On the afternoon of July 17, 2006, a 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake struck off the southern coast of Java. The quake was barely felt in Pangandaran, a popular beach holiday town that sits on a small peninsula.
Less than an hour later, the sea retreated and a powerful three-meter-high tsunami came crashing down on the town, pushing boats ashore and destroying buildings. The Ministry of Health estimated that more than 660 people were killed in the disaster.
But over a sunny long weekend, you’d never guess that the tourist strip in this West Java town was flattened less than four years ago. Families piled atop quad bikes zoom up and down streets, becak (rickshaw) drivers pedal back and forth looking for customers, teenagers try and fail to ride four-person bicycles and makeshift seafood warung (streetside stalls) sprout as naturally as palm trees from the sand.
You have to look harder to find the evidence of the destruction from the big wave. Thankfully, it is clearest in the town’s attempts to prevent such destruction from happening again. Street signs mark tsunami evacuation zones and the best route to high ground, both in town and in Pangandaran National Park, which proudly occupies a rocky headland at the south of the peninsula.
Along the coast, further from the main stretch of shops and guesthouses, are the more obvious remnants of the tsunami. Salt-licked walls with gaping holes stand forlornly, seaside plots of land lie empty and the jungle has begun to encroach on the crumbling foundations of abandoned houses.
For guides like Deni, the gradual return of tourists to the area after the tragedy has been a hard-won achievement. For a year following the disaster, guides, surfing teachers and even those providing accommodation offered their services for free to try and lure back visitors to spend money and help restore the local economy. Pangandaran is once again attracting a steady flow of domestic tourists, especially those chasing waves at what is regarded as one of Java’s best surf beaches, as well as some foreign backpackers.
In many ways, the recovery is not surprising, given the area’s bounty of natural beauty and the friendly locals’ passion for showing it off.
The town sits right in the middle of the triangle-shaped peninsula, just 400 meters wide at its narrowest point. On the west side, a calm surf beach attracts the boogie-board and family holiday crowd, while on the quieter eastern side, a scenic bay is home to numerous fishing boats.
The national park is inviting, with some concrete paths and easy tracks, and hosts a white-sand beach with a reef for snorkeling, large caves to explore and gray- and-white monkeys that have a penchant for stealing water bottles from tourists distracted with snapping photos.
In June and July, giant Rafflesia flowers, also known as corpse flowers because of their stench, can be spotted in the national park.
Not far from town is Green Canyon, a stunning rocky crevice with hanging greenery, dramatic waterfalls and clear water on a good day. The canyon’s entrance is an hour away by car, and you can catch a small boat from there up to the more scenic area of the waterway.