Lessons from Kampung Naga

50 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The village of Kampung Naga and its lush paddy fields

Modernity. This word has for long been associated with all things positive. It’s something communities aspire to, it implies progress, it’s the way to go. On a personal level, the word often goes hand in hand with the notion of freedom, of leaving old and suffocating ways of life and relegating them to the past. But as we keep learning, we’ve now also come to realize that our pursuit for modernity often comes at a price. Not one that directly affects our finances, but rather through its repercussions that will eventually get to us in more ways than one.

Our insatiable demand for all things “modern” has put great stress on the environment, something that has by now been well-documented with effects people all over the world have to face with an increasing frequency and intensity. As the brute forces of nature disrupt our lives more and more often these days, many of us seek alternatives to the life we know in order to prevent future generations from living on a planet that is no longer livable. And this is how our attention switches to small communities across the globe that are still practicing traditional ways of life with minimum impact on the environment. We learn from them and make changes in our own lives.

On Java alone – the world’s most populous island – pockets of such communities can still be found across its length. Although some are more isolated than others, they all have one thing in common: they put a great emphasis on preserving their traditions, wisdoms that had been taught by their ancestors and carried on for generations, and this often involves environment protection as one of the core guiding principles. Just outside the city of Garut, situated in a verdant valley that hosts probably some of the most fertile land on the island, lies such a village called Kampung Naga.

One morning during our stay in Garut, James and I set off for a half-day trip to Kampung Naga, some 30 kilometers away from our hotel. I drove along the picturesque road that cuts through the lush Ciwulan Valley, roughly following the twists and bends of the namesake river. This wouldn’t be my first time to the village, though, as more than two decades ago when I was still in high school I came here with my parents, uncle and aunt (who were visiting from Jakarta), and my cousin with her then-boyfriend who flew all the way from Belgium for a holiday in Indonesia. However, the timing of our visit wasn’t ideal. Due to that day’s packed schedule and my cousin’s limited time, we had to squeeze in Kampung Naga when we could, even if that meant going there right before dark. I don’t remember much except for the stairs that took us to the village, and the small mosque at the heart of the community that was lit by nothing but a few oil lamps.

About one hour after we left our hotel, we arrived at the parking area near the village – much more spacious than how it was on my first visit. Initially, I was thinking of going down to the village ourselves, but a person who approached us as soon as I parked the car convinced us that it would be wiser to go with a local guide since he could tell us what could and could not be photographed in the village. A man, probably in his 40s, who was wearing a black shirt and pants with a traditional Sundanese headdress then appeared from a nearby guard post. Pak Aji (pak/bapak is an honorific term used in Indonesia to address a male person who is older than you) introduced himself to us in a very gentle manner.

Soon afterward, we followed him to the start of the stairs while he began telling us about himself. Born in Kampung Naga, he had to leave the village and moved beyond its perimeter after he got married since the number of houses in the core settlement area must remain the same: 112 modest and uniform dwellings, no more, no less. His eldest brother, however, still lives in the village as the first-born child in a family customarily inherits the house. Passing us were families who are still tied to the village, some of them bringing baskets of rice that were slung onto their back with a piece of cloth. “There will be a ceremony in the village today,” Pak Aji explained, “that’s why you see all those people carrying rice which will later be blessed.” We slowly walked down the steps, 444 of them to be precise according to our guide. “In the past there were 300ish steps. But many visitors complained that they were too steep. So, we made some changes.”

The rice terraces next to the stairs

One step at a time

The number of houses in the village is always the same: 112

A volleyball court, a recent addition to the village

Months away from ripening

A calming, bucolic scene

The Ciwulan River that flows past the village

After descending from the final step, Pak Aji led us to the village and pointed out a volleyball court that is a new addition to the community. “That’s why I don’t recall seeing it on my first visit,” I said to him. “The local government helped with the reclamation of this bend of the river to provide more land for us,” Pak Aji explained.

