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Just finished a wonderful month in beautiful Sabang (aka Pulau We) off the coast of Aceh Province in northwest Indonesia–a place I fell in love with back in 2019, and have been fantasizing about returning to ever since.
I’ve never seen such a diversity of moral eels, crustaceans, odd-shaped bottom dwellers and oddball species like fang-blennies, razorfish, comets, wormfish, cowfish, etc. To date, it has been my best macro snorkeling/freediving experience.
The general fishlife is also quite stunning if you know where to look.
I would say that, while certainly not in terms of coral quantity, diversity and quality, when it comes to fish life, Weh is comparable to some of the more impressive places in the coral triangle and the Sinai Peninsula, especially in terms of huge, brilliantly coloured mixed schools of plankton feeders.
Situated right at the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, stocked with life by currents from both and fed with nutrients by the mighty Malacca Straight, Weh is a sleepy island with (as far as SE Asia goes) highly regulated commercial and artisanal fishing and no heavy industry polluting local waters.
According to a 2022 article in an Indonesian fisheries journal titled “Performance Analysis of Catch Fisheries in Sabang Waters,” more than half of the registered fishing equipment on and around We were hand lines.
Make of these claims what you will, but my own experience backs this up. I saw almost no trawlers during the entire month, and I saw a lot of the island and coastline. Not only did fishing appear to be very small scale (locals in small wooden boats), but I also witnessed firsthand the conservation-mindedness of many of the local people.
On two occasions while night snorkelling around Iboih, I was approached by local fishermen and asked what I was doing. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t spearfishing or doing any kind of harvesting (which is illegal).
The owner of the bungalow resort I stayed at (Oh la la/Santi Coral Gaden) told me that dynamite and spearfishing come with fines of 200EUR (a lot for people who make 12USD a day) and that she had seen foreigners from China and Japan who had come with spearguns deported for not knowing about the strict rules.
On Fridays, local people observe an informal but widely respected abstinence from all water-related activities (especially fishing, but also snorkeling and diving) until 2 p.m. It’s part religious piety (Friday is the Muslim holy day) and part symbolic gesture by a people who depend heavily on the ocean.
Another thing you will notice about Pulau Weh is the lack of large-scale agriculture. Where there is commercial agriculture on the island, most people are growing coconuts. There are no giant mono-crop plantations of palm or rubber here, eroding soil and pumping the sea full of nitrates, nor are there any large rivers clouding the water with sediment.
That said, while I arrived to perfect water conditions and swimming pool-like visibility, after about two weeks, a seasonal plankton bloom took the conditions from amazing to absolute shit overnight (at least on the side of the island I was staying on).
For the remainder of our trip, we stuck to the other side of the island, which was still wonderful, but getting there involved a 45-minute scooter ride.
Major caveat: the lacklustre coral
One thing that is immediately evident when you’re snorkelling, and freediving Pulau Weh is that the corals have taken a battering.
The 2004 tsunami, the 2010 mass bleaching, the 2016 mass bleaching; as the owner of the fantastic “What’s the Snorkeling Like” blog (the place that first put me onto Pulau Weh back in 2019 when I was shopping around for off-the-beach snorkelling spots in SE Asia) says, you come to Weh for the fish, not the coral.
His article on Pulau We–which is, at this point, quite old–is still a great guide to some of the best snorkelling spots and how to get to them. He has put together detailed maps and photo collages for each.
The bottom line is: don’t come to Pulau Weh looking for stunning, thousands-of-years-old coral colonies with endless multi-colour hard coral gardens, punctuated by purple and pink soft corals, gorgonians and fans like you would expect to get in the more impressive places throughout the coral triangle.
Do, however, expect a ton of marine life at very accessible depths. If you can dive down 5+ metres (and sometimes less), you will see an impressive diversity and quantity of fish and invertebrates on Pulau Weh.
None of this is to say that the underwater landscape is not interesting or impressive in its own right. Reef flats, coral-covered volcanic rock, live rock, sand flats, coral bommies, and wonderful patchwork reefs abound, all of which are magnets for a huge diversity of reef life.
Raja Ampat has become my point of reference for what constitutes great snorkeling, as I’m sure it has for most people who have visited, and in places, Pulau Weh even rivalled that level of abundance. It was certainly magnitudes more impressive than anything you might expect to see in the Thai or Malaysian Andaman or, I would wager, anywhere in the South China Sea. I haven’t been to the Maldives, but perhaps that would be the closest destination, albeit with healthier coral and more megafauna, with comparable fish life.
