City of contrasting allures

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Great people, food, shopping and outdoors fun make Jakarta a fascinating, yet oft-ignored destination, writes Andrew Law

JAKARTA is dirty, dangerous and traffic jammed. Macet, macet! (traffic gridlock). That’s the usual warning on the city’s infamous traffic jam I receive from friends.

Funnily enough, most of them have never visited what is one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia.

More than 14 million people live in this capital city of a nation of 230 million. A nation that is the most populated Muslim country in the world. It is also the world’s largest archipelagic nation. Depending on the tidal level, it is comprised of more than 18,000 islands.

Located on the northwestern coast of the island of Java, you’ll be surprised at Jakarta’s numerous attractions.

The city is peppered with modern high-rise offices and shopping malls. Yet it also has a great collection of heritage and colonial buildings that would be the envy of the rest of the region — if only there are funds available for their refurbishment and upkeep.

SHOP & INDULGE

But first things first. Retail therapy.

Alun Alun in Grand Indonesia shopping centre should be your first stop. It’s an upscale market with different in-store concessions selling high quality arts and crafts souvenirs, batik, jewellery and clothing.

There’s also a small charming coffee shop serving lunch to help re-charge your batteries when your will to shop begins to flag.

You will pay more for purchases in Alun Alun, but the design, quality and feel of the goods here are most definitely a cut above the rest.

You’ll also find the UK department store Debenhams in Senayan City, eight Marks & Spencer stores across the capital city (the largest is located in Plaza Indonesia), Sogo in Plaza Senayan and Seibu in Grand Indonesia shopping centre.

The best way to organise your days in Jakarta is to visit tourist landmarks early morning or early evening, when it is cooler.

And to keep your shopping hours for around midday, when the city is at its hottest, or late evening, to avoid the macet. Shop opening hours are 10am to 10pm.

If you are keen on factory outlet store bargains, don’t forget that Bandung is only a two-hour drive away.

OLD TOWN JAKARTA

However, if a slice of history is your thing, then head north towards the sea.

Jakarta Kota is where you’ll get a feel for the city’s past as a regional trading post. Get up early and scout around in the morning.

Sunda Kelapa is the old port area. There you’ll find the only schooner fleet left in the world, still being used to transport goods around the archipelago.

Announce yourself at the guardhouse and you’ll be permitted to wander around and take photographs. There are even a few captains who will let you board their vessel to take a look around. But beware of sharp objects and other hazardous material lying on the ground.

Watch the stevedores endure their backbreaking day as they manually load and unload the vessels.

For a tasty brunch or lunch, head for nearby Fatahillah Square where you’ll find Cafe Batavia. The downstairs cafe and bar has live music in the evenings and the upstairs restaurant has an international brunch menu. Although the food is good, the colonial atmosphere and character-laden teak interior are the main reasons to visit.

While the brunch and Chinese menu are excellent, service is slow, made up fortunately by its smiling, friendly staff.

After lunch, cross the pedestrian square to the History Museum, what used to be the old city hall building. Filled with colonial period items, courtesy of the VOC (the Dutch abbreviation for the Dutch East India Company), this is where you’ll learn about Jakarta’s role as a trading port. And when you take a stroll along the canal you’ll realise you’re in a tropical Amsterdam.

Fatahillah Square is a very popular strolling spot in the evenings when it’s cooler, to buy ice-cream, people watch and relax.

The close-by and aptly-named Maritime Museum (it floods very easily during heavy rains!) is also worth a visit. Despite the poorly labelled exhibits, this is where you’ll discover how the Dutch influenced this seafaring nation.

Back in the city centre, the National Museum is a great introduction to the different peoples, ethnic groups and religions that live in this vast quickly growing country. Its inner courtyard houses a huge collection of Hindu and Javanese statues that you could easily spend hours exploring.

In southern Jakarta, Kemang and Pondok Indah (similar to Bangsar and Damansara) are where the well-heeled live. Kemang has many small shops, boutiques, furniture stores and trendy restaurants that won’t disappoint. Meanwhile Pondok Indah is famous for its palatial homes and excesses of wealth.

But if outdoor activities are what you are after, look no further.

OUTDOOR PURSUITS

Jakarta’s proximity to so many unpublicised attractions is surprising. Just over three hours drive away from Jakarta is the Ujong Kulon National Park, where you can see the Krakatoa volcano that famously erupted in 1883, causing a massive tsunami and a death toll of more than 35,000.

Its eruption is thought to have been the loudest sound ever heard on Earth. Charter a boat and view the smouldering crater from a safe distance.

Or stay in the rainforest and search for the rare Javan rhino. There are fewer than 60 remaining in the world, so you’ll have to be extremely lucky to spot one.

