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The mountainous province of Aceh consists of the entire northern tip of Sumatra, and guards the entrance to the most important sea-route of Asia: Malacca Strait. Almost all traffic over sea between West and East passes this sea-lane, and Aceh has been the first land for Arab and Indian merchants for centuries.

Coastal cities
Old islamic harbors

The earliest Islamic kingdoms of Indonesia were along the northern coast of Aceh. A number of short, fast rivers descend from Bukit Barisan to this coast, and for centuries the river mouths gave protection to ships before and after the long journey over the Indian Ocean. In this way, harbours like Samudra-Pasai (Lhokseumawe), Tamiang (Langsa), Peureulak, Samalanga and Pidie (Sigli), were founded. During the 13th and 14th century these harbor cities converted to the Islam to be ruled by a powerful sultanate in Kotaraja (Banda Aceh) from the 16th century.

These old harbours nowadays are sleepy coastal cities, connected with each other by the 600-km-long highway Medan-Banda Aceh. The economy of this region was used to be based on rice, pepper and the plantation culture (rubber and oil-palms), but is now developing very fast because of the oil- and gas demand.

In the 1890's the first oil was found, which lead to the foundation of the 'Koninklijke Nederlandse Maatschappy tot Exploitatie van Petroleum'(Royal Dutch Foundation for Exploitation of Petrol), the later Shell. Some of the richest natural gas concentrations of entire Indonesia were found here.
From Medan to Banda Aceh

The road from Medan to Banda Aceh follows the old small rail-road of Aceh, built to revive from the Aceh wars at the end of the 19th century most quickly. However the road itself is not used any more for a long time, the rails are still there, and cut the highway between Pangkalan Brandan and Langsa frequently. Along the road are old rubber plantations, mixed with traditional houses with low roofs and on high pillars.

Near Kuala Simpang, about 140 (three hours) from Medan, the road crosses the River Tamiang. Near Peureulak, in which an Islamic state was housed in the 13th century, the road crosses the River Peureulak and a little ahead it will take you along the Kuala Berkah beach, before it will reach the border with the region of Aceh Utara, along the River Jambuaye.

Past Lhoksukun a road leads inland towards the village of Minye Tujon, Matangkuli. This is the location of the special early-Islamic gravestone or nisan in Majapahit-style of the 14th century Java, with inscriptions in Arabic and Old-Javanese. These kind of gravestones are a remarkable feature of the Acehnese landscape and mark the locations of the early villages. "Aceh Stones"(batu aceh (were an important product for export between the 15th and 19th century. They are found in Kalimantan, Brunei, Java and the Malay peninsula.

The neighboring Blangme (blang means cultivated rice field), about 18 km from Lhokseumawe, are big Islamic grave complexes which point to the location of the twin cities of Pasai and Samudra. This last name originated from the name of the island, Sumatra. In the beginning of the 15th century Samudra-Pasai was a strong rival of Malakka.

It was located on both banks of the river Krueng Pasai, and it seems to be the first city to convert to the Islam. Samudra-Pasai was an important harbour was used by all populations from the east. Marco Polo spent five months here while he was travelling to Europe from China, before he transferred to India in 1292. Samudra as well as Pidie, in the north, were in the highly profitable pepper trade.

One of the graves near Blangme is from Malikul Saleh, the first sultan of Pasai, which died in 1297. Here are also the graves of other Pasai rulers, made from marble from the Hindu-temples of Gujarat and decorated with Arabic calligraphy. The most famous grave if the one of Sultan Bahiyah, deceased in 1428. The entrance to the complex is via a park east of the bridge which leaves the main road near Geudong and runs towards the coast.

It is said that the former palace of the sultans was built on a big mountain of sand, Cot Istana ('palace hill'), besides the location of the Royal Mosque near Kota Krueng. Blangme can be reached from here over a path through the rice fields. The story of the foundation of Pasai and the choice of Cot Istana as the location for the palace, is written down in the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai or "Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai".