- Enormous mixed schools of plankton feeders–-Indian half and half chromis, blue-green chromis, red-tooth triggerfish, yellowfin and bluestreak fusiliers, scalefin, evan’s, flame, and squarespot anthias, black and white pyramid butterfly fish, and quite a large number of midas blennies all feeding in synchronized harmony.
- Giant roving shoals of powderblue surgeons (and fantastic unicorn and surgeonfish diversity more generally).
- Emperor, koran, vermiculated, three-spot, regal, and plenty of pygmy angelfish–brown pygmy angelfish, blacktail angelfish and pearl-scaled angelfish.
- Over a dozen species of moray eels observed.
- Several different species of lionfish–including pygmy twinspot lionfish.
- Very impressive butterfly fish diversity, including large schools of black and white pyramid and white-collared butterfly fish.
- Stingrays galore–white-tailed, blue spotted, blue spotted ribbon-tail, cow-tail (especially while snorkeling at night)
- A large number of lobsters, day octopus, and starfish (very few crown of thorns).
- An abundance of peacock mantis shrimp.
- Different species of garden eels.
- Several juvenile ribbon eels.
- A ghost ribbon eel.
- A very large blacktip reef shark.
- One solitary spotted eagle ray.
- Fangblennies, comets, two-tone dartfish, flame dartfish, wormfish, razorfish, and myriad shrimp goby species.
- An abundance of regal tangs around Iboih.
- Impressive mixed schools of fusiliers.
- A lot of nudis.
I saw at least two new species on every single outing.
Below I will detail a few of the best snorkelling spots around the island that I loved (including a couple that I discovered on my own and won’t appear in any of the other snorkeling blogs) and provide reasons why.
Table of Contents
Most of the Pulau Weh articles that exist are not written from the perspective of someone who has come explicitly to snorkel or freedive.
This is where everyone stays because it is close to all of the cheap dive shops. It is also very picturesque and tranquil. The Iboih coast is characterized by a volcanic rock surf zone, large sand flats with scattered patchwork reef, reef flats, and live rock that concentrate reef life and make for fantastic free-diving and swim-throughs.
The mix of habitats attracts everything from huge adult moray eels to eagle rays, vast mixed schools of plankton feeders and 7+ species of angelfish. There are some patches of decently healthy coral, but most of it is dead.
Along the Iboih coast, you will get:
- Huge schools of red-tooth triggerfish and black and white pyramid butterflyfish that comprise the background pretty much everywhere.
- Great angelfish diversity.
- Very large mixed aggregations of anthias.
and a lot more.
Iboih was also terrific for night snorkeling and macro critters. I saw frogfish, two different species of pipefish, pygmy lionfish, Indonesian long-arm octopus, the common day octopus, reef stonefish, coral shrimp, porcelain crabs, juvenile ribbon eels, a large diversity of shrimp gobies, conger eels, snake eels and, as mentioned, I’ve recorded more species of moray eels in Iboih than anywhere else I have been in the Indo-Pacific (on more than one occasion, two different species sharing dens).
- Giant Moray
- Honeycomb Moray
- White-eyed moray
- Yellow-margin moray
- Yellow-headed moray
- Juvenile ribbon eel
- Yellow-mouthed moray
- Chainlink moray
- Zebra moray
- Vermiculated moray
- Fimbriated moray
- Snowflake moray
- Barred-fin moray
- Reticulated moray
As well as others slinking off into recesses and holes that I was only able to catch a quick glimpse of, so who knows what else.
Iboih’s coral bommies are a fantastic place to see huge adult morays (especially Honeycomb and Giant Morays) out in the open in search of new hiding places.
I know the water distortion can make things look bigger than they really are, but some of these beasts had to be pushing 3m–which giant morays can reach (as well as hit 30kg and live for 40 years). They are also, at least in my experience, universally good-natured.
I’ve had my head inches from the face of one of these lads while checking out some big rock and coral formations without knowing it. All of a sudden, a big school of golden sweepers parts, and you are confronted by the open gullet and wide eyes of one of these demonic-looking old ladies.
I’ve always found them to be not only the most curious but the most tolerant of your presence and unlikely to show any aggression (as long as you don’t do something idiotic).
I also loved the various large adults sharing hiding places together.
