Puncak: Jakarta’s Lush Backyard

43 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Mount Salak as seen from a viewpoint on the way to Puncak

As he carefully navigated the bends and twists of this mountain pass through thick fog that drastically reduced visibility, he kept murmuring wow and phew, being both perplexed and relieved every time he managed to conquer a sharp turn. My father was at the steering wheel with my equally jittery mother sitting next to him, eyes wide open at the motion-sickness-inducing road. I was in the back seat, and after a while I fell asleep, only slightly aware of the situation my father was dealing with.

Back in the days when we were still living in the westernmost part of Java, we had to go through this difficult pass to reach Bandung, the capital of West Java – the province which once included the small city where we used to live. Puncak, as the pass is called, was challenging. But with beautiful vistas of lush hills and mountains, occasionally peppered with picturesque tea plantations, it was a preferred option compared to the drive through Purwakarta which was relatively faster and more straightforward, but a lot hotter and less pleasant as people had to share the road with much slower large trucks. Along the road to Puncak were stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables picked from the plantations around this region, and they were much sought-after by those who wished to take things slowly and stop by to enjoy the fresh air before continuing their journeys. One of my fondest memories of this part of West Java indeed involves food: we often stopped by halfway up or down the mountain pass to have grilled corn, sometimes slathered in a spicy and savory sauce, which was a perfect snack on a cool day.

Puncak has not only been popular among long-distance travelers. Its proximity to Jakarta means it has been a favorite destination for short getaways for the people living in the Indonesian capital and its urban agglomeration. This explains the often-congested traffic to Puncak on weekends and public holidays. The ever-increasing population of the megacity directly to its north only brings even more pressure to this cooler mountainous region, which is exactly why I had never been excited about the idea of going to Puncak even though I’ve been living in Jakarta for more than a decade. Why get stuck in traffic when that is what we have to deal with every day?

That is until James, who has been calling Jakarta his home for six years now, proposed the idea of going to Puncak because he was curious about it.

The only times I went to Puncak since I moved to Jakarta were for work-related training outings, and they always happened on weekdays where the traffic was usually much lighter. And that was exactly what we did earlier this year. We left Jakarta on a Thursday morning and really took our time. We stopped by a restaurant for breakfast in an area right at the beginning of the drive up to Puncak. Then half an hour later, we took a brief stop at a modest roadside tea shop with a nice view of Mount Salak, played with a very friendly resident cat, had a warm and sweet bajigur (a traditional sweet drink made from palm sugar and coconut milk), and took a stroll along a leafy path that ended abruptly at an unkempt tea estate. Half an hour before midday, we continued our journey to the hotel and still had time for a brief stop near a better-looking tea plantation cascading down a hill like a green carpet.

Once this river reaches Jakarta it turns filthy and smelly

A brief stop before Puncak

Those blue and orange tents are street-side snack vendors

A friendly and playful tuxedo cat at a tea shop where we stopped

A walk behind the tea shop

I always find it so peaceful to stand beneath such a lush canopy

Nature’s colors and textures

When I saw this, I decided to briefly pull over

Many people prefer to travel via Puncak to see such tea plantations

From the moment we left Jakarta until our arrival at the hotel, the traffic was mostly pleasant – just like how we predicted – and so was our first impressions of the nearly three-decade-old accommodations. In general, I prefer staying at properties that feel intimate and warm, and blend well with their environment, as opposed to the big and imposing ones. Situated on the second floor of a low-rise long structure, our cozy room had a balcony facing a visually-pleasing verdant landscape. The red bottlebrush-like inflorescence of Callistemon citrinus framed the view, inviting nectar-eating squirrels to come and jump from one tree branch to another to take a sip of its supposedly sweet juice. Just a short walk from our room to the other corner of the property, we stumbled upon a viewpoint from which we were able to see different birds flying around. One had a dramatic cerulean plumage and a bright red beak, while the other sported a scissors-like tail. Too bad I didn’t have a telephoto lens to capture those beauties.