Around the oil and natural gas fields of Lhokseumawe, a number of big development programs are located. The very big natural gas factory P.T. Arung (LNG), has a capacity of about 18.8 million tonnes a year, of which most part is being exported to Japan. Other big projects are the Asean Aceh Fertilizer Factory, a paper-factory near Krueng Geukeuh and a LPG-factory near Blang Lancang. The city Lhokseumawe itself is the governmental centre of the Aceh Utara regency, and it's also an important area of rice production. Lhokseumawe, as well as other coastal cities, has profited from natural gas industry and it also has a well-developed trading centre and enough accommodation.

The next important city after Lhokseumawe is Biruen, where locally grown coffee, cinnamon and tobacco are traded. A small road takes you through the densely forested hills and coffee plantations into the northern Gayo highlands, with as it's centre the city of Takengon and the picturesque Danau Tawar.

Near Salamanga, 35 km beyond Biruen, is a detailed decorated rumah adat which once belonged to the former general-major Teuku Hamzah. Ten km ahead, in Babah Aawe near Meureudu, are the remains of Kuta Batee, an Acehnese fortress. Near Silgi (Pidia), between the river mouths of the River Krueng Baro and the River Krueng Tuka, there are remains of another Acehnese fortress, Benteng Kuta Asan. In the 16th century, gold was transported over the hills between Meulaboh at the western coast and Pidia along the eastern coast, where it was sold to foreign traders.

A little more north, in the limestone hills above Pidie, accessible over a small road from Sigli, is Guha Tujoh, or the 'Seven Caves' complex, reachable from Menasah Cot via Kayekuniet. Near Klibeuet, six kilometers from Sigli, is the grave complex Teunku di Kandang, the decorated grave of the last sultan of Pidia, which died in 1511. A very nice road south of Sigli runs into the highlands towards the traditional village of Tangse, 52 km ahead.

Beyond Sigli the main roads bends away from the coast and makes a reasonable ascend, only to descend again south after Gunung Seulawah (1806 m), with it's twin peaks Agam (male) and Inong (female). Here, the road follows the River Krueng Aceh for 18 km, until Indrapuri, with one of the most important mosques of the former principality of Aceh Besar ('Big Aceh'). This mosque probably is built on the foundations of an earlier Hindu Buddhist temple. It's in the middle of coconut-trees on a small hill which offers a view over the River Krugent Aceh, and can be reached by a bridge over the river. After Indrapuri the road follows the valley of the River Krueng Aceh, along well-irrigated rice fields until Banda Aceh.
Banda Aceh

This former capital of the strong sultanate Aceh has a turbulent history. After the Dutch conquered it, the city was known as Kotaraja or 'City of the King', but after the independence it was renamed into Banda Aceh again.

The dalem or palace of the sultan of Aceh used to be on the location of the former Dutch residence, which was built in 1880 after the palace was totally destroyed by Dutch troops. Now it's the house of the governor (Pendopo Gubernur). The graves of the earlier sultans, under them the big Iskandar Muda, with giant nisan or gravestones and other interesting remains, can be found in the north-east, on the other river bank.

The Musium Negeri Aceh (Aceh State Museum) close from here, has an interesting collection of historical and ethnographic objects. In front of the museum there is a big bronze bell, the Cakradonia. The story goes that this was a gift from the Chinese Imperial eunuch Zhenghe to the sultan of Pasai in 1414. Sultan Alu Mughayat Syah (1514-1530), the founder of the state Aceh, took it when he conquered Pasai in 1524. Another story says that it was made in 1469. In the same complex there also is an traditional Acehnese house.

Upstream from the palace, towards the south-west, is the unusual gunongan-monument, an eccentric structure of stone which was probably meant as meru, or sacred mountain, and probably was a part of the royal court, Taman Sari. It was connected to the palace with a gate, the pinto khob or pintu aceh, which became the symbol of the state. Images of this where to be found on coins and jewels. The entire complex was built by sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-1636) during Aceh's 'Golden Century'.

