Jakarta is big, crowded, ugly, beautiful, messy, rich, poor, hot, hazy, crazy, enlightened, old, new, inspiring, depressing and more … all at the same time. But it is one of the handful of unique cities of the world that we should try to visit at least once in our life because it is so different.
EVERYONE WHO GOES there takes home their own Jakarta story because it is so incongruous in how it looks, how it feels and how it works. If you pause a moment to ponder you will find it intriguing.
Modern steel and glass skyscrapers tower over squatter shacks. Street-food vendors compete with superb fine dining restaurants. Swarms of motorbikes joust daily with cars, taxis, and microbuses.
If Jakarta were a person perhaps the most apt way to describe it would be as eccentric and bipolar with a dash of Asperger’s syndrome. It’s crazy, it’s difficult and it’s great.
Americans refer to New York as The Big Apple. Expatriates living in Indonesia often refer to Jakarta as the Big Durian after the exotic scents and flavors of the malodorous fruit that has skin like prickly armor and a soft, creamy, delicious center.
Jakarta is packed with fascination and interest for those who open their eyes and minds, do some prior research, are patient, and make the effort to explore.
The public transport system is getting better, but the traffic is still fearsome, and Jakarta can be a difficult place for touring.
You may feel irritated from time to time, but the odds are you will look back on your visit to ‘The Big Durian’ as a great adventure
Here are a few suggestions:
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Freedom Square, the National Monument, and its absorbing museum
MONAS – the monument to Indonesian independence in massive Merdeka Square in the heart of Jakarta – Pic Wiki Commons
In the heart of Jakarta is a great and beautiful national space that Indonesians both revere and enjoy. It is Merdeka (freedom) Square, and at its centre rises Indonesia’s National Monument.
This 137m (433ft) obelisk is a sacred symbol of nationhood to the people of Indonesia, whom you will hear refer to it as MONAS (from MONumen NASional).
Commissioned by founding President Soekarno, it celebrates the pride of the Indonesian people in achieving independence from 1945 after 300 years of colonial rule.
Soekarno never saw it completed. Construction began in 1961 but Soekarno was stripped of his power in 1967 and died in June 1970, five years before the opening in 1975.
Now Jakarta residents and visitors from all over Indonesia come in their thousands to view the monument, pay quiet homage, stroll through and enjoy the 75 hectares of beautifully maintained surrounding parklands.
This short video from 2011 captures something of the place MONAS 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 by Giorgi Mahdien, M Rizky F and Gigih L Ibnur
As an international visitor you will enjoy the atmosphere, the beauty, and the spectacular scale of Merdeka Square, especially if you have an interest in history. This symbolic space is more than five times the size of China’s Tiananmen Square, and 12 times the size of Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Be sure to visit the MONAS history museum – it’s very good
Visitors who do not have local guides are often unaware of the semi-underwound history museum beneath the plinth at the base of the MONAS column.
It displays dioramas depicting key moments in the story of Indonesia from ancient empires through to the struggles for independence.
A meditation hall houses the text of the original Declaration of Independence (one of the shortest documents of its kind ever) and a (now threadbare) red-and-white flag flown at the Proclamation of Independence from Dutch rule on 17 August 1945.
The original handwritten proclamation document. The ’05’ refers to 1945 or 2605 in the Japanese calendar. Pic from Ian Burnet’s spiceislandsblog.com where you can see photos and read an excellent account of that moment in Indonesian history.
The museum is reached via an underground passageway entered from the north of the column. The entrance is not obvious – you may need to look for it.
There are English-speaking docents on hand to explain the story of the exhibits. The cost of entry is about IDR15,000, and your time there will be well spent.
A symbolic flame coated with real gold – lots of it
The MONAS flame sines with the lustre of old – its gilded with real gold leaf.
The MONAS monument is topped with a 14.5 metre bronze flame gilded 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 and just below the flame, but the lift is small, and the queues are usually very long. The view is exceptional, but barely worth the effort. If you must go, then be early.
