Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March 12th – A Warm Welcome in Sabang

Sabang is not a place that people visit very often. There's a number of reasons for this:
1. It's the most northernmost part of Indonesia, sitting on the little island of Pulau Weh, just off the tip of Sumatra – this makes it a fairly out-of-the-way spot.
2. Pulau Weh sits in the province of Aceh, which is most famous (or infamous) for its long and bloody rebellion against the Indonesian government, which only finished in 2005.
3. In 2009, Aceh instituted a very strict interpretation of Sharia Law here, which is hardly something to attract the tourists.

So, on the face of it, with little in the way of must-see sights or attractions, Sabang wasn't a very promising stop on this world cruise. However, what turned the port into an unexpected delight, were its warm and wonderfully friendly people.

As we sailed into the harbour, we could see a big marquee had been set up – it wasn't for us, it was for the hundreds of locals who'd turned up to welcome us in. As the ship edged its way towards its berth, you could see people streaming to the harbour to greet us, while dance groups on the pier put on energetic shows for us. On a steaming hot day, it was lovely to be so warmly welcomed.

Once we got off the ship, we were treated like film stars, people rushing up to us wanting to have their photos taken with us. Normally it's us wanting to take pictures of the locals, here it was the other way round – there was such a refreshing innocence to their curiosity in us and in their overwhelming, smiling friendliness. I've never been photographed so much before, and I've never felt so tall – the people were almost all fairly tiny.

There really isn't much to see in Sabang, but it was enjoyable to walk along the waterfront, past shops catering only for the local market and constantly have people come up to us and say hello. The chief architectural points in town were its mosques, but even though this is a place living under Sharia Law, it didn't appear to have an oppressive atmosphere in the slightest.

We saw a few relics from the Dutch colonial times – from the times when this was one of the world's most important coal stations. Supposedly, before the Second World War, Sabang was a more important (or at least as important) port than Singapore – hard to believe when you see its lack of development and sleepy atmosphere today.

Sometimes it's good to come to out-of-the-way places, and to meet people who aren't jaded with tourism in the slightest, even if that means there isn't much in the way of a tourist infrastructure. In Phuket the day before, you got the impression that many of the people you met just saw you as a big walking dollar $ign – here in Sabang, they were truly glad to see us.