Java lamp

Java lamp
The view from the watch tower with the village of Luar Batang and its mosque in the foreground,

Strange monuments, great street food and a bustling city -- Jakarta could draw anyone back again

Avtar Singh
March 31 , 2014
18 Min Read

The city of Jakarta, geographically and historically, starts from the sea. It’s a pity that the city most people see has pretty much turned its back on that stellar feature. If you’re looking for beaches, bikinis and booze-fuelled sunsets over the waves, you’re probably headed elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago and the most you’ll see of Jakarta is the transit lounge of Soekarno-Hatta Airport. If, however, your travel-lust includes booming cities and their stories, great food and strange monuments, brash new energy and age-old connections with things Indians believe we already know, then Jakarta, with all its traffic and pollution and human crush, is an intriguing place. I should know. I have a long connection with the city.

My first brush with pre-school was here. Grown to a wizened seven years, I visited again, this time as a collector of memories. I remember my grandparents’ home in the central district of Menteng. There was a hand pump in the forecourt, under which an elder sister tried to drown me. I remember my grandmother’s piano, whose keys I loved running my hands over and I remember, out in the street, the sweet smell of kretek cigarettes and the chimes of an ice cream vendor. There were exercise sessions with my grandfather and taekwondo lessons and, in the evenings, occasional arguments with a local cousin over who wore a cherished pair of Superman pyjamas. In my mind’s eye, it is a tranquil time lived in a civil place, a backwater much like our own India then. In the intervening period, clearly much has changed.

All these years later, I stare out over that same district from my luxurious room in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The Hotel Indonesia, made famous in The Year of Living Dangerously, is now a Kempinski, and a monstrous—and flash—new mall dwarfs the old edifice. A Grand Hyatt is across the way, a Nikko to the other side. Obviously Indonesia’s capital is no longer an eddy at the edge of the world. My grandparents are memories, as is their home in Menteng, and the sleepy quiet roads of the area are now overrun by motorised traffic. Colossal office towers march up and down the avenues and residential towers shade the skyline. It’s all of a piece with the way my own city, New Delhi, has grown in that time.

But my connection endures. My grandmother’s piano made the big move from Menteng to my own home in Delhi, a few minutes away from where my own son goes to pre-school. Here in Jakarta, the young uncle who showed me how to punch the air is now a semi-retiree, while my cousin, my antagonist over a pair of action hero jammies, is expecting her own first child. Soon, I’ll be leaving to share her seventh month of pregnancy ceremony, or mitoni, with her and her family.

We—this city, my family, our separate and shared histories — have all come a long way. But below the surface, much remains the same.

I’m just glad, looking out over central Jakarta from the twenty-second floor of the Mandarin Oriental, that my sister isn’t lurking close by, scoping the area for a hand pump.

Hinduism is famously still alive in Bali, an island many hundreds of kilometres to the east. But much of the island of Java, like its neighbours all over Southeast Asia, consisted of Indianised Hindu kingdoms till as recently as the sixteenth century. Jakarta itself is a contraction of Jayakarta. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see signs like Trisakti University and Bank Sampoerna. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are still mined here for artistic references and children’s names. More prosaically, many of the cloth shops in the old city and even in the newer malls seem to be run by Indians. Evidently, India’s been here, in one way or another, for a long time.

The first Indian hints must have come over the sea. So start your trip by the sea, in the still magical Sunda Kelapa. This old harbour is where the pinisi come calling. Pinisi is the local word for pinnace, and that’s exactly what these wooden boats are, though they’ve traded in their sails now for big diesel engines. They haul their cargoes — now mostly palm oil residue from Borneo, and cement and other building material from Jakarta — all over the archipelago. It is a strange and beautiful sight to see an old port in this age, with a long row of berthed wooden ships and sweating men straining at their loads. I’ve been here four times in the past twelve years, and Sunda Kelapa never fails to move me. Trade brought much to this country, including colonialism and its weight. That the harbour and the wooden ships and their crews still endure is obviously a testament to something. Ponder exactly what as you take a hand-rowed water taxi over to the fishing village of Luar Batang.

