Before arriving to Jakarta, many travelers had told me that there is “nothing” to see, and it is “just” a busy city. After visiting the city, I understand why many people have this reaction, yet I still found that there was a lot to experience. As the capital of the world’s fourth most populous country, there’s bound to be interesting culture and history, and there definitely is.
Jakarta deserves its reputation as a busy and traffic-congested city. The city was clearly not designed for pedestrians. Many streets that run through the city-center have multiple lanes and no sidewalks. It is also rare to find cross-walks and there are not many traffic lights. Thus to cross streets, a pedestrian often needs to walk out in front of traffic with his hand out to stop impatient cars, or there will literally never be a time to cross. And when there is a sidewalk, there is often a fence around it, keeping the pedestrian who just crossed the street in the street! I remember a number of times after surviving a scary street crossing, discovering that I couldn’t even get on the sidewalk because of the fence, and instead had to walk 50 or 100 meters along the street to find the opening to the sidewalk. The setup is really crazy and imposes unneeded danger upon pedestrians.
Yet amidst the noise and traffic lies the city’s roots as an international trading hub colonized by the Dutch. Combined with festive street food, national landmarks, Indonesia’s banking center, and large shopping plazas, Jakarta is an exciting city to explore.
There is some fun street art around the city too!
And pretty displays.
While I was there, in early November, it was the beginning of monsoon season. This means that everyday, for a few hours, there is a torrential downpour. I had just left my hostel to explore the city, and I got caught in one of these downpours. I ran to a little outdoor food stall to seek shelter and grabbed some lunch while I was there
- Men often grow their fingernails long, especially their pinky. In the airport, I asked a guy, who had long fingernails, about this. He said that the superstition is the longer the pinky nail grows, the more wealth a man will earn; the others were just for "fun" he said
- Asian men (especially older ones), grow out the hairs of facial moles because they believe it is good luck
- There are women-only cars in the Jakarta subway! (which is an inexpensive and convenient subway). I discovered this because I sat down in a car, and someone said "women only here". I don't think I registered it right away, because this guy (who was passing through the car) repeated himself a few times, until I realized he meant that it was a women only car! I looked for a sign that said this, but couldn't find one. This happened a few times I went on the subway
Jakarta, like many neighboring cities, has been colonized by the usual suspects - the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the Japanese. Prior to its colonization, however, it was one of the oldest Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia, which lasted until the 1500s. This changed when, in 1513, the Portuguese arrived to Jakarta looking for a port to support their spice trade. The Hindu kingdom made an alliance with the Portuguese which allowed them to build a port in 1522. The port also provided defense against the rising power of the Islamic Sultanate of Demark in Central Java. Demark, upset by the alliance with the Portuguese, attacked and conquered Jakarta in 1527, which drove out the Portuguese. Jakarta, then known as Sunda Kelapa, was renamed Jayakarta, which in Sanskrit translates to "Complete Victory".
The other spice-trade loving folks, the Dutch, got chummy with Prince Jayawikarta, who was ruling over Jakarta, and in 1596, Dutch ships arrived in Jakarta. The English had some FOMO, and with the English East India Company, they too built some trading posts by Jakarta in 1602. Jayawikarta, in a politically dumb move, also allowed the English to build houses directly across from their Dutch rivals in 1615, a clear jab at the Dutch. Relations between the Dutch and Jayawikarta deteriorated, culminating in Jayawikarta attacking the Dutch. The Dutch not only defended themselves, but defeated Jayawikarta and forced the English to leave. The Dutch consolidated their power and renamed the city Batavia.
Batavia thrived for over 300 years, and became a melting pot for Chinese and Arab immigrants. The city was colonized by Japan during WWII. Immediately after the war, Dutch regained control and Indonesians fought for their independence from the Dutch. The nationalists withdrew from Jakarta, which was occupied by the Allies, and made Jogjakarta their capital. In 1950, once independence was secured, Jakarta was once again made the capital, and the city was renamed Jakarta, short for Jayakarta, by Indonesian nationalists.