I’ve seen species sharing reef crevices but never adults, and I guess I had started to assume that maybe you had to actually be at deeper recreational diving depths to witness this. I saw these guys at around 7m.
Notably, Iboih is the only place on Weh where I’ve seen eagle rays.
A word of caution about Iboih
Iboih is not only where most Western tourists come when they visit Sabang (it’s not an overwhelming level of tourism; Aceh is still quite off the beaten path), but it’s also where most local tourists come on day trips.
They come from Sabang City and Banda Aceh to snorkel and sightsee and are ferried back and forth between Pulau Rubiah (right across the straight from Iboih), as well as up and down the coast.
You really need to keep your head on a swivel while snorkeling around Iboih, especially if you are swimming out further into the channel to check out some of the deeper coral and reef life. Ideally, you should be doing a 360 as you ascend after each dive to make sure a boat isn’t coming out of nowhere.
It is quite stressful to hear the sound of a boat engine when you’re 40 feet down and have no idea where it is coming from or how close it is to your position.
When I was here back in 2019, a father on vacation with his two kids died after a boat hit him as he snorkelled just off Iboih Beach. I would not snorkel directly off of Iboih Beach. There isn’t much to see, and there are too many boats.
Stick to the area I marked in red on the map image above and stay alert.
The Jepang Bunker
I’ve included an arrow in the above image because there are two Japanese bunkers on the island, and the other one is not the one I’m referring to. The one by Anoi Itam Beach is the right one.
It takes around 45 minutes by scooter to reach this spot from Iboih (or about 20 from Sabang), and it’s a lovely ride.
I highly recommend renting a scooter during your stay in Pulau Weh (which I will get into further down). Public transit is non-existent/so informal and unpredictable that it’s likely impossible for a non-local to use it reliably, and there is a limited number of tuk-tuk taxis around.
If you can brave the roads and spare the money (around 100,000 rupiah per day), it’s well worth renting a bike. Every resort will either have bikes for rent or be able to refer you to someone who does. The riding is beautiful, and you pretty much need a bike to do any serious exploring on the island.
Back to the bunker.
The bunker itself is touted as a tourist attraction, but in reality, it is pretty disappointing. It’s in your typical Indonesian state of disrepair and abandonment, and unless you’re a WW2 buff dying to see this little piece of history, the trash and graffiti littering the site make it kind of an eyesore. It costs 3,000 rupiah to climb the stairs and walk around. It does have a fantastic view of the open ocean and Malacca Straight.
Where I have indicated in the image above with a red circle is the best snorkeling spot on the entire island and among the top three places I’ve snorkeled anywhere in the world.
The coral here, while not diverse by any stretch, is in quite good condition, and there are some more visually appealing species–cup and staghorn–mixed in with the porites and live rock.
Huge mixed schools of fusiliers and unicorn fish envelop you here, as well as large shoals of powder-blue surgeons and black and white pyramid butterfly fish, beautiful aggregations of white-collared butterfly fish, great schools of plankton feeders, juvenile angelfish, stone fish, crocodile needlenose, and so much more.
This is also the only place on Weh where I saw Jack Trevally and Great Barracuda. I even saw a couple of straggler yellow-fin Tuna.
To my delight, it is also where I saw my first flame dartfish (something I have tried to see everywhere I have been in the Indo-Pacific, from Hawaii to Indonesia to the Red Sea).
A word of caution about the Japanese Bunker
This isn’t one of the island’s dedicated snorkeling spots. As far as I am aware, it’s not even known of, as I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else online, nor did I see it included on the Lumba Lumba dive site map. In the dozen or so times I visited, I never once saw another western tourist or anyone else in the water.
As I used my fins as a makeshift table on my motorbike seat to insert my contact lenses and donned my snorkelling gear, I got odd looks from the exclusively Indonesian tourists visiting the bunker and having lunch at the concrete picnic tables above the beach, wondering what the hell I was doing.
Every time I came to this spot, I was cautioned, in broken English, by the employee managing the bunker attraction for the local government. He told me not to go beyond the point on the left-hand side of the bay but didn’t say why.
Beyond that point is the open ocean and the Malacca Straight, with hundreds of km of water in all directions, so I could guess what he was getting at: the currents. And he was right.
As you approach the end of the point on the left side of the bay, you start to feel a current pulling you out towards that open ocean. When you look at the fish swimming below you, some of them are also being jostled around by it.
