Being the political and financial heart of Indonesia, I’ve always associated Jakarta with business travel and hardly considered it a vacation destination. So when I received an invitation to expand my mind about the play factor in the Indonesian capital city, I accepted it with anticipation… and also a tingle of trepidation. What does this city with the highest population in Southeast Asia has to offer any seasoned urban explorer? Are the attractions worth the legwork? Is Jakarta tourist friendly?
After a 1.5 hours flight from Singapore, I landed at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport an eager beaver to see the sights.
I had no idea where to go or what to see but thanks to Russell Cheong of JakartaSavvy.Com who represented Jakarta Tourism Office, our itinerary was thoughtfully planned out to take us through the city’s historic district, shopping havens and offshore islands in a mish-mash experience of all that Jakarta has to offer culture vultures, shopaholics and nature lovers.
MONAS (Monumen Nasional)
The best place to start exploring any destination is at its roots to understand from whence it came and possibly, to where it might head. Our acquaintance with Jakarta began at the city’s historical and cultural epicenter marked by the stately MONAS (Monumen Nasional) monument.
Inspired by the grandeur of the Washington obelisk after a visit to the White House, President Sukarno commissioned the construction of MONAS in 1961 as a beacon to rouse Indonesia’s evolution into a first-world economy. This explanation of how the MONAS came about was told to us by our local tour guide and it added another dimension to what Wikipedia purports (that the sculpture is a commemoration of the country’s struggle for independence from Dutch rule). There’s nothing like hearing the undercover story behind a national edifice from the people’s perspective.
Standing at a height of 132m at Merdeka Square, MONAS pierces the Jakartan cityscape like a massive acupuncture needle. According to ancient world theorists, obelisks are activation points around the earth’s meridian to recharge the planet. So come to MONAS to get a charge of the Indonesian energy!
MONAS is topped with a flame that’s plated with 50kg of gold! I’m trying to push down the pillar to get to the gold. My classic yellow Timberland boots provided just the right traction to make it a reliable accomplice. Heh heh.
A juxtaposition of the new (MONAS) and the old (Garuda) icons of Indonesia.
MONAS stands within a sprawling park with lots of street peddlers selling souvenirs and crafts within the compound. Apparently, you can go into the tower but we didn’t have time to check out the interior.
KOTA TUA (Jakarta Old Town)
Arguably, the center of Jakarta’s modern history sprung from the Kota Tua district which was nicknamed the “Jewel of Asia” and the “Queen of the East” by 16th century sailors due to its strategic maritime location. Back in the old days, Kota Tua was considered the trade center for the Asian region which explains the many historic buildings, most that hail from the Dutch colonial era, still stand today as shadows of its glory days.
There are a number of museums at Kota Tua square marked by the most prominent of them all, the Fatahillah Museum (aka Museum Sejarah Jakarta, Jakarta History Museum or Batavia Musuem). The former city hall of Batavia (Jakarta was named ‘Batavia’ under the Dutch East Indies colonization from 1800 to 1950), the building’s age dates back to 1620 and houses an underground prison where iron balls (the size of volleyballs) chained to prisoners’ feet can still be seen. Too bad that museum was undergoing renovation and we didn’t get to see its collection.
Outside the museum were a couple of freeze artist and my favourite was this vintage war veteran posing by a canon. Simply brilliant!
Drop in some cash at his money box and you can get to pose for photos with him. There’s no fixed amount so I gave him Rp20,000 (approx. S$2.10)
Opposite the Fatahillah Museum is the old Post Office (Kantor Pos Kota). The refurbished Post Office contrasted sharply with the abandoned and decaying old warehouse to its side.
What really caught our eyes at Kota Tua were the uber retro ontel (or onthel) bicycles pimped with psychedelic colours!
We decided to ride back in time with a one hour tour of old Jakarta on the ontel bicycles. The guided tour plus bike rental costs around S$5.00 (Rp50,000). The tour was supposed to cover 5 historic sites but due to us taking longer at each destination to take photos, we managed to only do 3 in the hour.
Our first stop was the strikingly red Toko Merah (meaning Red Shop). One of the oldest building in Jakarta built in 1730, Toko Merah was home to the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies and a few other Governors before being turned into a Navy Academy and finally hotel.
Today, Toko Merah serves as a conference hall and commercial gallery. An entrance fee applies to view the gallery and we missed going in due to time constraint but we didn’t pass over an opportunity to camwhore at the retrolicious café near the entrance!
A short ride from Toko Merah brought us to Kota Intan Drawbridge (known during its heydays as Large Tree Bridge and Chicken Market Bridge). Built in 1628, the drawbridge is the only bridge of its kind ever built by the Dutch Government and hence its historic value. We could smell the river while standing on the bridge.
Our third and last stop was the Menara Syahbandar (Syahbandar Port Tower), a former defense tower erected in 1645 and at 77 steps to the top, it was the tallest structure in the old days.
The tower served as a watch for boats and ships plying the port and is today an excellent vantage point to get an eyeful of Jakarta’s heritage district.
Pink on pink… Siow Har was rode warrior for the day for battling the scary Jakarta traffic as we cycled to the various historic attractions.
Our tour of the historic sites was brief but it took us almost half a day. To really appreciate Kota Tua, I would set aside a full day so that there is ample time to drop in at the various museums as well (there was a Wayang Museum we really wanted to see but it was closed during our visit).
The most nerve-wrecking yet exciting part of history chugging at Old Jakarta was the ontel bike tour where we cycled alongside, and sometimes onto the clogged city streets with motorists obeying not just the traffic lights, but a wave of hand by cyclists to be given a safety of passage. If you would like to grow some balls, an ontel bicycle ride beyond Kota Tua would definitely fill the sacs!
Address: Jl. Taman Fatahillah No. 1 Jakarta Barat 11110 Indonesia