Jakarta – hard going but an intriguing must-see for visitors to Indonesia

International visitors often try to avoid Jakarta. They have heard of the difficulties of fighting through horrendous traffic snarls and about the smog, periodic flooding, seasonal heat and humidity, and construction works that can make many activities and just getting from Point A to Point B a struggle.

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AND YES, IT IS TRUE that northern parts of Jakarta are sinking by as much as 10cm to 25cm a year – almost half the city is said to be below sea level.

So why on earth would you want to visit?

Mainly because it is impossible to consider you have seen the REAL Indonesia if your itinerary doesn’t include at least a brief visit to this important megacity, Southeast Asia’s biggest metropolis.

It is an exuberant and confident city, and the novel and interesting places and experiences it offers will well and truly make the effort worthwhile.

By the way, don’t be confused when you are told the Jakarta has a population of around 10 million.

Like the District of Columbia in the USA and the Capital Territory in Australia, Jakarta has special status as Daerah Khusus Ibukota (the ’special area of the capital’) of the Republic of Indonesia. The quoted population refers only to this area.

But the special territory is bordered by five contiguous cities to the west, south and east (Bogor, Depok, Bekasi, Tangerang, and South Tangerang) creating a massive, sprawling conurbation of more than 30 million residents.

The wider metro area is known as Jabodetabek, created from the first two letters of each adjoining city’s name (Ja-bo-de-ta-bek).

The special area of the capital is known as Jakarta Raya and ranks as a province with a Governor and a provincial administration.

Its 10 million residents is twice the population of Singapore, but they are crammed into only about 90% of Singapore’s land area. It’s crowded.

A national capital on the move - literally

Like Philadelphia, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Karachi, Berlin, and Kuala Lumpur before it, Jakarta is about to lose its status as national capital.

The Indonesian Parliament passed bill for relocation in January 2022 and work has commenced on building a new capital in East Kalimantan (Borneo) with government agencies are scheduled to begin moving there as early 2024.

Artists impression of Presidential Palace precinct for new Indonesian capital

A representation of Bandung Artist Nyoman Nuarta‘s winning  concept for the central and Presidential Palace precinct for Indonesia’s planned new capital of Nusanbara. Note the incorporation of Indonesia’s national symbol, the Garuda, in the design.

The GARUDA, the Indonesian national emblem (RIGHT) and (BELOW) an excellent explainer about why the Capital is moving by Kevin Evans in this Asia Society video.

Garuda - Indonesia's national emblem

Congestion, crowding and the symbolism of moving the seat of government away from Java and closer to the geographic center of the nation are among reasons for the move.

But the sinking of areas of Jakarta is also a concern.

Like Mexico City, the heavy and prolonged drawing of water from aquifers is blamed. How and why, it’s happening, and the potential consequences are explained in the excellent Vox video below:

But Jakarta – with its skyscrapers, shopping malls and impressive monumental areas – will remain as Indonesia’s predominant commercial center.

Indonesia’s most prosperous city with an underbelly of poverty

As the major commercial center and National Capital, it is no surprise that Jakarta is Indonesia’s most prosperous city.

Towering and modern residential apartment blocks and beautiful condominiums and gated housing complexes in South Jakarta suburbs like Menteng and Kemang house the rich and the elites.

But sadly, along riverbanks, around construction sites and away from the avenues, monuments, and luxury apartment towers, almost half the population lives in sub-standard slums and squatter areas.

The Jakarta authorities are undertaking urban renewal programs and the National Government is working to alleviate poverty, but it’s a mammoth task and a slow grind.

Up-m arket house in Mentang, South Jakarta
Private residence in Kemang South Jakarta

According to Colliers International four- or five-bedroom residences in one of Jakarta’s richest suburbs, Mentang (ABOVE LEFT) often rent for more than $12,000 a month. Leafy Kemang (ABOIVE RIGHT) is a little less expensive. Both a stark contrast with the slum squatter shacks lining Jakarta rail tracks in the picture below (Pic

Squatter shacks beside railway line in Jakarta

Transport upgrades aiming to overcome Jakarta’s traffic congestion

The dormitory cities clustered around Jakarta City mean close to 1.4 million commuters pour into the capital district every day (1). 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.

Successive provincial and national governments have launched attempts to ease Jakarta’s massive traffic congestion.

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 Jakarta bus lane passes banked up cars

An open road for Transjakarta bus commuters from South Jakarta  while the tollway motorists are down to a crawl. Pic Wendra Ajistyatama

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.

One of Jakarta’s shiny new MRT stations – Pic

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.

Patience is a main requirement when exploring Jakarta

Every major city in the world has its share of interesting cultural spaces and attractions and Jakarta has more than most.

But the critical question for visitors when exploring this city is how much time do you have?

The sheer size of the greater Jakarta metropolitan area and the difficulties of negotiating traffic-choked roads can make deadlines and itineraries largely irrelevant.

To do justice to Jakarta, you need to be relaxed, patient and to always allow more time than you think you will need.

Consider adopting the wonderful Indonesian concept of jam karet (literally ‘rubber time’).

The idea is that if you can just stretch the time a little, then you will never be late. It means you avoid being frustrated and anxious.

But it also means punctuality is not a valued trait in Indonesian society. It is just one of those things we harried and hurried Westerners have to accept. You will become accustomed to it … in time.

A good, guided tour can make exploring Jakarta easier

If you are a first timer to Jakarta, unable to speak Indonesian, and without friends or associates to show you around, then you should consider joining a guided day-tour initially.

This way you will see some of the main attractions and points of interest and become oriented. If you find places of particular interest, you can return for a closer extended exploration later.

There are plenty of good tour operators. The guides are pleasant, informative, and speak English. Rates are inexpensive.

If guided tours are not your thing, then hire a private guide and/or guide driver. You will find guide agencies and tour operators listed on the Internet.

Know what you want to see - a taxi or hire car may be a good value option

If you are an experienced traveller, have done your homework, and know what you want to see and where you want to go, consider hiring a metred taxi on an hourly rate.

Fares and waiting time charges are cheap and drivers from the better taxi companies are skilled and courteous. Talk with the driver about your destinations and settle on an hourly rate before you depart.

Most good taxi companies have rates for this kind of hire, usually with a minimum of 4 hours.

Silverbird (bigger cars) and Bluebird have long been the leaders in the Jakarta taxi industry but these days many other companies provide excellent services (for example EksekutifTranstaxi, Express and Taxiku).

Alternatively check out the GRAB or GOCAR ride hailing services – these are the Indonesian equivalents of Huber and can be hired from phone apps.

You can download the apps from the Internet and set the language as English. The drivers may have limited English but Google translate can do wonders (make sure you download the dictionary for offline use).

And check up front that the drivers know your destinations.


For all its possible frustrations, Jakarta is big, bold, and exciting as Indonesia’s commercial and political hub with strong historical and cultural connections.

As an historic national capital with a large, diverse population, you will find it has exceptionally interesting places and experiences to offer.

And most of the time the air is OK, the temperature is tolerable, there are no floods, the construction work is a minor inconvenience, the people are pleasant and quick to smile, and the worst of the traffic can be avoided.

With a little patience, planning, perseverance, and a relaxed view of schedules, you can enjoy quality time in this city.

Crowded, noisy and challenging? Absolutely … but you are unlikely to ever hear anyone say it’s boring!

For more about Jakarta see my related articles:

Special places to see and experience in Jakarta – Southeast Asia’s craziest city,

Jakarta – the Asian foodies paradise you probably don’t know about, and

The malls and markets of Jakarta and Indonesia – heaven for shopaholics.