Earlier, I mentioned the state of mind I was in upon entering Pulau Weh, back in October of 2013 when Teresa and I were reaching the end of our immense journey through Southeast Asia. I was never normally big on taking pictures anyhow, and by this late stage of the trip I decided to just soak up the moments as best I could without stopping every few seconds to snap a photo. We tried to stay two more days than the week that we did on the island but the accommodation options were slim and it turned out that there was no space available in our guesthouse. We’d asked too late for an extension. Our temporal frame was set; it was within these parameters that we sought to experience as much of Pulau Weh as our legs, and rented wheels, would allow.
Before we got a motorbike, we decided to just explore on foot. This is one of those places where the main road hardly has any cars and the majority of the land is rural or just completely natural. Natural out here, surrounded by the Indian Ocean, meant thick lush jungle and watery mangroves inhabited by monitors, lizards, snakes, and birds and insects of all kinds.
When we first set out from our guesthouse, we hung a right which took us down a winding path that rose at first, then fell as it circled a patch of mangrove. As we began to crest the bend, we noticed a massive pile of garbage off the side of the road. Upon our approach, a large water monitor burst out, causing us to jump back a little, and scurried into the mangrove and out of sight. Looking into the short, root-exposed trees that seem to tip-toe through the swamp below, my imagination ran wild with what else could be inhabiting this patch. This first encounter with animal life had me darting my eyes into every nook and cranny to catch sight of who-knew-what-next. And on the entire walk, Teresa and I were the only humans in sight.
As we came to the end of a small inlet from the ocean, a placid lagoon of sorts, we decided to turn around and head back to Iboih. The walks are always pleasant and it’s good to get in the exercise every day, but we knew we had a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short time. We needed to see more, faster. In town, a small lot amongst the shops and restaurants offers dozens of bikes to choose from at very low prices. It wasn’t long before we picked one up and got instructions from the owner as to where to find gas (little stalls along the road selling “bensin”). We were off and out of Iboih, headed into the island and destined for Sabang, the main town and port where many restaurant owners in Iboih and elsewhere go in the morning to pick up the daily catch. I’ve come to realize after writing over one hundred of these articles that many town names across Southeast Asia begin to repeat themselves.
The countryside in Pulau Weh is extraordinary. There are stretches of road lined with little stalls and shops, there are winding paths whose elevation shifts constantly, these often lined by deep, dark green forest. There were moments when we were high up in the jungled hills and looking down at the sparkling sapphire waters below. I love elevation when exploring a land. It grants my eye a broad and well-rounded perspective that allows me to look back and envision the adventure with more depth, and dimensionality. The spectrum of what I’m witnessing simply adds to the strength of the memory and some of my favourite places are those where this perspective is available.
In the direction of Sabang, there’s a beautiful, quiet white-sand beach, not far from Iboih, called Gapang. This beach is lined with a couple of dive shops as well as the homes of some locals. Occasionally, a few kids joined us in the waters or on the beach but never any travellers. The main dive shop here is Dutch-owned Lumba Lumba. We actually walked in to rent some snorkel gear for when we swam out. The water here was gorgeous with little spots of light-blue dotted everywhere, indicating patches of the nicest white sand on the seafloor. My goal would be to dive under and try to hit every one of these spots near the shores and a little ways out, as well. It was a good and active stopover on our long journey.
After drying off and hopping back onto the bike, we took off into the island again. So far, we were on the return route from the port where the ferry initially dropped us off. We came across the crew of monkeys once more, chilling in the middle of road with absolute mischief in their eyes. I was afraid to slow down, especially on the uphill return ride; when they noticed the bike slowing down, they would begin to approach us with a complete lack of fear or even wariness. I find that to be an unsettling characteristic in a wild animal. In a pack of about fifteen to twenty as they were at the time, I didn’t know what they were capable of so I did my best to keep it moving.
It wasn’t long until we reached the fork-in-the-road where we could have either drove to Balohan Harbor where we first landed on Pulau Weh, or make our way to the northeast of the island where Sabang rests. Of course, we worked our way along the northern coast to Sabang and just enjoyed every bit of the drive along the way. The views were spectacular leading in. As we arrived, the roads began to widen to more standard municipal widths. There were barely any vehicles to accommodate them, though, and the town was extremely quiet for its size.
On one of the main strips, we stopped at a fruit stand and loaded up a few bags that we hung from the handlebars for the rest of the journey. One of Teresa’s favourite fruits, bonbons, were available here which, to her, is a jackpot. It’s rare to find them even in a lot of places in Southeast Asia. The outside is light brown to pale yellow and the inside is soft and meaty, a white sphere broken into little wedges of random sizes. Unlike an orange where the wedges are relatively even in size, a bonbon can be all over the place in the size of its segments. The larger ones occasionally contain a brown seed on the inside. Sometimes, the flesh comes off the seed smoothly; other times, it sticks to it and you have to use your teeth to unhinge the two from each other. The wedges themselves are smooth and seamless, the texture of which being partly what makes them so appealing to Teresa.
We drove through the town until we got to the northern tip where the coast lies. A long stone wall lines a walking path; here, we parked our bike and sat on the wall, gazing out at the ocean from a fairly high trajectory. We’d only come a short way around the island with no real plan for how much more we’d explore. Explore we would, though, because all we had at the moment was time, a motorbike full of bensin, and a yearning to see and experience more. It is in these moments a man like me is most fortunate in life.