This old village abuts both a famous old mosque — apparently founded by a Yemeni Sheikh in the eighteenth century — and one of Jakarta’s big fish markets, both of which are worth a look. Walk through the village to the big watch tower. Look up and you won’t miss it. You’ll get fantastic views of Jakarta from the top. And it’s breezy. Don’t scoff: Jakarta’s hot around the year. This watch tower and its earlier incarnations stood watch over the old fort and township of Batavia, the settlement the Dutch built after they kicked out the local rulers to start off their own colonial experiment in the sixteenth century. What is also a short auto ride away is the interesting old Chinatown, where the Chinese community of the Dutch era was ghettoised. Before you get in the auto, look at its backside. Chances are you’ll see a familiar name. Bajaj made these rickshaws years ago, and now their local descendants are still identified with them.

The crowded streets of Chinatown, or Glodok, are fun to wander about in. Predictable crowd-pleasers like dumpling vendors share space with odder specialists like frog sellers. Ask to see the Church of Santa Maria de Fatima. It’s built to resemble a Buddhist temple. Only the cross gives it away. Around the corner is the Vihara Darma Bakti, an actual Buddhist temple. The Chinese are associated in Indonesia — frequently to the community’s detriment — with prosperity. This temple is certainly well endowed. Massive wax candles burn for months as the gifts of loaded merchants and businessmen. Just as in India, rather worse off supplicants hang out by the entrance, their hands outstretched. If you don’t mind the pervasive smoke, the interior of the temple is fascinating. Students of Buddhism will enjoy trying to decipher the iconography on display; lazier tourists can just goggle at the gilt-edged sumptuousness of it all.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese still attracts people to Glodok’s most visible feature, its electronics markets. While the heavier stuff sits inside the numerous shopping centres on Glodok’s main drag, the sellers of DVDs hang about on the sidewalk, just as in India. Tough new anti-pornography laws might make the more louche visitor frown, but Korean soaps, Japanese manga and cheap-as-dirt video games should take the edge off your irritation.

I first visited Glodok in 1998, a scant few days after the terrible riots against the ethnic Chinese that followed on the heels of the Asian financial crisis of that period. Accused of hoarding wealth while the rest of Indonesia reeled from currency devaluations, the Chinese were an easy target. Just as they’d been for the Dutch, of course. Then, the centres were burnt shells and truckloads of truculent sons of the soil rolled by on the main road, while hardy businessmen transacted their trades on the sidewalks. Today, the gleaming shopping centres have been reconstructed and what discontent there is seems to be under the surface.

The old city is a short walk away, through a textile wholesale market dominated by that other famously resilient business group, the Indians. Fatahillah Square is exactly the sort of civic centre Indian cities should look to develop. Pedestrian only, stuffed with school kids and tourists and the people who love them, including touts, postcard salesmen, jugglers, musicians and renters of bicycles complete with bonnets for women allergic to the sun. It is a jolly, convivial place and is hedged about with museums, including the lovely Jakarta History Museum, formerly the City Hall in the Dutch dispensation, and the Wayang Museum, or museum of puppets.

When you tire of all that culture, step into Café Batavia, to the north of the square. It is touristy and perhaps over-priced, but it is grand, inviting and odd at the same time, and I’ve been coming here for years. An eclectic collection of photos lines the pillars and walls, posters climb the grand staircase and the inviting bar upstairs dishes super cocktails. But it is the huge dining room overlooking the square where most tourists end up. To sit in air-conditioned state whilst looking through massive old windows — complete with wooden shutters — out on the square below, is to live a tourist’s dream.

When you’re done, the road to the new city lies due south. The old Kota or city station — yes, there go the connections again — is on your left and then the road straightens, lined with bakeries, stores, the odd shady nightclub and all manner of city-life. The night scenes here are chaotic and energising and, if you stay on the main road, make for a fun wander after dark. And, in case you were thinking that fancy state-ist architecture ended with the Dutch, Jakarta’s miles of monuments is next.

