Jakarta, Capital of Contrasts

24 hours in Jakarta

Jakarta doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations ,but anyone who spends any amount of time in Indonesia is bound to pass through the sweltering capital at some point. I have 24 hours and am determined to find something endearing about the city which is home to ten million people. I arrive two weeks after the bombs, but apart from the area directly around the Marriot and the Ritz Carlton, life has continued as normal.

I fly in to Soekarno-Hatta Airport, and drive straight into one of the city’s legendary gridlocks. Slowly the traffic clears, and an hour later I am in the traveller’s enclave of Jalan Jaksa. It’s hardly Koh Sahn road, but the string of budget hotels, bars, restaurants, and travel agents, make it a convenient base.

Armed with a map, I set out to find the flea market in Menteng. I am expecting urban squalor and thick smog, but find myself walking down wide leafy streets filled with beautiful houses and lush gardens. The market on Jalan Surabaya is truly bizarre and crammed full of ethnic oddities from around the archipelago; scary tribal masks from Papua; antique shadow puppets; elaborate jewellery; as well as an eclectic mix of ancient typewriters; antique telephones; brass dive helmets and  worn out suitcases. It’s all so random. One stall sells battered golf clubs, tennis rackets with broken strings, and has a great collection of Led Zeppelin framed photos, as well as vinyl records with soundtracks from obscure 80’s films.


I could browse for hours, but there is an entire city to explore, and only 20 hours left, so I get on a train which zooms across the city. One minute I am passing over a clean, orderly street scene, the next, graffiti covered slums littered with trash and open sewers. In Jakarta, you never know what’s around the corner.

The city brims with contrasts and contradictions. Ancient mysticism meets mass commercialism; rich meets poor; old meets new; east meets west. It is also a true microcosm of Indonesia and all the nations’ religions, cultures and people are represented here in one great seething mass of humanity.

I arrive at Kota, the old city and push my way through the throng of pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and street vendors to Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah square). The plaza, one of the few remaining colonial relics, is ringed by old  Dutch buildings which now house Jakarta’s finest museums. Historically, the entire area was surrounded by a fort and moat, but the Dutch destroyed much of the city in the early 19th century in a bid to wipe out the disease that plagued the filthy streets.  There are balloon sellers, food vendors and people milling about as they do in city squares all over the world. I sit to drink a coffee and chat amiably with the old man sitting next to me. Out of the blue he tells me that his wife is older than him and he is worried she will die first. “What will I do for sex when she dies,” he asks, “Are you married?”


I take this as my cue to leave and make the short walk to Sunda Kelapa. Jakarta’s origins lie in this harbour town that served as stop on the lucrative spice trade for hundreds of years. It was conquered by the Dutch in 1619 and renamed Jayakarta, City of victory. The crumbling old port gives a glimpse into a by gone era, with its fleet of graceful Phinisi schooners ─ the last wind powered sailing ships in the world. These colourful wooden ships are the traditional vessels of the Bugis seafarers of Sulawesi and continue to ply the island trade route, as they have done for centuries.



A fisherman points to his small row boat and offers to row me up the river. We float slowly upstream, the tiny row boat dwarfed by towering hulls. There are at least 40 ships lining the dock, a truly magnificent sight. The same cannot be said of the port itself which is decaying and squalid with dilapidated stilt houses crouching over the putrid canal – this is Jakarta at its worst.


Night is falling as I climb back on a train. It is dark, hot and crowded, but all the doors are open as we lurch at high speed across the city. I worry about people falling out, or falling off, as the roof is also crammed with people.  We stop for ten minutes on the middle of a bridge, which is fortuitous as we are in front of the National Monument which shines like a beacon against the night sky. The giant obelisk, Jakarta’s best known land mark, is topped by a glittering golden flame, and rises 137 meters from the spacious gardens of  Merdeka (Freedom) Square. It symbolizes the nation’s strength and independence, and was envisioned by Soekarno, the flamboyant first President, who had a penchant for building extravagant monuments. It is rather phallic in nature, and is often referred to as Soekarno’s last erection.


I have a quick meal at a street market, then its back into the night. This time I hail a taxi, the traffic is heavy but I enjoy the chance to relax in the comfort of an air conditioned cab, and it feels like I am getting a private tour of the city. At one particularly fearsome intersection all the traffic lights are out and a lone policeman is trying to direct the traffic, its absolute chaos. We pass the glitzy Mangga Dua Mall, the biggest shopping centre I have ever seen, the opposite side of the road is filled with humble dwellings of corrugated iron.

Driving under a giant archway we leave Jakarta behind and enter into another realm, that of Ancola, ‘Dreamland’. The immense recreation park is home to Dunia Fantasy (Jakarta’s answer to Disneyland); Sea world; a Water Adventure park; as well as a beach park; hotels; restaurants; golf courses; and my destination, Pasar Seni, a stylish and charming arts village set amidst lush tropical gardens.  Its 10.00pm and things are winding down. A lively rock band performs for about 40 people and I wander alone through the market which is full of incredibly inspired art work. Many of the stalls also operate as studios and I see a number of artists at work. One is making life size replicas of animals out of thin silver and gold wire, another paints in a studio filled  with three meter high portraits of head hunters from West Irian.


I arrive back on Jalan Jaksa at midnight to find it heaving, the bars are noisy and overflowing and people are spilled on to the sidewalk.  My Indonesian friend calls and asks if I want to go out.  I am tempted, I have heard the clubs in Jakarta are pretty wild, but exhaustion wins, so the nightlife will have to be sampled on my next trip.

Early the next morning I am in yet another taxi, this time driving down Jalan Thamin, an impressive shopping and hotel district, which is smart, modern and filled with shiny sky scrapers. My destination is Taman Mini Indonesia Inda (beautiful mini Indonesia park) a sprawling cultural park. Once again Jakarta has me gob smacked, this place is incredible!  There are 26 full-scale traditional houses and pavilions, representing each of Indonesia’s provinces. A total of 15 museums showcase themes as varied as; heirlooms; sports; oil and gas; and transportation. There are also 11 parks and gardens. Each pavilion is like a mini museum and filled with artifacts, photos and traditional costumes and many have cultural performances under way. I explore the round houses of Papua; visit the Batak boat-shaped houses from Toba; get a glimpse into the life of the Dayaks of Kalimantan and the Toraja of Sulawesi; and watch a traditional dance from south Sumatra.  It’s kind of overwhelming, like doing a whirlwind tour of the entire archipelago in just four hours and I realize just how diverse this nation of islands is. It is Sunday, and the park is packed with local tourists, without doubt all of Indonesia is represented here on some level.





I wander through the herb garden and the flower park; discover a great second hand book stall filled with old picture books of Indonesia and a dog-eared Indonesian version of Men are from Mars Women are from Venus. I have a quick peak at the aquarium, which is interesting, but the tanks are depressingly small. At the Doctor Fish Spa three women are perched on the edge of a tub, feet dangling in the water which is filled with hundreds of tiny fish nibbling all the dead skin off their feet.


There is so much to see, but my time is up and with a final wistful glance at the IMAX Theater which is playing Road to Mecca, I am in a taxi bound for the airport, where, ironically I learn that my flight has been delayed by four hours. I treat myself to a reflexology massage at the Kedaton Airport spa which proves to be the perfect place to fill in time, with its comfortable sofas, herbal tea, healthy food and free internet.

Finally my plane is boarding and I feel a little sad to be leaving. I can’t pretend to really know Jakarta after just 24 hours, but my ‘taster’ has left me with a lengthy list of things to do on my next visit. I am surprised at how much I enjoyed my time here, but after all, it is a city that is full of surprise

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