As the world gets smaller and tourism more invasive, it’s good to know that some places still cling to old values and provide respite from the stink of commercialization. As time goes on it’s disconcerting to witness more and more of Asia’s natural beauty get swallowed up by big complexes and man-made manicured perfection whilst the magic gets tainted by the effort of ‘forcing it’. For this reason, landing on the island of Pulau Weh is like a breath of fresh air, and, like the tsunami that miraculously swerved around it (causing a little damage to one side, but then absolutely devastating Bandah Aceh), this is the land that tourist-time forgot, or has at least decided to leave in peace for a little while longer.
A small island perched at the top of Sumatra in the Andaman sea, and the most eastern part of Indonesia (Point Zero), with a mountainous interior and surrounded by four inlets, this place isn’t easy to get to. But it’s so worth making the effort. The minute you get off the ferry at Balohan you recognize you’ve landed somewhere different, like stepping back in time to a place you only remember through rose-tinted glasses. A colorful, cute and simple little port, where kids splash about without a care in the world and locals just get on with their lives, it’s bustling but somehow mellow, with none of that in-your-face over-zealousness you associate with the taxis and the guesthouse ‘agents’ who usually attack you with fervor the minute you arrive somewhere new – it’s stress free.
As soon as you drive away in an old rust-bucket taxi you find yourself surrounded by virgin jungle, unspoilt, unkempt and wild The road snakes its way up and down through the hills, winding past lush vegetation and the odd settlement, quaint little houses, freshly built neat dwellings as well as ramshackle huts, past people who pay you no heed whilst they sit around and play chess or stoop over their ‘mie jalak’, a type of noodle soup with tofu and bean sprout, the local flavor of choice. The culture that exists here is Muslim, and pretty strict with it. Alcohol is served in some of the restaurants but not all, and everything is cancelled on Friday mornings due to most people attending prayers. But this is not a drawback. Indeed it helps to keep a lid on any unruly behavior and goes a long way to molding the mood of the island as a whole, it keeps it ‘clean’.
Most of the locals here don’t rely on tourist money and this is obviously reflected in the general behavior as they barely glance in your direction as you pass by, a welcome relief as you feel free to soak in the vibe and gape at the effervescent bright green that engulfs you along the way. The outside world starts fading into the background. A long way into the background. The island’s lush green and fertile, and with no receding tree line from the shore, as the vegetation cascades all the way down to the water’s edge, threatening to flow right into the turquoise blue and float out to the horizon. Huts and restaurants are ensconced in the jungle, engulfed by the bright green Banyan trees which dominate the shore line, barely visible and peeking out like naughty schoolchildren.
There’s two places to head to and they both revolve around the same thing – diving and its (usually poorer) cousin, snorkeling. Iboih or Sabang, same same but different. Both sleepy and still and idyllic, both self-contained, both swaying to the same languid rhythm, and both catering for travelers not tourists. Iboih is a twin set of little bays, a few small fishing boats moored up and a smidgen of little restaurants and ramshackle huts selling the basics. At the end of the second cove you’ll find a concrete path carved into the side of the cove, winding its way up into the jungle, all the time hugging the shore line, past raised wooden huts haphazardly strewn amongst the trees and right above the water, with perfect views of the bay and the Rubiah Island inlet opposite. They all come equipped with hammocks on the balcony which should tell you all you need to know.
During the day all you can hear is the ambient sound of water, occasionally interrupted by the whirl of an outboard motor as small boats leisurely cruise to and fro the beach, or the somewhat deafening, explosive and seemingly orchestrated chorus of the cicadas, the local crickets. At Iboih, it’s quite something to have the jungle kaleidoscopic sound scape all around you as you gaze into the sea, both worlds intertwined and inseparable. Gapang is of similar ilk but a different look. A long stretched wide cove, whiter sand and hence a lighter turquoise color in the water, everything built along the beach, but set back a little. More space, less jungle, fewer huts, restaurants and people, but the same stillness and tone, locals sitting around keeping out of the sun, whilst all you can hear is the sea gently lapping into shore.It’s like the whole world lets out a contented sigh.
The accommodation itself is mostly rudimentary and basic (although you can find slightly more ‘luxurious’ quarters in Gapang), simple wooden huts, sometimes shoddily patched together with gaps in the walls, mosquito nets, a fan, a basic toilet, a hammock; what else do you need? This back-to-basics merely adds to the drowsy energy of this unique isle. The very essence of the place would be ruined by too many finesses and the result is that of emancipation as you begin to appreciate what you’ve come to see, like cutting off one of the senses merely serves to heighten the others. When you step onto this island, you have to forget about pampering, freshly ironed shirts and Parisian toiletries, and just keep it simple.
So what do you do here? Mostly, you snorkel, dive, and relax. There’s over a dozen dive sites within easy reach, there’s a 60km sq area around the island where the wildlife is protected, and if you want to see big fish, this is the spot: Black and White-Tip, Hammerheads and Grey Reef Sharks, and Manta Rays, a backing cast of Moray Eels, Napoleon, Sturgeon, and Parrot Fish, as well as huge Sea Fans. The underwater world is truly spectacular and snorkeling here can be as rewarding as diving since the coral starts right at the shore.
You can also check out the rest of the island, which is just as satisfying. There’s a wonderful lake, a small active volcano, a spectacular waterfall, some historical World War II Japanese bunkers, the romance of sunset at Point Zero, the dazzling, fertile lushness of the jungle all around you, small, stunning and uninhabited idyllic beaches to hide away on, and the pretty and tidy port town of Sabang. ‘Paradise’ is a word bandied about freely these days, but not truly understood – it’s not just about aesthetics, it’s also about an emotion that a special place can inspire. Many people crave for this but don’t quite know how to go about trying to find it. A good place to start would be Pulau Weh.