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Three things are usually associated with the word Pangalengan: Bandung, tea plantations, and cool highland fresh air.
The first one is quite true. Pangalengan is located in or, more accurately, near Bandung, the capital city of West Java. Administratively, however, Pangalengan does not belong to Bandung Municipality. Located some 48 kilometres (30 miles) south of the city, Pangalengan is a district of Bandung Regency. But Bandung is the nearest big city from which you can arrange a weekend or short trip to this lovely place. Of course you can do it from Jakarta too, which is about 200 kilometres away. But if you don’t live or happen to be in Jakarta or want to avoid the hustle and bustle of Jakarta, driving, taking the train, or flying directly to Bandung and starting the trip to Pangalengan from here is a better option. There are a number of domestic and international direct flights to Bandung’s Husein Sastra Negara International Airport.
The second and third associations about Pangalengan are also true. The district, which lies at the average elevation of about 1,600 above sea level, is mainly known for its vast landscapes of beautiful tea plantations and its cool and fresh highland air (which makes it a perfect getaway for those of us who live in a busy and crowded city). But that’s not all there is. Despite its relatively small size (the district covers only about 27,000 hectares), Pangalengan has a lot to offer: a nature reserve, lakes, waterfalls, vegetable and dairy farms, culture and history, and one of the world’s largest geothermal power stations.
A weekend getaway certainly cannot cover everything the area has to offer. But if a day or two is all you have, Pangalengan is still a perfect choice to unwind. And if it’s your first time here, I’d suggest you go for the tea plantations where you can have a tea walk or a refreshing cross-country, visit the historic sites related to the tea estates, and see for yourself how some of the world’s best tea you love to drink is processed in a historic tea factory within the plantations.
But even if you don’t feel like doing any of those things and just feel like having some quiet me-time away from the crowds and the noisy world out there, you can still do it: you can pack your favourite books, rent a room or a villa in the middle of the tea plantations, and do nothing but savouring the quiet nature of the countryside in the company of your books. This was partly what I had in mind when I took this trip. Being a reflective person, and perhaps even a loner, I sometimes need to get away from the crowds and be on my own to relax.
How to get there?
There are a number of routes you can take to get to Pangalengan. The most popular of which is Mohammad Toha – Banjaran – Pangalengan route or Kopo Sayati – Banjaran – Pangalengan route. You can also access it via Soreang in the west or Majalaya in the east.
The roads to Pangalengan, particularly the upper part, are generally smooth and well-maintained because of the district’s economic importance. The traffic, however, can be very chaotic, especially during the rush hours and at the weekends. Mohammad Toha, Kopo Sayati, and Banjaran are densely populated areas. With textile factories and busy markets lining up the streets, it’s easy to imagine why traffic congestions are a problem during rush hours. And let’s not forget that these roads are also the main connecting lines between the agricultural production centres in the mountainous south and the city of Bandung.
To avoid the traffic, you can either leave very early in the morning – preferably before dawn – or in between rush hours. I personally prefer to leave before dawn as the mist setting in the fields after the town of Banjaran is in itself a worthwhile view that you would not want to miss.
Public transportation to and from Pangalengan is quite cheap and easy to get. However, comfort and perhaps safety are a second question. So, unless you’re an adventurous kind of a traveler or backpacker who enjoys experiencing the real things and don’t mind sitting in a crowded vehicle that often stops to take passengers and get them off, you’d be better off driving yourself or renting a car with a driver.
If you opt for the public transportation, you can take the economic bus from either Kebon Kelapa sub-terminal or Leuwi Panjang bus terminal. It costs 10,000 rupiahs (about $ 0.80). Alternatively, you can take the angkot (angkutan kota – literally: ‘city or urban transport’) minibus to Banjaran (costs 5,000 rupiah) and then from Banjaran you can take the angdes (angkutan pedesaan – literally: ‘rural transport’) which will also cost you 5,000 rupiahs.
My own weekend getaway story
Because I live in Bandung and it was not my first trip to Pangalengan, I decided to drive there. Four days earlier, after making an online reservation, I called Wisma Malabar (The Malabar Cottage) to check the reservation. I chose this place because it is the only cottage that is located inside the Malabar Tea Plantations and a historic one in that because it is located in the premises of Bosscha’s house (more about Bosscha later). In fact, the resort belongs to and is a business unit of PT Perkebunan Nusantara (PTPN) VIII, a state-owned company that manages the tea plantations in this area.
Checking room/cottage availability and the rates is quite easy and can be done online at their website www.awn8.co.id. However, reservations have to be confirmed through the telephone. This cottage is unsurprisingly quite popular and availability may be limited during weekends or holiday seasons. I’d suggest you make the reservation far ahead the time if you plan to go there during the peak season.
