Bali remains a favourite holiday destination in Indonesia, but the erstwhile Dutch outpost of Bandung, capital of West Java, offers its own singular pleasures, writes PRIYA GANAPATHY
Thick plumes of grey clouds shrouded Bandung, forcing the Malindo Airlines pilot to land in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. One more place to see from the window thanks to stormy weather, I mused, before landing in Bandung four hours later. The first discovery to hit me in Indonesia was my name emblazoned on the men’s washroom! Nelson, my guide chuckled, “Pria means Gentleman in Indonesian! We say, “Pria dan Wanita” for ‘Gentleman and Ladies’.” Nice shocker to kick-start my week-long trip in the world’s largest archipelago.
While Bali remains a favoured holiday destination, I was thrilled to begin in the erstwhile Dutch outpost of Bandung, capital of West Java. I walked in the drizzle from Gino Feruci, a hotel in the heart of town to the popular Braga Permai, earlier Maison Bogerijen, a historic 1923 restaurant for dinner. As the only Indian travel writer in a large blogger group from Kuala Lumpur and Java, I was welcomed with a gusty round of applause for my long voyage to the East Indies.
Mas Aan, my new Indonesian friend elaborated, “Travelling across Indonesia, you discover a variety of cultures. There are 17,000 islands, each with its own unique traditions! We have 800 native languages and almost 1000 different tribes!” The western part is very popular, mainly because of food. The ancient flourishing trade that Sumatra enjoyed with Arabia and India ensured that many flavours and spices perked up their cuisine.
I had “Bandrek” the traditional drink served in a tall glass as an alternative to soup. This Sundanese beverage is a delightful concoction of water, jahe (ginger), gula merah (palm sugar) and kayu manis (cinnamon) and a perfect highland drink to warm you on a cold night. Indonesians enjoy a wide range of “Jamu” or local herbal beverages prepared at home or sold at street corners.
I tried “bajigur”, popular in central and east Java, made of coconut milk, brown sugar, ginger and salt. Each drink has unique benefits and is a panacea for beauty or health. Bounded by the sea, there was plenty of seafood and we gleefully gave in to crab and egg fried rice with Puyung hi – a thick omelette laden with vegetables.
Visitors can hop onto Street Gourmet Bandung, the first Indonesian Resto Bus that gives a City Tour with a choice of Sundanese meals. In the morning, Bandung’s distinctly Dutch touch was apparent in its heritage architecture and European-style buildings, cafes and boutiques lining Braga Street. Nicknamed Paris van Java or ‘Paris of Java’ in its heyday, the tag holds true till date. Bandung’s glut of factory outlets has morphed the town into a crowded shopping and fashion capital where traders and tourists buy branded goods at throwaway prices! Cihampelas Street has been dubbed as ‘Jeans Street.’ Yet, under its cloak of urbanity, Bandung hides a lot of history.
The Bandung Conference
From the Dutch colonial era to Indonesian Independence in 1945, Bandung witnessed several tumultuous events. The Dutch considered a strategic shift of their capital Batavia (Jakarta) to Bandung but the move was foiled by World War II. In April 1955, Bandung shot to fame as the venue for the first Asia-Africa or Bandung Conference, when President Soekarno invited heads of state from 29 countries, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru from India, to join hands for world peace and fight oppression.
Nehru stayed at the heritage Grand Savoy Homann Hotel, which preserves suites of its high-profile guests like President Soekarno and Nehru, besides relics and pictures of the event. From here he made the ‘Historical Walk’ with other world leaders to Gedung Merdeka, a monument and museum that preserves the memories and policies of visionary leaders who continue to inspire future generations.
Located on Jalan Asia-Afrika between the city’s most famous landmarks – Savoy Homann Hotel and Gedung Merdeka – stands Warenhuis de Vries building. The oldest department store in Bandung and a fine example of Dutch architecture, its quaint tower on the right corner is a major landmark.
Built in mid 19th century, it saw a few style changes in the early 1900s but after years of neglect, a superb restoration process by present owners Bank NISP OSBC has transformed it into a iconic symbol of Bandung’s cultural heritage. The distinct decorative street lampposts add a gorgeous touch of old world elegance to the road.
The historic Gedung Sate (Governor’s Residence), designed by Dutch architect J Gerber, was once the stronghold of the Dutch. The terrace overlooks manicured gardens, the city and distant hills. Traditional Indonesians believe that a home or edifice built facing a volcano will gain power and fortune.
True enough, in the horizon, the legendary volcanic mountain Tangkuban Perahu (‘overturned boat’ in Sundanese) makes its looming presence felt. Tourists often hike to its crater to witness the constantly bubbling hot springs and sulphur fumes – it last erupted in 2013! The Geological Museum in town is a great place to know more about the volcanic craters the region is famous for.
