PRIYA GANAPATHY traipses around Jawa Barat from Bandung to Banjar by train, bus, boat, bicycle and rubber tube to experience real Javanese culture and cuisine that thrives in its kampungs (villages)
There’s more to Indonesia that Bali’s beaches or temples like Borobodur. With over 17,000 islands strewn across the world’s largest archipelago, the opportunities for offbeat explorations are endless. I found myself on a train from Bandung to Banjar, as Jawa Barat (West Java) slowly unfolded its pastoral charms. We chugged past lush mountains and brown swollen rivers slithering like snakes through the countryside where farmers in conical hats toiled in their fields. At Banjar, we tried pecel, a local salad served on banana leaf that tingled with spices, crunchy fresh vegetables and peanut sauce.
We took a bus to the lyrically named Pangandaran, a peninsular tract between Central and West Java. Welcomed with traditional batik blangkon (knotted headscarf), worn by Indonesian men, we tucked into an Indonesian buffet at the beachside Hotel Arnawa, replete with fountains and rooms facing a large curvy pool. Later, we set off on bicycles for a cross-country ride to explore surrounding fishing hamlets.
Located at the isthmus in Java’s south coast, with a national park occupying the fanning headland, Pangandaran is Javanese for ‘a place to make food or earn a living.’ Villagers in thatched huts gutted fish, sorting and drying them outside as cats prowled about picking at the dried fish strewn around. We pedalled past overturned boats lying in open beaches and rode down lanes lined by pretty cottages half-hidden by trees laden with jackfruit, oranges and hairy rambutan.
Pangandaran has two beaches, one on the west and another on the east. At its narrowest point, the neck is only 200m apart! Local guide Taufiq remarked, “It offers the most spectacular panoramas of both sunrise and sunset.” It began raining and we took shelter nearby.
A young vendor tempted us with a cartload of snacks – from brown whirly putumaya made of brown sugar to the candy-coloured green and pink cetil or gurandil made of cassava. Klepon was a green orb garnished with coconut shavings with a syrupy centre that dribbled down our chins…
Hauling our bikes onto a raft for a river crossing, we cycled onwards to Tegal Jambe, a kampung (village) where villagers had arranged a cultural program. Shy ladies offered us local rainbow-hued sweets, snacks, steamed roots and fruits neatly adorned in woven baskets.
A chime of woody clicks, tinkles and thrumming beats announced the troupe of black-clad musicians who enthralled us with a superb kentongan (bamboo slit-drum) performance. Led by a comedian–like leader, the Rombongan Bojong Jati ensemble entertained us with traditional Javanese music on angklungs (bamboo instruments).
The predominant home industry here is making gulah merah (brown sugar). Fresh palm nectar tapped from flowers is heated in a large vessel till it caramelises and thickens. Once poured into a mould and cooled, the palm sugar is tapped out as roundels. Being a coastal area, the brackish soil imbues the nectar with a hint of saltiness! Villagers demonstrated how to shin up coconut trees barefoot, strip nipah palm leaf to weave baskets and scoop out tender atap chee (palm fruit). Translucent, like shelled lychee, it is widely used in local sweet dishes.
Most visitors head to Green Canyon for hiking, boating, kayaking and bodyrafting, but we trundled in an outsized bus on an undersized road to the quieter Santirah. “When it rains, the Green Canyon turns murky but Santirah remains clear,” Taufiq revealed. The river tubing or bodyrafting adventure along a pristine 1½ km stretch lasts two hours. Great for all ages, it involves perching on the edge of a large rubber tube, leaning back with feet tucked in the crook of the arm of the person seated in the tube ahead. Thus, with limbs interlinked, the group whooshes down the river, like a human caterpillar!
A clean gurgling river with delightful rapids, four limestone cave tunnels and five waterfalls to soak under, you savour the filigreed canopy of evergreen trees opening into sun-drenched emerald pools and thrilling cliff jumping; Santirah was the highlight of my trip. Being the only ones around, save dragonflies and butterflies hovering overhead, this was a secret side of West Java few knew of. We refuelled at a local shack with fried gorengan (batter-fried cassava and bananas), mi goreng (chicken noodles) and susu jahe (ginger milk)!
After a short busride to Batukaras, we took a boat cruise into the mangrove tracts along the Cijulang or Green Canyon River, named after the reflective green and blue plankton. Aboard the thatched craft, Shane Josa Resort had arranged a lip-smacking seafood lunch of fried fish, crayfish and batter-fried prawns with rice and local greens.
Disembarking at the Sinjang Kalang pier, we hung around the surfer hangout Batukaras Beach sipping honge juice at RM Kang Ayi. The strange fruit of the torch ginger, shaped like a pineapple-lollipop studded with berries, was blended into an aromatic pink juice with a tart salty-sweet bite.
Back in Pangandaran, we witnessed Kuda Lumping – a scintillating traditional horse dance at Bamboo Restaurant performed by dancers with painted horses and puppets who slipped into a trance after consuming a shaman’s magic potion. They say, a trip to Pangandaran is incomplete without catching the famous sunrise.
Though deadbeat, I left early, defying the cloudy weather to watch dark waves gilded by the first sunrays. Fisherman silhouetted against the horizon drew in their first catch as children leapt in the waves, awash with the refreshing spirit of dawn.
Fly to Bandung via Kuala Lumpur (13-14 hrs) on Malindo Air or via Changi on Singapore Air (15-16 hrs). From Bandung take a train to Banjar and a 2 hr bus ride to Pangandaran or a direct 7hr bus journey from Bandung.
Where to Stay
The Arnawa Hotel, Pangandaran
Ph 0265 639194
Shane Josa Resort, Batukaras
Mini Tiga Homestay, Pangandaran
Ph +62265639436, +6287826393801
Gino Feruci, Bandung
Ph +262 224200099
Hotel Bidakara Grand Savoy Homann, Bandung
Ph +262 2242332244
For more info, www.visitindonesia.co.in
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in HT City/Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper on 21 May, 2018.