5 September 2018

The Battle Boxes of Bandung

The forests of Dago, which is northeast of Bandung, may look just like any other regular forest to unsuspecting visitors, but the area is home to a series of tunnel networks made by the Dutch and Japanese. The Goa Belanda or Dutch Cave, is one such network which bears the namesake of its creators and was built in 1918 originally as a water tunnel meant for generating hydroelectric power.

Entrance to Goa Belanda

Coupled with the high precipitation of the area, the neighbouring mountain ridge - which stretched from east to west - acted as a natural watershed. The Dutch took advantage of this by digging a tunnel through a sandstone ridge near to the Cikapundung river and channeled its gushing waters through the tunnel, hence creating the first hydro-power plant in the Dutch East Indies, an amazing breakthrough for the colony.

In 1941, as the threat of war loomed over the Asia Pacific, the Dutch chose to turn the hydro-power tunnel into a military base. This was a strategic move as the surrounding mountains and forests helped to protect the tunnel and keep its location a secret, while the tunnel was in close proximity to Bandung as well. The telecommunications station at Gunung (Mount) Malabar, located south of Bandung, was shifted entirely to the these tunnels as the former was prone to aerial raids. Apart from its primary role of transmitting radio signals, the tunnel network also contained sleeping quarters, ammunition storage, an armoury, interrogation rooms and even detention rooms for enemy troops!

While the Goa Belanda isn't as elaborate or built on a scale as colossal as the Singapore's Battle Box, the underground command centre built under Fort Canning by the British, a walk through the intricate network of tunnels in the dark, aided only by torchlights, may prove to be a daunting task for most people.


The former water tunnel, which is 144 metres long and 1.8 metres wide, was used as the main passageway which ran from one end of the ridge to the other. A pair of rails can be seen etched into this passageway shortly after entering the tunnel and they ran for two thirds of the entire tunnel length and were added to facilitate the movement of carts.

One of many bunkers.

From this main passageway, the Dutch extended the tunnel network by adding two more wide thoroughfares and fifteen intersecting passages. They also added two large iron gates at either end of the main tunnel which could be closed if necessary.

The air inside the tunnels was damp and musty, but the cool mountain air made the walk a little more pleasant. I could only imagine how fetid the air inside these tunnels would have been during the war when it was fully operational. The soldiers were known to have stayed in the tunnels for the entire Dutch East Indies Campaign, which lasted for 4 months, without ever stepping outside. 

The eerie silence was broken by the echoes of our footsteps.

As we trudged along the dark recesses of the tunnel, I understood from Hardi that some renovations were done by the government in 1985 in a bid to upkeep the place. Hardi also pointed out that some of the tunnel walls were repainted and look newer than their actual age.

Hardi touching one of the stone-cold refurbished walls.

Apart from being an important piece of Indonesia's colonial history, the Goa Belanda is also widely rumoured to be haunted. People have often complained of hearing strange sounds inside the cave, such as the sound of marching soldiers and unexplainable screaming. 

It is therefore no coincidence that the tunnels have been used regularly by producers of various reality shows in their bid to film and prove the existence of ghosts, including the hugely popular paranormal documentary - Dunia Lain (roughly translated as "The Other World").

One of the lamps left behind by the Dutch.

A popular myth also suggests that one should not mention the word Lada ("spicy" in the Sundanese language - the Sundanese people reside in large numbers in West Java, especially Bandung, the capital of West Java province) in the vicinity as bad luck would befall whoever utters those words. (incidentally, Lada means pepper in Indonesian / Malay). When questioned about this, one of the stern-faced guards outside the park solemnly replies: "We believe that there is a curse left behind by an ancient person who goes by that name and used to live in a village among these forests. Anyway it is taboo to mention that word, please refrain from doing so."

Upon further probing, the guard mentioned that an independent film crew once asked for permission to film a night isolation session in the tunnel and tried to challenge the myth by liberally uttering the word "lada" while in the cave, and they lasted less than an hour and ran out of the tunnel screaming. It remains a mystery as to what caused their panicky reaction. (Maybe my friends from the SGHC would be interested to try one of their famous isolation sessions in this tunnel?)

Note the peculiar device on the left.
 Continuing our trek further into the tunnels, Hardi and I came across a interesting contraption in one of the passageways. Apart from the brackets which lined the walls of almost every tunnel, this passage had two large brackets mounted on a niche with a lever below. Was this a junction box or power device of some sort, which could be activated by pulling the lever?

Further in, I came across another interesting passage which had an iron valance affixed to the frame of its entrances on both sides. A peephole in the middle of the valance allowed one to view of the interior of this bunker and the remains of the door frame below suggests that there was a large iron gate below. Was this the place where they impounded POWs?

The bunker was empty, and this gave no indication of the activities which took place in here during the war. Metal brackets ran along one of the walls just like the others, and my mind suddenly ran the wild thought of Japanese POWs committing seppuku to die an honourable death rather than being confined by their enemies in this dark carrel.

We were nearing the other end of the tunnel, where one could walk for about 5 kilometres to the famous Curug Omas waterfall, or hop on an ojek (motorcycle-taxi) for a less tiring experience, when we stumbled upon a curious sight - a hole in the wall!

Interior of the "POW prison"

"What do you think was in this bunker?" I asked Hardi. "I'm not sure, but it must be something important for someone to have sealed it up." he replied.

The Japanese Cave is the first cave you come to after walking some 300 meters from the main gate of the Juanda Forest Park. Left over from World War II, the Japanese Cave is tangible proof of how hundreds of Indonesians were forced to build the cave under the Japanese forced-labor system called romusha.

Built in 1942 during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, the Japanese Cave was used by Japanese troops as a defense shelter from the attacks of the Allied Forces. To enter the cave, you’ll need to rent a spotlight and ask for a guide’s assistance as it’s very dark inside the cave (that’s right, there are no lamps inside!), so you might get lost in there. Renting a spotlight will cost you Rp 3,000; you can pay the guide as much as you please. The guide will also regale you with stories about the cave during your tour in the darkness.

Any guide you meet there will tell you the same story about how hundreds of Indonesians died when being forced to dig into the hills to build the cave. At that time, the laborers were paid just five cents and a quarter cup of rice every day.

Another story you might hear from the guides there is that the Japanese Cave was used as the film set for the 1970s movie Si Buta dari Gua Hantu (The Blind Man from the Ghost Cave). During the tour inside the cave, your guide will explain that the Japanese Cave has four passageways, each some 200 meters long each. Of the four passageways, the second and third ones were prepared as traps for enemies. Inside the cave, there are 18 bunkers, all of which have different functions, including as a surveillance room, shooting room, meeting room, munitions storeroom and kitchen.

The cave has walls made of concrete, cement and padas (rocks made of layers of hardened soil) 50 to 70 centimeters thick. The construction of this cave, however, was not completed at the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, and has remained as it is ever since.

Article & Photos copyright of Aaron Chan

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