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Jet Set: Jakarta

By: Jeff W. Richards Posted: August-08-2010 in
Gazing back: Old Jakarta (Kota Tua) is a heritage enclave that speaks of Indonesia's colonial past
Jeff W. Richards

Every month, Jet Set swoops down on a city providing all the relevant details to make your next visit click.

There is no getting in, out, or around Jakarta quickly. Welcome to the Big Durian – you better get used to it. The Indonesian capital, the most populous city in Southeast Asia (and twelfth largest in the world) with nearly 8.5 million people, is basically in a constant state of gridlock.

"No traffic, no Djakarta sir."

This is what the driver says to me as we lurch slowly through the mid-morning jam south toward the distinct and colourful neighborhood of Menteng, where the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery sits and my grandfather rests – alongside thousands of other British, Dutch, Indian and Pakistani soldiers who paid the ultimate price defending these islands when the Japanese invaded in 1942, and during the ensuing Indonesian fight for independence.

The cemeteries, verdant and well maintained, much like the walled estates and residences of “the Beverly Hills of Jakarta”, as Menteng is known, stand in stark contrast to the dilapidated and forgotten civilian graves that share the outskirts of the same area. Crowded with curbside street vendors and hawkers selling chicken, rice, drinks, newspapers, flowers, scooter parts, gasoline and whatever else they can get hold of and find buyers for, they ply their trade in the desuetude of forgotten graves. Commerce, on any level, is what keeps this city running to stand still.

As we crawl out the Menteng district, a former home of US president Barack Obama (his stepfather is Indonesian), and back towards the CBD, the city morphs once again from small shops, colourful little restaurants, warung and residential blocks to high-rises, faceless shopping centres and pavements. A city of incredible growth and indelible decay populated with ragged street urchins and the glinting of tinted window luxury cars. A city of corrugated tin shacks and glittering hotels.

It occurs to me that there are two types of visitors to Jakarta: those that are here for work, and those that are just heading somewhere else.

If you are sitting in the back of a taxi, listening to a never-ending stream of classic rock covers by Indonesian bands, hypnotised (or oblivious) to the gaping disparity of wealth that passes by your windshield, and you are not wearing flip flops – then you are the latter.

How to get there
Jakarta is served by the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, about 20 clicks from downtown. And this one can get busy. In January, Airport Council International rated it as the 17th busiest airport in the world (based on passenger traffic) – that’s just one behind New York’s JFK. Interestingly enough, Forbes Traveller rated it the second most punctual airport worldwide (89.2% on time departures and 84.2% on time arrivals).

As of this past January, the Visa on Arrival scheme was changed. Non-ASEAN nationals now receive a single entry visit visa ($45) allowing you to stay 30 days. No big deal, but if you were used to the business-trip oriented 7-day VOA – you're now out of luck.

One thing that still remains at Soekarno, though, is the interminable lineup to obtain your visa. Prepare yourself for an hour of standing in line, but hope that you get a light day. If you know you'll be back in Jakarta on business, it is well worth your while to seek out the $100 multiple entry visit visa that's good for a year and helps avoid this first hurdle on your next visit – when you just breeze through.

Make arrangements with your hotel to have a car or taxi waiting at the airport when you arrive. The Blue Bird Taxi group is pretty much the standard to which the other, often disreputable, taxis try to (very convincingly) imitate. Otherwise, head to the counters just outside of customs. A decent ride will set you back about Rp175,000 ($18). Or opt for the Silver Bird service – it costs a little more, but nothing beats their sleek Mercedes cabs and good drivers. Outside, are the regular taxi ranks and their touts, and you probably won’t get what you pay for.

Recharge the batteries
One of the things to note about this city is that everything seems like, and perhaps is, a shell game. Once you accept that, the constant annoyances of expectation versus reality subside. The city starts to reveal itself to you like a wine that has been left to breathe in the smog. In order to enjoy Jakarta, it’s a rule you would do well to follow – just take it one breath at a time. Accommodations are no exception to that rule.

The opulent lobbies that greet you when you arrive, complete with concierge, pool, wi-fi internet access, buffet restaurants and shimmering bars are more often than not, unmatched by your room. Don’t hesitate to go with the upscale names: the Shangri La, the Ritz-Carlton, the Grand Hyatt, the Four Seasons and others, all are centrally located, will pamper you in whichever style you’ve grown accustomed and all of them are far more modestly priced than their European or North American counterparts.

Hotel Mulia Senayan is an award-winning hotel and a good choice if you’d like a little “boutique” with your star ratings. Sure, its 996 rooms are standard luxury fare, but the pillow menu that lists the different types available that awaits you on your bed could make it the best place in the city to lay your weary head. And if shimmer is your thing, check out their 24-hour café – appropriately called “The Café”. A full gastronomic menu dazzles amidst “the only Swarovski-decorated private dining room in a Jakarta hotel”.

Or, more sensibly, you could do yourself a favour and check in at a serviced apartment. The Oakwood Premier Cozmo Jakarta sounds far more expensive than it is. While you may think that serviced apartments such as those offered by Oakwood cater to long-term (and expensive) business stays, the deluxe bedroom suites can be had for as low as $150 per night – not much more than the tiny, economical and impersonal hotel room you could have rented. Plus, they’re larger and offer a full kitchen, appliances, utensils, washer, dryer, buffet breakfast and broadband.

Best sightseeing
Head out to the Thousand Islands for a quick getaway. This collection of tropical islands, atolls and reefs doesn’t come near its name in number, but they’re close enough to make the sweltering city seem far away. Hop over to Pulau Macan Tiger Islands Village & Eco Resort, an 88-minute yacht ride from Jakarta’s Ancol Marina.

Sense and sensitivities
As in any country, saying thank you goes a long way. Commit “Terima kasih” to memory, or at least grab an Indonesia Bahasa phrasebook for your mobile phone. “Hi” and “hello” are pretty universal.

Ladies would do well to cover up. You don’t need to put on a nun’s habit, but beach attire, small skirts and strappy dresses and tops will account for plenty of unwanted attention. Show some respect for their culture and everything will be just fine.

The hot bowl of lemon water that will often accompany meals isn’t soup. Wash your hands and be seen washing your hands, as Indonesian culture reserves the left one for the toilet.

Yes, you will hear “Bule! Bule!” directed towards you. It simply means “foreigner”, but in the case of your quick visit, just take it to mean, “Hey you!”

Republished with the Kind Permission of

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