You can’t miss the National Monument, a priapic symbol that most Jakartans haven’t quite figured out yet. Apparently it is based on the yoni-lingam scheme: it’s certainly surrounded by some of Jakarta’s premier bushes. It is a nice green oasis in the middle of the bustling city, and many locals end up here towards the end of the day. Also on the road — known now as Jl Thamrin — is a rather brilliant depiction of Arjuna in his chariot from the Mahabharata. The horses are flying along, manes spread out, while our hero flexes biceps and bow. Fittingly, the ensemble is referred to here as Arjuna Wijaya. And from here to the Welcome Monument — known locally as Hansel and Gretel — is but a step.

Jakarta's ability to make people feel welcome is something I’ve gotten used to. I’m glad to report that the newly refurbished Mandarin Oriental, off to one side of the Welcome Monument, is very good at making its guests feel welcome as well. This old place has traded in its self-conscious chinoiserie for a rather more modern design sensibility. It reduced the number of rooms it had, so that each guest gets a correspondingly larger space to stretch out in. Big closets, enormous bathrooms—with separate tubs and showers, naturally—and separate sitting areas are par for the course. The suites, of course, inhabit an entirely different league of luxury.

The food is pretty good as well. Breakfast is served either in your room or in a nice open café. The Chinese restaurant gives a fine-dining spin to its cuisine, which is nice. The coffee chicken is superlative, the smell enough to make you drool. There is a French restaurant on tap. The pool itself isn’t gigantic, but the nice part is that it overlooks the Welcome Monument and the bustling street-life below. To lounge about with a tall drink in your bathing suit while normal city-dwellers scuttle about their weary business a scant few feet away: who among us is above a little schadenfreude?

Have a quiet drink in the MO bar and then set off towards the trendy nightspots and restaurants to the immediate south of the hotel, in the so-called Golden Triangle between Jl Jendral Sudirman, Jl Gatot Subroto and Jl Rasuna Said. You’ll see lots of name brand shopping as well. The new developments of the city lie off in this direction, with manicured homes and gardens sharing space with posh residential towers and the old kampungs, or villages of Jakarta.

For most first-time visitors, checking the tours, monuments and shopping boxes will probably be enough. As with most Asian destinations, the welcoming smiles of the populace will suffice to smooth over any linguistic issues. The instinctive recognition of a shared cultural past, even if at a historical remove, will fascinate many Indian visitors. What I’d really recommend is to bring a good strong pair of walking shoes, a solid appetite and the will to explore. Nothing beats walking in this city. The great thing is, unlike most Indian cities, the streets don’t shut down with the sun. Indonesians love the night—for one thing, it’s significantly cooler than the day; for another, since it’s equatorial, the night arrives pretty damn quick—and there are few nicer cities to saunter about and take the night-time air in. Stay on well-lit streets, of course, and exercise standard precautions and you’ll be fine. Snack at the roadside eateries, smell the kretek cigarettes, listen to the babble of a musical tongue. Mix and match with a fancy spa, a haute Indonesian dinner, a gorgeous view. What more could you want from an Asian getaway?

The information

Getting there: 

There are no direct flights to Jakarta anymore. But convenient connections include Air Asia through Kuala Lumpur (from Rs 28,000; airasia.com), Thai Airways through Bangkok (from Rs 30,000; thaiair.com), Singapore Airlines through Singapore (from Rs 35,000; singaporeair.com) and Malaysia Airlines through Kuala Lumpur (from Rs 40,000; malaysiaairlines.com).

Currency

Indonesian rupiah. A bit hard to keep track of, since it is around Rp 8,800 to a dollar. A ready converter: a 100,000 rupiah note is worth a little over Rs 500.

Getting around:

Jakarta has public transport, but it can be intimidating for tourists. English is a serious issue and the buses are crowded and noisy. The older parts of town are well-served with bajajs (auto-rickshaws), but you’ll have to negotiate. The Bluebird taxi service (bluebirdgroup.com) is cheap, quick and can be booked over the phone or internet or flagged on the street. The fancier Silverbird service uses Mercedes Benz cars and charges accordingly.