For lunch, we opted to walk a bit toward Istana Cipanas, one of the presidential palaces of Indonesia which lies around 2 kilometers south of the hotel, to dine in a Sundanese restaurant somewhere in the middle. As we arrived at the eatery, we went straight to a counter near the entrance to select what we felt like having and how we wanted them to be served (fried/grilled, with sweet and sour sauce, etc). Then after we were seated, a waiter brought to our table a generous amount of lalapan (raw vegetables to be eaten with sambal), the sambal itself, and rice in a container made from woven bamboo. Once our order came, it was time to dig in. While the dishes were good, for me the star was the sambal which was made from red bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic, salam leaves, and salt (and probably sugar as well) which together were lightly pounded then fried. We ordered a tad too much for lunch and I ended up feeling as if my stomach was about to explode. But this isn’t Jakarta, so we felt no need to rush and instead took our time before walking a little further to the palace.

Istana Cipanas might not be as stately as other palaces you’ve seen. In fact, the main building within the compound initially functioned as the residence of a Dutch landlord who was attracted to this area for its cool air and hot springs (this is located on the slopes of Mount Gede, an active volcano). Because of its appeal, the 18th-century mansion was at one point used as a retreat house for Dutch governors-general in Java. And after Indonesia gained its independence, it was turned into a minor presidential palace. This vast compound opens its doors to the public on special occasions. But unfortunately the day we went was just a regular Thursday, therefore we could only take photos from outside the gate. After a few minutes, we walked back to our hotel and spent the uneventful afternoon chilling in our room. (I spent more time on the balcony watching the squirrels before the day went dark.)

The pretty lobby of our hotel

A Kigelia africana (known as the “sausage tree” in Indonesian) near the hotel’s lobby

The view from our balcony

Bright red “bottlebrushes” of Callistemon citrinus

One of the squirrels we saw from our room

A seemingly abandoned small pavilion behind the hotel

I picked these fallen petals of Spathodea campanulata and put them on the ledge

Passion flowers always stand out from their surroundings

A selection of proteins for lunch

A Sundanese meal is typically served with a bunch of raw vegetables

The addictive sambal

Istana Cipanas, one of Indonesia’s presidential palaces

While the palace itself is quite popular among those who come to this part of the Puncak area, I personally think one of the highlights of this short trip was a visit to the Cibodas Botanical Garden some 5 kilometers uphill from our hotel. Established in the mid-19th century by Johannes Ellias Teijsmann, a Dutch botanist who was also in charge of the Bogor Botanical Garden, the former was earmarked for the acclimatization of non-native trees with high economic value. Cinchona, a genus of plants originating from the Andean forests of South America, was chosen as one of them for its medicinal properties in treating malaria.

Occupying an 85-hectare (210-acre) area more than 1,300 meters above sea level, the Cibodas Botanical Garden immediately felt vast as soon as we entered the gate and drove past countless tall trees to reach a parking lot deep within the compound. Taking a short walk to a clear pool at the end of a well-tended lawn, we took out our cameras and started taking photos of the beautiful vista with the peak of Mount Pangrango visible in the background. This must be one of the most photogenic corners of the botanical garden.

While many people prefer to drive their cars from one parking spot to another within the compound (for some reason, many Indonesians don’t like to walk), we opted to explore some of the most interesting parts of the botanical garden on foot. Having three spots in my mind – the ferns, pitcher plants, and Amorphophallus (one of the species in this genus happens to have the world’s largest inflorescence) collections – we took a leisurely stroll across moss-covered and tree-shaded pathways with James leading the way. At one point when he was already too far ahead of me, I saw a big squirrel jumping from one tree branch to another. Not only was it much bigger than the ones I saw at the hotel, it also had different colors. It was probably a Ratufa bicolor, also known as the giant black squirrel. I managed to snap a few shots of this furry creature before it disappeared into the thick green canopy.

