JAKARTA – Southeast Asia’s megacity and a MUST SEE despite the traffic, crowds and floods

It is impossible to consider you have seen the REAL Indonesia if your itinerary doesn’t include at least a brief visit to Jakarta – Southeast Asia’s  massive, intriguing, and surprising megacity.

International visitors often try to avoid Jakarta – they have heard about the challenges of fighting through Jakarta’s horrendous traffic snarls, and the smog, floods, heat and construction works that can make exploring a struggle.

And it is true that northern parts of Jakarta are sinking by as much as 10cm to 25cm a year – wile it is not obvious to visitors, almost half the city is said to be below sea level.

It’s one of the reasons why the Government and the Parliament have voted to progressively move the national seat of Government to a greenfields site in Kalimantan. The first Government agencies are scheduled to begin moving from 2024 but it is expected to be 2045 before the process is completed.

Despite the challenges,  with a little patience, planning and perseverance Jakarta, often referred to as the Big Durian’, has many exceptionally interesting places and experiences to offer.

And most of the time the air is OK, there is no flooding, the construction work is a minor inconvenience, and the worst of the traffic can be avoided.

 

Street scene in Jakarta CBD

This is the look of the modern Jakarta CBD – skyscrapers, avenues and pedestrian flyovers – Pic Afif Kusama – Unsplash

Prepare to be surprised by Jakarta's skyscrapers and its statistics

On your first visit preapore to be be surprised by Jakarta’s modern skyscrapers, wide avenues, massive shopping malls and monumental public buildings and spaces.

If you are returning after an extended absence you will be amazed at the changes and the speed of development.

Like the District of Columbia in the US and the Capital Territories in Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, Malaysia, Norway and other nations, the city of Jakarta has special status as the capital of the Republic of Indonesia. It ranks as a province with its own Governor and a provincial administration.

The Special Capital region has a population of about 10.5 million (more than twice the population of Singapore but crammed into only about 90% of Singapore’s land area).

Dormitory cities cluster around the capital in adjoining provinces making Greater Jakarta the world’s third largest megalopolis with a population of more than 31.5 million (2021) – that’s almost 6 million more than the total population of Australia!

Street scene with street vendors in West Jakarta

A crowded city of contrasts – this thoroughfare of street food and market vendors is Gang (alley) Gloria in Glodok, West Jakarta – Pic Jakarta Post.

Close to 1.4 million commuters pour into the capital district from the surrounding cities every day. That’s the equivalent of the total population of the cities of Dallas, San Diego or Philadelphia.

And Another million go the other way – from the city to the suburbs and outskirts.

It all means Jakarta is crowded.

As the World Population Review 1919 puts it – “ It’s also one of the fastest-growing cities on earth, growing faster than Beijing and Bangkok, with a population density in the city proper of 15,342 people per square kilometer (39,740 per square mile).”

These are some of the reasons why Jakarta also has some of the world’s most chaotic traffic snarls.

The mind-boggling numbers also make it hard to believe that in 1900 Jakarta had a population of only about 150,000!

Jakarta is famous too for its food and its shopping. The city’s street food is legendary (and safe) and for Westerners bringing dollars, Euros or pounds the shopping bargains in the massive malls and markets are a shopaholic’s dream. 

The well-worn Jakarta joke goes: QUESTION – How many shopping malls in Jakarta? ANSWER – Too many!

Public Transport upgrades aiming to ease Jakarta’s traffic congestion

There is light at the end of the transport tunnel. In 2004 Jakarta began operating Asia’s first BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system with air-conditioned buses running down main thoroughfares in dedicated lanes.

Bus in bus lane alonside conested traffic in Jakarta

The buses roll on in dedicated Bus Rapid Transport lanes while the commuter traffic is snarled – Pic Wendra Ajistyatama – Jakarta Post

The provincial government set a subsidized flat fare of IDR3,500 (about 25 US cents) and progressively built easily accessible bus stations throughout the system.

