A Bizarre Tour in Banda Aceh

Remember the image of this boat? On December 26, 2004 an earthquake, followed by a powerful tsunami killed an estimated 170,000 people in Aceh province on the Indonesian island Sumatra. The capital city, Banda Aceh was almost completely swept away by the tsunami. This fishing boat saved the lives of 59 people who managed to stay on it while the city around them was swallowed by the sea.

Almost ten years after the tsunami I am visiting Sumatra, giving me the opportunity to see for myself how Banda Aceh is doing. I also got to see the boat pictured above and other sights on a ‘tsunami tour’. Want to refresh your memory first before looking at my photos? Check The Big Picture on boston.com for some of the most famous photos of the tsunami.

Woman in front of Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque was one of the few buildings not destroyed by the tsunami. Visiting the grounds around the Grand Mosque is possible for non-muslims but we did have to wear these classy grey robes.

Us in front of the Grand Mosque

Boat and sign in Banda Aceh

Stray boats can be found in random neighborhoods. They're not ‘official’ tourist attractions, these boats are just... There.

Boat in Banda Aceh

Police helicopter

Our guide showed us this police helicopter, or what is left of it after the tsunami was finished with it.

Hospital destroyed by tsunami, now a mass grave...

After the earthquake chaos ensued and staff at Meuraxa public hospital tried its best to treat the injured who kept streaming in. It would not matter as within an hour the tsunami arrived, destroying the hospital and killing most people inside. Today, the former hospital grounds are a mass grave where almost 15,000 people are buried.

Tsunami monument

Several monuments in the city remind of the tsunami. This particular one is called “Aceh Thanks to the World”.

Aceh Tsunami Museum entrance

After the ‘tour’ we walked to the Aceh Tsunami museum, an impressive building that also serves as an emergency shelter if a tsunami hits again. The – free – museum is well laid-out and definitely worth a visit.

Memorial inside Aceh Tsunami Museum

Aceh Tsunami Museum

Ask around in Banda Aceh if you would like to do a similar tour. It is not an official tour with glossy flyers but there are plenty of people willing to show you around for a couple bucks. We (3 people) paid 150,000 IDR (13 USD) for three hours. The sights are rather bizarre, and are a testimony to the enormous power behind the tsunami waves. It is encouraging to see that the city has recovered so fast, but it is also clear that this disaster will not soon be forgotten. The city has been rebuild in the same spot and while driving around you can easily see that the waves had no natural obstacles in their way for many kilometers... Let's hope the next tsunami will not capture the city by surprise again.

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