Above: Hills above the Garut Valley, with a view to Mount Cikuray.
Riding out Java’s wet season in the company of volcanoes, rice fields, temples, and Indian Ocean beaches.
Story and Photography by Chris Kirkpatrick
You wouldn’t think that someone would be able to miss the turnoff to Indonesia’s fourth-largest city. But there I was, 30 kilometers past the exit, asking a tollbooth attendant what must have been the lamest question of his career: “Bandung di mana?”—Where is Bandung?
The provincial capital of West Java, Bandung sprawls across a volcano-fringed highland plateau. Some two million people live here —millions more if you include the suburbs. It’s not, in other words, the kind of place you can easily overlook. And since this was to be my first stop on a five-day drive from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, not being able to find it bode ill for my navigational skills.
In my defense, the weather was atrocious. An hour outside Jakarta, the dark, gravid clouds above the Cikampek Toll Road —an eight-lane highway crawling with what looked like 12 lanes of trucks and buses—issued forth a biblical deluge. The car I was driving, a blindingly white all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz SUV, handled it well, but even so, and with wipers working furiously fore and aft, visibility was down to maybe 100 meters. It was like trying to negotiate a sandstorm, with the additional thrill of feeling that I might hydroplane into the verge at any moment. What should have been a two-hour drive stretched on for four, though admittedly that included a couple of nerve-shattered halts at rest stops. Whose dumb idea was it to do this trip in the wet season, anyway?
So when I got to the 180-kilometer mark, I knew Bandung had to be at hand. I just couldn’t see it. Curtains of mist had closed in on either side of the road. Exit signs flew past overhead offering all sorts of suggestions: Baros, Pasteur, Pasirkoja, Buah Batu—none of which were marked on my pathetically inadequate 1:600,000-scale map. And then came Cileunyi, the end of the line, at least as far as the toll road was concerned.
“Bandung di mana?”
“You missed it,” the tollbooth attendant replied in Indonesian, with a bemused expression. “You should have gotten off at the main exit, Pasteur.”
Pasteur, as it turns out, is an area of southwest Bandung named for Louis Pasteur, the pioneering French chemist who gave us some of the earliest vaccines, the foundations of modern microbiology, and, of course, pasteurization. Indonesia’s first vaccine laboratory, the Pasteur Institute, was established here in the early 20th century.
“Why don’t they just call the turnoff ‘Bandung’?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Everybody knows Pasteur.”
On paper, Bandung sounds like a fine place. The city served as a Dutch hill station in the colonial era, during which time its smart, café-lined boulevards earned it the nickname Parijs van Java—“the Paris of Java.” Today, Bandung is the cultural hub of the Sundanese, as the original inhabitants of West Java are known. It’s peppered with fabulous Art Deco buildings and, thanks to the presence of some of the country’s top universities, has a pleasant college-town vibe, matched by an equally pleasant climate.
But the traffic—oh, the traffic. I live in Jakarta, which is congested enough, but in Bandung, it was bumper-to-bumper all the way, with streams of motorcycles and scooters pressing in on all sides, invariably setting off the Mercedes’ proximity alarm. I had in any case no interest in the city’s sights, let alone its much-ballyhooed “Jeans Street,” where storefronts hawk denim in the shadow of giant plaster displays (a bazooka-toting Rambo comes to mind). This trip was supposed to be about exploring the Javanese countryside, and I wanted to stay as far away from urban life as the logistics of my journey would allow.
So my choice of digs couldn’t have been better. Perched on the side of a small, forested ravine in Bandung’s northern hills, the Padma proved to be more resort than hotel, with newly renovated rooms overlooking a long swimming pool and a neat, grass-topped pavilion. It was cool, in every sense: dining on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace, with a wall of moonlit greenery just a bread-roll’s toss away, I realized belatedly that I should have packed a jacket. At 900 meters above sea level, the night air was decidedly crisp.
I was up early the next morning to take a closer look at some of those volcanoes that I could see from my window. Getting to Tangkuban Perahu—the name means “overturned boat”—involved a winding detour north, but it was worth it, if only for the bragging rights of having driven to the very edge of a still-steaming crater. From there, I made my way back down to the main road, bypassing downtown Bandung and joining the two-lane highway to Garut at Cileunyi.