The remote island of Pulau Weh, Indonesia, should be on the short list of anyone looking for adventure travel. The name roughly translates to "moving island," which refers to the local belief that it was originally linked to the mainland. This small island of about 150 square miles is covered with steep, short mountains that are thick with dense forests.
The friendly people of Pulau Weh considered themselves Acehian more than Indonesian and struggled for succession as recently as 2004, when the tsunami brought an end to the fighting and united all factions with the common struggle to rebuild their broader island nation.
I accessed the island by ferry from the capital of the Aceh province, Banda Aceh, which is located on Indonesia's main island of Sumatra. The boat ride to Pulau Weh took me less than an hour, and I ended up in the largest port city, Sabang, which has a population of roughly 5,000. From there I took a taxi van ride of about 30 minutes to the small village of Iboih (pronounced eboo).
Iboih has a population of about 500, and the main attraction is the long coral sand beach that fishermen and scuba companies use to dock their boats. Those staying at the village include scuba divers and travelers wanting to leave it all behind, many of whom rent freestanding rooms poised on stilts along the calm, aqua bay's shoreline.
A few restaurants serve fresh fish and local vegetables to tourists, many of whom have come from France, Germany and the Netherlands. Most meals are served with rice and sometimes a sweet bread. By the end of my stay I was asking for "medium" heat, as some of the dishes can be quite spicy.
Although I was tempted to stay on land because of the village's charm, I opted instead to stay just offshore on an Aggressor scuba-dive boat that had recently started servicing this part of the world. Our weeklong scuba cruise would allow my companions and me to dive four or five times a day and explore the many different dive sites around the island.
Nu Chamchuen, the assistant cruise director for the Aggressor, gave a talk after we finished our first safety checkout dive, after which we ate cold slices of watermelon and fresh-baked cookies in the air-conditioned dining room.
"The boat is normally stationed in Thailand, but the weather can get stormy this time of year, so we come to this protected area for a few months," he said. "It's a unique opportunity for our customers to experience this amazing, undisturbed place."
When I asked what made it so special, he was quick to list the vast number of different fish present in the clear water, including hundreds of small species usually found in tropical aquariums. He also talked about the island itself.
"The people here are gentle and always smiling," he said with a huge grin across his own face, "and the island is as it was hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. The mountain forests come down to the water's edge and settlements are far and few between."
As a scuba diver, I loved the fact that there were more than 20 different dive sites around the island, and each was only a short boat ride away. In the company of our local experts, I felt safe and lucky to observe the unusual sea life. Our guides seemed to know every nook and cranny and to have an almost sixth sense when it came to finding even the smallest rare nudibranch (sea slug) or tiny frogfish. Atim, one of these guides, grew up on the island.
"It's a great place to relax and dive where few people have been," the 33-year-old Iboihian told me exuberantly after one particularly spectacular dive at "the canyon." He laughed a little when he spoke. "Some of the sites can be challenging, but those are often the best, with the coral and fish feeding in the faster current."
I mostly agreed, but I also found a few mind-blowing experiences on nearly every dive, including many of the calm, easy ones that allowed me to drift and explore among the rocks. I often found giant honeycomb eels wedged in crevices with small red and white cleaner shrimp darting in and out of their mouths. Or perhaps a blue spotted stingray might be lying on the sandy bottom, often right next to colorful red and purple sea fans.
All the while around me countless fish of all shapes and colors swam lazily in huge schools. Turning to look out into the vast blue, I occasionally saw the dark shadows of reef sharks and once even a porpoise. Atim's favorite dive sites include Pantee Aneuk Seuke (the canyon), Batee Tokong and Pantee Peunateung. And besides diving he recommended that I explore the land.
Traveling around the island in a rented car took me on twisting one-lane roads that were full of tiny motorcycles, often with an entire family wedged onto their seats, the woman on the back, sidesaddle, her silken headdress flapping colorfully behind her. The jungles remain largely undisturbed, and I hiked to waterfalls and to sulfur smudge pots that showed the island's volcanic history. There were lush rainforests where black monkeys roamed in groups on the ground and in the branches overhead, often with a mango or banana in their hands.
On these hikes, I discovered the pungent leaves of clove trees scattered on the trails that released a fragrance reminiscent of apple cider. As I walked along I was stunned by the views around nearly every turn. Above me tiny black-and-white birds made a tick-tock call, and the strong smell of perfumed honey wafted from flowers of the rambutan fruit trees.
Most evenings our ship's captain would maneuver our boat into the small harbor of Iboih and drop anchor. There we would moor in the calm waters for the night, the wind and insects making a shrill hum in the nearby forests, the water lapping at the hull as we rocked gently. Later, when the sun had gone down, alongside the boat huge schools of fish took advantage of the ship's lights and gathered to feed on the rare moth that would venture too close to the water's surface.
After a long day of diving or adventuring on the island the chef cooked us a generous and tasty meal that included local produce, and by 9 p.m. I was comfortably in my bunk, where I slept soundly to the thrum of the ship's engine. I was in Indonesia during Ramadan, the holy time for Muslims, and I awoke early to the long and soulful call to morning prayer before first light.
Leaving my room, I climbed the stairs in the pre-dawn light to sit on the top deck and sip strong, aromatic Acheian coffee that was roasted with corn to create a mouth-feel that was velvety. Just before sunrise the entire village gathered on the nearby shore, occasionally shouting responses to the morning prayer. The sun's dim light was just starting to illuminate the edge of the Andaman Sea, and the sounds and the smells of the island drifted around me in the warm, moist morning air, giving a dreamlike quality to my days on the remote island of Pulau Weh.
Originally published in Creator Syndicate, 2014