Why Jakarta should be on everyone’s Asia travel bucket list

Jakarta.

By Mat Carney

SINGAPORE, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Manila are all to some extent on the Southeast Asian tourist trail or at least on the stopover trail. However there is one Southeast Asian city missing from that list, the city with the largest population, and arguably asserts the most influence throughout the region – Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Jakarta has in-excess of 30 million people within its metropolitan area, making it one of the largest cities in the world.

You can’t hide the fact that Jakarta is enormous, chaotic, confusing and lacks a significant tourist infrastructure. However this also adds to the uniqueness of the city. There is boundless history, some of the cheapest shopping in Asia, enormous mega malls, inexpensive hotels, and some of the most friendly people you will meet. Although most of Jakarta is not pedestrian friendly, taxis are cheap and reliable and in a much better state than those in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

If you have only travelled to the ‘common’ travel destinations in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, Vietnam and Cambodia), then Jakarta offers adventure and some pleasant surprises. From the point of arriving and Sakarno-Hatta international airport in Jakarta, there is a distinct difference to that of other cities in the Southeast Asian region. Much of this can be contributed to Indonesia’s unique history, vastly different to that of other countries throughout the region.

At the airport you will notice that customs and its well practiced officers are significantly stricter to that of customs elsewhere in the region, with my bag being thoroughly searched, something I don’t mind at all. There is a significant amount of ‘anti-drug’ literature throughout the airport, making it obvious that those caught with drugs in Indonesia will be shown little sympathy. The taxi process is a little chaotic, however once you secure a price – Rp.250,000 (US$18.40) from airport to downtown – in a recommended Bluebird taxi, you will realise the taxis are in great condition, the drivers are friendly and drive with caution, and know Jakarta incredibly well. After living in Thailand for some months I was also pleased to see the drivers ID actually matched the driver.

Upon leaving the airport you will have your first experience with Jakarta’s notorious traffic. The traffic issue is exacerbated primarily due to a lack of public transport and recent growth in Jakarta. Fortunately a MRT system is currently under construction and a well planned bus system, with bus lanes, is being expanded. However this does not take away from the fact that on average Jakarta residents spend more time stuck in traffic than in any other city in the world. It is wise to be strategic, travelling in off-peak times will save you ‘traffic-time’.

Pic: Mat Carney.

Construction is everywhere in Jakarta, roads, buildings, public transport systems, factories and housing estates litter the city. A sign of a rapidly developing economy, a fast growing city and prosperity. Jakarta is by no means as ‘high-rise’ as other large Southeast Asian cities, however it is easy to see that this will soon change. Seismic activity also does not go in favour of large cheap high-rise projects, thus making large building projects slightly more complicated and expensive than in Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

The first thing you will realise is that there are only a few expats in Jakarta, primarily from Holland, Australia, Germany and Japan, however almost no tourists, other than the highly adventurous European backpacker or the occasional ‘stop over’ visitor. In fact you can visit museums, places of interest and shopping malls and not encounter a tourist. At the airport they are easy to spot, primarily on their way to Bali or one of Indonesia’s incredible surfing or diving locations.

So what does one do in Jakarta? Jakarta is definitely not a Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur ( and I think this makes the city even better to experience, especially with Bangkok becoming ‘tired and expensive’). Culturally and historically Jakarta is rich and vibrant. There is precolonial history, colonial history, Japanese occupation history, independence history and history on the recent evolution to democracy. All five stages of ‘Indonesian history’ can be explored in Jakarta through a range of statues, museums and historical buildings. Perhaps the two most famous places to visit are the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Monument (Monas).

The National Monument in Merdeka Square. Pic: Mat Carney.

The National Monument is a large tower-like structure in the middle of Merdeka Square, symbolising the long fight for independence. Built in the 1960s by President Sukarno, the square is rather awe-inspiring and well worth visiting (not open on Mondays). The gardens within the square are worth walking around with reliefs describing different stages of Indonesian history scattered along the outer walls. The reliefs describe the evolving process of the archipelago’s history, from the earliest known times, such as the Majapahit Empire, to the independence struggle. You also get a nice view of Jakarta from the top of the tower and while walking around the grounds of the square. Due to the sheer size of the square it looked quiet when I initially arrived, however as you get closer to the monument you realise the line to go up the tower is incredibly long. On a Tuesday morning it was over 2.5 hours long, however whilst in line I got to speak to numerous school children who were rather excited about visiting the symbolic structure.

If you are interested in experiencing local suburban Jakarta life (highly recommended), the best place to go is Ancol Beach Park in North Jakarta. The large park contains hotels, a beach (probably not recommended to swim in due to its close proximity to a very large port), numerous amusement parks and miles of coastal walks. Thousands of local families visit the park on the weekends.

ncol Beach Park in North Jakarta. Pic: Mat Carney.

Those that love shopping will have plenty to do in Jakarta, with malls that dwarf the malls in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Malls such as Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia are glitzy 5 star malls, enormous in size and offering all the famous international brand labels, as well as local chains from Thailand, Japan and Singapore. I found the prices were significantly cheaper in stores such as Zara, H&M and Uniqlo compared to the same stores elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Grand Indonesia mall has over 10 stories and contains three floors of restaurants and bars.

Also worth seeing in Jakarta is the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Directly across the road from Merdeka Square, recently the Mosque has been visited by both the U.S President Barack Obama and the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (not at the same time). Although only Muslims may enter the enormous place of worship, you can take it all in by walking around the complex or talking to very friendly devotees who relax around the Mosque.

The area of Kota Tua (Old Jakarta) is also worth exploring. Although the area is a little ‘tired’ and in need of some love and care, it dotted with historical buildings from the colonial period, including interesting museums such as the Jakarta History Museum. Some of the collections in the Museum are incredibly interesting, such as a display that included photographs of executions taking place in the square directly in front of the museum during Dutch rule. The area also has a backpacker district with grungy bars and clubs where you can sip on a cheap beer and watch old Jakarta go by. If you are a backpacker then travel sites such as Lonely Planet will tell you to stay in this area, however I would most likely disagree, as there are much better areas to stay in with very cheap accommodation, such as in Mangga Dua.

If you like a good view then Wisma 46 is worth visiting as it is the tallest building in Jakarta, offering great views of the greater Jakarta metropolitan region  – you really do get a good feeling of how enormous the city is.

Four or five days in Jakarta should be more than enough to see it all, making it perfect for a stopover on your way to or from Australia, Bali or elsewhere in the region. It is also an exciting and economical trip from nearby cities like Singapore, or a nice side trip from the overly touristy Bali.

About the author:

Mat Carney is a freelance writer on all things ASEAN and an Australian National University graduate.