Once saddled with a reputation as a poverty-ridden hell hole, Jakarta mutated into a metropolis with all the outward appearance of an Asian boom town in not much more than a decade. It took only a week of rioting in May 1998 to reduce some of this modern fa?ade to a burnt out shell. Shopping malls, offices, banks and businesses owned by ethnic Chinese and the ruling Soeharto family took the brunt of the rioters' anger.
Jakarta remains very much at the centre of political events re-shaping Indonesia, and how quickly the city recovers from the riots and the political and economic turmoil remains to be seen.
That said, Jakarta is the most expensive city in Indonesia, the most polluted and the most congested. But if you can withstand this onslaught and afford to indulge in its charms, then it is also one of the region’s most exciting metropolises. Consider Jakarta the ‘big durian’ - the foul-smelling exotic fruit that some can’t stomach and others can’t resist.
Population: 9 million
Area: 661 sq km (258 sq mi)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +7 hours
Telephone Area Code: +62 21
Jakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia, sprawls over 25km (15mi) from the docks to the suburbs of South Jakarta. The city centre fans out from around Merdeka Square, a grand, barren field, which contains the central gold-tipped landmark of the National Monument (Monas). Jakarta doesn’t really have a centre: rather there are a number of centres all separated by vast traffic jams, incredible pollution and heat. For most visitors, the area south of the monument holds most interest.
Jl Thamrin is the main shopping and deluxe hotel thoroughfare, while just to the east is the main restaurant and cheap hotel area.
Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport is 35km (21mi) west of the city centre, and there are bus stations around the outskirts of town.
When to Go
With maximum temperatures hovering above 30?C (86?F) all year round, Jakarta is warm and often wet city. The dry season is from May to September, and while buckets of torrential rain are still possible, it’s more likely that you’ll stay pretty dry. Independence Day is on 17 August, and the parades and celebrations are at their grandest in Jakarta.
The old town of Batavia is the oldest and finest reminder of the Dutch presence in Jakarta. At one time, it contained a massive shoreline fortress and was surrounded by a sturdy wall and a moat. In the early 19th century much of the unhealthy city was destroyed by the government in a bid to freshen things up a bit, but there are still plenty of Dutch influences in this part of town.
A few of Batavia’s old buildings are still in use - many were restored in the 1970s and are now museums. The centre of the area is a cobblestone square known as Taman Fatahillah, while to the west is the Kali Besar, the great canal that once marked out the high-class residential area of Batavia. On the west bank of the canal are the last of the big private homes dating from the early 18th century. Follow the canal north and you’ll see a small 17th century Dutch drawbridge, the last in the city, called the Chicken Market Bridge. Old Batavia is directly north of the city centre at Kota train station.
Jakarta History Museum
This museum, housed in the old Batavia Town Hall, is probably the most solid reminder of Dutch rule anywhere in Indonesia. The large, bell-towered hall was built in 1627 and served the administration of the city, the law courts, and even housed Batavia’s main prison compound. These days, it’s the place to go if you’re into heavy carved furniture and other memorabilia from the Dutch period. Among the more interesting exhibits is a series of gloomy portraits of all the Dutch governors-general and early pictures of Batavia. The Jakarta History Museum is inside Old Batavia, just south of the square.
Jakarta’s monuments can best be described as ‘inspired tastelessness’ - among Soekarno’s great legacies are his heroes-of-socialism structures, and the most impressive of these is the 132m (433ft) National Monument (Monas). Construction of the marble and gold project commenced in 1961 and took 14 years to complete.
The phallic symbol topped by a glittering flame symbolises the nation’s strength and independence, and towers above the otherwise-desolate Merdeka Square, literally the dead heart of Jakarta. In the base of the monument is the National History Museum with 48 dramatic dioramas presenting a selective, sometimes-overstated view of Indonesian history. A lift will take you to the top of the monument for dramatic - though rarely clear - views of Jakarta.
Just a 10-minute walk north from Taman Fatahillah in Old Batavia, the old port of Sunda Kelapa has more sailing ships - the magnificent Makassar schooners - than you ever thought existed. These brightly painted ships are an important means of transport and freight delivery between the capital and the outer islands.
They also provide one of the most spectacular sights in Jakarta. For a fee, old men in row boats will take you out for a closer look at the ships. Don’t hit your head on the mooring ropes or gangplanks, and don’t be too surprised if you get hit from above by rubbish thrown from the decks. If you get out as far as the Palau Seribu (Thousand Islands) in the Bay of Jakarta, you’ll probably see some of these majestic schooners under sail.