West Java, Indonesia: Experiencing Pangandaran with a Local

I don’t think I was ready to say goodbye when we did. I had grown attached to Vietnam, learned to appreciate the beautiful countryside, the moto-packed cities, and learned about the ease of making fast friends on the road. I was just getting a feel for a new country when a taxi drove us through town to the international airport, heading for Indonesia.

Eighteen hours later, we touched down on the rainy tarmac in Jakarta. Thirteen hours more and we were unloading from of a bus that had taken us across the island, from the capital to Pangandaran, on the south side of West Java. It was about 12am, and pitch black outside the gates of the ocean side town.

The bicycle rickshaw drivers spotted us immediately.

“Where you going?”

This is, of course, how all conversations with drivers start. We countered with the usual, “How far is it to town?”

After a small haggle, we took the offered ride – drivers almost always know where you want to go. After stopping at the gate to pay the entrance fee to the town, we made straight to the doors of Bamboo House. The group decided on the family-run guest house based on the general consensus of Trip Advisor. Bamboo House was my first sight waking up in one of my favorite locations of the trip and home for the next three days. It featured a gorgeous courtyard, reset-them-yourself breakers, and excellent banana pancakes.

Waking up in Indonesia after 30 hours in transit washed away any thoughts I had of missing Vietnam. Where life in Vietnam had been busy, fast-paced and full of things to catch your attention, Indonesia appeared to be more laid back, casual, and about relaxing. Maybe it was because it was so hot there being near the equator. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take long for us to seek out the beach.

A note of caution here people: DO NOT forget the sunscreen. The sun is big time hot. Especially if you’re coming from a cooler climate in the dead of winter. Anyways.

The beach at Pangandaran is wonderful. The darker black beaches of Pangandaran may not photograph as well as the picturesque white sand beaches of Bali, but they are no less desirable for swimming, suntanning, and acclimatizing to beach life. Hanging out on the beach is also a great way to interact with local people from the town and with other Indonesian tourists. Be prepared to possibly have your photo taken. This happened quite often on West Java, as well as in Vietnam.

Pangandaran is a surfer’s destination, with decent if smaller waves, and a sandy bottom. These two things make it a popular learn-to-surf destination – a fact that local Indonesians have not overlooked. On our first morning in Pangandaran, we had the good fortune of stepping out onto the beach next to Yoga’s Learn-to-Surf Camp. This meeting shaped our time in the town for the better.

The boys rented surf boards and hit the waves, after a on land theory lesson about paddling, catching a wave, and making use of the current. “Maybe later, I will come out and show you how it’s done, ah?” says Yoga. While the boys surfed, Yoga told Amy and myself about life in Pangandaran, asked us questions about our homes, and helped us become acquainted with the restaurant menu. We talked about the giant tsunami that ravaged the area in 2006.

Meeting Yoga and his brother is a huge part of what made visiting Pangandaran so special. Experienced travelers will tell you that seeing a destination through the eyes of a local can make all of the difference in the world, and really bring a place to life. This principle became clear to me that first afternoon on the beach.

Yoga came over and asked, “You know rambutan? ”

No… Who or what is a rambutan? A type of fruit, as it turned out.

“You want to pick some fruit? My brother has a fruit tree, with extra. You can come pick!”

A bit skeptical, we asked a few questions. How do we get there? “I pick you up, in my van.” How much for the ride? “Nothing, just come see the tree! Pick the fruit.”

It seemed too good to be true, so we packed up and left the beach for the late afternoon while the tide was low with our surf coach turned tour guide at the wheel.

The drive alone would have been enough. After Vietnam in the middle of winter, Indonesia is so green! You can look anywhere and see a mountain or a volcano on the horizon and the rice fields are lush and green. Yoga took us into a part of the town normally not accessible to tourists. The entrance is guarded by a lady manning a bamboo gate!

Driving through a wooded part of town, we eventually came to a group of houses with the promised rambutan tree centered in the front yard. For 30 minutes or so we picked our fill of the red spiky fruit, and met Yoga’s family. I poked around a bit, checking out the chicken coop and exploring with my camera. These ladies even asked me to take their picture! I didn’t have to be told twice. All told, it was a great introduction to Javanese culture and set the pace for Indonesia.

Pangandaran was also our first taste of Indonesian food. Some of it was standard, like fried noodles and rice, but served with a fried egg on top in Indonesia. Some of some of it was particularly memorable. The rambutan picking experience definitely qualifies as memorable. But so does the spicy as hell chicken dish we ordered for the first time at 1 in the morning after arriving in Pangandaran. The dish I dubbed ‘Beach Soup’ also qualifies – a rich, clear broth flavored with hot sauce, and floating tofu, meatballs, and fish balls ladled out by a man wandering the beach (10,000 IDR). Our first encounter with the local rice liquor, arak, was definitely memorable. Even more so the next morning.

Like many places we visited, I wanted to spend more time in Pangandaran. I would happily return to the beach town. We stayed three days, but two French Canadians we met there were spending two weeks there – “Who knows, maybe we stay longer.” Life was easy, relaxed, and uncrowded after the well-trodden backpacker loop we had gotten used to traveling in Vietnam. All that mattered was eventually getting to Bali, and beyond that to the Gili Island’s. And so we pushed on to Yogykarta.

You're waiting for a train...

You’re waiting for a train…

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