Being close to the equator, I started sweating profusely despite being at such a relatively high altitude. Fortunately, there was a cool mountain breeze every now and then. We eventually arrived at the fern garden which has an impressive collection of tree ferns.

“Look at that!” James pointed out an orange-colored moth perched on a tip of a small tree. Its beautiful patterned wings were a nice ‘pop’ amid the greenery.

Just a short walk from the ferns was an enclosure filled with the carnivorous pitcher plants from the Nepenthes genus. Some were really big, while others only started growing their tiny insect-digesting pitchers. Having one at home myself since 2019, it was very exciting to see some of my plant’s cousins in this almost natural setting. A short walk uphill from here to a rather secluded corner of the botanical garden, we stumbled upon the institution’s Amorphophallus collection. As much as I wished to see Amorphophallus titanium (also known as the titan arum) – the biggest in the genus – in full bloom, it was not my lucky day although thankfully I could still see this plant in its leaf-cycle form.

As the day progressed, the sky gradually turned grey, suggesting it was time for us to wrap up this visit. But before we left, we were treated to a scene I rarely see when about half a dozen of lutungs/Javan langurs gathered on the branches of a tree near where I parked my car. It was so nice to see how wild animals still seemed to thrive in and around this botanical garden, while their counterparts have all but disappeared from the megacity not too far from here.

For me, every visit to such places always evokes both emotions: happiness at seeing animals roaming freely in their natural habitat, but also sadness in realizing that decades or centuries ago similar scenes might have been a common occurrence on sites that are now filled with concrete buildings. All the more reason why we need institutions like the Cibodas Botanical Garden. While today Jakarta has two botanical gardens in its backyard, imagine if another one actually exists right at the heart of the city. That would be quite an accomplishment.

One fine morning at the Cibodas Botanical Garden

A walk among the trees

Tall mountain peaks peeking in the background

Reaching for the sun

This looks like a nice spot for a picnic

Entering a tree-shaded world

A green wall

A (rather) close encounter with a giant black squirrel

Colors of the botanical garden

Towering tree ferns

A sunbathing moth

Walking toward the carnivorous plants enclosure

Home to the garden’s pitcher plants collection (from the Nepenthes genus)

One of the many quirks of Mother Nature

One of a few lodges within the botanical garden compound

On weekends there must be a lot more people walking down this pathway

A small stream just off the same path

Beware of falling trees

Two different Amorphophallus species

A prehistoric look

The botanical garden’s conservatory (which was closed at the time of our visit)

Lutungs/Javan langurs near the car park

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

43 thoughts on “Puncak: Jakarta’s Lush Backyard”