A few meters later we walked along a dirt path with prolific rice terraces sitting to our left. “We plant two types of rice here, a local variety and another one what we call ‘Segon’ rice.” Later research brought me to an article that explains the history of the latter whose name was derived from Saigon. In 1915, the Dutch East Indies colonial administration decided to import rice from the southern Vietnamese port city (which at that time was controlled by the French) due to disruptions of rice production in Java. Pak Aji then described to us the differences between the two: the grains of the local rice are more ‘hairy’ and more difficult to separate from the husk, while those of Segon rice are easier to dehusk. How they are harvested is also different: while a sickle is used for reaping Segon rice, the local variety must be cropped using an ani-ani, a small knife inserted in a flat wooden bar which itself is joined by a handle in the middle (here’s a link to a photo to give you a better idea of how it looks). The latter tool allows farmers to harvest each individual plant as opposed to harvesting in bulk. Pak Aji added that there are also differences in how they pound the rice, depending on the variety. But all this hard work results in something the villagers can be proud of: they are rice-sufficient.

As we entered the village, Pak Aji walked us through narrow alleys between houses, enough for two adults to pass by. Each house is built using natural materials: while the walls are made out of woven bamboo, the roofs are composed of layers of dried leaves of a local tree and thick ijuk (black fibers procured from a specific palm species) on top of it which can last up to 25 years before a replacement is needed. Each house is raised a few centimeters above the ground, creating a hollow space that is utilized as chicken coop. On the outer walls of some houses, a small basket is hung to provide hens with a safe place to incubate their eggs. What I also noticed about this layout is it allows neighbors to interact with each other easily, something that has become a rarity among city dwellers like me – although my introverted side does prefer some reasonable distance from the person living next door.

Pak Aji kept walking through these narrow alleys which to me felt as if we were getting deeper and deeper into a maze, then suddenly we reached the end of this section of the village, an open space where the sun shone directly above us. We took a few steps to reach the upper part of Kampung Naga which happens to be where our guide’s brother lives and where Pak Aji took us next. He entered the house through the kitchen and signaled us to follow him. Inside, his brother’s wife was steaming something (probably rice) over a wood-burning traditional stove.  Meanwhile, what looked like a stir-fried rice noodle dish was already cooked and sat inside a wok placed on the floor. He conversed with his sister-in-law in Sundanese then pointed at one corner of the kitchen for us to sit down, cross-legged. He brought forward a small basket filled with parcels of snacks individually wrapped in banana leaves. “It’s called pipis,” he told us as each of us took one and unwrapped it. Made from steamed rice flour with a shredded coconut and palm sugar filling, this simple snack reminded me of something slightly different I grew up eating. By this time, Pak Aji already knew that I could speak Sundanese, but he kept using Indonesian so that James would understand (our guide might have assumed that he was Indonesian, though, not a foreigner).

Traditional houses of Kampung Naga

Some alleys are narrower than others

Ijuk roofs that can last up to 25 years

A typical kitchen in Kampung Naga

The village’s main square

The village mosque at the end of the square

An empang (fish pond), one of many in the village

Over pipis and hot unsweetened tea, the soft-spoken Pak Aji told us more about life in Kampung Naga. “The elders reached a consensus not to allow electricity in this village because if that happens, those who have money will start buying electronic devices and the gap between the rich and the poor will be visible,” he paused and quickly added, “and when there is a gap, there will be conflicts.”

“But now some of us do have smartphones,” he mentioned something I had observed since we started our descent to the village, as if he was reading my mind.

“Then how do they charge their phones?” I inquired.

He chuckled. “They will have to go up [the stairs outside the village] to do that.”

Although I can see why this ban on electricity is put in place, I also perceive the locals’ pragmatism in life. They find ways to embrace modernity as long as it doesn’t fundamentally go against the guiding principles of the village that have been adhered to for generations.

“Whenever someone gets married in the village, the neighbors will bring [uncooked] rice to the host, while the host provides [cooked] rice for the neighbors to eat,” Pak Aji mentioned this custom of sharing among the villagers, another example of how keeping a harmonious and peaceful society is paramount in Kampung Naga.