MONAS is steeped in history and significance. Its exhibits are open every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., except for the last Monday of every month, when it is closed for maintenance. Merdeka Square is open from 8 am to 6 pm.
You can read the story and see historic photos of the MONAS construction process on this Google Arts and Culture website created by Monumen Nasional. It’s well worth a look.
The massive Istiqlal Mosque - a national symbol for Muslims
Imagine a building for worship capable of accommodating almost 120,000 people in prayer – Jakarta’s stunning Istiqlal Mosque achieves that and more.
This is the mosque in which you will often see crowds of prostrate worshippers in international TV news reports of religious festivals in Indonesia like Ramadan.
To put the capacity into perspective, it’s more people than the spectator capacity of ANY of the world’s biggest sporting stadiums other than the Narendra Modi cricket stadium in the Indian state of Gujarat, which can accommodate 132,000.
Massive crowds of worshippers in prayer at Masjid Istiqlaf – the National Mosque in Jakarta for Eid ul Fitr Jamaah – Pics J P Wendra Ajistyatama (TOP) and Gunawan Kartapranata – Wiki Commons)
The main prayer hall and five levels of balcony spaces under its central dome can accommodate up to 61,000 worshippers. There is space for 58,000 more in an entry annexe and a second-floor terrace. That’s a total of 119,000.
Overflow space in corridors and a beautifully crafted open courtyard can accommodate a further 81,000 to take the overall total capacity to a whopping 200,000!
The numbers make Masjid Istiqlal the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and the sixth largest in the world. It is the National Mosque and a source of pride to Indonesia’s 88% majority Muslim community, the world’s largest Muslim population.
It's a mosque for Muslims designed by a Batak Christian architect
Architect Frederich Silaban won a design contest in 1954 to be chosen to create the Mosque. He was a Batak Christian, but President Soekarno, who had a vision of a multi-faith nation, admired his work. Silaban also designed the nearby MONAS national monument.
Construction of the mosque began in 1961 and it opened to the public 17 years later in 1978. The design is modern and relatively simple, but the scale, the materials and finishes, the motifs and the Muslim decorations add much.
Istiqlal is the Arabic word for ‘independence’ and the mosque, located next to Merdeka (freedom) Square, is another symbol of the end of the colonial era.
Silaban designed the building to be 17 meres high, the small domes to be 8 metres in diameter, and the main dome to be 45 metres – a nod to the declaration of independence on the 17th of August 1945.
The minaret is 6,600 centimetres tall, symbolising the number of verses in the Koran, while the five levels of the building symbolise the five pillars of Islam.
Mosque and cathedral - a symbol of religious tolerance
St Mary of Assumption Catholic Cathedral, Jakarta
Founding President Soekarno insisted the mosque be built across the street from the St Mary of Assumption Catholic Cathedral as a symbol of religious tolerance in Indonesia.
The beautiful neo-Gothic cathedral opened in 1901 during the Dutch colonial era. It is notable for its tall spires, ornate altar, and a massive pipe organ.
Cathedral and Mosque work closely together to serve their respective flocks, the most tangible cooperation being the opening and sharing of each other’s parking space for religious events like Idul Fitri, Easter and Christmas.
Visitors are welcome at both. For the mosque you need to wear modest clothing and avoid prayer times. There are guides to assist you (tips expected) and facilities for wrapping and storing the shoes you cannot wear inside (also a small tip).
Displays of gold and silver finery, along with scary carvings
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 housed in a splendid building near Merdeka Square. Its collection is the most complete in Indonesia, and among the finest in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia’s National Museum in Jakarta – sometimes referred to as the Elephant Building for the bronze statue in the forecourt
It includes graphic 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 jewellery of the kings and sultans of old, crafted in gold, silver, and precious stones.
The museum is sometimes referred to as Gedung Gajah (the Elephant Building) after the bronze elephant statue in the forecourt, a gift from a former King of Thailand.