The water movement makes for a wonderful profusion of life, but it’s worth emphasizing how potentially dangerous it is. Not only would I not recommend this spot to someone who wasn’t a confident swimmer, who knew what to do in a current and wouldn’t panic, but I would also add that you shouldn’t try this spot with inadequate fins.
Those short snorkelling fins you get on day trips in places like Cancun and elsewhere (and even the stuff for rent from most of the bungalows and homestays) are not suitable for a site like this.
You need serious fins from serious dive gear companies–Cressi, Scubapro, Seac, etc. This time around, I was using the Cressi Reaction Pros, which are brilliant snorkelling and diving fins.
They were comfortable, fit well, and gave me a ton of effortless propulsion.
Bear in mind, however, that they are quite heavy and they don’t float. All in all, amazing fins, though.
Well-priced and paired nicely with my Cressi Z1 Low-Profile Mask. Very comfortable, sleek-looking mask that, thanks to the low volume of space between the mask and your face, requires less air/effort to clear and equalize.
If you like, have a look at my comprehensive breakdown of some of the best fins for serious snorkellers. To reiterate, I wouldn’t get in the water here without fins that can generate some serious thrust.
Pulau Rubiah: Iboih Side and Windward Side
Rubiah Island is right across the strait from Iboih. It’s a swimmable distance if you don’t mind some mild current, and I have done it several times, but the boat traffic can be quite dangerous.
Most Western tourists charter a small boat driven by one of the local fishermen (which can be arranged through the bungalow resorts), who will take them over for between 150,000 and 200,000 rupiah. The price is a bit exploitative, given that there are only a few hundred metres of water between the coast and Rubiah, but the only other way over is to swim.
I suppose you could also hitch a ride on one of the boats that depart from Iboih village a bit further down the coast that take life jacket-clad locals over to splash around at Rubiah Beach.
Most of the snorkeling reports I’ve read about Rubiah tell you to focus on the far side of the island, which I will cover, but there is another part of Rubiah that I really like and would like to mention first.
Iboih Side: coral restoration area
The area where all of the Indonesian day-trippers can be seen frolicking (Rubiah Beach) is not really worth exploring. I’ve swum the entirety of the Iboih side of the coast of Rubiah, and while there is always something interesting to see in Pulau Weh and you never know where it’s going to turn up, if you’re looking for a tranquil experience, Rubiah Beach is not it.
If you swim down to the far end of the leeward side of the island (where I have indicated with the red Xs), however, there is a lot to see. It’s not coral-rich, but because of the currents that pass through the narrows, the water here is nutrient-rich, which means fish-rich.
The coral bommies around here support a profusion of life, and the eerie ruins of failed coral restoration projects–large concrete blocks with rebar sticking out of them where the coral has failed to take–have been colonized by sponges, tunicates, and quite a lot of new coral. They provide shelter and habitat for a large variety of fish and make for interesting viewing in their own right.
If you can get over the fact that you are looking at a failed attempt to revive a decimated coral reef, the surrounding coral rubble, sandy areas and bommies support an impressive amount of reef biomass. I’ve seen 5-6 strong groups of regal tangs feeding in this area:
Important: The biggest threat in this area is all of the parked boats.
Not only do drivers periodically appear to start them up and take them away, but you need to make sure that you know where these boats are when surfacing. If you dive down and don’t realize a current has moved you 5 metres while coming up, you might end up surfacing directly into a hull or motor.
This area will not be everyone’s cup of tea (my girlfriend found all of the concrete restoration structures ugly), but if you want to see some more unusual species and large, multi-species groups of plankton feeders doing their thing, it’s worth a visit.
The Windward Side (aka the far side) of Rubiah
The far side of Rubiah can also be reached by swimming or boat.
Your options are either to have a boat captain drop you off near the abandoned Rubiah Resort (marked X), have him wait around or (more likely) program a time for him to come back and pick you up; or, you can get dropped off at or swim to Rubian beach and walk the path that crosses the island (the dotted line) over to Rubiah Resort.
The far side of Rubiah, in terms of coral, is pretty good. Very one-dimensional (a lot of porites coral and some cool rock formations), but it sports decent fish life, and it was the only place in all of Pulau We where I saw a shark: an absolute beast of a black-tip that appeared out of nowhere and then quickly vanished.