Our guide then switched the topic to himself, particularly his own experience working far from the village where he was born.

“I used to work at a restaurant in Jakarta in 1987. But I couldn’t stand the mosquitoes!”

We all laughed since we know all too well how nasty those annoying bugs can be, especially in hot places like the Indonesian capital. And for some reason, they love sucking on James’s blood – put him in an outdoor space anywhere in Jakarta and chances are he will get bitten by a mosquito in under a minute.

“In Kampung Naga, we are expected to tend to our paddy fields. But we are allowed to find work outside our village – at a supermarket, for instance,” Pak Aji explained to us, probably after sensing our bewilderment when we found out that he had lived in Jakarta, a world away from this quiet piece of land.

“In the end, the key to life is having good control of ourselves,” he concluded. “As humans we always have desires. But we should have control upon them.”

Control of ourselves, it seems, is something we humans unfortunately often lose. Give it ample time and multiply it by billions (that’s how many there are of us now), the effect is planet-changing. But it also goes the other way around. When given enough time and done by millions of us, changes toward the right direction can produce a significant impact. It’s interesting to see what Kampung Naga will be like 50 years from now. Will it still be an oasis of an alternative and slower lifestyle which puts harmony with nature at its core? or will it be absorbed into the mainstream way of life? I’d love to see a world where we practice more things like what the people of Kampung Naga have been doing for a long time, because to me that’s how the future should look like: us, Homo sapiens, being in harmony with nature and being kinder with one another.

Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) in bloom

Another look at the rocky river

Going back to the stairs

Small waterfalls like this one help irrigate the rice fields

A village of calm and serenity

Quite possibly the community’s most valuable treasure

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

50 thoughts on “Lessons from Kampung Naga”

  1. Seeing all the warm and vibrant green of the lush rice terraces, grass and fields in your photos was very soothing. I can only imagine what it was like in person.

    I agree with you about the allure of modernity but what we lose in the process. As climate change and global conflicts and suffering arise, there is an awakening and a shift towards enjoying the simplicity in life.

    The story of not having electricity to help avoid the digital divide and conflicts is an interesting one. How very wise of the elders in the village to set that policy.

    The food as always sounds just delicious! 😋

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were so lucky with the weather when we got there. I was slightly worried that it would get cloudy as it would render those lush green colors rather dull.

      Indeed it’s very encouraging to see quite a lot of people beginning to shift their lives to ones that are more sustainable and put less pressure on the environment. But unfortunately the old way of life is often too comfortable to leave behind for many.

      I must say I was really intrigued when I learned about the real reason why electricity is prohibited in this village. In a way it does make sense. But I wonder how long this rule will last as smartphones have made their way into the households around the village.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Weather makes a huge difference for sure, so glad you had good weather.

        I used to be a city person and still live in the city but definitely crave a more country lifestyle.

        Yes, smartphone addiction is very real. At least the villagers will get lots of exercise going up those stairs to charge their phone! 😆

        Liked by 1 person

      • I know how it feels. Although I still love living in a city, as I grow older I seem to gravitate toward a way of life where nature is at its core.

        I won’t be surprised if one day I see Tiktok videos or something like that created by the people of Kampung Naga and its surrounding villages. As you said, smartphone addiction is real! 😀

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  2. What a different place. This new stay-at-home world is making us discover things close by, and they can be so very different. I liked your description of your first visit to Kampung Naga “the small mosque at the heart of the community that was lit by nothing but a few oil lamps”. It would make for lovely photos. But then you would not have these photos of the lush greenery and paddy fields. The mud oven in the kitchen looked like a traditional Indian “chulha”. I guess that must be common across Asia. I like the framing of the post. We all make choices about which aspects of capitalism, consumerism, and change to incorporate into our daily lives, but it becomes visible only when we look at a place which has made different choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true. I don’t think I would even think of revisiting this village if there was no pandemic. I really wish I had taken photos of Kampung Naga on that first visit, but back then I rarely used my film camera as I wasn’t into photography yet. I had to google ‘chulha’ and it does look similar with the one in that house. I agree that it must be something different cultures in Asia share in common.