Kota Tua – heritage from when Jakarta was Batavia
More than 300 years ago it was the city hall and the headquarters of the powerful and highly profitable Dutch East India Company (the VOC). Then, later, the offices of the Dutch colonial administration.
That’s the early story of a striking 17th century Dutch colonial building down near the old port area fronting Jakarta Bay in North Jakarta.
After decades of decline and neglect some of the aging building’s former glory has been restored as the Jakarta History Museum and is part of an area known as Batavia Kota Tua (Batavia/Jakarta Old Town).
The museum overlooks the expansive Fatahillah Square, a popular attraction for both international and local visitors. More than 300 years ago the square and the grand European-style buildings around it were the ‘CBD’ of an embryonic Jakarta, then known as Batavia.
Section of Fatahillah Square in the Kota Tua (Old Town) area of Jakarta. In the backround the old Dutch colonial offices, now a history museum.
Those early eras saw hangings in the square and the imprisonment of recalcitrant political activists in cellar dungeons below the VOC offices. You can view the dungeons when you visit the museum.
During that time the colonists built surrounding walls to keep out the local Indonesian Batawi people for fear of a potential insurrection.
The square and its remaining old buildings are now designated a heritage area and are undergoing continuing restoration.
Fatahillah Square is a popular and happening space
There is almost always something happening in the square, especially on weekends and holidays. A main visitor activity is museum hopping, but there will be fun, food and activity all around you, especially in the evenings.
Apart from the History Museum, other buildings house a highly regarded museum of fine arts and ceramics, and an Indonesian puppet museum (Wayang Kulit).
A former bank building houses a museum of banking and money. It’s well presented and surprisingly interesting.
A short distance away, former 16th century spice-trade warehouses have been restored as a museum celebrating Indonesia’s long maritime traditions. The exhibits are fascinating and so are the buildings.
The informative video below by journalist and travel vlogger Renata Pereira will give you a good feel for Kota Tua. She and her partner (the guy who tries to be funny) also take a brief look at part of the nearby Glodok market area in Chinatown.
The Kota Tua area is also studded with cafes and street food vendors and is the location of the Batavia Cafe, a famous historical landmark
Built from 1805 the building first served as accommodation and offices for high-ranking VOC officers. It eventually became an art gallery and then, from 1993, a delightful old-world restaurant.
Batavia Cafe has won awards for its food, its ambiance, and its service. If your itinerary allows, it is an ideal special venue for a lunch, a dinner, or a coffee break.
Elegant seafaring under sail from yesteryear to now
Sunda Kelapa Harbour, close by Fatahillah Square, 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 800 years ago (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 briefly take charge until kicked out by the Indonesian Demak forces of King Fatahillah. He changed the name to Jayakarta – it translates 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 during World War II when the name Jakarta was adopted, and then retained after Indonesian independence.
Like Kota Tua, the magic of Sunda Kelapa today is its living history. You can see rows of graceful, and traditional phinisi sailing ships loading and unloading cargo for and from Indonesia’s thousands of island communities.
Phinisi sailing ships moored at Sunda Kelapa Port – Pic factsofindonesia.com
These majestic vessels carry seven or eight sails in traditional gaff-ketch rig and are still central to Indonesia’s seafaring traditions and the movement of inter-island cargo.
A few have been modified and re-fitted to serve as dive and offshore surfing boats, others as elegant luxury inter-island cruise vessels.
They can be a big as 350 tons and building them is still a substantial traditional industry for the Bugis people in South Sulawesi. Amazingly they build them from traditional handed down memory – no printed plans, blueprints, or drawings.
UNESCO has listed these skills of the of the phinisi boat builders in its register of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
When under full sail these beautiful, alluring ships are guaranteed to bring out the armchair ‘old salt’ lingering in all who grew up with stories of Long John Silver, Robinson Crusoe and tales of Caribbean pirates and South Sea Island schooners.
