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JAKARTA – Southeast Asia’s Megacity

A spectacular early evening picture of the Jakarta downtown - the Indonesian capital is one of the fastest growing cities on earth

Traffic snarls, smog, flooding and crowds but JAKARTA is a visitor MUST SEE

Exploring Indonesia

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

But it is impossible to consider you have seen the REAL Indonesia if your itinerary doesn’t include at least a brief visit to this massive and important Southeast Asian megacity.

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.

On your first visit you may well 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 Territory in Australia, the city of Jakarta has special status as the capital of the Republic of Indonesia, ranking as a province with a 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 one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 30 million. In fact, it ranks as the world’s third largest megalopolis.

The increasingly crowded skyline of Jakarta’s central business district

As many as 4 million commuters (the equivalent of more than three quarters of the total population of Sydney) pour into the Jakarta capital district every day!

It’s crowded.

And 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. It’s hard to believe that in 1900 Jakarta had a population of only about 150,000!

There is faint light at the end of the transport tunnel – around US$4 billion is being spent on a Jakarta underground MRT (Mass Rapid Transit system) and suburban light rail networks.

Light rail is already operating to Jakarta’s main airport and the first 15km stage of the MRT opened early in 2019. But it will be 2030 before the whole system is complete.

Stage 1 of Jakarta's autmated MRT rail system opened early in 2019

Jakarta has many great things to see and do but due to the congestion you need a lot of time and patience. We limit our REAL 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 with 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, Independence Day

MONAS - a symbol of Independence with gold leaf glistening in the sunshine and under lights

Indonesia’s National Monument is a 137m (433ft) obelisk celebrating the pride of the Indonesian people in achieving independence and coming together as a federated nation 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 accompanying short video, published in 2011, provides 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. Watch in full screen.

(Video Shot by Giorgi Mahdien, M Rizky F and Gigih L Ibnur ) – Runs 3 mins 53 secs

The plinth at the base of the column houses a history museum with spectacular dioramas recreating key moments in the story of Indonesia 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 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.

Fatahillah Square and the Jakarta History Museum in Batavia Old Town – note the multi-colored bicycles for hire

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

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 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.

Jakarta's historic port and 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 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 cargo between thousands of island communities. 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.

Houses in South Sulawesi style at Teman Mini Indonesia
Teman Mini Indonesia with West Sumatra style house

The essence of 33 provinces shrunk into 100 amazing hectares

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) – the famous Jakarta theme park conceived by former first lady, the late Ibu Tien Suharto.

The extensive park covers 100 hectares with replicas of the iconic housing styles and architectures of Indonesia’s diverse provinces clustered around a man-made lake.

It’s a very different them park concept – very well done and faithful in its detail.

It also includes a walk-through aviary and an excellent Balinese-style building housing a museum displaying contemporary arts, crafts and traditional costumes from Indonesia’s regions.

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

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 87 hectares of trees (including rainforest giants), shrubs, flowers, lawns, lotus and lily ponds, monuments and grazing Nepalese spotted deer.

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 the city 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.

Lush arboreal drive through Bogor Botanic Gardens
Giant jungle tree in Bogor Botanical Gardens

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.

Hills and valleys of tea gardens in the Puncak distric
It's continuous stunning landscapes through the Puncak Pass;

Climbing to Bandung via the beautiful Puncak Pass

From Bogor our tour takes the scenic route via the Puncak Pass to historic Bandung, the highlands university and conference city.

It’s only about 120km but 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.

More useful and interesting information

Jakarta and and the crowded island of Java have many stunning and authentic places of interest. For descriptions and images of some of the experiences included in our Real North Sumatra and Java tour program click the links below.

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More to explore on the island of Java

Bandung is sometimes called the “Paris of Java” or the “City of Flowers”, reflecting the old-world architecture of its colonial heritage and a lively scene of cafes, restaurants, hotels, resort retreats and institutions of learning …

In our age of budget airlines and constant hurry few visitors know of Indonesia’s superbly scenic train journeys. We experience two of them – the Argo Wilis from Bandung to Yogyakarta and the Sancaka Pagi  from Yogyakarta to Mojokerto …

Yogyakarta exudes energy from a rich tradition of more than 1300 years of culture, history, empires, dynasties, conflicts, rebellions and spectacular achievements.Many consider it the intellectual, artistic and cultural capital of Indonesia …

‘AWESOME’ will be the word that immediately springs to mind as you explore the Prambanan Hindu temple complex. You will be asking yourself just who were these people who built and caved these ornate and beautiful structures …

Borobudur is more than just the world’s biggest Buddhist temple – it’s a special, iconic place with a fascinating story and an aura to match. It is Indonesia’s most visited attraction and after you have been there you will understand why …

Yogyakarta is a just the place to spoil yourself. This city has a reputation for quality service and low prices at its many spa and massage treatment salons – perfect if you want to ease any aches, pains – and it has Indonesia’s most fun shopping street …

The mighty smoldering peaks belching smoke and surrounded by swirling mists illustrate thousands of brochures, articles and book covers. But no iconic photograph or words can substitute for seeing and experiencing the real thing close-up …

Prized for its mild highland climate, leafy, historic Malang is consistently said to be Java’s most relaxed and charming city. It is famed already for it’s colonial buildings and broad avenues but it is now becoming widely noted for serendipitous surprises …

To the Indonesian people Surabaya is Kota Palahwan – ‘The City of Heroes’ – for the sacrifices of its citizens and their inspirational role in the national struggle for independence. Their stand put Indonesia in the vanguard of a decolonisation movement that changed the face of Asia …

Until little more than 100 years ago influential Surabaya ranked as the largest and richest city in the Dutch East Indies. But it was also known for its grubby streets, poor facilities, traffic jams, corruption and more … until the transformation began! Now it’s a new-look place to visit …

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