Pulau Weh, Indonesia: Great diving, cheap bungalows and a paradise with an asterisk

Feb 29, 2016

Pulau Weh is a lesser-visited island at the very end of Indonesia (or beginning depending on your perspective) off the northern coast of Sumatra. It is located in the Andaman Sea and the island and surrounding waters are mostly a massive reserve, which really keeps the area looking great and provides a habitat for some rare species of creatures on land and in the sea. If you like good diving in a beautiful environment and don’t mind respecting the local traditions, then you ought to give this place a look.

To reach Pulau Weh, we took a ferry from Banda Aceh to the island's main port. You have two options with the ferry, the more costly fast boat and the less expensive slow boat. We chose the slow boat of course and although it lacked some creature comforts and was more of a cargo ship than passenger boat, it wasn’t all that bad.

Anyway, we arrived in the morning and grabbed a becak (tuk-tuk) to the small backpacker hangout of Iboih where we planned to find a place to stay for a few nights close to the dive center we booked with. We stopped in at our first choice place named Olala's Bungalows, which is run by a few really bright and open-minded Indonesian sisters and were shown a bungalow that was perfect. It was basic but had a nice porch overlooking the water and an inviting hammock. For $12 per night for two people, we were sold on it immediately.

Checked in and fed, we headed down to the dive shop to gear up and get on board for our first of five dives. The operation we went with was Rubiah Tirta Divers and we were pretty happy with them. The gear was fine and the guides were good but the price was the real kicker. We got a discount for having most of our own gear and for me being a PADI Pro so when averaged out between the two of us, we spent something like $17 per dive per person. Not bad at all for excellent drift diving.

The currents were strong on most of our dives so we just drifted along with it and occasionally ducked behind some rocks to regroup. Visibility was fair to good on most days and the place was absolutely teaming with life. On almost every dive we saw literally hundreds of eels (sometimes 6 at time), a shark or two, turtles, rays and an assortment of other beautiful and often massive fish. We also saw all sorts of other undersea creatures that we had only seldom seen in other places or saw only in books. Life was everywhere and it was hard to miss. At one point, Jen was only a meter away from a turtle who was munching a massive jellyfish and then, on the same dive, a parrotfish was using her bubbles to clean itself and shake off parasites. It was freakin awesome.

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Purple Ribbon Eel tucked away in the coral. Cool little critters EVERYWHERE!

Olala’s Bungalows, as mentioned earlier, were basic but everything we needed for a few days of lounging around being dive bums. The food at their restaurant was always fresh and moderately priced but it was prepared relatively quickly and always had decent portions. We never ordered a meal and walked away wanting something else.

The only thing I can really pick on about this island are the restrictions imposed on visitors, which you could argue are just local customs, but let me explain.

Pulau Weh, like Banda Aceh, is under Sharia Law. To many Westerners this conjures up images of harsh punishments and extreme oppression but I assure you, that wasn’t my experience. In fact, most of the time, foreigners are given a pass because they do not practice the same religion.

Now, that being said, this is politicized religious belief. In other words, the religion's laws are the actual laws in this case. So some beliefs, like having to pray at certain times or requiring women to where hijabs outside of the home for protection from the “uncontrollable carnal urges of men,” simply aren’t enforced on foreigners. Covering up enough though, is encouraged, especailly for the ladies.

Restrictions on the consumption of alcohol and even having a western party on the other hand are quite forbidden, tourists and all. For example, New Years and Christmas parties aimed at tourists are often broken up and at times in a very forceful way. Alcohol is also strictly prohibited. It’s not uncommon for a restaurant to sell booze discreetly to tourists only to have the police come at night with a stern show of force and confiscate the alcohol and shut a place down. The owners of the place we stayed described such an incident and she said that the police threaten to burn her restaurant if they did not stop. Now that was not aimed at a tourist per say but it is extreme and unjust, especially when you consider that Islamic Laws apply to Muslims and says nothing about selling booze to non-Muslims.

While foreigners are generally overlooked in the enforcement of many laws aimed primarily at Muslims only, there are instances where foreigners are made aware that they are getting out of line. For example, two girls we hung out with a few times on the island were planning a little birthday hangout on one of the deserted beaches where they would play some music and have a campfire. Alcohol wasn’t part of the plan but because they had befriended a local kid and were hanging out with him quite a bit, they attracted some attention when they told a few others about their plan in earshot of some locals who didn’t like what they heard. To them, these girls were corrupting one of their youths and getting a little liberal with their behavior. We found out later, after the party was a bust and we didn’t see them for a day, that they had been told not to have a party and that they were to stop hanging out with the kid they met. Now no one came up to them and said anything like “you’re going to be punished if you do …” or “stop hanging out with this kid or else” but, they did feel somewhat intimidated when their friend reported that locals were going to stop them if they tried to have a party and that he could not be seen with them any longer. They mentioned feeling quite uneasy the whole next day as people seemed to watch them closely around town.

Now this might have been overstated by the kid or even by the girls when they told us the story, but there does seem to be a general feel about Pulau Weh that tourists are tolerated for commerce purposes. If the tourists don’t play by the rules though, patience and understanding may run out. Who knows what that might mean but I seriously doubt it would be anything more than a warning from a local official to keep in line or move along, nothing more.

So there you have it, a great place with an asterisk. My experience with Pulau Weh was nothing but good and I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat. You just need to remember to be a little more aware of the local customs and regulations. As long as you are aware and don’t push the boundaries too much, I’m sure anyone would be fine visiting and have a very enjoyable time. I suspect more progressive ideals will prevail overtime but like many other places in the world, it will be up to future generations to make the change. Who knows though, perhaps it’s better this way. There are no booze fueled beach parties spilling out to the streets and the whole place is pretty low-key. That’s all part of Pulau Weh’s charm and really, who am I to say whether or not a more liberal stance would be good for the island and the people living there. 


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