West Java is a populous place, and the impression one gets while motoring through a seemingly endless procession of nondescript roadside villages is that just about every parcel of land here has had something built on it. I was relieved when the road began snaking south into the Garut highlands and the scenery opened up. It was raining again now, but the Mercedes—an ML350 model clearly built for speed and style—stayed in control beautifully, even if I didn’t get a chance to test the full potential of her 3.5-liter engine. We slalomed around steep bends draped with sodden bamboo, and past rushing rivers swollen by the monsoon. Closer to the town of Garut, the terrain flattened into a broad valley carved into the flanks of yet more volcanoes. Along the roadsides, pony-drawn carriages waited out the last of the rain under makeshift tarps.
Needing to stretch my legs, I decided to visit what appeared on my map to be the area’s main historical attraction, Candi Cangkuang. It’s a Hindu temple, a relic of the time before Islam swept across Java. If I had hoped for something along the scale of the Prambanan complex near Yogyakarta, I was to be disappointed. Candi Cangkuang is certainly old, dating from the eighth century, but it’s been heavily restored since its rediscovery in 1966. That, and it’s tiny, maybe eight meters high. The approach, however, was delightful: down a country lane to a small lake, where boatmen await to ferry you across to the temple on a bamboo raft.
There was also a boatman waiting for me at that night’s lodgings. Kampung Sampireun is set in the foothills of Mount Kendang, at the end of a long, paved track from Garut. Its thatch-and-bamboo guest cottages, built in the Sundanese style, encircle a lake of their own. My cottage lay across the water from the lobby; after checking in, I was rowed over in a canoe. Kampung Sampireun has its rustic side, but it’s also the best accommodation in the area, certainly much more atmospheric than the offerings in the nearby hot-springs resort of Cipanas. As the sun set, I sat on my porch dropping pellets of fish food (thoughtfully supplied at reception) into the gulping mouths of the lake’s prodigious carp. Then the muezzin’s call to prayer rippled across the water, mingling with the burr of cicadas.
I was sure i was going to lose my side-view mirror. The road from Banjar down to the coast at Pangandaran is a narrow one, and the ML350 is a wide car; even with the passenger-side wheels on the gravel shoulder, she was still riding the white line. Every time an oncoming truck or bus roared past just outside my window—which was pretty much every minute—I had visions of the mirror being ripped from its housing.
Pangandaran, a four-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Garut, is touted as Java’s premier beach resort. It may well be, though that doesn’t say much for the competition. Situated on an isthmus that terminates in a national park, the town is flanked by a sweep of black sand on either side. Sadly, the place is crowded beyond redemption, or at least it was on the weekend that I visited. Along the beach road, depressing concrete hotels overlooked a seafront buzzing with extended families, hawker stands, and freewheeling teenagers on growling ATVs.
The crashing surf of the Indian Ocean was dramatic enough, but it was all but drowned out by the pandemonium. Fortunately, a friend in Jakarta had tipped me off to a place called Java Cove, located another hour west in a fishing village called Batu Karas. It turned out to be a highlight of my trip, with only 14 modish rooms, a patio restaurant serving perfectly decent Western food, and views across a small bay toward the jungle-clad headlands of the Pangandaran Peninsula. It was also just a kilometer from Green Canyon, a primordial gorge lanced by a jade-hued river, which you get to by boat. Paul Edmiston, Java Cove’s Australian co-owner, described it to me as “something out of an Indiana Jones movie.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.