If you’re a good swimmer and are willing to accept the risks of crossing the channel, I wouldn’t bother with hiring a boat and would swim the gap and then walk the 10-minute footpath to the other side.
Walk quickly because it’s mosquito heaven, but mind your feet, especially around the derelict Rubiah Resort because I saw shards of glass and rusted metal lying around.
Gapang Beach is just around the coast from Iboih (towards Sabang), and it’s the other foreign tourist hub on Pulau Weh. It’s also where Lumba Lumba Dive Centre is, the island’s most famous dive shop.
The beach and water here are both very nice and the seascape right off the main drag is ok.
Swim out through the channel the dive boats use and then head towards the dilapidated pier (circled in the image above). The pier is fun to swim through and around and provides cover for a lot of fish, especially large aggregations of white-collared butterfly fish.
The rubble underneath the pier–abandoned concrete cylinders and cinderblocks–also provides a good habitat for oddities.
Here is where I saw maybe my favourite reef creature I’ve seen anywhere: a white (or ghost) ribbon eel out in the open. Unfortunately, he was on the move and unwilling to pose.
I followed for a while and eventually decided to pull my head out of the water to call my girlfriend over, who was snorkelling a few meters beside me. Big mistake. In the few seconds I was distracted, I’d drifted from where I had been and the eel had disappeared. Tragic.
Also saw a lot of banded coral shrimp here.
Further along the coast, away from Gapang, the hard coral cover was quite nice. Not as many fish as Iboih but, if coral cover makes or breaks a site for you, then a place well worth visiting.
I came back one evening to try some night snorkeling and was thwarted by the bad visibility, but I would imagine the rubble and pier area could produce some cool finds.
Gapang’s also got a decent bakery owned by a Swiss lady and her Indonesian husband that’s a nice stopover after a snorkel or dive.
A word of caution about Gapang
If you’re going to explore the pier area, be careful. It is in a serious state of disrepair.
Large chunks of half-finished pillars hang precariously a couple of meters above the water, as do metre-long pieces of rusty, lance-like rebar that could easily send you to the hospital (you don’t want to go to Pulau Weh’s hospital). Be very careful ascending and descending around the pier.
Wisata Gua Sarang
Gua Sarang is a lookout point on the much less visited western side of the island, about a 20 minute scooter-ride from Iboih. It is another place that is not listed as an official or known snorkeling destination in any of the online materials or visited by any of the bungalows/resorts on the island–at least not for marine life.
It’s a viewpoint and “fun” area (there are some swings and a small cafe perched on the bluff beside the viewing platform) that is popular with locals. There is also, apparently (I didn’t visit), an impressive cave not far along the coast where large numbers of swallows roost.
While admiring the landscape, I immediately noticed that the little bay below looked promising–especially the right-hand side that I have indicated in red.
I didn’t have my snorkelling stuff with me that day, but I told myself I would come back and check it out. I was glad I did.
The area marked off with Xs in the image above was home to the most extensive and healthiest hard coral I saw on Pulau Weh. It was the spot most reminiscent of more exotic places in the Coral Triangle, with large fields of multi-coloured table, cup and staghorn coral in good condition.
The series of rock spires that I circled in that same image presented interesting underwater valleys and gorges to snorkel through and the volcanic rock was covered in sponges, corals and plenty of nooks and crannies for cryptic crevice dwellers. There were a lot of nudibranchs here.
There is no official entry point at this spot. You have to descend the steep, slippery stairs to the rocky beach below (there are reportedly over 100 steps), and walk over loose, smooth stones for about 200 metres to get to the far end of the bay. A safer alternative would be to enter just at the bottom of the stairs and swim over.
The entry and exit close to where I’ve marked the image in red are hairy–sharp volcanic rocks. If you are reasonably sure-footed and take it slow, however, you are rewarded with a gorgeous coral garden entirely to yourself.
To my surprise, I didn’t experience any currents in this area. It looked like there would be some when looking down from the viewpoint. But, like pretty much everywhere in Indonesia, it is something to be on the lookout for both before and during your snorkel.
Long Beach is another place I didn’t bother with on my first trip to Pulau Weh because I was so content with Iboih and the Japanese Bunker.
I decided to have a look this time around and it’s home to some pretty nice hard coral–comparable to Gua Sarang–and far better than any coral you’re going to see just around the corner in Iboih.
This spot is about 3km from Iboih towards kilometre zero (indicated with the red line on the map).
