Fiercely independent and historically at odds with the central authorities in Jakarta, Aceh is now classified as a Special Region of Indonesia. It is overwhelmingly Muslim and has become the first province of this vast and mainly religiously moderate archipelago to formally impose Sharia Law in 2005. Alcohol is strictly banned, as is drug use and gambling. Controversially, the local government has also started to make pronouncements about women's dress codes and has banned women from riding motorcycles with their legs apart. Women's rights groups and NGOs have expressed concern about the growing stringency of Sharia in the province. Aceh is in some ways still reeling from the physical, psychological and economic trauma inflicted by the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami which struck on 26 December 2004, killing more than 31,000 people in the regional capital Banda Aceh alone. But recent improvements in the security situation, including the cessation of a decades-long separatist insurrection that blighted the region, are seeing a new Aceh rise out of the mud.
Aceh is a major producer of Grade-A coffee; it is blessed with abundant timber, rice and off-shore natural gas reserves. In addition to his it has all the potential for becoming an unspoilt tourist haven. Aceh is finally coming in from the cold. Budget airlines, both domestic and international, are making the journey to this once isolated tip of Sumatra a cheap and easy proposition with the regions' capital, Banda Aceh, being geographically far closer to Kuala Lumpur than to Jakarta, the nation's capital.
Chris Stowers has travelled the length of breadth of Indonesia over the years and found a vibrant, positive and dynamic Aceh, hugely changed from the devastated moonscape that greeted him in the days after the 2004 Tsunami.