Once upon a time visitors used to flock to Singapore and Hong Kong for shopping bargains. Those days are long gone with those two cities now up there with Paris and Osaka among the world’s most expensive. But glory be, Jakarta and Indonesia have emerged as Southeast Asia’s new dream shopping destination.
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THE BARGAINS and the choices are not just limited to Jakarta – the Big Durian.
They are waiting for you in huge and modern shopping malls that have sprouted over the past two decades in cities across all the main islands of the archipelago.
And when the giant new malls open the old ones do not fade away and die.
Instead, they pivot to become busy bazaar-like bargain centres choc-full of small low-priced outlets and happy vendors – like multi-storey indoor street markets.
It is as though for most of today’s urban Indonesians, shopping is becoming a national pastime.
And the locals get some help. Pre-pandemic boatloads of Singaporeans – perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic shoppers – crossed the Strait on weekends to nearby Batam to hunt for bargains.
Or they took budget flights to Jakarta, Medan, Bandung, Yogyakarta or Surabaya for cheap weekend breaks, cheap eats, cheap pampering, and shopping savings.
It’s all great news for Western visitors because favorable exchange rates mean they can find bargains at astonishingly low prices compared with what they would pay at home.
Indonesians are in love with the shopping mall culture
Indonesia, and especially Jakarta, has a long-established tradition of markets, vendors and traders selling just about everything. So, it’s little wonder that today’s generations have wholeheartedly taken the next step and embraced the shopping mall culture.
Cavernous interior of Pondok Indah Mall South Jakarta – Pic popularnews.com
There’s a long running local joke:
Question “How many malls are there in Jakarta?
Answer “Too many”.
Depending on how you draw the metropolitan boundary, Jakarta has more than 250 of them.
Big and modern malls where you will find designer labels and luxury brands (some genuine, many faithful reproductions) in electronics, shoes, bags, cosmetics, clothing, jewellery, gold shops, phone shops, department stores, furniture, appliances, hardware and just about every imaginable kind of specialty store.
The shops are tucked in and around food courts, cafes, coffee shops, cinemas, children’s play areas and hair, beauty, and massage salons, and sometimes even skating rinks.
The clever marketers at Jakarta’s Grand Indonesia Shopping Mall obviously have a sense of humor. This fun short video ABOVE will painlessly give you some idea of wat to expect there. Malaysian visitor Mary Gostelow created the even shorter and more orthodox video below
Lots of cities means lots of malls, lots of markets and lots of cheap stuff
Just about every major city you visit will have giant, modern malls just like the ones in Jakarta.
Indonesia has 30 cities of more than 500,000 people and more than 50 others with 100,00 to 500,000. If you do the math, that adds up to a lot of malls, specialty shops … and markets.
Trading hours are Asian. Apart from some food outlets, shops in malls typically do not open until 10 or 11am. But they trade late, usually closing around 9pm.
Apart from major religious holidays, they open 7 days a week. Sundays are BIG.
Paragon Mall in Semarang, Central Java – 120,000 sq m over 7 floors and billed as a lifestyle and entertainment shopping center.
BCS Mall in Batam , Riau Islands Province (LEFT) and International Plaza shopping center Palembang, South Sumatra
Mega Mall Manado, North Sulewesi
It ought to be no surprise that Indonesia and Jakarta offer such a bonanza of consumer products.
Manufactures represent around 20% of Indonesia’s GDP – that’s about the same as agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining, and extraction combined.
Indonesia’s population (278m) represents a big and steadily more affluent market, and costs, especially labor, are low.
This attracts international companies who set up factories targeting both the domestic and regional international markets.
It means Indonesia is making a lot of stuff, much of it sophisticated, high-quality products. Those favorable currency exchange rates mean they are cheap to buy.
Just how much more will your dollars and Euros buy?
As of early 2022, you can buy roughly three times as much with your US dollar in Indonesia as you can buy at home. The savings will be less for imported items or those with imported components, but you will be pleasantly surprised at how widely it comes into play.
Here are some examples of everyday prices in AUD$ –
- Gasoline is about AUD$1 a litre
- A typical city taxi journey around $5 to $10.
- A meal of delicious Indonesian food with tea, coffee, or a soft drink about $3 to $8. (More for Western food but much less than you would pay at home)
- A cappuccino or a fresh squeezed fruit juice about $2.50.
- A loaf of bread $1.40
- A dozen eggs $2
- A men’s haircut with shoulder and scalp massage $3.50
- A half hour ‘cream bath’ hair conditioning treatment and scalp massage around $6.
