To escape the frenetic pace of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, locals often drive to the city’s southern fringes, where the lush town of Bogor provides respite from the trappings of city life. With open green spaces and vestiges of colonial architecture, the ancient city’s pace of life is several notches slower. Travellers to Indonesia often find themselves spending a few days in Jakarta, either for business, or en route to the nation’s more remote locales. Culture and nature enthusiasts can dip their toes into West Java’s history, traditions, and cuisine, just an hour south of the capital at the hilly resort town of Bogor.
In the 1500s, Bogor was the capital of the West Javanese Sunda kingdom, after which it passed through the hands of colonial powers. To get your bearings, make a beeline for the city’s green lung, the Kebun Raya or Botanical Gardens. The sprawling greens are more than two centuries old, set up and expanded by the Dutch, British, and the Japanese. The result is a delicious green oasis with rare tropical plants, ancient trees, a snaking river, and a medicine garden.
Massive lily pads float on serene ponds, roots as thick as ropes disappearing into the depths. Gnarled old trees, some over 200 years old, appear to reach the sky. Succulents and cacti dominate the Mexican Garden. Strolling through bamboo groves and boulevards of exotic trees, I come upon a memorial to Lady Raffles. The name is familiar, but I associate Raffles with Singapore. Britisher Stamford Raffles may have had a significant role to play in colonial Singapore, with many establishments in the country bearing his name, but I’m surprised to learn he was once also the lieutenant-governor in West Java. A memorial to his wife still stands in the garden today.
At one edge of the garden is Bogor’s biggest reminder of colonial rule — the Istana Bogor or Presidential Palace. Now the summer home of the president of Indonesia, the grand palace used to be the residence of the Dutch governors-general until 1942. Raffles took up residence here during British reign, landscaping the surroundings as English-style gardens. The clutch of opulent buildings is immaculately maintained, with whitewashed façades, columns, and sloping red roofs. Indian spotted deer roam free in the grounds, the familiar chital which we are so used to seeing back home. The immaculate palace lawns are dotted with replicas of famous sculptures. I spot the Little Mermaid seated atop a rock, a likeness of the original in Denmark.
If the town centre is the seat of colonial history, the lush hillsides are hotspots of Javanese traditions. On a pastoral hillside of terraced rice paddy fields and banana plantations, the Sindangbarang Cultural Village showcases the centuries-old culture of the Sunda kingdom. The ancient village is said to be almost 900 years old, and was once the training ground for the Sunda armies.
Thatched wooden houses with woven doors stand raised on stilts. Lunch is laid out on a wooden platform, and we eat on bamboo plates and clay bowls — there’s a lesson in sustainability in these age-old village practices. The meal consists of a tangy soup of papaya and baby jackfruit, a cassava leaf vegetable, a fiery chilli pickle eaten with guava leaves, and a peanut stir-fry in fish sauce. The ingredients are familiar to anyone from a tropical country, but it’s intriguing how the same foods are consumed in different ways. I’d never before tasted a young jackfruit, or eaten the leaves of the guava. It just shows how a meal is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Seated on the bamboo podium, I can see the fields where my lunch comes from.
A cultural performance follows, showcasing the ancient art forms of the Sundanese. Musicians bring out their elaborate traditional instruments crafted from bamboo. The leader of the troupe, Adde, plays a haunting tune on the angklung. He tells us it’s a folk song from the region about women’s emancipation. I’m amazed at the skill he wields on the immensely complex instrument. A series of bamboo tubes are arranged onto a frame, each producing a specific note when struck. The Sundanese instrument looks large and unwieldy, but creates the most beautiful melody. We speak no common language, but music is a great unifier.
Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel writer
- Getting there
- Fly to Jakarta from any major Indian city and drive two hours south to Bogor.
- The R Hotel Rancamaya is a green oasis surrounded by parks.
- BLink Tip
- Drop into small streetside restaurants for nasi Padang — a traditional multi-item meal of rice with curries of eggplant, mutton, tofu and more.