Rarely has the aphorism “This, too, shall pass” proved more true than in the case of Banda Aceh. The city on the northwestern tip of Indonesia, battered nearly seven years ago by the Boxing Day tsunami, has today recovered grandly, evidenced by the buildings that line its streets and the people who walk along them.
There must have been times when locals doubted the horror ever would truly pass. More than half the city was destroyed, 130,000 people across the province were killed and the daily toil of subsistence was fundamentally uprooted.
But visitors these days see few physical remnants of the tsunami. The local administration proudly says the city has “fully recovered,” a testament both to the stoic labors of the local population and the effectiveness of international aid efforts.
Those legacies that do remain — in particular, two enormous boats shifted kilometers from their moorings by the surging waters — are being cultivated as tourist attractions. Now a magnificent Aceh Tsunami Museum helps visitors understand the tragedy.
Something seems a little tasteless at first about the very notion of tsunami tourists — after all, for many people, the wounds are still raw and the memories fresh. But the Acehnese seem keen to share their story and are thrilled when visitors take the time to learn more about it.
The museum is the most sensible starting point to understand the enormity of what occurred.
Before visitors enter the museum, they are struck by its distinctive architecture. The oval building, designed by Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamil, incorporates six elements that reflect both the tsunami and life in Aceh.
The formidable curved wall and undulations of the roof evoke a tidal wave, the walls are adorned with images of the traditional Saman dance and the ground floor is inspired by traditional Acehnese home design. The building also serves a more practical function — a raised part has been dubbed “Escape Hill” and is intended to offer refuge should Aceh again be struck by a tsunami. Fish swim in a vast pond that covers much of the ground floor.
Once they step inside, visitors soon realize the museum intends to do more than merely engage them intellectually. Instead, it seeks to involve them psychologically — like Daniel Libeskind’s design of the holocaust elements of Berlin’s Jewish Museum — using architecture that can only be understood by experiencing it.
Visitors soon find themselves walking along a narrow platform, a wall of water on either side. It’s an unnerving experience, inducing a hint of claustrophobia. It’s only the comfort of knowing it isn’t real — a luxury not afforded to people on that terrible Boxing Day — that stops it from being panic-worthy.
After wiping the splashes of water from their arms, visitors find themselves in the second part of the tsunami experience, walking into a darkened corridor that turns a corner, shutting off any light from outside. (Be sure to put some space between yourself and other visitors — some seek to spoil the experience by using the light of their mobile phones.) Visitors step forward into the darkness, guided only by the cool metal rail on which their hands rest. The path twists and turns, the end of the darkness and the destination unclear.
The exit to the darkened pathway leaves visitors in the body of the museum, allowing them to wander through the exhibition spaces along the building’s perimeter, gently spiraling upward through three levels. Inside the rooms are displays that convey the many facets of the tsunami – the human stories, the art, the science and the recovery.
Some are better than others. Dioramas powerfully convey the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, with key sites in the city strewn with the detritus of the wave. Look closer and you will see bodies spread through the scene.
The photographs of tsunami-ravaged Aceh are disappointing. Despite the abundance of photographers from news and aid organizations in the days after the event, the images chosen seem far from compelling. They are also undermined by amateurish presentation, with many shots poorly reproduced and others grossly enlarged. Surely there are organizations out there with better quality images they’d be happy to share.
The displays explaining the science of tsunamis are briefly interesting, although the poor English somewhat undermines the experience for non-Bahasa Indonesia speakers. One part that does transcend language looks at the construction of earthquake-proof building design and allows visitors to experiment with different designs and then subject them to quakes of various intensities and styles. It’s a hands-on activity young Indonesian visitors relish.
The Aceh Tsunami Museum opened in 2009, but it’s taken it a while to find its feet. Its $6.7 million price tag was a source of controversy, particularly because co nstruction was taking place while some tsunami victims remained homeless. Still, the end product is impressive.
Opposite the museum is the “Aceh Thanks the World” park, dedicated to the dozens of countries that contributed the relief effort. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, taking in the extent to which the world pulled together. The entrance to the park contains plaques that use facts to convey the scale of the disaster.
A decent walk or short becak rickshaw ride away is the PLTD Apung, an enormous diesel power station ship now in a neighborhood a few kilometers from the shoreline. Visitors can climb the steps of the 780-ton vessel, and while the ship is rather unremarkable in itself, every step is a reminder of the power needed to relocate such a sizeable object.
Once they make it to the top, visitors are rewarded with views that illustrate both your distance from the water in which the boat once sat and the tremendous reconstruction effort that has filled the city with houses protected by sturdy roofs.
The other boat that sits where boats shouldn’t is in the Lam Pulo neighborhood. While only a fraction of the size of the PLTD Apung, it is the Lam Pulo boat’s position — perched atop the roof of a house — that makes it so dramatic. The vessel dubbed kapal atas rumah (“boat on a house”) floated a couple of kilometers inland during the tsunami, providing temporary shelter for dozens of people as the waters around them rose.
These days, a viewing platform has been built beside the boat, allowing visitors to view it without damaging the vessel, although local children happily climb inside and run rampant. For those keen on a unique cafeé experience, an enterprising local woman has set up a warung coffee shop underneath the boat. Sit for a while, and locals will tell you of their tsunami experience.
Since 2009, deeply conservative Aceh has adopted Islamic Shariah law, but its impact is not as dramatic as one might imagine. Few women wear the full-bodied burqa, and a significant number wear no head covering at all. Physical contact between unmarried men and women is not encouraged, but there’s no real restriction on the occasional bits of contact that are routine in social interaction. For locals, the rules are enforced more rigorously, but visitors are unlikely to encounter difficulties.
That aside, Aceh is not for everyone; it takes a certain stoicism to hear stories of such heartache and despair. But you soon realize that Aceh is in fact a place of renewal and resilience, and a valuable reminder that no matter how awful one’s circumstance may be, it, too, shall pass.