School holidays are both a curse and a boon for expat parents living in Jakarta. Firstly, not all of us can schedule a lengthy break away from the daily grind and even if we can, then there are the major headaches of pre-planning and actually getting anywhere in a reasonable amount of time. As always it seems as if all 27.9 million or so residents (at the last count in 2010) in Jabodetabek (the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan area of Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Bekasi and Tangerang) are hell bent on the same escapes.
Let the train take the strain…
Possibly the best train route for scenic value is from Jakarta to Bandung. Having left the floodplain, it winds through the mountains of West Java until reaching the city which, in much quieter and less crowded times, was known as the Paris of the East. For the best views of rural life in the kampungs and the fantastic views as ravines are crossed, reserve seats on the right when going and, obviously, on the left when returning.
Once in the gridlocked city, having had the foresight to pre-book hotel reservations, you may wish to consider hiring a car and driver for the next day and head for the hills. Gunung Tangkuban Perahu (meaning upturned boat), some 25 kilometres north of Bandung, is the only volcano in Java accessible all the way to the rim by car. First time visitors to a volcano, such as your children, will be suitably awed, and your wallet will be also be pleased to receive an airing at the souvenir stands.
Southwest of Bandung is Gunung Ratuha, with a lake, Kawah Putih which, as its name suggests, is white – or occasionally turquoise. The lake itself is easily accessible by car. Having been there and seen that, continue onwards to Ciwidey where you can reminisce about those cool evenings ‘back home’. Note: If you decide to stay overnight in one of the several hotels, it may be advisable to wear socks in bed.
About two hours from Bandung are the Cimanggu Hot Springs with swimming pools of continually replenished sulphurized water. Once you have learnt how a lobster might feel, it is just a 30 minute drive through tea plantations to Lake (or Situ) Patengan where you can rent a boat and admire the green carpet of algae covering the surface.
Some 50kms from Bandung is Garut, an Old Dutch hill station with a Sundanese ambiance. Although predominantly Muslim, there are Hindu temples to seek out, a reminder that West Java has a rich history. Energetic families can set out on hikes, but possibly the most interesting activity for younger families are the factories which make dodol, the sweet candy made from sticky rice flour and sugar with various flavourings, such as – erm – durian. Cooked in huge woks over open fires and stirred continuously for a long time with what appears to be boat oars, it is a fascinating labour-intensive cottage industry.
Another town easily accessible by train and worth exploring for a day or two is Cirebon, on Java’s north coast. The train journey itself is somewhat boring as it never leaves the flat coastal plain. Cirebon is a combination of two words, ‘ci’ which means water and ‘rebon’, an indication that this major seaport is famous for its salted fish, fresh shrimps, as well as petis and terasi (shrimp pastes used as spices). It can be incredibly hot, but Keraton Kasepuhan, the original sultan’s palace is of great interest, particularly for the collection of carriages, as is the nearby Keraton Kanornan which dates back to 1527. Also seek out batik workshops; as in Yogyakarta and Surakarta, the batik originally made in Cirebon needed the royal seal of approval and has distinctive motifs.
Some may feel that travelling overnight by train, the Gajayana which leaves Gambir station around 5.30am isn’t much fun. You can fly, but then you’ve got the extra hassle of all that entails, and you still might have to wend your way from Surabaya.
But if you think of the hotel costs saved and that you’ll have a full day ahead for exploring this historic city – it was founded in the 8th century when it was the seat of government of the ancient Kanjuruhan and Singhasari kingdoms. It also begins to make sense, if you decide to take a “traditional High Tea” at one of the world’s top hotels, the unique Tugu (www.tuguhotels.com/malang) in the centre of town.
The city officially became part of the all encompassing Javanese Mataram kingdom in the 17th century when the Dutch were first here. Those who dig history can explore several archaeological sites, including Buddhist relics from the earlier Majapahit period.
Camping it up.
For those who prefer more down to earth holidays, then the Mekarsari Fruit estate has a camp site. Your children can join the Youth Farmer Club and learn how to propagate and prune whilst smelling the fresh air. Sleeping under canvas also has its benefits in terms of tuning into Mother Nature, especially if it rains and you remain dry, smiling inwardly.
Similar euphoria can be discovered at the Cibodas Botanical Garden, ‘gateway’ to the Gede-Pangrango National Park. Once booked in, and a spot chosen to erect tents, porters can be hired who will help set up the tents and, for an extra fee, serve as night watchmen and do a bit of shopping, even for beers.
Apart from the fairly relaxed activity of shopping for orchids in the nearby town, or watching them grow in the well-laid out Botanical Gardens, a fairly reasonable 3km hike can be made into the park to some impressive waterfalls.
To go further, up to the summit, requires a permit. For details of which volcanoes are suitable for families to clamber up, check out the Gunung Bagging website (http://gunungbagging.com).
With the school holidays nearly here, I wish all readers ‘happy travels’ or, as will probably happen with my tribe, happy home stay.
Terry Collins is co-author of Culture Shock! Jakarta (pub. Marshall Cavendish) and solely responsible for the blog Jakartass.net.