glutinous pandan cakes were really delicious… and the colour was just fantastic.


3 Responses to " Welcome to Banda Aceh… and its coffee shops "

  1. Yay Acehnese food! The more I travel, the more I realize how underappreciated Indonesian cuisine is. Maybe we really should open restaurants.

  2. MJ POLS says:

    Caning? Stoning? Whack laws about people who wear pants that are too tight? Shariah Law? Fundamentalist Islam? Terror cells training in the countryside? Yes, that’s Aceh too.

    Not quite. The bylaw that included stoning for adulterers was never signed by the previous gouvernor of Aceh, Mr. Irwandi Yusuf. The bylaw has already been revised and stoning as a punishment has been abolished. Strictly speaking: We do not have stoning in Aceh. The dream of some local scholars to make Aceh a second Iran or Somalia will never happen as long as Indonesia or the former GAM guerrilla’s are in control.

    It’s a fact that Aceh has a more conservative form of islam I doubt it if it should be labeled as fundamentalist. Women dressed as black ninja’s are rare in the cities, even in the country side. And if tourists ever come across them, just like other Acehnese they are quite friendly and helpfull. Their husbands too. The people in general are not radical, its the religious establishment who is trying to get a grip on people’s lives. Religion can be easily manipulated for own personal gain, especially when the people of the land have no access to quality education.

    The terror cells who you are refering to were discovered in the Jalin area (Jantho) in may 2010. The illegal loggers who detected the camp immediately reported to the police in Jantho and a massive manhunt started, even untill Medan, to catch them. The members of this cell were all ethnic Javanese from Java and Lampung, South Sumatra.

    Since that period Aceh has no more imported terorists on its soil. As a obsessed jungle trekker and mountaineer who hires former GAM fighters as jungle trek guides who has been to many places in Aceh interior, I can relate to that.

    Thank you for your kind attention and I do hope to see you one day in Aceh.

    Best regards,

    aka Aceh Explorer

  3. Ashlee says:

    Hi Aceh Explorer,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and informative comment. I agree with everything you have said – I think with this piece I was more talking about some of the things people first think of when they think of Aceh (even if they aren’t that accurate). I think originally I was intending to come back and write something dispelling some of these ideas but I ran out of time.

    Thanks for sharing – Aceh is indeed a beautiful and interesting place.