Where to stay:

The Mandarin Oriental Jakarta (from $280; Jl MH Thamrin, mandarinoriental.com) is one of Southeast Asia’s great hotels. Situated in the heart of the city, it offers faultless service, huge rooms and beautiful views. Across the road is the old Hotel Indonesia (from $200; Jl Thamrin, kempinski.com), now a Kempinski and accordingly tarted up. Business travellers and frequent flyers can pick from the usual options, including Shangri-la, Grand Hyatt and Le Meridien. A budget, clean option is the Ibis franchise. Try the Ibis Tamarin (from $42; just off Jl Thamrin, ibishotel.com), which features small but clean rooms, super food served by the pool and a central location.

What to see & do:

Families with children should enjoy Ancol Dreamland (ancol.com; unfortunately, the website is currently only in Bahasa Indonesia, but if you go there from Google, it will do a passable job of translating the main information). There’s a Sea World, masses of rides in the theme park and, of course, lots of food. Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (tamanmini.com; theoretically available in English, but not really) is a fun way to experience all of Indonesia in one place. There are pavilions and shows dedicated to all the major provinces and areas of the archipelago, and food is part of the deal. There’s also a lovely cable car that takes you over the whole area. The museums around Fatahillah Square are a must-do. Jakarta is a surprisingly good golf destination as well. Choose from many courses, including the Pondok Indah Golf Course (golfpondokindah.com; from $80 a weekday round), and the Cengkareng Golf Club (cengkarenggolfclub.com; from $55 a weekday round).

Where to eat:

Seribu Rasa (it means thousand flavours; seriburasa.com) on Jl Agus Salim in Menteng is a super place to experience the cuisine of the area, influenced by the Peranakan cooking of the Straits Chinese. Try the crab lumpia (like little spring rolls), the fried grouper with soya sauce and the clay pot beef peranakan. Kembang Goela (Plaza Sentral, Jl Jendral Sudirman) in central Jakarta is another fantastic place. It has a colonial vibe but the food is modern enough. In keeping with the colonial theme, it does offer the traditional rijstaffel, where your order of rice is accompanied with masses of sides. Rumah Makan Dapur Sunda is a budget chain that delivers top class food from the Sunda region of western Java in a no-frills setting (dapur-sunda.net; use Google translator). The saucy food and mix of flavours and absence of mystery meat will make it an accessible choice for most Indian palates. It’s quick and cheap too.

Remember that Java is overwhelmingly Muslim, so pork can be hard—but certainly not impossible—to find. But stock up on beef (sapi) instead. Naturally, the whole gamut of international chain food is available. More adventurous eaters will fall in love with the street food scene. Fried (goreng) and roasted (bakar) food lines the streets, served in warungs that set up their own tables on the sidewalks. Fantastic snacks, lots of sweeties and smiles everywhere: what could be better? And please don’t bother bargaining; it’s already dirt-cheap.

What to buy:

Indonesia’s crafts scene rivals our own, especially in its variety. The archipelago is massive and each island has its own—and sometimes many—traditions. The beautifully crafted wayang puppets are an obvious draw. Well-heeled visitors will fall in love with good Jogja silver. Its distinctive blackish patina and intricate work sets it apart from anything you’ll have seen. Coffee drinkers will be bouncing off the walls, tasting all the brews and beans available here. A good first stop is the Pasaraya department store (pasaraya.co.id) in Blok M. If you’re in the mood for batik, this is the place, for men, women and children. It also has dedicated crafts floors and a nice café where you can buy beans from all over the country. More intrepid shoppers can venture into the Ciputat furniture market, where deals can be had on antique and replica furniture and curios. I’ve heard about the antiques market on Jl Surabaya, but I’ve never been. It’s said to be a fun ramble.

Indonesia has also cheerfully ridden the branded and luxury goods wave, all available at the Plaza Indonesia Shopping Centre (plazaindonesia.com) which overlooks the Welcome Monument on Jl Thamrin. Shop for anything you may have missed out on at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town (grand-indonesia.com) across the street.

Top tip

The visa on arrival ($25) system works like clockwork. Do remember to save your visa receipt, though. Not the one they stamp on your passport; they’ll want to check the receipt the cashier gave you when you leave the country.


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