A city where anything is possible
Written by Paul Walters
The early morning sun spears like an arrow through the buildings in old Batavia, illuminating an old man hosing down the cobblestones, while across the square a restaurateur arranges chairs and tables on the pavement then pulls down a colourful awning.
I could easily be in Europe, except a few minutes later the city awakens and roars into life and I realise that I am in one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and culturally diverse cities on earth – Jakarta.
Jakarta is like a blast from a giant furnace – the sweltering heat, the bombardment of exhaust fumes from vehicles funnelling from 12 lanes into four; as taxi drivers, iconic bajaj (tuk-tuks), and motorcycles jockey for position as they squeeze forward on the crowded streets populated by some of the nicest people on the planet.
The city wakes each morning as if from a restless sleep, eager to get going, groaning into life as the population begins to go about its daily business. There is a wonderful Indonesian expression that perfectly sums up this place: Samua bisa di atur (Anything can be arranged), and to all intents and purposes, it’s entirely true.
A first taste of this, the nation’s capital, located on the northern tip of Java, (the largest of the 17,508 islands in the Indonesian archipelago) is excitement personified.
Jakarta is a city full of wonder and, although the traffic will always be chaotic, life has been made a lot easier for visitors lately via a new free bus system that circles all the main attractions.
Apart from the 10 million people who call this metropolis home, which is swelled by another eight million who pour into the city to work each day, the sheer vastness of Jakarta might seem daunting for the first-time visitor. Fear not! This is one of the great melting pots of history, cultures, and cuisines, and discovering them all is part of its allure. So, take a deep breath and dive right in.
Bataviais undoubtedly the best place to start, as it is the perfect introduction to Jakarta’s origins. Once you have discovered the city’s past, it is to the fashionable Menteng district you should head. With its exclusive restaurants, hip hotels, and some excellent live music venues featuring the best of Indonesian talent, the place fairly hums. All across this metropolis, world-renowned restaurants, overseen by outstanding chefs, perch on top of towering skyscrapers giving diners a dizzying view of the city; while far below, shoppers head in droves to the dozens of gargantuan shopping malls.
Indonesia is a fascinating country and has an even more fascinating history. Since ‘Java Man’ first roamed around, circa 1 million bce, its history goes something like this: Hindu kingdoms reigned from the 4th century, then came the Muslim sultanates, followed by three-and-a-half centuries of Dutch rule, occupation by the Japanese during WWII, and finally the Republic of Indonesia. Since that historic day, the country has planted its feet firmly on the world stage.
Jakarta is a city that has definitely come of age in the last 20 years or so as towering skyscrapers fill the skyline, cementing its status as one of Southeast Asia’s leading powerhouses. However, amongst these gleaming, glass-encased edifices, most of the city has managed to retain much of its heritage. So, to discover its past, let us return to the old part of the city.
Kota Tuais Oud Batavia: the first walled settlement created by the Dutch in the 16th–19th centuries and the de facto capital of the Dutch East Indies. For the next 200 years, it became the centre of commerce due to its strategic position and access to the spices so desired by Europeans. Its phenomenal wealth was built on humble pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, and vanilla.
Like any growing city, these ‘old’ areas became neglected as new commercial hubs sprang up in the south, and consequently Kota fell into a state of serious neglect. In 2014, the city’s governor, Joko Widodo (now President of Indonesia), revived the restoration plan of Kota Tua with his ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR), a cooperation between state-owned enterprises.
Ongoing restoration has brought Oud Batavia back to life; its cobbled streets, squares, and colonial buildings have been given a new lease of life after a much-needed spruce-up. Blink and you might think you are in Amsterdam, although the heat and humidity will soon bring you back. The main square is dominated by the brooding Old Jakarta Post Office (Jl. Kali Besar), which bears testament to the fine Dutch architecture of the day.