The cottage has eleven standard rooms with the capacity of two persons each, seven wooden houses with the capacity of four to eight persons each, and a jasmine guest house which can accommodate 20 up to 50 persons. The rate for the standard rooms is between 250,000 – 775,000 rupiahs per night, the wooden houses’ is between 700,000 – 1,300,000 rupiahs per night, and the jasmine guest house’ is between 1,200,000 – 1,900,000 rupiahs per night, including a simple breakfast and tea. The rates depend on whether you go there during the weekdays, weekends or holiday seasons. I think the rates are quite reasonable considering the cottage’s exclusive location, though they can also be considered expensive if you think of the facilities it offers, which I think are very basic.
I got the lowest rate with some additional discounts for the standard room I chose because I went there on a Friday and during the off-season, which was good.
I arrived there at about 2 p.m. and after checking in and freshening up, I decided to explore the tea-covered hills surrounding the cottage. It was a sunny cool afternoon – the quality of light shining on the vast green hills was such that I could not help but being mesmerized by the views. What was initially meant to be a “short” tea walk before I got on my planned reading time turned out to be a whole afternoon walk and picture taking session. I did not get back to the cottage until it was quite dark. It was totally a refreshing walk though and I was quite content to postpone my reading until after dinner.
Dinner was quite a problem here. Unlike a typical hotel, Wisma Malabar does not have a restaurant where guests can dine in or provide a room service where they can order foods and beverages. So I had to drive out of the plantations and get back to Pangalengan – which, to my estimate, is about 7 or 8 kilometers away – just to eat. So, if you plan to stay the night here, I suggest you bring your own foods. The wisma does have a basic kitchen though. I suppose you could ask permission from the staff to use it if you want to cook your own dinner.
The choice of restaurants or eating places in Pangalengan is surprisingly quite limited for a tourist destination. There is a hotel between Pangalengan and Malabar that does have a restaurant (I forget the name of the hotel). I did not stop there so I don’t know what kind of food they serve. There are also some local warungs (kiosks) at the kampong just outside the plantations. But the foods they sell are very basic both in quality and variety. In town, i.e. Pangalengan, the choice is not much better. That night I ended up eating in a café that looked quite decent from the outside. The menu was okay and the food and drink I ordered was quite decent too. The price is about the same as that I would normally pay in Bandung for similar menus.
The fog had set in when I returned to the cottage. It was a quiet evening just as I had expected. And so it was time to get on with my reading as I had planned. Initially I did it on the porch outside the room but it was too chilly so I moved inside after a while. The temperature was probably about 15 degrees Celsius that evening, but the chill factor made it feel colder. It was the dry season (summer), which on Java island normally happens between April/May and October/November, and the dry season’s nights are usually chillier than those of the rainy season or the monsoon’s.
The next morning I got up a bit late – too late for the sunrise tea walk. I must have slept soundly throughout the night that I didn’t hear the alarm went off. It didn’t prevent me from doing the morning tea walk though.
My destination that morning was Gunung Nini (literally: Grandma’s Hill), a vantage point with a wooden observation tower at the top that you can see from your room’s windows at the wisma. Because of this, I initially thought it was quite close and all I needed to do was walk across the tea carpets behind my room to get to it. But I was wrong. The valley separating the wisma from Gunung Nini is too deep to cross. I had to go around the hill and climb onto it from another direction, and it was – I was told – about four kilometres away.
Because of time concern – the sun was getting higher and I didn’t want to miss the best time window to take pictures – I ended up using an ojeg (motorcycle taxi) service offered by a security officer of the wisma. I paid 30,000 rupiahs (about $2.50) for the round trip. It was worth the money as it turned out to be a bumpy ride up a steep rocky and winding road, and the view from the top was superbly magnificent!
The ojeg driver was also very friendly. The conversation we had along the way and at the top taught me a few things about the place I otherwise would have missed. There was nobody I could ask for information there and there was only one other visitor visiting the place that morning – a photographer from Bandung. (I found out later that he was also staying at the Wisma, but unlike me, he managed to get up early and walked to this place.)
I was told that the hill was named Gunung Nini because it is said that whenever Bosscha did the inspection of his plantations, he would always see an old woman there. People there believe she was a mystical being, some sort of a spiritual guardian of the place. We’d never know if she was really a spirit or just a human being. But the story is interesting and adds some spiritual flavour to the already breathtaking view.