This is not to say that you will save on EVERYTHING in Indonesia. For example, the latest cell phones and computer equipment will cost only marginally less than at home.
But you can make big savings on near-new second-hand electronics in good condition. Young Indonesian ‘yuppies’ are constantly trading in their phones, tablets, and laptops to buy the status that comes with owning the newest model.
Short list of shopping places for Jakarta (because you can’t see them all)
I could probably give you 10 different short lists of places to shop in Jakarta and they would all be great.
But here is a stab at some to consider, depending on what you might be looking for. First a couple of massive malls, an experience even if you don’t buy anything.
The Taman Anggrek Mall (it means Orchid Garden) has more than 400 retail outlets and caters for more than 18 million visitors a year. It also has an ice-skating rink, a health club and one of the world’s longest LED signage displays.
The Grand Indonesia Shopping Town (Alun-Alun Indonesia) has almost seven million square feet of retail space spread over eight floors in two buildings connected by a skybridge. It also has parking for a whopping 5,500 cars and a famous dancing fountains show (daily from noon until close).
Some older malls have developed into specialty locations like the Tanah Abang Market (rated by some as Southeast Asia’s largest textiles outlet) and the Thamrin City Trade Mall, famous for batik fabrics and clothing.
Cikini Gold Centre (ABOVE – Pic finance.detik.com) and (RIGHT) Textiles at Tana Abang market – Pic – thediplowifey.wordpress.com
If jewellery is your thing, then check out the Cikini Gold Center (soft “c” in Indonesian so Chikini). It’s famous for its gold and gemstone jewellery, including custom made items. It’s also known as the ‘wedding mall’.
Close by the Cikini Gold Center is the Mentang Antique and Flea Market, one of Jakarta’s most popular and absorbing markets It extends for half a kilometre of Jalan Surabaya (Surabaya Street) and is crowded with crafts stalls.
Section of the Mentang Antique and Flea Market – Pic team-curious.com (click link to see more pictures and information)
For paintings, ceramics, carvings, art novelties and color try the Pasar Seni Ancol Arts and Crafts Centre. It’s an artists’ colony of small galleries and studios where you can view and purchase Indonesian artworks and craft pieces and see artists creating. Its part of the huge Ancol Dreamland theme park complex in North Jakarta.
For color, bargains, opportunities, and fun, shop in Indonesian markets
You will find some of Indonesia’s most interesting, inexpensive, and fun shopping in Indonesia’s traditional markets and streets of vendor stalls. They are ideal for buying gifts to take home.
Vendors specialize in cheap clothing (especially T-shirts, sarongs, and batik) plus footwear, bags, leather goods, pots and pans, utensils, pottery, CDs and DVDs, electricals, cheap jewellery, watches and more.
ABOVE – Typical Indonesian street market – Pic Jendela3e60.com and (RIGHT) a more sopisticated street market in Jakarta – Pic whatsnewindonesia.com
In some you can also find excellent and inexpensive Indonesian arts and crafts – Indonesia is noted for the quality of its arts and crafts, especially Batik fabric designs, silver craft, puppetry, ceramics, paintings, fabric hangings, rattan handicrafts, masks, and wood carving.
But you may have to do some searching – these are not items that local people routinely buy. You are more likely to find them in Tourist destinations like Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Bandung, or Bali.
If you visit Yogyakarta, you will be blown away by its famous Marlioboro Street – a kilometre long hive of arts, crafts, other specialty shops and food outlets operating 24 hours a day.
Just up the road in Surakarta (Solo) is the Triwindu Market. This place is AMAZING with antique pieces and magical handicraft. You will probably find yourself calculating the cost of a container shipment to take it all home.
Travel further east and visit the famous Arab Quarter in Surabaya Old Town and you will find a covered market in the style of a traditional North African or Middle Eastern souk or covered bazaar.
Jalan Marlioboro the famous shopping street in Yogyakarta – It is magic by day and by night (yes, you can shop and eat 24 hours).
The range of antiques and curios on offer at the Triwindu Market in Surakarta (RIGHT & BELOW) is amazing. Decorators will be inspired, and you will want to browse for hours.
You might feel like you are in a back-alley market in Cairo if you visit the Arab Quarter market in Surabaya. It also has great food.
Most larger towns and cities have places like those above – not as big and famous, but equally interesting and absorbing.
Dealing with the smiling vendors can be as enjoyable as exploring what they are selling. Be ready to bargain … but don’t get too uptight about it. Whatever you might buy will be a bargain compared with what you would pay at home.