In the neighbourhood is the Kandang XII, the burial site of Sultan Iskandar Thani (1636-1641), where the remains of a coffin decorated with gold were dug up not too long ago. The very tiny graveyard west of Taman Sari contains about two thousand graves of Dutch KNIL soldiers, which died during the Aceh war in the 19th century. Many of them were Javanese, Menadonese and Ambonese, and in fact more were killed by deceases than during battle.

The big Baiturrahman Mosque in the centre of Banda Aceh was - surprisingly enough - designed by an Italian architect and built by the Dutch between 1879 and 1881 to replace the mosque that was destroyed during the war by those same Dutch. The design is Moghul-Indian, not traditional Acehnese (like a visit to the older Indrapuri mosque will show clearly). On the market at the northern side of the mosque, numerous shops sell golden and silver Acehnese jewelry, of which the pintu aceh is the most famous. Other handicrafts can be bought as well, like the rencong or a little bent knife as it is used by Acehnese men and women, and woven pandan bags.
Around Banda Aceh

The beach near Ujung Batee, seventeen km north-east of Banda Aceh, and the new seaport of Krueng Raya (with the nearby hot source), about fifteen more kilometers, are loved places for a weekend away from home. The coastal road from Banda Aceh along Peukankrueng and Lamnga runs across coconut-plantations, with old gravestones and at the coast decorated with lagoons and fishing ponds.

Two old fortresses along the coast near Payakameng, Ladong, locally known as Benteng Indra Patra and Benteng Iskander, offer a nice inside look in the Acehnese military architecture of the 17th century. A third fortress, which once ruled over the bay near Krueng Raya, dates from the same period.

Over the recent years Banda Aceh is frequently threatened by the flooding of the River Krueng Aceh. The river flows into the sea just north of the city, just east of the village of Kutalaseumana, where the famous Abdulraf al-Singkel, which was the first to translate the Koran into Acehnese, is buried. The five km long road to Kutalaseumana lingers through small villages, along fishing ponds and mangrove forests to the beach with a high viewing point.

The old Dutch colonial harbour of Kuala Ciangkoi, twelve km west of Banda Aceh, can be reached with public transport in 15 minutes. A little outside the coast is Pulau Weh, the first orientation point for seamen which crossed the Indian Ocean, with the early harbour of Sabang, once an important stop for protection in the route Selat Malakka towards Sri Lanka and India.

Just south of the bridge near Uleelheue a road through the mangroves takes you to Lambaro (once known among Arab and Chinese traders as Lamri, Lamuri or Ramni), with the oldest mosque of Indrapatwa and the former harbour. The spot is mostly sunk under the waters of Teluk Lambaro, but following local stories the foundations of the old mosque can still be seen above the waves sometimes. Arial pictures from the 1970's from this spot indeed prove this.

Dozens of Islamic gravestones, remains from an early settlement, show up during low tide. Strong currents and bad visibility make swimming and diving kind of dangerous. Just off the coast is Pulau Tuan or Pulau Angkasa, with an Islamic sacred object. Possibly Portuguese ships moored between the island and the mainland in the 16th century, in water which can now only be used by small boats.

About 8 km south-west of Banda Aceh is Museum Rumah Cut Nyak Dhien, a replica of the traditional house which belonged to the famous Acehnese heroin, which fought against the Dutch. The house is, as us common in Aceh, built on high pillars, about two meters above the soil, and consists of three parts: a front gallery with nice woodcarvings as decorations where guests were invited, a central sleeping room and a back portion which was only for women. As well as in other parts in the Malay world, the houses were built from wood, so there are not many left from the early periods.

The casuarinas (cemara, a coastal tree) beaches near Lhoknga and Lampueuk can be reached in twenty minutes and they are much used over the weekend by people from the cities. This is also the location of a Japanese airport during the Second World War; the concrete bunkers are still in good condition.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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