  1. I love this post! What a beautiful and diverse vegetation Indonesia has! My favorite picture was the one with the tall trees, definitely a peaceful place. I’ve never tried sambal, but just reading your description looks like something I would try, looks delicious!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s perennially green in this part of this vast tropical archipelago. And you’re right about those tall trees. It truly felt peaceful waking beneath them. Sambal is an indirect product of colonization (since chilies originate from the Americas) many Indonesians today can’t live without. I wonder if you would find similarities between that and Mexican salsa.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh definitely! Sambal resembles Mexican salsa in many ways. Mexican salsa is made with chilies, onion, garlic, cilantro leaves and salt, blended and then fried in hot oil to bring out the flavors of the ingredients. It is interesting to see the sambal served on a mortar and pestle, Mexicans use a similar mortal and pestle made of volcanic rock called “molcajete.” As soon as I saw your picture of the sambal it reminded me of Mexican salsa. I would love to try sambal!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing: the flora and the fauna are similar to ours, but also different. The food is definitely quite different. The more I read your posts, the more I’m inclined to spend a year in Indonesia. That’s an impossible dream, but a wonderful one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true, I.J. If I remember it correctly, in one of your recent posts there was a photo of a squirrel from the genus Ratufa. So that made me think of its cousin across the Indian Ocean that I saw a few months earlier. Oh if you really have that much time to spend in Indonesia, that would be perfect!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A wonderful day trip! We love wandering through botanical gardens. No matter what your mood is, as soon as you enter the green and peaceful world of beautifully curated gardens or parks, it is impossible not to feel good and relaxed. Your photos of the squirrel (at the hotel) and the orange moth are amazing. I am craving a bowl of samba now (which I’ve never tasted) thanks to your descriptions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did notice how much the Brits love their botanical gardens. 😀 But I can absolutely understand why. As you said, places like this often become a refuge — especially from the hustle and bustle of big cities — for weary urban dwellers. After traveling abroad, I never take the parks and gardens in my city for granted now. If you love some heat in your food, I think you would enjoy sambal.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful trip to Puncak, Bama. Sounds and looks like Puncak is worth the traffic jams and congestion. Looks like a world away from Jakarta. Green carpet is such a creative way to describe the tea plantation cascading down the hills – really very green and feels so calming just looking at all these greenery. That is wise to take your time going there, enjoying the friendly cat and food, literally enjoying the journey along the way. Wonderful you got to see some Javan langurs. Sounds like they were friendly but always good to be careful. Hope you are well 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a world away from Jakarta, indeed. The beauty of going there on a weekday is I could take my time and not worry about getting stuck in traffic. I’m glad I went before I started working again! I think I can recommend Puncak for anyone visiting Jakarta who also wants a change in scenery without having to travel too far from the city. Just don’t go on the weekend! Hope you’re doing well too, Mabel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sitting in traffic is never fun. Good call on visiting Puncak on a weekday. I can’t get over how green and lush the landscape looks. Even the view from your balcony is gorgeous. The Cibodas Botanical Garden looks very picturesque and peaceful. I can’t get over that many people prefer to drive their cars from one parking spot to the next!! I’m with you that it’s better to explore nature on foot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I hate Jakarta’s traffic so much now I only want to work at a place where I can go by bike, on foot, by bus, by the metro, or if I really have to, by taxi as long as the ride won’t take too long. The green and lush landscape, that’s Java for you, Linda. But on the other hand, I always envy Canadians for having those majestic mountains and lakes right in their backyard. Yay for enjoying nature on foot!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a beautiful post, Bama! I felt like I was there with you and James. The lush tree canopy, the interesting plant life like the sausage tree, and colourful flowers and that beautiful orange moth at the top of your post must’ve been all nice to take in.

    I’m glad to see the food photos later on in your post as I was craving them as you described them. The protein spread looks amazing and the sambal sounds mouthwatering. I also like they use of coconut milk and palm sugar in the Asian countries in your part of the world, ingredients we don’t often use as much in this part of the world. Sounds perfect for a hot day.

    I also enjoyed the memory of your dad driving. The things we kids take for granted as young passengers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Ab! The better-than-expected weather definitely played a big role in making this getaway a really nice one.

      There was so much to choose from I was a bit overwhelmed at first when I arrived at that eatery. Still, we took too much we barely could finish them all! And you’re right about the use of coconut milk and palm sugar in this part of the world. Javanese dishes, in particular, heavily incorporate these ingredients.

      As a young passenger, one thing I did most of the time was sleeping. I think I got bored easily back then. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

      • I may just try to look for some Indonesian food this weekend. Probably not the same as you have but it’ll have to do! 😆

        I miss the days when I can sleep in the back seat. To be a kid again!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful location. I’m sure you were glad James had convinced you to return. I can understand you still getting hot even though Puncak’s “cooler” than Jakarta. On my 4 degree walk earlier this week, can you believe, I was sweating after a while?!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I certainly was. This was such a nice short trip away from Jakarta. And I was also happy to see how some things remained more or less the same like how they were from my childhood. You must have either walked a lot or very rigorously to sweat at such a low temperature!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Such gorgeous photos of a lovely place! The lush forests and those colourful flowers are definitely worth taking a trip outside the city for! The architecture of the place you stayed fits right in with the surroundings….seems well thought out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda. All those colors of nature really refreshed my mind. If only they were even closer from home. I also like the architecture of the hotel exactly for the reason you mentioned. It doesn’t try to impose itself onto its surroundings or to shout out loudly to advertise itself. It simply blends in.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such a beautiful post. Your photos are incredible! I have not travelled to this region before but it looks well worth the journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Laura. There are definitely more reasons than Puncak to travel all the way from Vancouver Island to my part of the world. But if you do make a brief stop in Jakarta, you may want to check this place out.