      Visiting places like Kampung Naga won’t necessarily change people’s way of life. But I think doing so will at least makes us wonder what alternatives there are that we didn’t know, and how they will not only improve our lives and well-beings, but also cause less impact to the environment.

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  3. Such a fairy tale village, seems like a dreamland. It’s so alluring, feel like going and spending some time there right away. Such incredible harmony between man and nature and unique ways of running the society. The ban on electricity is a strange thing though 😀
    I love exploring people and their culture, its the most fascinating thing about travel. Hence, this post resonates with me so much. Loved reading the description of how the traditional houses are built using all natural materials. Many such remote places are preserving their ancient traditions and culture, which may just be the greatest boon for mankind in future times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although it was not my first visit to this village, going at daytime certainly made all the difference. The landscape around Kampung Naga was so beautiful, the rice terraces lush, and the village itself peaceful. Like you, travel has allowed me to take a closer look at different cultures I would otherwise only read through books, magazines, or the internet. And that is more valuable than most things I have. Kampung Naga is an example of the importance of preserving traditional communities because from them we can learn about what they’ve done right and we’ve done wrong, so we can right our wrongs.

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  4. I love the idea of living sustainably and working with the environment as opposed to against it. Kampung Naga sounds like a wonderful community to visit to learn more about their ancient traditions and connection with the land. Agreed, it would be interesting to see what this place is like in 50 years or so and to see whether anything has changed.

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    • It’s even more important now than ever to learn how to live more sustainably from traditional communities like the one in Kampung Naga. I like to dream that in the near future there will be more people who practice eco-friendly ways of life as opposed to traditional communities succumbing to our modern life that often causes harm to the environment.

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  5. Fascinating post Bama. And I love the cluster of thatched houses in that idyllic setting and the intriguing concept of restricting their numbers to 112! Seems quite like how male members of wild herds/prides leave to form their own family structures. Might not be a bad system to adopt for our urban areas currently bursting at the seams. It’ll be interesting indeed to see how long Kampung Naga will be able to preserve its unique culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Madhu. That cluster of houses surrounded by rice terraces and forests really made this village incredibly picturesque. It would be so interesting to dig deeper into the philosophy that binds this community together and learn about its impacts and consequences. But we’d probably need to spend at least one night in the village to do that.

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  6. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Bama. We “modern” people think we are so smart … we may well be in some ways, but the dwindling number of people who still connect their lives to that of the earth are looking like the intelligent ones more and more each day. Once we have experienced modernity, it’s also hard to go back, but if we could revert to just a few of the ways of living our ancestors followed, maybe we could extend the life of the planet and the generations to come. I’m all for giving it a try, baby step by baby step!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lex. I believe the essence of modernity is reason, and if one is true to living a life in a modern world, he/she will continuously evaluate the impacts of his/her life to the environment, the community, their health… everything, and question how to make things better. This combined with studying how our ecological footprints, for example, differ from those of traditional communities like the one in Kampung Naga will certainly teach us a thing or two about what and where we’ve done wrong. This in turn will help us make necessary changes accordingly.

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  7. Oh Bama so heartening to read yr post and to know that there are still humans who are wise and have deep connections with their space on the planet. So critical at this juncture for our planet and all who share its bounty and beauty. I have also just read jolandi’s latest writings. So moved that out there there are many who understand and are doing their best to live in harmony…it’s so complicated and there are times when I just feel so sad for what is happening. And then I walk in my garden or down to the sea watch the horizon and give thanks for being alive and as blessed as I am . Salam hangat dari trees 🌳 ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe there are still quite a lot of people who care so much about their space on Earth. Unfortunately, they don’t always get the spotlight they deserve. We, on the other hand, who live far from such communities can still do our part. Your garden and Jolandi’s quinta are perfect examples of this. I must say as much as we need this planet to be healthy, doing things that help ensure it is often hard and complicated. It’s like keeping our own bodies healthy and clean — we know it’s the right thing to do but for some reason we often go down the wrong path.

