It was when I was 15 feet above a river inlet, balancing nervously on a primitive foot bridge consisting of 3 thick bamboo poles loosely tied together, that I knew this was the Indonesia I had wanted to see.
Truly off-the-beaten path, the island of Simeulue feels like it’s on the brink of discovery. 150 miles off the coast of Sumatra, it only recently recovered from earthquakes that altered its landscape and tilted it on its axis. Its population of 80,000 is scattered around the island in pockets of villages, and being there feels like a real cultural immersive experience: there are no bustling markets or traffic jams, no restaurants serving foreign foods, and no crowded bars offering happy hour drinks. Life is simple: there are stunning beaches and lush jungles, both of which offer a chance for true escapism.
Traveling to Simeulue feels like taking a step back in time, perhaps to what Bali might have been years ago before commercialization and gentrification; before tourism engulfed the island. Landing on the thin airstrip at the local airport, you sense that time-lapse immediately. After disembarking the plane, there is no baggage claim or official stamp of entry. The captain hands you your luggage and you step right into village life. The first thing my eyes landed on was a scene of young children fishing in a little stream right off the airport parking lot.
“Traveling to Simeulue feels like taking a step back in time, perhaps to what Bali might have been years ago before commercialization and gentrification.”
Though it is known predominately in surfing circles, Simeulue offers much more than just a surf swell and reef break. Littered with beautiful beaches, coral reefs, swimming holes, rainforests, waterfalls, and animal life, there are plenty of places to explore and relax. It’s not unlikely for buffalos and goats to roam the streets and beaches, openly grazing on the lush green landscapes. Villagers, many of whom do not speak any English, play on the streets and sit out on the porch, greeting everyone with a wave and a friendly smile.
Although most of our group had traveled to Simeulue to surf, we did decide to employ local guides to help us explore the inner island as well. That’s when I found myself on that bamboo bridge, amazed at the Indonesia I was seeing. After navigating a number of those bridges through fields rife with buffalo, we entered the jungle. Our fearless guides hacked away with machetes to create a path towards a small river, where we continued our journey upstream. Under shrubs and around fallen trees, through streams and over rocks, we made it to a waterfall deep in the thick of the jungle. We only had a few moments to enjoy it before a thunderstorm sounded in the distance. Because it was the wet season, we were warned that we had to leave.
We were told that 6 hours upstream, there was an even bigger waterfall where overnight camping is allowed; our guides insisted that we begin our descent, though, because of the impending downpour. They were right: torrential rain bucketed down as thunder cracked through the air. Completely soaked within seconds, we couldn’t help but laugh at the scene. We continued on, reaching the bamboo bridges. Remembering how they creaked on our way up, we chose to wade into the river instead, water waist-high as we made our way across. Then, about halfway to the next field, we heard a loud crack and a splash; running back, we found one of our friends standing in the stream, cracking up at what had just happened.
Finally, we reached our van, tired but happy with this incredible adventure.
If you are looking to beat the crowds, have coastlines and jungles to yourself, enjoy authentic Indonesian and Simeluean cuisine, and experience village life untouched by development, I urge you to travel to Simeulue. So few places feel untouched – undisturbed – but Simeulue is one of those. Check out my travel recommendations below, and go off and explore on your own.
How to get there:
Susi Air flies from Medan to Sinabang daily. Seating capacity aboard the flight is 10. Surfboards are allowed.
Where to stay:
MahiMahi Bungalows and Boat Charters is a recently-built green resort in Simeulue that is dedicated to the conservation and protection of the endangered Leatherback and Green turtles on Pulau Bangkaru; they give 10% of their profits to Pulau Bangkaru conservation efforts. They are also the only resort currently on the island to offer boat charters for exploring nearby coral reefs, snorkeling, fishing, and surfing.
It is recommended that you withdraw money from the ATM at the Medan airport. There are ATMs on Simeulue Island but they only accept VISA and are generally unreliable with foreign cards.
As the majority of people in Simeulue are Muslim, women and men are respectfully asked to dress modestly outside the confines of their accommodation. This means no bikinis or topless sunbathing on the main beach, though doing so is permissible on the uninhabited islands that can be accessed by MahiMahi’s speedboat.