From the top of this hill we can see most of Malabar and beyond. Just across the valley, on top of another hill in the northwest, we can see a tiny white structure, which – I was told – is the tomb of Ki Jangkung (literally ‘a tall grandpa’). He is believed to be Bosscha’s top local bodyguard who had and used magical powers to protect his master. Still beyond it, in a valley among the hills, and with the backdrop of Mount Cikuray, we can also see Situ Cileunca or the Cileunca Lake – a man-made lake the Dutch constructed for the purpose of power generation. The lake is now in itself a tourist attraction and destination (I will tell you about it in a later post).
Turning around, towards the east and southeast, we can see the vastness of the Malabar Tea Plantations with the workers’ housing and a traditional kampong somewhere in the middle and beyond it Guntur and Papandayan mountains in the horizon. In the northeast you could see steam billowing against the the backdrop of the blue mountain ridges with Mount Wayang prominently featured in the middle of them. It’s the Wayang Windu Geothermal Power Station, one of the world’s largest (total installed capacity: 227 megawatts).
Back at the wisma, breakfast was served. It was a simple one: fried rice with a fried egg, a kerupuk cracker, slices of tomatoes and cucumber, and a glass of hot tea. It tasted a bit bland – the fried rice. But the tea was good. What’s best though was the place where it was served. We ate in what used to be Bosscha’s dining room, in his house!
Some things have obviously changed about the house since the last time Bosscha occupied it early in the 20th century. The most obvious are the ornaments – they look new and of low quality. The luxury and lustre that I imagined must have been there (after all Bosscha was a plantation king and one of the richest men in the Dutch East Indies in his time) have also faded, perhaps from a long period of neglect. The piano – a Zeitter & Winkelmann made in Braunschweig in 1837 – looks worn-out and, when I tried it, does not produce the tunes it is supposed to produce because some of the strings haven been broken. However, the basic architecture of the house and many of the furniture still do look authentic. That’s why it somewhat feels wonderful to be in the house and actually had breakfast there.
After breakfast and shower, my next destination was Bosscha’s tomb and the tea processing plant. These are suggested itineraries for some. For me, it’s essential. One cannot appreciate fully the grandeur of Malabar Plantations without understanding its history and the key figure that has made it possible.
For some of us, a tomb is a tomb. It only becomes relevant if it belongs to a family member, a loved-one, or someone with a historical or religious significance. With Bosscha’s, the reason is historical. He was the first administrator of the Malabar Plantations, a tall figure whose contributions goes beyond developing the plantation, modernising it, and making it one of largest the plantations in the world in his time. He was also a prominent philanthropist whose love for humanity, science, and his adopted homeland was expressed in many ways, leaving behind a plethora of heritage that thousands or perhaps even millions of people still benefit from. Without his deeds, Bandung would probably have been a different city.
One of Bosscha’s most well-known legacy is the Bosscha Astronomical Observatory (Dutch: Bosscha Sterrenwacht) in Lembang in the north of Bandung, about 65 kilometers from where he is burried. The observatory, built between 1923 and 1928, was named after his name because he was considered to be the man who made its construction possible (he was credited as the man who initiated the establishment of Nederlandsch-Indische Sterrenkundige Vereeniging (NISV) or the Netherlands Indies Astronomical Society – the official body behind the construction and management of the observatory – of which Bosscha was its first chairperson), and one of its main benefactors (he was said to have personally funded the purchase its first and (back then) largest telescope: a double-refractor 60 cm Carl-Zeiss with the focal length of almost 11 metres).
But the observatory is by no means his only heritage. Records show that we was also one of the main benefactors behind the establishment of the Technische Hoogeschool te Bandung, an engineering college that later became Bandung Institute of Technology, one of the finest collages in Indonesia today, and the Netherlands Indies Cancer Institute. He also established an elementary school for the children of his plantation workers in Malabar, a pioneering initiative at a time when the education of the lower class indigenous population was not even considered as a necessity.
Bosscha’s tomb is located in a small park about 3 kilometres from the Wisma Malabar – so you can walk there if you like. For a man of his stature, his tomb is surprisingly quite unassuming. There is nothing grandeur about it, only a circle with eight white marble pillars and a dome on top. There are also a couple of white benches in the outer circle in the park for visitors to sit. The inscription on it is also quite straightforward. Written in Dutch, it reads: “Here rest Karel Albert Rudolf Bosscha, born in Gravenhage on 15 May 1865, departed in Malabar on 26 November 1928. RIP.”
I spent about 15 minutes in Bosscha’s tomb before moving on to the Malabar tea processing plant. The factory tour was very interesting, and I’ll share it with you in the next post.