Jakarta gets a bad rap. The Lonely Planet describes it as “an unappealing facade of high-rises, slums, and gridlock streets that does not make a good first impression.” It says that you really need to get beneath the surface in order to get a good look at the city and be able to appreciate it. People we’ve spoke to throughout our time in Indonesia have described it as crowded, smelly, and somewhere they visited just because they had to fly in through there.
As the first very large city other than Bangkok that we’ve visited in Asia, Dave and I were anxious to see what Jakarta had to offer and to compare it to Bangkok, which is described much in the same way (smelly, crowded, a place that people spend little time in and only as a transit point). Of course, we love Bangkok, so we had high hopes for Jakarta notwithstanding what we had heard.
After waiting for over an hour to get on the bus from the airport to the city, we were already feeling a bit frustrated. But, as soon as we (finally) started moving, we saw the big, very pretty Jakarta skyline lit up, passed by tons of huge, fancy malls and were already wondering if the people we’d spoken to about Jakarta had actually even been there because at first glance, it didn’t seem anything like how they’d described it.
Jl Jaksa is the backpacker area in Jakarta so that’s where we decided to stay. We found a great place (really nice room, AC, TV all for $15/night) and immediately headed out to find dinner. There was a food street (Jl Sabang) right near us, so that’s where we started. On our way, we passed a food stall serving up the biggest and best looking pot of nasi goreng (fried rice) that we’ve ever seen. After walking up Sabang and not seeing anything that looked as good, we went back and sat down at our first spot, as we so often do. It was packed with locals eating the fried rice and lamb sate. We ordered both, grabbed a bag of peanut crackers from the big jar in the middle of the table and dug in for the best meal we’ve had in Indonesia (and top 3 of our trip, the other two being lechon/suckling pig in Cebu City, Philippines and thit cho/dog in Vietnam).
We didn’t have wifi at our hotel so we got up in the morning and headed out to Jl Jaksa to find a breakfast spot where we could check internet. We opened our email to amazing news – Dave’s sister, Tracy, had given birth to our nephew, Jack Henry! She hadn’t been due for another few days so even though we were checking for news every day, it still came as somewhat of a surprise. Amazingly, we had video chatted with her the day before, hours before she went into labor (which happened to be while she was at the hospital for a Dr. visit). What an amazing start to our time in Jakarta! After a quick videochat with Tracy, we headed out to explore Jakarta.
We spent our first day exploring the city. We started out by walking to the National Monument (Monas), a huge 132-meter high column with a gold flame at the top. For $1.50pp, we got tickets to take the elevator to the top and see some great views of the city.
After Monas, we took the bus to Kota, the historical district of Jakarta. We walked around Taman Fatahillah, the old town square, had our favorite Indonesian lunch (bakso, noodle soup with meatballs and tofu), shopped around at some of the stalls set up on the streets and then headed to our third area of the day, Sunda Kelapa, the old port of Indonesia. We went to the fish market (which was closed – I think it only goes on in the early morning), Museum Bahari, a maritime and ship museum that could have used a few more actual ships in it, and then went to the actual port where we rented a boat for 30 minutes to take us around the port. We even got to go onto one of the huge ships to check it out!
We hadn’t seen a movie since Manila so our plan for the night was to check out one of Jakarta’s fancy malls (we wanted to see how they compared to the ones in Bangkok). We went to Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) knowing that it was Jakarta’s cultural center, but for some reason (I think because it had a movie theater) we thought it would also be a mall. It definitely wasn’t a mall and was not at all what we had been looking for for our night in Jakarta. We had bought our movie tickets to see Planet of the Apes and then at the last minute, decided we didn’t want to miss out on our fancy mall experience so we returned our tickets (Dave told them I wasn’t feeling well and they thankfully refunded our $), hopped in a tuk tuk and headed to Plaza Indonesia, what’s supposed to be one of the best malls in Jakarta.