As of early 2020, the TransJakarta network had grown to more than 250 kilometres (the world’s longest BRT) with some 4,300 buses carrying more than a million passengers a day. And the fare still stood at IDR3,500.

Meanwhile, around US$4 billion is being spent on a Jakarta underground and elevated MRT (Mass Rapid Transit system) and suburban light rail networks.

New station - part of Jakarta MRT system

Modern new passenger stations and trains are a feature of  new Jakarta MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) commuter rail system 

Light rail services are already operating to Jakarta’s main airport and the first stage of the MRT rail system opened in 2019 and work is proceeding on Stage 2. But it will be 2030 before the whole system is complete.

A city of diversity with much to see and do

Jakarta has many great things to see and do but  the congestion means you need a lot of time and patience. We limit our Premium North Sumatra and Java Tour visit to a quick look at some more easily accessible highlights close to the heart of the city.

The National Museum in Jakarta – sometimes referred to as the Elephant Building for the bronze statue in the forecourt

Silver and gold extravagances and scary carvings at Indonesia’s National Museum

Indonesians are rightly proud of their National Museum – it has more than 140,000 exhibits and precious artifacts displaying the history and cultural diversity of the nation from as long as 2,000 years ago.

The museum is regarded as the most complete in Indonesia and the finest in South-east Asia.

The collection includes stone statues from the classical Hindu-Buddhist periods in Sumatra and Java, and extensive collections of Asian ceramics.

In the Treasure Rooms you can see the Royal regalia, ornaments and jewelry of the kings and sultans of old crafted in gold, silver and precious stones.

All are housed in a gorgeous building near Merdeka (‘independence’ or ‘freedom’) Square. The museum is sometimes referred to as Gedung Gajah (the Elephant Building) after the bronze elephant statue in the forecourt – a gift from the former King of Thailand.

MONAS – the monument to Indonesian independence in Merdeka Square – construction started on 17 August, 1961, the 16th anniversary of Indonesia’s Declaration of  Independence.

MONAS - symbol of Independence with gold leaf glistening in the sunshine

Indonesia’s National Monument is a 137m (433ft) obelisk celebrating the pride of the Indonesian people in achieving independence and coming together as a republic after 300 years of colonial rule.

Built by founding President Soekarno it rises from the centre of Merdeka (freedom) Square and is sacred to the people of Indonesia who refer to it as MONAS (from MONumen NASional).

Jakarta residents and visitors from all over Indonesia come in their thousands to view the monument, enjoy the spacious parklands of the surrounding Freedom Square and pay quiet homage.

The short video below,  published in 2011, conveys a sense of the grandeur of MONAS and captures something of the place it holds in the psyche of the Indonesian people. The beautiful soundtrack is “Tanah Airku” (My Homeland), a favorite patriotic song. It is best watched in full screen

Video created by Giorgi Mahdien, M Rizky F and Gigih L Ibnur – 3 mins 53 secs

The plinth at the base of the column houses a history museum with spectacular dioramas recreating key moments in Indonesia’s story from earliest times through to the independence struggles.

A meditation hall houses the text of the original Declaration of Independence and a (now threadbare) red-and-white flag flown at the Proclamation of Independence from Dutch rule in a suburban Jakarta garden on 17 August 1945.

The monument is topped with a 14.5 metre bronze flame coated with 50 kilograms of gold leaf. It is lit at night and is spectacular.

There is an elevator to a viewing platform 115 metres above ground level, but the lift is small, and the queues are usually very long.

Though little more than 50 years old MONAS is steeped in history and significance and sits in a beautiful setting – but we only have time to view it in passing, so maybe one for your bucket list for a future closer look.

Kota Tua - a hanging square, dungeons and relics from when Jakarta was Batavia

The square and former Dutch East India Company headquarters at Old Batavia

The magnificent Batavia Old Town (Kota Tua) square and the fomer headquarters of the Dutch colonial administration, now a fascinating history museum.

More than 300 years ago it was the City Hall, then it was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and then the offices of the Dutch colonial administration. Now it’s the Fatahillah Jakarta History Museum.