      Terima kasih sudah membaca, Trees.

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  8. Everyone thinks they want the latest and greatest ‘thing” but once they get it, find it’s not enough. I love to see this village where they live simply. The green, once again, is so vivid. A colour I’m not sure I’ve seen in person. I love your personal story of visiting this rural village with your own feelings and impressions. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Humans just never feel enough. On the one hand, this has allowed us to explore our creativity which led to inventions of all sorts. But on the other hand, this can also bring us closer to greed. Finding the balance has always been tricky. Come again to Indonesia, Maggie, to see that vivid color yourself. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Steven and Annie. Traveling vicariously through other people’s blogs feels a lot more meaningful these days, doesn’t it? Fingers crossed there will be less and less restrictions for international travel.

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  9. What an important lesson you bring to us all, Bama. Modernity is so engraved into our consciousness as the path to progress, freedom, and a better way of life. You say it well at the beginning of your piece: “leaving old and suffocating ways of life and relegating them to the past.” But I think if you give many people the choice of where to spend quality time, the bigger, modern cities of the world would come in second place to the village of Kampung Naga. Even now I imagine strolling through your fantastic photos of the village, the Ciwulan River and the surrounding rice fields ~ a place of dreams really. I admire the villagers ideals and also their pragmatic view where they find ways to embrace modernity, to grow and people and all while keep to their principles. I hope it remains true throughout time, what a great place you’ve taken us to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kampung Naga shows us that there are alternatives to the life we know and what they can do to our wellbeing if we practice them. What I found really interesting is the fact that some of the villagers were curious about the world outside their small community and went out to see it. Our guide, however, seemed to come to a conclusion that living near the village is better for him than being a part of Jakarta. And I can see why.

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  10. Love how green and lush everything is. It brings back to a walk we did, back 7 years ago now, from the Handunugoda tea plantation in Sri Lanka to the seaside. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, to go on foot rather thank tuk tuk, but we absolutely loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just now I had to look up on Google Maps to see where Handunugoda is and how far it is from the beach, and hey… you gave me an idea of where to go the next time I’m in Sri Lanka! It does seem like something you can absolutely do on foot. I just have to make sure that I go there in the right season.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was actually a nice leisurely stroll, replete with people saying hello, water buffalos, great views and a blistering sunburn since I’m a moron and keep forgetting sunscreen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re not the only moron. I also often forget to put sunscreen whenever I go hiking, and always regret it once it’s too late. Yet, this keeps happening.

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Bama this is a fascinating article. I do wonder how long the traditions can be kept. with the introduction of smartphones I wonder what the younger generation thinks. while kayaking in the Sea of Cortez we came upon a tiny island and fishing village ( El Pardito) where the traditions had remained in place. However in this generation of teenagers things had begun to shift.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought my generation was already super-connected to the world, but it seems like today’s teenagers are even more so. And they adapt to new trends and technologies even faster, which then leads to your question: how long can the traditions in places like Kampung Naga be kept? I imagine navigating through this would certainly be quite challenging both for the elders and the younger generation of this village.

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    • Thanks Alison. Kampung Naga really is one of those places that impress visitors not by displaying anything grand or pompous, but rather by showing humility. And that is both great and refreshing to be honest. You may get the opportunity to see this village yourself one day. Never say never.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Sweetly written post. The pictures makes me to feel nostalgic about my – so called Kampong life. I came out of it long long ago. Your post stirred my memoirs of my child hood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Pandian. What do you miss the most from that period in your life? I wonder if there are people from Kampung Naga who now live far from their village (I forgot to ask about this to our guide), and if that is the case, I wonder if they share your nostalgic sentiment about the life they left.

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  13. I recently listened to an interview where the concept of elders and wisdom were discussed. The interviewee mentioned that although people live longer these days, they are definitely not elders, as there is a severe lack of wisdom in old people, especially in Western society these days. That stands in such sharp contrast to your visit and experience of what a community can look like where the elders make wise decisions.