The side streets and gangs (lanes) are a hive of activity, lined with small eateries where locals on work breaks sit at tables on small plastic stools playing chess and taking their lunch cooked over sputtering propane stoves. To explore this maze of streets and lanes, hire a classic bike (sans gears!) from the fellow manning the stall in Central Square. IDR10,000 (US$0.75) will get you about 30 minutes.
Looking for something exotic or unusual? Then Jalan Surabaya is for you, where fabrics, antiques, and all manner of eclectic items are displayed on trestle tables. Never pay the initial asking price, as it’s more than likely to be double the actual price.
Like any cosmopolitan city, Jakarta is exceptionally well serviced by a plethora of malls. These monuments to newly discovered affluence have become magnets for the well-heeled residents. International brands sit cheek by profitable jowl with many local retailers. Most open until 10pm, and perhaps the boldest are Grand Indonesia, Plaza Indonesia, and Mal Kelapa Gading – however, there are almost too many of these emporiums to count, and if you love shopping you won’t go home empty-handed.
Jakarta is a city you learn to love and, I promise, once it has ensnared you with its charms, it will never disappoint.
1,000 reasons to leave
Sometimes visitors and residents alike feel the need to escape Jakarta, and what better place to do so than the Thousand Islands. A 30-minute boat ride from Ancol or Pluit Marinas (or ask your concierge to charter you a yacht for the day) will bring you to Pulau Seribu (the Thousand Islands), a cluster of approximately 100 islands stretching 45km into the azure waters of the Java Sea. Many are uninhabited or heritage-listed, while many more still are privately owned. Visited predominantly by Jakarta residents, islands such as Ayer, Kotok, and Sepa offer great snorkelling and diving.
Jakarta for families
There is plenty to do to keep children amused in and around the city.
Originally built to showcase the wonders of the archipelago, this expansive ‘cultural playground’ is too large to explore in just a single day. The cable car is a must, as it takes you over a scale replica of Indonesia’s sprawling archipelago, and along with authentic villages showcasing the colours and crafts of the far corners of the islands, there’s a plethora of museums, open-air aviaries, a waterpark, 4D and IMAX cinemas, and more. Newly opened is Taman Legenda, a dinosaur park that also has a carousel, Ferris wheel, and more.
Bali’s famed waterpark – rated No. 3 in the world – is also in Jakarta. Offering slides, thrill rides, pools, and everything aquatic.
Dunia Inline Skate Park
Get your skates on! This is a great place for those who love the outdoors and being sporty. For kids and adults alike.
The National Monument stands proudly in the centre of Merdeka Square in honour of Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. A lift can be taken to the top at a cost of IDR20,000 (US$1.50), which offers a wonderful view of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Jakarta History Museum
See ancient Indonesian artefacts alongside relics of Dutch colonial rule. With over 23,000 items from Indonesia’s fascinating past on display, it is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Jalan Taman Fatahillah No. 1
The largest in Southeast Asia, this astonishing mosque can host 120,000 worshippers at any one time.
Jalan Taman Wijaya Kusuma
I’m an unashamed foodie; I tend to spend much of my time while here trying new taste experiences. I love the smoky, fluorescent-lit, all-day, all-night depots of locally loved Padang food, throbbing with Bollywood music. Tempting dishes are piled on your table, delivered with lightning speed. One word: delicious!
I also have a passion for documenting street art around the world, and Jakarta offers some exceptional examples, so heading out at night with renowned spray painters Miko and Popo is always an adventure. To get away, I usually head to Bogor, best known for the fantastic botanical gardens, spread out over 87 hectares, which are among the best in Indonesia.
Jakarta is blessed with some of the finest hotels anywhere. All the leading brands are here, and most, if not all, offer exceptional five-star services. A standout is The Hermitage, a heritage hotel re-opened in 2015 following a four-year refurbishment. The service is impeccable, as are the impressive antiques.
Jl. Cilacap No. 1 Mentang
Hard to go past, if only for the setting. Its menu boasts Western and traditional Indonesian offerings and does the best nasi goreng in the city.
Jl. Pintu Besar Utara 14
Distance: 6,918 km
Flight Time: 8 hours, 55 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a day