      Like

  10. What a beautiful place Bama, so rich and green. It reminded me of the orchid botanical garden we saw in Fiji many years ago. I can see why James wanted to go to Puncak. And how exciting to see the giant squirrel and the langurs. Like you I’m always excited to see wildlife in the wild.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were lucky the weather was mostly good during our stay, although thick clouds started to roll in toward the end of that visit to the botanical garden. I was so ecstatic when I saw the giant squirrel! If only I had a proper telephoto lens. I should learn from you about how to capture images of wildlife, Alison.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh lol, thank you so much, but I must say my pics of wildlife are pure serendipity, and from your photo of the squirrel I’m sure I’d have done no better.
        A.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I can completely understand why you would want to visit a gorgeous place like this during the week when there are less people around, Bama. A sense of space and silence is definitely more to the liking of all introverts, and exactly why one wants to escape the bustle of the city. Your photographs always transport me to the places you describe, and that first picture in the botanical garden is definitely my favourite. What a tranquil and gorgeous view. Competing for favourite photo is that of the friendly tea shop cat – what a cutie! Oh, and I just love how food always feature in your posts – my mouth is watering just looking at the picture and description of the sambal. I have a glut of chillies at the moment, so I should perhaps flick through my Indonesian recipe book for a recipe to try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like only introverts can understand each other well. 😀 Calm places are generally appealing to us, and that was how Puncak was during our stay — well, mostly. We were lucky with that first shot of the botanical garden. The water was calm, the sun was shining, and the summit of Mount Pangrango was visible. We returned to this spot probably an hour later and we no longer could see the volcano. Oh I didn’t know you like chilies! I’m sure you will find more than just one or two recipes from that book that have chili pepper as one of the ingredients.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I love chillies. And all food full of spice and flavour. I have to sometimes remind myself that not every dish need to have a dollop or dash of chillies. 😆 I don’t like so much heat that I can’t taste anything, but I definitely like a tingle in my mouth.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It sounds like we have a similar level of tolerance for spiciness. I love the heat, but there’s only so much chili you can add before you can’t taste anything else.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Isn’t it wonderful that nature can continue to shine so close to our big cities? I marvel sometimes that trees, flowers, animals, and bodies of water can survive and even thrive side-by-side with industrial and commercial pollution and careless humans. In a metropolis as large and busy as yours, these oases are even more precious. I remember another day trip you guys took, and the traffic times you gave us were shocking to me! I’m glad you were able to do this on a quieter and less crowded day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is indeed wonderful, especially since all this greenery and wildlife can still be found relatively close to a giant metropolis that is Jakarta. I know how Puncak was like when I was little. So, going back there decades later I was actually surprised to see how many things remained the same despite the constant pressure from careless humans and the ridiculously congested traffic on weekends. Now, I wouldn’t eschew the idea of returning to Puncak, as long as it’s on a weekday.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. What an amazing short trip! I’ve never been to your part of the world and from your pictures and descriptions everything seems so different and – what’s more important – stunning! The parks and nature are so lush and green it’s crazy! Even the squirrel looks different ahah! Anyways, it’s great that you managed to have a slower time in Puncak, and I also feel like everytime I’m in a big city I have to rush even when I’m on holidays, whereas I usually take things a bit more slowly when I’m not! Thanks for sharing this adventure with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Java is so different from your part of the world, Juliette. One thing I noticed when I returned to my city after traveling in Europe for a month was how much more humid this tropical island was. But that’s one of the reasons why it’s so green. I’m glad I did this trip to Puncak before deciding to start a new job. It surely refreshed my mind!