Those earlier eras saw hangings in the square out front and the imprisonment of recalcitrant political activists in the cellar dungeons.

After a period of decline and neglect some of its former glory has been restored. Perhaps more importantly it’s the centerpiece of what’s known as Jakarta or Batavia Kota Tua (Batavia Old Town).

Back in the 17th century Fatahillah Square and the grand European-style buildings around it were the “CBD” of Batavia. Colonists built surrounding walls to keep Indonesian people out for fear of insurrection.

The square and remaining old buildings are now a heritage area and undergoing continuing restoration.

There is almost always something happening in the square, especially on weekends and holidays. A main visitor activity is museum hopping, but there will be fun, food and activity aplenty, especially in the evenings.

Apart from the History Museum, other buildings house a highly regarded museum of fine arts and ceramics, and an Indonesian puppet museum (Wayang Kulit). A former bank building houses a museum of banking and money. It’s well presented and surprisingly interesting.

A short distance away, former 16th century spice-trade warehouses have been restored as a museum celebrating Indonesia’s long maritime traditions. The exhibits are fascinating and so are the buildings.

The video above by journalist and travel vlogger Renata Pereira will give you a good feel for Kota Tua. She and her partner (the guy who tries to be funny) also take a brief look at part of the nearby Glodok market area in Chinatown. At around 15 minutes it is a little long but very informative, especially the first 10 minutes.

Jakarta's historic port and its elegant, working Phinisi sailing ships

Colorful Phinis inter-island sailing ships at Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta

Sunda Kelapa Harbour is more than just a line of docks where vessels tie up – it’s the place where today’s Jakarta had its very beginnings.

It was from here, at least as long ago as 800 years (and maybe even as many as 1,500), that the people of the Sundanese kingdom shipped spices and other commodities throughout east Asia and imported porcelain, fabrics, perfumes, dyes and even horses.

Then along came the Portuguese in 1522 to take charge briefly, until kicked out in turn by the Indonesian Demak forces of King Fatahillah. He changed the name to Jayakarta (translating as city of victory or glory).

A hundred years later along came the Dutch and another name change – to Batavia. This lasted until the Japanese occupation in World War II when the name Jakarta was adopted and it was retained after Indonesian independence.

At Sunda Kelapa today you see living history – rows of graceful, colorful traditional Phinisi sailing ships loading and unloading cargo for and from Indonesia’s thousands of island communities.

These majestic vessels. with their twin masts and schooner-like rigs, are still central to Indonesia’s seafaring traditions and the movement of inter-island cargo. A few have been adapted to serve as dive boats and off-shore surfing and luxury inter-island cruise vessels.

They can be a big as 350 tons and building them is still a substantial local industry for the Bugis people in South Sulawesi.

When under full sail these are the kind of beautiful, alluring ships guaranteed to bring out the armchair “old salt” in all who grew up with stories of Long John Silver, Robinson Crusoe and tales of Caribbean pirates and South Sea Island traders.

The essence of 33 provinces shrunk into 100 amazing hectares

South Sulewesi style of houses at Teman Mini Indah in Jakarta

The unique traditional houses of the South Sulewesi region recreated at Teman Mini Indonesia. Elevated for protection with remarkable cantilevered rooflines.

From Central Jakarta we weave south through city and suburbs towards Bogor. Along the way we make a brief call at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Mini Indonesia Gardens) 

Replicas of traditional houses and pavilions in the architectural styles of 33 Indonesian provinces are on show in beautifully landscaped settings.

Don’t be confused by the word ‘mini’ – this refers to the park being a miniature Indonesia, not to the full-size scale of the buildings. The structures are faithfully rendered, Most are exotic to Western eyes, and many are quite beautiful.

Along with displays of colorful and striking traditional costumes, artifacts, tools, and weapons, they instantly bring home the rich diversity of the hundreds of ethnic groups who share this nation of islands.

In fact, the Taman Mini displays have been ranked as possibly Indonesia’s best collection of artifacts and handicrafts.

