Jakarta is the less known member of Southeast Asia’s megacities, famous for traffic congestion and flooding, rather than for its sights. Still, the Indonesian capital has a rich culture to offer travelers.

As I am standing in the middle of Fatahillah Square in Kota Tua, or Jakarta’s Old Town, time freezes for a minute. The first Portuguese ships arrived to the area in the early 16th century, followed by Dutch and British fleets. It was the Dutch, however, who came to colonize and influence the city for over 300 years, even renaming the city Batavia from Jayakarta, a city that also would become the region’s center of trade. Noble white colonial buildings still surround the square, reminding of an history dominated by Europeans, and the Dutch era  which lasted until the end of the Second World War. The most impressive building in the center of Fatahillah Square is the old City Hall of Batavia, which now houses the Jakarta History Museum and features objects from the prehistoric period, and the colonial period up to independence. Nearby is an even wider spectrum of museums: the Wayang Museum that displays Javan wayang puppets, and the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics. Today Kota Tua is a vibrant mixture of old and new. Street performers, painters, and henna tattoo artists compete for the attention of the tourists. So do Indonesian local adolescents who want to practice their English skills through interviewing Westerners in Kota Tua. After being interviewed for the fifth time, I grab one of the neon-colored rental bikes and escape the crowds. 

Reading about Jakarta in the world press over the last few years is anything but flattering, and gives a bleak impression. The headlines showcase pollution, nerve-wrecking traffic congestion, and on top of that the fastest sinking megacity in the world -in the worst hit areas of North Jakarta, the capital actually sinks by up to twenty centimeters annually. Problems aside, it is still the largest city in Indonesia and the center of politics, as well as the financial and cultural hub. Jakarta is home to ten million people, and the metropolitan area is the world’s second most populous urban area, after Tokyo, with 30 million. No doubt crowded, but the city does have some breathing spots on the map. One is the Jalan Surabaya flea market. The antique traders brought their goods from Kota Tua to the suburb of Menteng, where the Jalan Surabaya flea market has been located since the 1970s. Today, there are about 200 shops, where vendors specialize in various artifacts: anything from traditional Indonesian masks, wooden sculptures, stamps, and colonial jewelry -some more antique than others. It’s actually quite interesting to walk down the street, and as I try to figure out which items are authentic and which ones are fake, I watch craftsmen sitting on the street, polishing up their goods, barely noticing me strolling by. The potpourri of religions at the market is particularly of interest, even though Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world, with about 87 percent of the total population of 250 million adhering to the religion. Hindu gods carved out of wood, fill the shelves together with Balinese, Muslim, and Christian artifacts manufactured in steel and other metals. 

Old vs. New

Strolling around the city has made me hungry. And it is time to replace old Jakarta with the modern side of the city. I take a cab to Ancol Dreamland, which is a resort destination in North Jakarta, along the waterfront. Walking into the premises it feels like I just entered a tropical island, with coconut palm trees lining the street, an amusement park as well as SeaWorld Indonesia and restaurants. Along the long wooden jetty lies Bandar Djakarta Restaurant. The venue, which can seat 500 people, serves live and fresh seafood and is extremely popular among locals (so come early in order to get a table). 

“It has the best seafood in town, just look around,” says local Anton Situmorang, and pulls me inside the two-story restaurant.

“The white snapper is best,” he continues and points at big tanks where various live fish, crabs, lobsters, and other species are kept for the customers to point out which ones they want on their dinner plates. The next step is to weigh the seafood, add sauces, and a level of spiciness. After I devour plates of grilled octopus and fish, spicy crab, and prawns, I must agree with Anton -the food is overwhelmingly mind-blowing! 

To finish off my experiences in the capital I venture to Skye, a rooftop restaurant with the best panoramic view of the city. I take the lift to the 56th floor of the BCA Tower, located in the heart of the city. At 300 meters, I watch a city that is quickly transforming itself into a futuristic and modern cosmopolitan megacity. The restaurant is spacious and the lounge area plays jazzy tunes. People chat and watch the sun set over the skyline, which soon will be defeated by even higher buildings, in this rapidly changing city.

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