      Liked by 1 person

    • We went toward the end of the rainy season, which probably explains the intense shades of green you see in the photos.

      Like

  14. You really know your plants. I’ve never seen the sausage tree before. Those tree ferns look like they belong from ancient times. I’m glad that conservatories like these still exist.

    The sambal looks spicy. I’m not sure I would be able to handle that.

    I think the Indonesian tourism department should be paying you for writing such wonderful travel stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I do keep a list of the plants I have, including their scientific names. But for that sausage tree it was easy. There was a signboard at the bottom of it with the plant’s common English name and scientific name written on it. 😀

      I loved those tree ferns. They did look prehistoric!

      If you’re not used to spicy food, that sambal would be too much to handle. But since I grew up eating chilies, having sambal in almost every meal is a very normal thing for me.

      Ha! I don’t know if I want to be noticed by the tourism ministry or not. I prefer to keep things this way.

      Like

  15. hcyip says:

    These are really fantastic places, Bama, especially the botanical garden and the tea plantations. It is cool to see animals such as those langurs in the wild. Thanks again for showing another different and beautiful side of Java.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The botanical garden was really special and the tea plantations were even better than how I expected them to look like. Java is so densely populated, yet there are still pockets of relatively healthy forests teeming with wild animals.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh if I had only read this post before I sent the email message, I would have my question answered: you live in Jakarta! Which is somewhat near the epicenter of the quake, compared to the vastness of Indonesia, but not terribly close. It sounds to me like you and your loved ones are not over there, however, so I have high hopes that you are all well. The photos show such devastation.

    This post is marvelous. I appreciate that multiple times you talked about taking the journey slowly, with intent, and making stops as an integral part of that journey. Such an important concept for living in the moment, and I thank you for the reminder. It all looks so beautiful along this route (I looked up the other route, through Purwakarta, to compare), and your melancholy nods to the loss of wildness in the city, and the river pollution, made me sad. It’s the same story everywhere, until there are enough people to demand a change. It is a wonderful thought to imagine a giant nature preserve in the center of Jakarta!! Oh, great capture on that light-and-dark coloured squirrel! Speaking of light and dark, that cat seems adorable too. He must know it, and go to all the visitors with confidence. The food is always a highlight for you. That selection of proteins for lunch is making my mouth water. I’m certain I’ve never tried Sudanese food, and the basket of lettuce looks almost as appealing as the proteins. I want to try it all. There is so much colour here, such a variety of trees, and described with your masterful evocative language. Thank you for this journey into the mountains with you and James.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Crystal, I’m sorry I just saw your email message. Yes, I live in Jakarta which is about 75 kilometers away from the epicenter of the earthquake. However, because it was a shallow one, we could really feel it here in Jakarta, especially those who were in tall buildings when it happened — I was at my office on the 35th floor. It wasn’t the first time I experienced an earthquake, but the tremor of this particular one certainly was the longest. My mom who lives further away in the central part of Java actually didn’t feel it at all. Thanks for asking and checking me out!

      Puncak is in fact very close to Cianjur, the city that is heavily damaged by the recent earthquake. I hope normalcy will return for the local people there, and the city will be rebuilt. I have a close friend from this particular part of West Java, and I know there are quite a lot of interesting places to visit there. Going to Cianjur will be a good excuse to pay another visit to Puncak.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much for letting me know that you and your family are all ok. Yes, as I continue to listen to news reports, I heard that because the quake was so shallow, Jakarta was impacted too. Such devastation. I hope one day you can visit your friend and be reassured that he’s ok too, and do some sightseeing. I have lived in earthquake places too: California and Alaska, where we felt little shakes all the time and I thought it was fun. I have never experienced a big one.

        Liked by 1 person

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