Sumatra might not be the first place that comes to mind when you picture tropical islands, pristine beaches, snorkeling, and diving – but it should be! Visiting Pulau Weh (Weh Island) – also known as Sabang – provides all those things and more, with less crowds and more authenticity than many of Indonesia’s more popular beach destinations.
This island off the northern coast of the Aceh province is pretty easy to reach, and one of Sumatra’s premium beach destinations.
Every trip we take to Pulau Weh reveals new hidden treasures and adventures – from snorkeling underwater volcanoes to discovering secret, deserted beaches.
Read on to see the most awesome things to do in Pulau Weh, and schedule this tropical island paradise into your Sumatra trip!
Snorkel or dive at an underwater volcano
Sure, you can snorkel or dive in many spots around Pulau Weh, but have you REALLY lived life if you haven’t explored an active underwater volcano? We’ll let you decide.
Pantai Pria Laot can be found about halfway between Iboih and the main town of Sabang. Not heavily signposted (when we visited, anyway) keep your eyes peeled for small signs. You don’t need to head far offshore to find the area (just follow your nose towards the sulphurous scent of rotten eggs). You’ll see bubbles rising from the cracks in the coral and experience the increasing warmth of the water coming from the depths of the earth.
The coral here is in pretty good nick, with a variety of colours and plenty of marine life, although it’s not quite as abundant as you’ll find over at Rubiah Island.
This was a nice spot to snorkel, with no other people there when we visited. Although I was constantly paranoid about a vent opening up and boiling me alive in the ocean – but that’s just me…
At our last visit, there were no facilities here, so you’ll need to come prepared and bring your own snorkeling gear along – or join a dive tour with one of the many dive centers based in Iboih. This is one of the most unforgettable things to do in Pulau Weh.
Visit the Northernmost point of Indonesia
If you’re staying on Pulau Weh, it’d almost be rude not to pay a pilgrimage to Kilometer Nol, the “beginning” of Indonesia. Marked with an impressive monument, you can get the obligatory selfie at the top of this island nation.
If you’re staying at Iboih, it’s a pleasant journey up some picturesque coastline to get there. From other areas like Pantai Sumur Tiga, it’s a bit more of a trek, but worth it as part of a day trip exploring the island.
Because this is one of the most popular thing to do in Pulau Weh, there are plenty of souvenir shops and places selling snack food, but there’s really not a heck of a lot else. If you make the journey, carry on past the monument down the hill to find a boardwalk leading through some coastal forest which takes you to some sweet coastal views.
Walk on a volcano – without the trekking!
Perfect for the lazy adventurer, the Jaboi Geothermal Spot lets you walk around an active volcano – without having to hike up any mountains. There’s green and yellow boiling streams, steaming, sulphorous vents, and that delightful rotten egg aroma as accompaniment.
The arid environment dotted with dead and burned trees makes for an otherworldly landscape, and the journey there through forest is a beautiful one.
Head to the southwest of the island to find this stinky spot.
Explore Rubiah Island
This is one of the prime snorkelling and diving spots in Pulau Weh. Just a short boat trip (we’re talking five minutes) from Iboih brings you to this small island surrounded by coral gardens and teeming with multicoloured fish.
This is one of the busiest spots in all of Pulau Weh, often packed with locals and people learning to dive. It’s hard to move around without bumping heads with another snorkeler.
But if you skip the main area (where the boats drop you off) and take a short walk across the centre of the island to the other side, you’ll find an almost deserted bay with equally spectacular marine life that you won’t have to share with the hoards.
Even if you’re not into water activities, take a day trip to Rubiah. Not many people bother to explore the rest of this island, but it’s totally worth doing. Follow the hidden, overgrown paths that wind along the coastline and you’ll discover abandoned bunkers from the war days, gorgeous bush, and lots of places to snap photos of that unbelievably clear, turquoise water.
Bathe under a waterfall
Sumatra has no shortage of waterfalls, and Air Terjun Pria Laot is Pulau Weh’s most famous.
Head inland from Pantai Pria Laot (pantai means beach) – where the underwater volcano is – to find it; there will be plenty of signs guiding the way.
You’ll have to ditch your scooter to head to the waterfall on foot, but it’s an easy 20 minute stroll along the river and through some lush forested areas. You need to cross over the stream in a few spots, so if you have mobility issues, bear this in mind.
As one of the more famous things to do in Pulau Weh, you may not have this spot to yourself, but it is seldom crowded. There’s a sizeable pool underneath to cool off in.
One of the coolest things we saw when heading to the waterfall was an enormous flock of flying foxes (fruit bats) in the trees on the way. I think we spent more time watching them than we did at the actual waterfall – but it depends on what floats your boat!
Hit a beach.. or five or six
Obvs, the key attraction of heading to a tropical island is the chance to sit on a beach and soak up the sun. And there are plenty of places to do just that in Pulau Weh.
Iboih Beach isn’t so well set up for this, with only a tiny sandy area at the mouth of the peninsula.
Gapang Beach is more suitable, with a sweet little bay dotted with restaurants and guesthouses.
Pantai Sumur Tiga lies on the other side of the island. It’s the picture-perfect stretch of white sand – the longest on Pulau Weh. There’s very little to do over this side other than stay in one of the fantastic accommodations (we love Freddie’s) and chill out under the palm trees.
If finding hidden bays is top of your list of things to do in Pulau Weh, just hire a scooter and go! The roads are good, there’s no crazy traffic, and plenty to discover. We found a completely deserted white sand beach without a single soul not far from Iboih (where my bag – with mobile phone and all – got stolen by a monkey when we weren’t looking – but that’s a story for another day).
We’re not going to spill all the secrets here (okay, maybe you can twist our arms if you send us an email), but seriously – just hit the road and explore. It makes the discoveries so much more rewarding.
How to get to Pulau Weh
There is an airport on the island, with flights arriving and departing twice a week. If you can fit your schedule around the flights, this is the most straightforward and reliable way to get there.
Alternatively, fly into Banda Aceh airport, which supports both domestic and international flights. From there, grab a becak (motorcycle taxi) to the port and jump on either the slow or fast ferry across. If you have a tight schedule, be aware that if the seas are bad, the boats won’t go and you may be trapped on the island; this has happened to me two out of the three times I’ve visited!
Of course you can drive from elsewhere in Sumatra to Banda Aceh. There are overnight buses that are relatively comfortable, or hire a driver. Just remember it’s going to be a rather long journey, particularly if you are coming from Medan.
What you should know about Pulau Weh
Pulau Weh is part of the Aceh province – a predominantly Muslim area. As such, you’ll need to dress and behave appropriately. There’s nothing to be afraid of, but as a responsible tourist, you should always respect the culture of the places you visit.
Most beaches on the island will not allow bikinis – the signage indicates this – and sometimes even men going topless is discouraged. Swim in shorts and a t-shirt where possible, or check with your accommodation; the beach in front of Freddie’s is one of the exceptions we know about.
Alcohol is hard to come by; there are no corner shops selling Bintangs here! Foreigners can purchase and consume wine and beer at a few places here and there, but should do so discreetly.
Do you have any questions about visiting Pulau Weh? We can give you tips on the best places to stay – just send us an email.
First time travelling to Sumatra? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Travelling Sumatra for all the tips and essential info.