I’d been planning to visit Bandung for quite a while now, but never seemed to have an opportunity — until, on this trip, opportunity presented itself in the way of a training session being held there. With only two days midweek, most of them spent at work, it would be a short visit, but who was I to complain?
The trip didn’t start particularly well: after some confusion with the driver who showed up, who was evidently expecting an entirely different job, our project manager (fresh off the plane from Singapore) and I bundled into the car and hit the road. On the way out, the driver asked the garage security guard for directions towards the tollway, and headed out from the hotel, lazily looping first west and then north up Jl. Satrio. Not having been to Bandung before, I initially figured he was heading for some tollpike stretching east from Jak, but as he steadily drove north with occasional stops for directions from entirely random people (eg. beggar women living under a bridge), it slows dawned on us that he had absolutely no clue. I wasn’t much better equipped, and the boss’s nifty in-phone GPS map conveniently omitted Jakarta, but I did know that heading west to Slipi would take us to the highway, so that’s where we steered him. Not much later, I realized that he couldn’t read either, so we had to yell out “left!” or “right!” at each intersection… but we finally got onto the highway and, a little over an hour later, passed by the hotel we started from. Grumble.
By now it was pitch dark outside, so there wasn’t much in the way of the promised hilly scenery. The highway, though, made up for it in part. For a developing country, the roads on Java are really pretty extraordinary: the initial stretch of turnpike down from Jakarta towards Bandung is four-laned in both directions, and the newest bit, while “only” two-laned, swooped gracefully up and around the foothills as we climbed our way onto the plains. We stopped halfway through at the self-proclaimed Best Rest Area in Indonesia to stock up on chips and a worrisomely named bag of “Oops! Fugu” snacks (do they kill you if you peel them wrong?), and then hit the road again.
Another miniadventure awaited on arrival in Bandung, where I had to play charades until the driver understood that my incomprehensible request for an aye-tee-em meant that I wanted an ah-teh-em. Next, the driver wanted to know which bank’s ATM I wanted, because surely I could use only the right one? Both my meager Indonesian and charades skills failed at explaining the concept of “any ATM”, so I said BCA (Indonesia’s largest bank), and we then drove around in circles (and past not a few other ATMs) until he found one.
Two million rupiah richer, we finally pulled into our digs for the night, the Savoy Homann, which has a respectable claim to being Bandung’s grand old hotel: their website proudly boasts of eminent guests like Charlie Chaplin and Yasser Arafat. On check-in, the bossman asked if there was Internet in the room, and were told no. We protested, they checked again, and said no again. We protested louder yet, one guy scurried into the back room, and a smiling manager came to greet us. Only one available room had Net access, he said, so how about a complimentary upgrade to the Presidential Suite? Well, yes, we could live with that.
We were led to our room via an elevator apparently dating from Chaplin’s days, but the suite itself was rather more modern. As promised, it was a two-bedroom affair, with my “little” bedroom being the size of your average hotel room, while the “master” bedroom was equipped with a bed and a jacuzzi large enough to accommodate all four wives of a local potentate, and the two were connected with a corridor/living room that stretched a good 25 meters.
The next day’s training was finished by 4 PM and we set out to explore. In pre-colonial days, Bandung was the home of the local sultan, whose alun-alun (ceremonial grouds) and pendopo (pavilion) are still at the center of the city. In its Dutch colonial days, Parijs van Java was known for its art-deco architecture, a few examples of which can still be found in, for example, our hotel and the Gedung Merdeka building opposite. But today, Bandung is best known for one thing: factory outlet shopping. Much of Indonesia’s massive textile industry is concentrated nearby, and lot overflows and quality control rejects all end up on the shelves in Bandung, and with a large population of students there’s a thriving local designer scene as well, mostly aimed at the young and the hip. Just behind the alun-alun are streets crammed full of clothing shops, clothing shops and more clothing shops.
And, like any other self-respecting Indonesian city, Bandung has its own array of local specialities. Top of the charts is batagor, which combines the three lodestones of Indonesian cuisine, peanuts, chilli and tofu, in a mildly novel way: the tofu (or fish paste) is battered and deepfried, then drizzled with generous lashings of peanut sauce, hot chilli oil and kecap (yes, ketchup, but the original Indonesian version is black, thin and sweet). I also managed to try out soto bandung, a basic but tasty beef broth with chunks of radish; laksa bandung, unrecognizably distant from its Malay/Peranakan counterparts with just a hint of coconut milk in chickeny soup; and, last and least, mie kocok, which turned out to be instant noodles served with translucent cubes of something gelatinous, fatty and not particularly tasty, revealed on later googling to be cow skin. Mmm. Fortunately, I finished off with something rather more tasty — Bandung’s modern-day speciality, the alliterative Bandung brownie, sold even by streetside stalls. I’m not sure what’s so Bandung-y about it, but if you slather a brownie with enough chocolate, you can’t go too far wrong.
The return journey in the late afternoon was rather more scenic, with countless terraced rice paddies reminescent of Bali. I took a shared minibus service back to Jakarta, but the highway paralleled the train line for much of the way, the Dutch-built railway punching its way through the hills with tunnels and gliding across valleys on narrow steel viaducts. Next time, I’ll take the train.