It turns out that the best mall in Jakarta is actually across the street from Plaza Indonesia (our guide book is a couple years old and it must not have been built yet at the time). It was a huge mall (actually two huge malls connected by a skybridge) which definitely rivaled Siam Paragon, the fanciest (and our favorite) mall in Bangkok. The mall also had a huge and really nice movie theater. We ended up spending $2 more (the tickets were $4 here instead of $3 at the previous place) but it was worth it. We spent a couple hours walking around the mall, had dinner at the food court (we actually went to three different food stands to get our dinner), and saw a great movie. For those that haven’t been to Asia, you really can’t describe the malls unless you’ve seen them firsthand. They’re bigger and better than any mall we’ve seen in the US (other than maybe Mall of America in Minnesota, but that’s just bigger, not better or nicer), and you can literally spend an entire day/night there without getting bored. They also have amazing food courts with great cheap food from all over Asia (and often the world). After our first full day in Jakarta we were starting to think that this was a city that we could picture ourselves living in (other than the fact that alcohol is really hard to come by though we never quite figured out if that was just because of Ramadan).
On day two, we went to Taman Impian Jaya Ancol, a big waterfront amusement park. We arrived and saw the $25 entree fee and started wondering whether it was worth it (we couldn’t see any huge rides popping up from behind the gates). But then, something amazing happened. We saw a sign for a Ramadan promotion. All tickets were half off. For that price, we were definitely in! Finally, after two weeks of Ramadan negatively affecting us (everything had been closing early and alcohol was extremely hard to come by), something good was coming out of it. Other than the 45 minutes that we had to hide out in a ride line because it started pouring, we had a great day going on all the rides in the park. None of them were huge, but they all packed a good punch. Possibly our favorite though was the Indonesian version of It’s a Small World – a 15 minute ride through every different part of Indonesia, plus a lot of other countries around the world. Dave said he absolutely loathes It’s a Small World in Disneyland, but he loved the Indonesian version:).
We had about an hour to relax after getting back from the park and then got back on the bus to go out for the night. Jakarta is supposed to have one of the best night life/club scenes in the world with clubs that open on Thursday and don’t close until Sunday night (you buy a weekend pass which is good for the whole weekend). Since we just happened to be in the city over a weekend, we had been looking forward to checking out these clubs for a long time. After an hour-long ride, we got off the bus only to find that there was absolutely nothing going on. Big shock, everything was closed because of Ramadan. We had heard that instead of staying open until 4 or 5am, most of the clubs might close early at 12 or 1 (which was ok because we probably couldn’t stay out until 4 or 5 am anyway), but no one had said the whole area would be dead. So much for that.
On the bright side though, after another hour-long bus ride back to our area, we got to go to our favorite food stall again (for nasi goreng and lamb sate). And once again, it was amazing. We were very excited when another white couple came up to us and asked us what they were supposed to do/order. I guess we looked like we knew the ropes 🙂
In the morning, we had our last breakfast/checking internet session and then headed out to the airport. Our last stop in Indonesia was definitely one of our best and left us with a much more pleasant opinion of the country. We think that maybe, had we done our trip the other way (starting in Jakarta and ending in Bali/Gilli/Lombok), which is the most popular route to take (but didn’t work for us because we were coming from the Philippines) we may have had a better experience. Unlike Bali where we started and where the local people harass you relentlessly, in Lombok and most of Java, in particular Jakarta, everyone was much friendlier and most importantly, just didn’t bother us all day/night trying to sell us souvenirs, tours, taxi rides, etc. In a big city like Jakarta and even Yogyakarta to a lesser extent, everyone just does their own thing which allows you to soak up the local experience. In tourist areas like Bali, however, the entire community revolves around tourism and so you literally can’t walk down the street without being harassed non-stop. It’s very frustrating and at times even frightening. But once we escaped that madness, we really enjoyed Indonesia and are already contemplating a return trip to visit Komodo (home of the famous komodo dragon and supposedly some of the best scuba diving in the world) and the orangutans of Kalimantan.
Now, we’re very excited to meet my mom in Singapore for three days before heading to Malaysia, our last country of RTW 2.0 (in addition to Brunei which we’ll be visiting for a few days in the middle of our Malaysia trip).