There are several resorts along the beach, and they would probably be nice places to stay if you were looking for a bit more isolation than you get in Iboih. I went in the off-season, so these places were completely empty.
My girlfriend and I had the whole beach to ourselves, and the caretaker at Seluaku Viewpoint, where we entered, had no problem letting us lounge around on the resort’s wooden chairs after we finished.
I wasn’t too impressed with the diversity or quantity of fishlife here, although it was the only place I saw a banded sea krait this time around. Long Beach is somewhere you would come more for the coral than the fish, though, as I’ve said, you never know what you will spot around Pulau Weh.
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Other considerations when visiting Pulau Weh
Of course, if you’re reading this article, you’ve likely come to Pulau We for, above all else, the marine life, and I hope I’ve already convinced you that it’s worth your while.
That said, here are a few more things to keep in mind about the island that might sway your decision.
Another reason to love Pulau Weh is its affordability. I spent 1000CAD on a bungalow that I split with my girlfriend, a month’s worth of eating out three meals a day (and eating well to replenish the crazy amount of calories I was burning), a 150cc motorbike I rented for the entire time and gasoline for the bike.
At the time of writing this, that was 677EUR and 725USD.
Pulau Weh is dry
I like a drink at night, but Aceh, which was given special legal status by Jarkta following a decades-long insurgency and independence movement, observes fairly strict Sharia.
Alcohol is very much haram, although there is a de facto exception made for any establishments catering to Western tourists that want to discretely offer drinks–mostly boring Indonesian beer like Bintang, but also, in some places, cocktails.
Depending on the place, the absence of that end-of-day drink can be more or less of a demerit, but Pulau Weh is such a constant pleasant sensory overload that a buzz doesn’t really add much. I did, however, start smoking again, just during my time there. Love those terrible Indonesian clove ciggies (especially with a cup of delicious Acehnese coffee).
You can also BYOB. A group of Norwegians mixing gin and tonics on the dock one afternoon informed me that each person arriving in Aceh is allowed to bring one litre of spirits with them. Something to keep in mind.
Indonesian cleanliness and hygiene standards
I love Indonesia so much that I’m willing to suffer through my inherited hypochondria every time I come.
Pulau Weh is not only typical Indonesia in that sense, but it is quite off the beaten track, in addition to being a budget diving destination, and the tourism industry is new compared with places like Bali, Komodo and Sulawesi. Expect, to varying degrees, dirty pillows and mattresses and gross bathrooms.
Somewhat difficult to get to
Another important consideration when visiting Pulau Weh is that the logistics can be a bit complicated.
You have to connect through either Kuala Lumpur or Medan. Flight cancellations are not uncommon. The cretinous and infuriating Airasia cancelled the first leg of my trip (Krabi, Thailand to KLIA), making it impossible to rebook something for the same day that would get me into Kuala Lumpur in time to catch my onward flight to Banda Aceh, forcing me to leave a day early, spend a night in a gross KLIA hotel and several hours at the KLIA airport before my flight.
Another thing is that flight schedules to and from both of Banda Aceh’s connection hubs seem to be such that, on the way to Pulau Weh, you have to spend a night in Banda Aceh because you don’t arrive in time to catch the last ferry to the island and then on the way back, you probably need to spend another night before continuing onto KL, Jakarta, Singapore or Thailand or kill 5+ hours before another delayed evening flight out.
I haven’t had it happen yet, but ferry cancellations and major delays are also very common in Indonesia.
The upside is that all of this rigamarole, understandably, dissuades many people from coming, meaning Weh remains far more authentic and untrammelled than most other places with a tourism economy in SE Asia.
While I felt a bit guilty celebrating the very obvious underdevelopment of the island as someone enjoying the best it had to offer, local people seemed very content with their religion, strong family units and simple living on their little Indian Ocean paradise.
There is also no discernable tourist fatigue here. Quite the opposite, in fact.
You get a lot of people (especially kids) waving and saying hello as you ride around on a scooter, clearly still delighted by the novelty of European visitors. It is not uncommon to have people filming you and asking for photos (which can get annoying) or see children clinging to their mother’s legs, staring wide-eyed. This was especially the case with my freckly, red-haired Irish girlfriend.
On aggregate, the reactions are charming, and I like the idea that, despite everyone (as they do everywhere) living online and being bombarded with varying levels of homogenous global media and culture, a place like Weh still very much retains that stuck-in-time feeling that is increasingly hard to find.