They aren’t under sail when tied up in row upon row at Sunda Kelapa, but their graceful lines will arouse the adventure button of most who take time to view them.
Theme Parks Indonesian Style – bigger, better and grander
Indonesians LOVE theme parks, preferably on a grand scale, and some of the grandest of them all are to be found in Jakarta.
Unless you are a theme park junkie, you will not have flown from afar to explore Indonesian versions of Disneyland, Dreamworld or Seaworld.
But if your itinerary allows, there is one very different theme park in Jakarta you quite likely will find absorbing.
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Indonesia-in-Miniature Park) displays the essence of Indonesia shrunk into 100 amazing hectares. Replicas of traditional houses and pavilions in the architectural styles of 33 Indonesian provinces are on show in beautifully landscaped gardens.
Don’t be confused by the word ‘mini’ – this refers to the park being a miniature Indonesia, not to the full-size scale of the buildings.
An example of traditional housing from West Sumatra at Teman Mini Indah, Jakarta – Pic Wiki Commons
The structures are faithfully rendered, and many are quite beautiful. Along with displays of colorful and striking traditional costumes, artifacts, tools, and weapons, they instantly bring home the rich diversity of the hundreds of ethnic groups who share this island nation.
In fact, the Taman Mini displays have been ranked as possibly Indonesia’s best collection of artifacts and handicrafts.
Taman Mini Indah has 19 museums, seven nature parks (including a famous bird park), three cultural parks, and four recreational Parks. Religious buildings include a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church, and a Confucian temple.
Its striking Keong Mas (Golden Snail) building takes its inspiration from Indonesian folklore and has a shell-like roof reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. It houses an IMAX theatre screening films about the Indonesia’s natural beauty, history, and culture – including an animated version of the story of the Golden Snail.
Along with all the above comes a Disney-style kid’s castle, a cable car, rides, a water park, and traditional dance performances – plus a variety of food and drink outlets.
A large man-made lake has islands shaped to represent the major islands of the Indonesian archipelago (but you probably need to be in a cable car gondola to see them properly from above).
Taman Indonesia Mini Indah was the somewhat extravagant brainchild of the late Ibu Tien Suharto, the wife of Indonesia’s second President. It opened in 1975. You may need to invest a lot of time to fully appreciate Taman Mini, but you probably will find it to be well spent.
Ancol Dreamland – Jakarta’s option for theme park aficionados
Atlantis Waterpark at Ancol theme park (ABOVE) and (RIGHT) some big and scary rides at Ancol Dreamland – Pic triphobo.com
If you have youngsters in tow or want to lose yourself in a day of not so thoughtful touring, then Ancol Dreamland (Taman Impian Jaya) is the place to go.
This massive 552ha theme park, built on reclaimed waterfront land in North Jakarta, opened in 1966. Over the years it has grown into the largest integrated tourism attraction in Southeast Asia.
It’s very much Indonesia’s answer to Disneyworld with a water park, a sea world, a fantasy world, an eco-park, South-east Asia’ largest seawater aquarium, a zoo, rides to thrill the young and young-at-heart, a resort/hotel area, a beach, a bowling centre, a highly regarded art and crafts market, and even a golf course.
There are cable-car gondolas and becaks (bicycle rickshaws) to help you traverse the distances from attraction to attraction.
Indonesian youngsters and families love this place. It’s best to avoid weekend and holiday crowds.
THE BIG PICTURE
This topic page gives just a glimpse of the places and experiences on offer in Jakarta. Every time I visit, I find something new and interesting. You will too
The ‘Big Durian’ nickname expats have given this city is a metaphor for the way many expat residents and regular visitors feel about it.
It’s superficially messy, chaotic and at one level can drive you crazy. And yet beneath the rough exterior are many attractions and positives.
After extended stays, foreigners typically say they have had a great time and cherish their Jakarta memories.
See more about Jakarta and what it offers in my related articles Jakarta – the Asian Foodies’ paradise you probably don’t know about and MTC