Monday, September 16, 2013

Getting Lost in Bandung: Not the Best Welcome in the Paris of Java

While looking at maps, it seems it is always those places which I have absolutely no clue about that intrigue me the most. What the place looks like on the ground, who lives there and what their history and culture are like, what food they eat, and what climate they have are just some of the things that run through my head.

That was what Bandung, capital of West Java, Indonesia, had come to be for me. I saw this city, attractively nicknamed "the Paris of Java," as a proper pit stop in my west to east jaunt of Java Island.

Bandung Shopping
Nicknamed "the Paris of Java," Bandung is Java's busy bargain shopping capital.
By Phalinn Ooi | CC BY 2.0

From the chaotic Indonesian capital Jakarta, I boarded a train one cool, foggy morning at Gambir railway station. Bandung was a comfortable, three-hour ride away. The train snaked through wide expanses of lush hills at times dotted by terraced crop plantations. After having been in Jakarta for a few days, I was only glad to be surrounded by nature again. Things were looking up.

That changed quickly.

A narrow, dirty street outside the southern gates of Bandung railway station greeted me upon arrival. It was midday and the small road was very busy. Bajaj and ojek drivers were not relentless but were there nonetheless. Cars and vans drove slowly navigating through heavy foot traffic composed of passengers and porters with boxes of cargo on their shoulders. Things got worse the next hour.

The hostel I booked did not have the clearest of directions. They gave a couple of options from the train station. I chose the simpler route. I got lost anyway.

I walked carrying two heavy backpacks on my shoulders. I looked back towards the train station and saw a western traveler, a fellow backpacker, looking equally lost with head bent down on a piece of paper. Knowing there was very limited backpacker accommodation in Bandung, I approached her, took a wild guess, and asked if she was looking for same hostel. She was.

Incidentally, she, too, was lost.

Bandung, West Java, Indonesia
Bandung has great street art. I'll give you that.

We walked along the street outside Bandung's train station. Soon after, the city's downtown area welcomed us with loud noise and thick car fumes. A whole section of the road was lined on both sides by shopping complexes selling cheap clothing and shoes. The sidewalks were filled by vendors whose goods of shirts, pants, and socks occupied every navigable square meter of ground. Traffic crawled given the amount of vehicles stalled (or stalling) along the road and the amount of people walking about. It was Divisoria up in this place.

Paris of Java? Nowhere in sight.

We turned right, walked ahead, turned back, and this time, turned left. Using the little Bahasa Indonesia I had acquired in my few days in the country, I gathered we were, at some point, going the right direction. We eventually found our way through a potholed compound occupied by decrepit warehouses. On the other side of the compound, lo and behold, we arrived in the same street as the train station! Such great navigators we were.

Open in Google Maps
The gray pin is the Bandung railway station, the red pin our destination. We got lost in the downtown area (yellow pin) before we found our way. Not the best route in a busy midday, no.

There is good news though. Our hostel (the commercial complex it is in, at least) was now in plain sight. It was close to the train station after all!

Not the most welcoming first experience in a city, sure, but it was alright. Bandung was no longer a blank space in my world map. Besides, hours later, the region's mountain scenery would be stunning me in very good, grandiose, and quite eerie ways. That's for later.

(Addendum: A Photographers' Trek to the Eerie Crater Lake of Kawah Putih)

Kawah Putih, Bandung, West Java, Indonesia
Stunning mountain scenery an hour outside Bandung. This is Kawah Putih crater lake.

What is the worst welcome you ever got from a destination in any of your travels?

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