Taman Mini Indah has 19 museums, seven nature parks (including a famous bird park), three cultural parks, and four recreational Parks. Religious buildings include a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church, and a Confucian temple.

Its striking Keong Mas (Golden Snail) building takes its inspiration from Indonesian folklore and has a shell-like roof reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House.

It houses an IMAX theatre screening films about the Indonesia’s natural beauty, history, and culture – including an animated version of the story of the Golden Snail.

Along with all the above comes a Disney-style kid’s castle, a cable car, rides, a water park, and traditional dance performances – plus a variety of food and drink outlets.

A large man-made lake has islands shaped to represent the major islands of the Indonesian archipelago (but you probably need to be in a cable car gondola to see them properly from above).

Taman Indonesia Mini Indah was the somewhat extravagant brainchild of the late Ibu Tien Suharto, the wife of Indonesia’s second President. It opened in 1975 and has become a popular Jakarta attraction.

West Sumatra house an Teman Mini Indah, Jakarta

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Bogor Presidential palace, magnificent gardens and Nepalese spotted deer

In Bogor we pause to view the Presidential Palace and the adjoining Bogor Botanical Gardens with its 87 hectares of trees (including rainforest giants), shrubs, flowers, lawns, lotus and lily ponds, monuments and grazing Nepalese spotted deer.

The historic Presidential palace at Bogor set in sweeping gardens – a venue for important ceremonial events

The gardens opened in 1817 and are Indonesia’s oldest and most important, with a world -wide reputation for conservation and research. They are magnificent and they are located right in the heart of this city of a million people.

The Presidential Palace began life in 1744 as a mansion retreat for the Dutch Governor and successive Dutch and British administrators, including Stamford Raffles, later to become the founder of Singapore.

TOP – Lush driveway through section of the famous Bogor Botanic Gardens, and (ABOVE) one of the Garden’s massive jungle trees.

An earthquake triggered by an eruption of nearby Mt Salak severely damaged the original Presidential Palace building in 1834 but it was rebuilt in 1856 in its present form. After a renovation in 1952 it served as the residence of founding President Soekarno.

Now it is regularly used by the current President for official occasions. With its extensive gardens, aging trees and picturesque lake it’s a very beautiful setting.

Climbing to Bandung via the beautiful Puncak Pass

Scene of tea gardens in Puncak Pass

Tea gardens cloaking the hills – an example of the stunning scenery of the Puncak Pass route to the West Java Highlands – Pic allindonesiatourism.com

From Bogor our tour takes the scenic route via the Puncak Pass to historic Bandung, the highlands university and conference city with its lively cafe scene, mountain resorts and a reputation as the ‘city of flowers.’

It’s only about 120km but it takes around 4 hours to climb through the mountains with fresh, cool air, panoramic views and sweeping expanses of tea plantations (kebun teh).

People from Jakarta flock to the townships and resorts in this area at weekends and on holidays, and it is easy to see why. We see even more good reasons during our stay in Bandung.

IN SUMMARY ...

There is no denying that Jakarta can be hard work for visitors – the sheer size and extraordinary rate of growth of this vibrant city inevitably makes it so. 

Elsewhere I have labelled it as one of Southeast Asia’s craziest cities. Expect to discover a turbo-charged abundance of contradictions and contrasts, delights and disappointments, rich and poor, opportunities and struggle, historic and the ultra modern, attractive and depressing.

The mix is perhaps part of the attraction. Jakarta’s nickname as the ‘Big Durian’ captures some of this essence – malodorous, prickly and hard on the outside but rich, soft, creamy and potentially delicious on the inside.

Expatriates who spend extended time in this city usually leave with fond memories and a tinge of regret. The food, the low-cost shopping, and the abundance of interesting things to see and do more than compensate for the challenges. Not to mention the warmth and generosity of the people.

Our program barely scratches the surface of what Jakarta offers. Even so, I have realized in reviewing and updating this article that it is too much to achieve in the time we have allotted.

So expect to see an itinerary change in the near future – not to allow us to do more, but rather to do justice to and better enjoy what we have already planned.