Clomping around in keloms
Traditional handicrafts thrive in Indonesia. At Kelom Geulis Sagitria Tasikmalaya, a Sundanese clog-making workshop, special wooden shoes called kelom or kelompen popularised by Dutch settlers, are crafted. Worn especially by women, the shoes became famous as Kelom Geulis meaning “beautiful clogs”. The owner, Rana and his son Kilan, outlined the process of how mahogany wood was fashioned into “kelompen”.
A craftsman deftly carved out a freehand design on leather with a sharp tool as another sprayed colour and livened up a sandal. A lady hammered a stud to fix a strap to wood while another inked a motif using a batik style bamboo spout called “canting”. We stood transfixed as plain wood pieces evolved into ‘designer footwear’.
Today, kelom guelis is a signature traditional Indonesian handicraft promoted by the government as formal footwear for women. Men have it good too with Sagitria’s Kelom Kasep, an exclusive range for men! ‘Kasep’ in Sundanese means ‘handsome’! They also craft the famous Mizutori ‘Geta’ sandals for the Japanese market. Wearing wooden shoes is said to be healthy as its shape and leather straps stimulate acupressure points. They are easy to wear, fashionable, durable and suitable for casual or dressy affairs.
Here’s the fun part. Visitors can try their hand at batik on clogs and return with a souvenir! I was already imagining myself clomping around the streets in my own “klompen”! At IDR 75,000 (₹360) a pair and an entire showroom of eye-catching designs, it didn’t get any better!
It was strange walking into a large strawberry doorway…but the cheery strawberry-themed Rumah Makan (restaurant) Liwet Pak Asep Stroberi at Tasikmalaya, is a standout for exotic local food. Sitting cross-legged in the traditional lunch hall surrounded by a tropical garden with lotus pools, we devoured a luscious spread of traditional Javanese and Sundanese food on a low long table.
Aromatic Nasi liwet (rice, oil, salt and red onion), Nasi tutug oncom (rice with fermented soya bean and coconut), the delicious Otak-Otak (grilled mackerel in banana leaf), assorted Gorengan (fries of tempe, tofu, banana, cassava), ikan asin (salted fish), Ayam bakar (Soya grilled chicken) and fried fish. The taste and presentation were outstanding. A cup of the infamous kopi luwak or civet cat coffee followed. Touted as the world’s most expensive coffee, this black velvety brew is made using the choicest cherries consumed and excreted by the civet cat!
Playing the anklung in Bandung
Back in Bandung the following day, a lovely surprise awaited us – a full-blown gamelan and angklung ensemble at Saung Angklung Udjo, a cultural centre that organises workshops where you learn how the angklung is made and how to play it. Children of all ages are trained by maestros to stage world-class performances of traditional music in a grand display of Indonesia’s traditional dances – with elaborate make-up and resplendent costumes.
Udjo is a perfect window to Indonesian culture. After an utterly engrossing presentation of Wayang Golek (puppet theatre) another emblematic Indonesian artform, the show began. In a space designed for audience participation, we were all soon playing Indonesia’s iconic instrument – the angklung! But the genius of maestro Daing Udjo and his live demo made us fall in love with Javanese music. The angklung orchestra even performed jazz standards and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody!
Born in Indonesia, the angklung is handcrafted out of simple bamboo and produces an inherently appealing wooden tinkle reminiscent of wind chimes. Its very name is an onomatopic derivation of the klung-klung sound it produces! The Udjo souvenir shop is a treasure of Indonesian handicrafts and goodies – fashion, fridge magnets, batik, bamboo crafts, woven baskets, clogs, besides a range of angklungs. I picked a chain with a tiny bamboo anklung pendant as a reminder of this beautiful country and its glorious cultural heritage.
Fly from Bangalore via Kuala Lumpur to Bandung on Malindo Air. From Bandung, Tasikmalaya is 116km southeast/3hr 30 min by road.
Visa on arrival $35. Currency Exchange 1 INR = 207.41 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah). Don’t let the zeroes bother you. India invented the zero, but Indonesia idolizes it, especially in its currency!
Where to Stay
Jl. Braga 67, Bandung
Ph +262 224200099 W: www.ginoferuci.com
Hotel Bidakara Grand Savoy Homann
Jl. Asia Afrika No 112 Bandung
Ph +262 2242332244, W: www.savoyhomann-hotel.com
Where to Eat
Jl. Braga 58, Bandung
Ph +62 22 4233 778 www.bragapermai.com
Liwet Pak Asep Stroberi
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 18 Aug, 2017. Here’s the original link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/life-style/travel/2017/aug/18/west-java-bandung–beyond-3158.html