    I love this post, not just for the way you framed it, but also the beautiful photographs, and the way it warms my heart to know that everywhere in the world there are people longing and working towards a simpler life. And it is definitely easier to preserve a simple life, than to return to one, once one has become used to the modern conveniences. The reason why they chose not to have electricity also struck me as interesting. “When there is a gap, there will be conflicts” is a phrase one can apply to so many things in life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I grew up hearing people say “getting old is a certainty, but getting wise is an option.” That’s why it rang a bell when you mentioned about that interview you listened to. I have personally seen real-life examples of this, and come to a conclusion that wisdom is not something elusive. What we need is a state of mind where we’re constantly learning, unlearning, and relearning things.

      I believe there are more people than we think there are who aspire to live a much simpler life. It’s not hard to see why: generally it’s better for our body and mind, and it’s better for the environment. However, I must admit there are aspects of modern life I don’t think I can live without. But I guess the most important thing is understanding the impact of each of our action and make adjustments when necessary.

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      • So true, Bama.
        I completely agree with not being able to give up certain aspects of modern life, yet, like you say, there are still many choices we can make that do make a difference.

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  14. How beautiful! What a fantastic journey you took us on here! I think going to one of these places would be a very humbling experience, taking us back to what we really come from, and it almost seems unreal that places like this still exist: places where people live in harmony with one another and with nature. The discussion about electricity really struck me and impressed me! Thank you for sharing this amazing journey and these great lessons with us 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • When we go to places like Kampung Naga and realize their sheer beauty, it often makes us think of how much we have lost in our endless pursuit of modern and comfortable life. But on the other hand, we’re also reminded of the things we can do to try to emulate some aspects of life in such communities that we think will help improve our well-beings. Thanks for reading, Juliette.

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  15. It seems very few people have managed to strike a balance between staying connected to the land and their traditions while enjoying the modern conveniences of the 21st century, without getting consumed by them. Our eye-opening visit to Kampung Naga gave us so much food for thought… I did not expect us to be welcomed into someone’s home, or gain all those insights from Pak Aji about the village and his own personal experiences. I can see why he chose to return to his home village after a short stint in Jakarta back in 1987 – just imagine how much he would hate the city now!

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    • I was so happy when I realized that Pak Aji was taking us to one of the houses. I must admit, the bihun looked delicious. I was secretly hoping that his brother’s wife would offer us some! 😀 I really hope Kampung Naga’s traditional way of life will be preserved for many more generations to come despite all those developments that have been happening or will take place not too far from the village. Actually it would be interesting to find out what Pak Aji thinks of Jakarta today.

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  16. What a beautiful village! And how they limited the number of homes to 112! Any history of why the number must remain constant? So much to learn from our own heritage, wisdom of thousands of years. The Pipis you had remind me of something very similar made across much of coastal India.

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    • That’s a question I forgot to ask our guide. There’s not much information about it on the internet either, apart from the fact that the forest around the village is sacred to the locals. Maybe this is why there’s only so much space for them to build their houses. But this is only my guess. I’m not surprised if there’s a snack in India that is similar with pipis. There were numerous cultural exchanges between the peoples of the Indian subcontinent and those living in the Indonesian archipelago that have often been forgotten today, unfortunately.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Serene is an apt word to describe this village. West Java is blessed with a lot of rivers, so much so most West Javanese restaurants, even those outside the province, feature a small stream or waterfall in their premises.

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  17. hcyip says:

    Great write-up and photos of such an interesting village, Bama. Modernity, especially with the tech developments of this past decade, is not always a positive and while it might be hard to live like these villagers without electricity, reducing the use of technology is very helpful, even essential for our wellbeing. I also hate mosquitos (we had a lot of them in Trinidad, where I grew up) so if I ever visit Jakarta, I will be mindful of that, ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Hilton. I guess in the end the existence of villages like Kampung Naga is to teach us that it is possible to live a life that is less wasteful by incorporating some traditional practices into our modern way of life. If you do go to Jakarta one day, make sure to also bring a mosquito repellent with you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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