You will normally be expected to bargain (tawar menawar) when shopping in the markets for goods other than foods. You are not expected to take the vendor’s first price, and you probably will be taken for a fool if you do.
Many Western people are uncomfortable bargaining with traders because it’s not part of the culture we have grown up with. If that’s you, then I urge you to read my related article Bargaining and haggling in Indonesia – the when, where, and how.
Prices are clearly marked in the bigger stores and many specialty shops in the malls, a sign that bargaining is usually NOT an option.
However, in smaller specialty stores or electronics outlets you should routinely ask ‘Bisa nego, ya?’ (can negotiate, yes) or ‘Berapa discon?’ (how much discount). You may just snare a welcome saving.
It’s a good idea to set yourself a time limit before you venture into Indonesian market venues. Time really does fly when you are having this kind of fun, and it can be hard to drag yourself away.
Opportunities to save on things you routinely need back home
There are opportunities to save money when visiting Indonesia on things you routinely need back home. Here are some items to look out for:
EYEGLASSES – If you happen to be due a new pair of specs, you can save big time on both lenses and frames. Optical outlets have modern testing equipment and lenses often can be fitted to your present frames. Inquire early in your stay as you may have a couple of days wait (or you can arrange to have your new specs forwarded on for you). You can bring your prescription from home if you like, but it is not necessary.
MEDICATIONS – Medicines are inexpensive and can usually be purchased by visitors without prescriptions. If you regularly take medications for a chronic condition, then you may want to stock up. You can save further by asking about generics. Pharmacies are called APOTEKS – not drug stores or chemists, or pharmacies.
ACCESSORIES – Shoes, bags, luggage, and other good quality accessories can be amazingly cheap compared to what you would pay at home – especially for footwear.
CLOTHING – You can buy inexpensive, good quality shirts, shorts, slacks and T-shirts at department stores and specialty outlets in larger Indonesian cities. Sometimes finding larger Western sizes can be difficult, but it is worth persisting. If you are due a new suit, slacks, jacket, dresses, or shirts then Indonesian TAILORS can create inexpensive made-to-measure Western-style clothing for both men and women. They are also very good at made-to-measure uniforms.
TRADITIONAL BATIK – You should check out the strikingly beautiful and intricate Batik patterns used in the shirts and dresses regularly worn by Indonesian men and women, particularly on formal occasions. You can buy ready-made Batik clothing or select the richly patterned fabric and have your shirts or dresses made to measure by the local tailors.
ART AND CRAFTS – As discussed above, Indonesians produce unique and beautiful paintings, carvings, masks, hangings, jewellery and other fine arts and crafts pieces, most of it surprisingly inexpensive. Yogyakarta has a particularly rich and vibrant arts and crafts scene.
GOLD – Indonesians love gold. It is regarded as a wearable savings bank. Specialty gold shops offering beautifully crafted pieces populate every city.
Some cautions to keep in mind when shopping in Indonesia
There are a few aspects to be aware of when you hit the shops and markets of Indonesia:
- Many CDs and DVDs will be pirated, and DVDs also may be of poor quality or restricted by regional codes programmed into overseas players. You also may run into Customs problems if returning home via Singapore or when re-entering your home country.
- Luxury label items like bags and perfumes may be fakes – sometimes but not always with a slight misspelling of the brand name – but a faithful replica. The price will be right, the quality will usually be OK, and you will assume only you will know it’s not the real thing. But you may be breaking intellectual property laws.
- Cigarettes and cigars – Do not carry any tobacco products other than an opened pack of cigarettes if returning home via Singapore. Singapore has a strict ban on importing any tobacco products with heavy penalties and confiscation. It applies for travellers in transit as well as those staying.
THE BIG PICTURE
You will love the shopping experience in the malls, markets, and stores of Indonesia … even MEN will grudgingly enjoy it. There is so much of everything, and you will often find the prices irresistible.
Make sure you include shopping and markets time in your itinerary and if necessary be prepared to buy another suitcase for the gifts you want to take home for friends and family. They will be delighted. And don’t worry – new luggage is cheap too.
Keep in mind that the process of Indonesian shopping is part of its joy, especially in the markets with their color, chatter, and good humor.
And a caution that you will only appreciate after you have been and seen –
Try to resist the temptation to immediately set up an import business to start trading Indonesian goodies at home until after you have properly thought it through.
A quick reminder – if you havn’t yet done so, check out my related article: Bargaining and haggling in Indonesia – the when, where, and how