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The tsunami ship: Offbeat tourism in Aceh, Indonesia

David Lawrence's picture
What do you do when a 2,600 ton ship ends up in your neighborhood? Believe it or not, there are people who’ve had to struggle with this question.

 

The tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, didn’t only leave behind wreckage and corpses. It also left behind the PLTD Apung 1, a power-generating barge that was docked in Banda Aceh’s Ulee Lheue port when the disaster struck.  It might have pumped out electricity for a few more decades, easing electricity shortages throughout Indonesia, before heading to the scrap heap.

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Instead, it was lifted by the tsunami and deposited several kilometers inland, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. When I first arrived in Banda Aceh in 2006, people were living in houses right next to it. A makeshift road worked its way around the massive obstacle. A box sat on a chair nearby, with a hand-written sign asking for donations for tsunami victims. The question we all had was: What on earth are they going to do with it?

Flash forward to 2012. I was happy to find out the ship was still there, so my colleague, Akil, took me to see it. The PLTD Apung 1 still sat, heavily, where it had been left seven years ago. But the rest of the site has become a memorial. There’s a monument to the victims, attractive grounds, and ramps running along tsunami-damaged houses. You can climb up the ship, which gives you a great view of the city. Many people were exploring the decks and taking pictures, including a newly-married couple. The whole area is enclosed by a fence, complete with a parking lot. To add a final touristic flourish, hawkers offer DVDs of the tsunami for about $2.50.

Although small, Aceh’s tourism sector has made some progress in recent years. It has an international airport. You can book hotels online. And there are some interesting places for visitors to go—the Grand Mosque, the Tsunami Museum and Pulau Weh, which has fabulous diving. But nothing really compares to the PLTD Apung 1.

Banda Aceh today is completely rebuilt, with new roads, ports and freshly-painted buildings. It’s easy to forget what happened here. But when you see this ship, sitting on dry land, among houses where people still live, you feel how powerful and destructive the tsunami was, and how terrible it must have been to be its victim.

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