Fatahilla Square (formerly Batavia City Square)
This square is the center of the historic Batavia area, and is one of the few pedestrian friendly places I found in the city, since it is pedestrian traffic only. The square is surrounded by colonial style Dutch houses, each of which is a museum. On the southern side of the square is the largest colonial building, which is the former Batavia City Hall. It now houses the National History Museum. It is believed that the building was modeled after Dam Palace, the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.
Across from the National Museum is an old Portuguese canon.
On another corner of the square is Cafe Batavia, a classy restaurant that is in a Dutch building constructed in the 1830s. The building was formerly used as a residence, an office for Dutch governors, and a warehouse. The interior is exquisitely decorated. The upstairs features a Grand Salon, in which there is an art gallery. Large shutter windows provide views over the square. The cafe also features the Winston Churchill bar, which, believe it or not, was named "The World's Best Bar" by Newsweek in 1996. I got dinner here one night - a fish platter and a lychee martini. While the food was OK (and the lychee martini was tasty but sweet), the atmosphere was historic and intriguing, and the waiters were very eager to please!
I went to the Winston Churchill bar after, where they had a band playing a variety of western pop. The band had both a male and female vocalist, and was taking requests. I submitted Lionel Richie's All Night Long - they played it and nailed it! People also requested Celine Dion's My Heart will Go On (Titanic) and Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love you - two pretty ambitious songs. I was surprised they played these requests, but the female vocalist killed it! I was impressed.
The Maritime Museum
North of Fatahilla Square is the port, which served as the main trading hub for the Dutch East India Company, known in Dutch as the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or simply the VOC. The letters “VOC” are all over the port area in Jakarta, a reminder of colonial times. In the port area are a few warehouses, which were built by the Dutch in the 1600s for the spice trade. One of these warehouses is now the Maritime Museum.
I decided to check out the area and museum. To get there, I walked north, past Fatahilla Square, and found myself in another perilous pedestrian situation walking on a road without any sidewalks and crossing streets without traffic lights. Following my maps.me map app on my iPhone, I found the museum. The port area is industrial, and not too historic looking, except for the Dutch warehouse where the museum is located.
The museum has several panels that provide a narrative of Jakarta’s and Indonesia’s maritime history. There is also a collection of real and replica boats.
On the second floor is an exhibit about the world’s explorers, complete with life size models of the explorers in dioramas that light up with sound effects. It was kinda cheesy, I think it was a children's exhibit. I was the only one in the whole museum though!
Merdeka Square is a large park in the center of Jakarta, which features the National Monument in the center. The square is massive - the square area is one kilometer, and according to Wikipedia, it is the third largest square in the world, after two squares in China. In addition to the National Monument, there is a reflection pool, gardens and statues. The square provides great views of the city skyline.
When I was leaving the square, I saw a number of people crowded around a van. On the top of the van was a guy with a megaphone, shouting about something in Indonesian. The guy and many of the people around the van were holding white flags with Arabic on them. There were a few police officers standing around, and I asked one of them what this was about. He didn't speak much English, so I couldn't understand everything he said, but I made out something about Muslims. A few days later, I read in the news that on November 5th, 2016, "100,000 Muslims" took to the streets in Jakarta to protest the Christian governor of Jakarta, who has been accused of blasphemy against Muslims. I realized that what I saw was a small rally in the lead-up to the giant one that made global news.
Monas (National Monument)
The National Monument (In Indonesian called the Monument National, and abbreviated to Monas) was completed in 1975 and is 433 feet tall. In the base of the monument is a large indoor room with dioramas about Indonesia’s history lining each wall. I found the dioramas to be an easy and interesting way to learn about the country’s history. You can also take a lift to the top of the monument, which I think would be neat, although I didn’t get a chance to do it.
The National Museum (different than the National History Museum in Fatahilla Square) is on the west side of Merdeka Square and has exhibits on all periods of Indonesia’s history, including prehistoric. There are some interesting fossils, artifacts, and models.
There are also several other museums that I wish I got a chance to see, such as the National History Museum, the Museum Bank Indonesia, and the Puppet Museum.
The streets around Merdeka Square have some of the federal government offices, which are in grand buildings.
Jakarta is definitely a busy and sprawling city. Outside the central area there are several modern malls and high-rise office and apartment buildings. I was able to get a great view of the city when I met with Adrian Li for the Startup Journeys podcast at his office on the 26th floor.