My all-time favourite is the safari park to the south of Jakarta in Cisarua, close to Puncak.

You can hire a car with a driver for the day in Jakarta, but first check with him if he is happy with his vehicle being used and abused by the wildlife you’ll find in the safari.

At the front gate you’ll be accosted by vendors selling carrots to feed to the animals. You can feed them from your vehicle window. Just watch your fingers!

On the north coast you’ll also find Ancol, with its massive water amusement park for the kids. I love it. From there you can catch a ferry to Jakarta’s famous outlying islands, known collectively as Pulau Seribu.

It’s home to more than 100 islands (although not quite a thousand as its name suggests). You can go snorkelling around the reefs, scuba dive off the islands, or relax at one of the many beach resorts.

The funniest scenes are when huge monitor lizards swim offshore. Watch how snorkellers react when they spot the imposing 2.5m-long creatures through their masks underwater. It’s comical to watch as the scary but harmless lizards scatter the snorkellers in their wake.

Jakarta is a difficult destination to visit for a short break, as there is never enough time. Too many activities and places to visit mean that even a week is not long enough.

Put it high up on your list of must-see destinations with your family or loved one for 2013. You’ll be impressed.

When To Go

October to April is wet and very humid, especially December to January, making it the prime traffic jam season.

May to September: Much drier with light breezes. Probably the best time of year to visit Jakarta.

Where To Stay

Look for centrally located accommodation. Your day’s sightseeing, shopping and eating will be determined by the rush hour traffic. Stay in the wrong location and you’ll be spending an extra three hours a day, or more, stuck in a jam that moves at a snail’s pace.

Serviced apartments in town are good value. The Ritz-Carlton in Pacific Place to the south is excellent, and close to the Stock Exchange and Jakarta’s business centre—handy if combining a short weekend visit with a business trip.

The Sultan Hotel — Jakarta’s largest  — has serviced apartments and good sports facilities. Play tennis, swim or go to the gym.

The Mayflower Residences, part of the Marriott Group, is another handy option if you’re looking for a spot of luxury.

WHAT TO BUY

A mishmash of traditional, modern and hybrid style handicrafts, house ware, teak items, photo frames, small furniture pieces, batik and jewellery. Deck your home with great souvenirs.

Buy the slightly pricier items and you’ll be surprised at their high quality.

Periplus is the best local bookstore to visit for local topics of interest: Culture, design, architecture, diving, tourist guides — all are found here.

Aksara in Kemang is another option for interesting reads.

DINING — PERSONAL FAVOURITES

A trip to Jakarta is incomplete without having nasi padang. Every day, if possible! Steamed rice with 15-20 different dishes of meat, seafood and vegetable. You only pay for what you eat.
Jakarta’s most popular chains include Garuda, Sari Bundo and Natrabu.

Lara Djonggrang: Imperial Indonesian cuisine. A mix of Javanese, Hindu and Chinese food. Eat lovely food in what feels like a cross between a museum and antique store. It’s a classy but pricey joint that also has the La Bihzad Bar. Both bar and restaurant are great spots for a business lunch or dinner or a romantic meal for two if you can snag one of the alcove tables.

GETTING THERE

MAS, AirAsia and Lion Air. Roundtrip economy fare starts from RM350. Flight time is just under two hours.

GETTING AROUND

Jakarta is very hot, humid and full of exhaust fumes. Walking around is no fun. There is no real pedestrian-friendly shopping area like Singapore’s Orchard Road.

If you’re feeling adventurous use the TransJakarta north/south, east/west bus service. But taxis are inexpensive and plentiful and possibly the best option for door-to-door journeys. Bluebird and Silverbird taxis are your best bet. Traffic from 2pm to 9pm is a nightmare. Start your day early and plan accordingly.

Hiring a car with a driver for the day can save you a lot of time and stress, especially during rainy season when taxis are at a premium.

If you’re very brave, and weigh not over 100kg (that excludes me) an ojek or motorcycle taxi is possibly the fastest form of transport. Or use the covered three-wheeler bajaj mini-taxi if it’s raining.

PERSONAL SAFETY

Like all big cities, you need to be street smart. All hotels and large shopping centres have obvious security measures, such as metal detectors that you walk through, bag checks and mirror checks for the undersides of vehicles as you enter car parks.

Bali, New York and London should be considered more dangerous if you are assessing a location on the number of deaths caused by terrorist bombings.

 

Upstairs bar and cafè area at Cafè Batavia.

Cafe Batavia at Fatahillah Square.

Some of the outlying islands of Pulau Seribu.

Jakarta traffic police officer.

Traffic jams are synonymous with Jakarta.

Old but colourful buildings adorn parts of the city.


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