Which brings me to my next consideration.
Download offline translator
There is a growing amount of English spoken by local people on Pulau Weh (noticeably more in 2023 than in 2019), but it is still the vast majority of Sabangers who speak, for most intents and purposes, zero.
If you plan on doing a lot of exploring on your own, you will run into these people often, but you will still need to be able to communicate–to ask whether you can or can’t do something, where you can find something, how much something costs. I had swimmer’s ear for a couple of days, and I needed my translation app to explain to the pharmacist what I was suffering from and what I needed.
You can download the offline version of most languages on Google if you aren’t going to get a SIM card.
If you want reliable internet, get a Telkomsel SIM
Above is an image of Pulau Weh featuring a colour-coded data coverage map of the island. Sabang City is, of course, by far the best place for coverage, with other locations a bit better or worse, along with significant dead zones.
Most bungalow and dive resorts have free wifi (that, along with the power, periodically cuts out), but if you want or need a more reliable internet connection while you’re there, get a Telkomsel SIM.
It’s a bit of a pain in the ass because the Indonesian government now makes all foreigners go to an official Telkomsel office and register their passports when buying a SIM and a temporary phone number.
Inconvenient, plus I wonder what kind of data the Indonesian government is collecting on you–and how well the server it is stored on is protected.
I eventually bought 100GB for around 25 dollars, and it was very convenient to have. Didn’t connect to the resort’s wifi once after that and watched the entirety of both Succession and Chernobyl in my bungalow over the course of the month with no issues.
You might want to bring your own coffee maker
Acehnese coffee (the beans) is delicious and cheap. I was buying two lbs for 37, 000 IDR from a little store in Gapang that was keeping it in generic plastic bags sealed with rubber bands–straight from the mountains on the mainland. That’s less than $2.50 USD for two pounds of some of the freshest, richest, smoothest coffee you’ll ever try.
The problem is that Indonesians (and most Southeast Asians, in my view) don’t prepare coffee properly. It’s either dehydrated instant diarrhoea or Turkish style (i.e., full of grounds), which the Asian sweet tooth then demands a horrifying amount of sweetened condensed milk be added to.
A couple of places on Sabang had an espresso machine and made good drinks but, by and large, if you order coffee at any of the bungalows or resorts, you’re getting it “Acehnese style.”
Incoming water cooler joke about coffee.
Caffeine is another of my vices, and I was willing to haul a $20 two-cup drip coffee maker with me from Krabi, Thailand to Weh so I could have fresh, delicious coffee every day. Alternatively, you could get a portable French Press/travel mug combo and then beg for hot water.
If you can’t do without coffee but aren’t willing to bring your own equipment, be prepared for severe disappointment or start drinking tea.
If you’re staying in Iboih or Gapang (and I’d wager a lot of other places), the mosquitoes are omnipresent and incessant.
I try not to wear repellent whenever possible and compensate with long pants and long sleeves, but Iboih made that impossible. And it wasn’t only at dusk and dawn. A swarm could come at any time of the day.
What’s more, people build dwellings on Weh with areas below the roof that are open to the outside to allow for ventilation, especially in bathrooms. This means your bathroom, if you’re staying in a bungalow in Iboih, might be full of mosquitoes.
I got got so many times I’m honestly surprised I didn’t get dengue.
As mentioned, Sharia. There are “no bikini” signs in places, and we were even reminded once (very politely) by a local guy as we were getting into the water at the Japanese Bunker.
We were already prepared, but the modesty expectations are real here. Indonesia is already quite a devoutly Islamic country, but Aceh is even more so.
That said, depending on where you’re staying (it’s good to check), as it is with alcohol, there will likely be dress-code double standards that apply to foreigners. Girls can wear bikinis (although I don’t think thongs would be appreciated), and guys can swim without a shirt on. Italian men should probably avoid speedos, however.
Rent a motorbike but be careful on the roads
I’ve spent a lot of time driving on Thai roads–the most dangerous for motorbike riders of all the ASEAN countries and one of the top ten most lethal, period–so Indonesia felt very familiar.
I can say for certain that I wouldn’t have had as good a time on Weh without the bike. However, if you are going to rent one, be prepared for the dangers.
