AS CROWDS gathered in Jakarta’s central Stasiun Gambir, I queued patiently to buy a ticket for the three-hour ride through the rice terraces of West Bandung into the mountain city of Bandung — only to find that the day’s trains were, on this holiday weekend, fully booked.
Vowing to reserve a seat for the return journey, I took the much pricier option, a private cab, for a highway ride though merciless monsoon rains.
A new US$6-billion (S$7.9-billion) high-speed rail link — South-east Asia’s first — will cut travel time between Bandung and Jakarta to 36 minutes when it opens next year. But for now, it is essential to pre-book the comfortable Argo Parahyangan train that is named after the mountain range it trundles through.
By the time I arrived in Bandung at 9pm, to the refreshingly cool air on a Saturday night, I was more than ready to eat.
Making a beeline for Jalan Braga, a Dutch quarter of eateries and galleries, I feasted on Javanese classics and soaked up the ornate surroundings of Braga Art Café, a chic two-storey building packed with ethnic art.
Down the road, I struck up a lively conversation with hotel staff enjoying karaoke at a beer bar, where cover bands knocked out boisterous renditions of Western rock anthems.
The vivid contrast between these outlets sums up the oddly alluring paradox of Bandung.
The city juxtaposes tradition with modernity; faded elegance with gentrification; contemporary-art museums affording spectacular mountain views with graffiti-strewn urban relics; canals winding through gorgeous parks with traffic-choked streets.
Instagrammers and families often head north to Lembang and Dago Pakar to find serenity in high-up valley vistas unpolluted by motorcycle fumes.
In central Dago, Bandung’s most manicured district, well-paved boulevards with flower baskets hanging from curlicued lamp posts funnel a steady stream of shoppers to the factory-outlet and local-brand fashion stores for which the city is famous, while musicians strum acoustic folk tunes by the roads
Turn a corner and you will find dimly lit pavements strewn with gerobak (snack carts) and gaudy electronics stores winding towards the stately governor’s pile, Gedung Sate. Turn another, and horse-drawn carriages await outside an unkempt food court serving Japanese bites and strong coffee.
This August, the city co-hosts the Asian Games with Jakarta and Palembang, and in recent months alone, Dago has welcomed three trendy boutique hotels.
Bandung Metro Kapsul, a game-changing monorail, is also in the works, promising a low-cost, eco-friendly transport network in this sprawling conurbation; and Kertajati airport, 68km to the east, will open to international flights in June.
While glamour and grunge happily co-exist for now, offering intoxicating contrasts for weekend visitors, “the Paris of Java” — as the Dutch colonial rulers called the city — is on the cusp of a new tourist era.
Fly SilkAir from Singapore to Bandung Husein Sastranegara International Airport. For a more adventurous journey, fly Singapore Airlines to Jakarta, where you can take the train to Bandung from Stasiun Gambir (reserve a 100,000rupiah “Eksekutif” ticket for optimum comfort; tiket.com/ kereta-api). Bandung station (Stasiun Kereta Api Bandung) is a 10-minute walk from Jalan Braga.
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