Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jakarta in a jiffy!

Jakarta at dusk
High-rise buildings, slow-moving traffic and ever-grey sky – these are the images that come to mind when I think of Jakarta. As the capital and largest city of Indonesia, an archipelago in which over 238million people reside, over 300 ethnic groups with 700 languages spoken, is that all there is???

In truth, Jakarta is quite a challenging city for any type of traveler. Due to lack of effective urban public transport and unfortunate town planning, this metropolis is crippled by daily transportation problems. Getting stuck in traffic for hours bother you very much but you simply cannot get out and start walking because roads are not well connected and pedestrian-friendly. Only a small percentage of locals speak fluent English therefore, even simple things such as asking directions, ordering food and taking taxis become arduous and unpleasant. Besides, apart from numerous shopping malls and a few monuments, tourist options are somewhat limited for a capital city.

Having said that, there are indeed a few things I could recommend for first-time visitors or those who are on a short business trip wishing to catch a glimpse of leisurely Jakarta. Because I believe Jakarta, offers a little more than polluted air, gigantic shopping malls and 101 different types of motor and non-motorized vehicles. As a frequent traveler to Jakarta, these are a few of my favorite things.

Old town, Batavia
Batavia Cafe 
Indonesia gained her independence from the Dutch in 1942 and subsequently the city’s name was changed from the colonial name, Batavia to Jakarta. Old town (also known as ‘Kota’), 30 minutes taxi ride north west from the city centre, is  where colonial buildings, the legacy from the Dutch era dating back as early as 16th century,  can be found, still standing yet poorly maintained. I like coming here on a Saturday, have my dim-sum lunch at the historic CafĂ© Batavia and stroll around to observe actions on the streets. Many young people come out in force, relaxed and in good spirits, enjoying themselves and their hard-earned weekend. Some, with their cameras, practice photography while some can be seen riding on colorfully-decorated rental bicycles. Any square or piazza in the world would be incomplete without street performers. Here as well, Fatahillah square serves as an exhibition space for some interesting street activities such as BMX stunts, Fire-breathing acts and even a whipping performance, effectively entertaining wide-eyed children and tourists alike. What used to be the office of the Governor General of VOC is now Jakarta History Museum, although it has been currently closed down for renovation. I was lucky enough to visit but sad to see this elegant building crumbling down when it was still open to public. Thanks to the funding of the Dutch government, conservation activities are now being carried out and it is expected to reopen in 2014. The nearby, “Wayang museum” which houses shadow puppets, from various territories in Indonesia and also other countries, can be a point of interest as well.  
Jakarta History Museum



A cultural promenade
Istiqlal Mosque
Being the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, it is only fitting that Jakarta has the largest mosque in South East Asia namely, Istiqlal Mosque. The Arabic word, Istiqlal means Independence. Yes, you guessed it right! The purpose of this massive religious structure is to commemorate Indonesia’s freedom from the Netherlands at long last in 1945. The marble and stainless steel building was built in 1961 under the supervision of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president and inaugurated by his successor, Suharto. Recently graced by the visit of The Obamas, this humongous mosque should be visited on a Friday afternoon to witness a sea of devout Muslims praying together creating an uplifting yet peaceful atmosphere.
Istiqlal Mosque
One could easily spend half a day having a stroll around this area as Merdeka Palace, the neo-gothic style Jakarta cathedral and the National Monument are also close by. To rest your exhausted feet after the wander and indulge in some icy treats, Ragusa ice-cream shop, operating since 1932, is the place to be. Situated in an old Dutch building, here you sit on their ancient furniture, admire the black and white photos mounted on the walls detailing the history of the shop and eat with the locals. Although some odd names such as Spaghetti ice-cream are given to some of their creations, their hand-made gelato, in reality, does not mess around with pasta, noodles or anything foreign. It does occasionally mixes with fruits on some classic items like Banana Split or Tutti Frutti.
Ragusa Ice-cream Shop
Malls, Malls, Malls
Malling in Jakarta can be fun if done in moderation. It not only kills time but also allows you to escape from the harsh reality. Poverty that you see out on the streets of Jakarta does not belong in these air-conditioned designer-branded malls. Acknowledged as ‘the shopping town’, the area where two gargantuan malls, Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia, occupy, offers one-stop shopping from airplanes to needles. (Well, maybe not airplanes but you figure!)  As for me, I love mall food; not only scrumptious Javanese cuisines also tasty treats from other islands such as Manado and Sumatra can be enjoyed at anytime of the day. You are spoiled even further for choice with wide variety of Japanese, Italian, Chinese and Korean delights; all inexpensive, clean, convenient and delicious. Once you are tired of widow-shopping, you can either feed your feet to the fish at one of the fish spas, (if that’s your kind of relaxation!) or catch a movie at the cinemas. There is always one Indonesian horror movie and a few Hollywood blockbusters like “Spiderman” showing.

Underneath the stars
Jakarta is at her best when the sun goes down, glittering night-lights switched on and trendy Jakartans come out to play. My favorite hangouts include “The Social House” at Grand Indonesia Mall for casual dining, newly-opened “Skye” at Manara BCA building, Jakarta’s first sky bar, reminiscent of Bangkok’s Labua rooftop bar at State Tower, to view how this concrete jungle transforms into an impressive neon-lit metropolis and of course “DragonFly” for people-watching and booty-shaking alongside the in-crowd aka fashionistas. Forget about pollution as you can no longer see it after 7, replace the sight of open sewer and slums with girls in Louboutins and distract yourself with pounding electro beats; Jakarta can be quite glamorous at night.

Despite the challenges they face every day, be it the mad traffic or the lack of leisure activities, Jakartans, both locals and expats, living in the city have learned to live, if not made peace with it somehow. Many of my expat friends speak fluent Bahasa Indonesian, have learned to drive (or be driven) to office though shortcuts and back lanes and are brave enough to hop onto ojeks (local motorcycle taxis) when traffic gets rough. And, to be honest, what’s traffic anyway when you have a smart-phone? Catch up on news, do your mails or rant about it on Facebook through status update while being stuck in traffic. It’s 2012, people! The smart phones nowadays will get you the attention, sympathy or whatever that you are seeking in a crisis situation like this which I believe can be a good consolation or at least a form of entertainment.

Well, now that reminds me why some Jakartans I know cannot be separated from their Blackberrys. 
Jakarta Cathedral


Wayang Museum