The island is mountainous and roads can be comically steep in places (as well as extremely narrow). There are potholes, unsigned hairpin turns, errant rocks and debris that have fallen off mountainsides and off the backs of trucks, people double parked around blind corners, slippery gravel roads under construction (with no warning signs and no one directing traffic), cows, goats, dogs, chickens and cats all over the place, and your standard completely out to lunch drivers doing all manner of dangerous and idiotic things.
While the island, like most of SE Asia, is dominated by motorbikes, you are also sharing the pavement with cars, vans, cement trucks, lorries, school buses and tuk-tuks.
What this means is that, ideally, you should be hugging the left-hand side of the road at all times and honking when you round especially tight bends, to let any oncoming cars know that there is a fragile human body hurdling towards them in the opposite direction.
The diving videos on Weh didn’t seem that impressive
What I mean by that is that if you are a confident swimmer, are able to free dive down 5+ metres and stay down, and have a decent eye for reef life, there isn’t much that you can’t see snorkeling/free diving that you would only see diving.
There are some offshore sites that are inaccessible to snorkelers where your chances of seeing sharks and other pelagics are much higher. But, for the most part, 3-12 metres is enough to see all of the cool stuff around Pulau Weh.
I sat and eavesdropped on many diver conversations and felt vindicated when I would hear people marvel at having seen a stingray or a moray eel. I have also watched most of the relatively small number of diving videos on YouTube from Weh, and what is shown isn’t orders of magnitude more spectacular than what I see snorkeling/freediving.
Unless you’re targeting some crazy basslets or cryptic crevice dwellers that are only found at depths of 25m-plus or maybe some sharks, and certainly if you want to see any of the remaining soft corals and gorgonians around Weh (that stuff isn’t available at shallower depths here) diving isn’t really a necessity.
No activities on Friday before 2 p.m.
Again, the Sharia.
This is something, however, that the locals don’t have a non-Muslim exception for. Part symbolic gesture by the local fishermen part Muslim holy day, Friday means no water-based activities before 2 p.m.
That is no diving, no snorkelling, no swimming.
I’m not going to pretend it didn’t annoy me, but it’s something you will have to observe.
I actually tried to chance it this time around because my swimmer’s ear had kept me out of the water for four days, and my first day back at it fell on a Friday, so I couldn’t resist.
What ended up happening was that I was very politely reminded by a local man, using Google Translate, that there was no swimming until after 2 p.m. for religious reasons. My initial, perhaps slightly arrogant, impulse was to think, “Who are you, random civilian, to tell me when I am and am not allowed to enjoy my holiday?” but there were 10-or-more people close by and while I’ve only had pleasant interactions with people in Aceh, they did fight a separatist guerilla war for three decades and, at least as recently as 2021, they were still caning people for gay sex, so I’m not sure how quickly things might turn unfriendly if one didn’t comply.
Weh’s scenery is, in some respects, even more impressive above water. A labyrinth of steep winding roads crisscrosses the island, taking you above sheer, jungle-covered volcanic cliffs reminiscent of the Napali Coast of Kauai.
Small farms and coconut groves are dotted along deep green valleys that lead down to clear, azure water. It is a place made to be explored by scooter or motorcycle.
When I first came to Pulau Weh in 2019, I was hopeful I would be able to experience the island’s forests. Large stretches of in-tact jungle cover the mountainous interior, and you frequently see snakes, frogs, monitor lizards, gorgeous birds and monkeys while driving around.
Unfortunately, there are almost no hiking areas anywhere on the island. The “go for a hike” recommendations in the “top x things to do in Pulau Weh” generic travel blogger articles that dominate the search results for Weh point you towards a very trash-strewn and unimpressive 20-minute footpath and a couple of creek crossings that take you to a crowded local waterfall.
You visit Pulau Weh for the ocean and the marine life. The food is meh (both Western and Indonesian)–not bad, but certainly nothing to write home about. A lot of nasi goreng and banana pancakes.
I spoke to a few different people around the breakfast table during my month there whose impression of Weh was that it was “boring.” Bear in mind that this was the opinion of people who, themselves, seemed quite boring, had refused to rent a scooter and were the most casual of casuals regarding snorkelling, diving and interest in marine life.
There you go. I think I’ve made a good case for why Pulau Weh is so special, as well as laid out some of the most important information for visitors.
If you are willing to accept that this is an island whose coral has been pretty thoroughly devastated by both natural disasters and rising ocean temperatures, the sometimes trying cultural differences, and the effort required to get there, Weh is a special place.