Getting our visa extension (in Seoul) before our Indonesian trip was going to be a tight finish. Fortunately, we got our cards renewed on Tuesday and left for Indonesia on Saturday morning. The minute we boarded the flight to Jakarta from Hong Kong, I was amazed by the cultural diversity of the people onboard and felt welcome by their smiles. We clubbed our trip with Basil’s conference (in Bogor) and our route would take us through an exploratory journey of Java (from Jakarta to Surabaya via Yogyakarta).
My Indonesian friend, Yuna, warned me about Jakarta’s heavy traffic congestion. Our flight landed at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening and we got lucky with our timing. Getting a visa on arrival is pretty fast/efficient at the airport and the security officers will guide you to the designated counter if you’re confused. Carry the exact fee (35 USD), because the officer won’t give you change. We took a prepaid taxi from the airport to our hotel, but I’d suggest walking out and taking a Blue Bird Taxi (Taksi) instead.
Jakarta can be explored within a day. It’s advisable to get out of the city and into the stunning countryside as soon as possible. It might be a good idea to opt for a city tour when it’s hot, especially in July. We didn’t have a specific plan for Jakarta, so we took a Blue Bird Taxi to get us around. The base fare starts from 6700 IDR. Carry change because most drivers will round off the meter reading. Getting currency exchanged is better at a mall. Not all malls have a currency exchange counter and you’d have to go to one that’s attached to a hotel. Our Korean debit cards didn’t work at the local ATM and we had to survive with the money we had exchanged at the airport.
We chose Hotel Ciputra for its location in Jakarta. It was a short ride away from the main tourist places of interest. The staff were welcoming and helpful. But, it was the mall that proved to be a lifesaver for currency exchange and a local sim.
In and Around Kota Tua (Batavia)
In 1619, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) defeated the British (along with Prince Jayawikarta) and established a stronghold in the ancient port city, Jayakarta. They rechristened the razed city: Batavia — modelling it on the architectural designs of their homeland. Batavia grew with trade and commerce attracting an eclectic mix of migrants. The city was plagued by malaria epidemics and was a backdrop for a bloody massacre of its Chinese residents. Batavia lost its glory (in 1779) after the Dutch VOC declared bankruptcy.
Museum Bank Indonesia
Start your walk at the Museum Bank Indonesia before entering the Batavia City Square of Kota Tua (Old Town of Jakarta). On Sundays, some streets are closed for cars and you may skip interesting sights/buildings on the way — if you choose to enter at the main entrance. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the parking lot of Batavia City Square and we had to take a longer route to explore the neighbouring buildings.
Walking Around Kota Tua’s Canals
The buildings around Fatahillah Square (Batavia City Square) are reminiscent of a bygone era. If the temperature was a bit lower, I would have loved to walk around and explore the narrow alleys with their whitewashed buildings. But, within 10 minutes of our walk, we were thirsty and looking for shelter at the main square.
Don’t miss the red tiled building: Toko Mero (The Red Shop).
Fatahillah Square or Batavia City Square
Batavia City Square gives you a panoramic view of all the important buildings & Museums in the old town. On a Sunday morning, the central square turns into a playground for locals looking to have some fun. Their enthusiasm was contagious and I wanted to forget the heat for a moment and ride a bike at the main square.
Signboards are plastered at regular intervals and it’s very easy to navigate around the main square.
The nooks and corners were teeming with interesting things (including vintage cars and scooters) to see or pose with. There were musical performances in the morning, and by noon, human statutes started to occupy spots in the shade. Locals would pay to pose with these brave souls who didn’t let the heat deter their love for the craft.
The Jakarta History Museum (Fatahillah Museum)
It’s hard to miss the imposing white facade (with a fluttering Indonesian Flag) of the Jakarta History Museum at the Main Square. Back in the day, during the rule of the Dutch VOC, this building was built as a Town Hall for the residents of Batavia.
The main entrance to the museum is around the corner, in a narrow alley. The museum comprises multiple rooms dedicated to different epochs in the timeline of Indonesia’s colonial past. The rooms aren’t air-conditioned and it can get stifling hot in the month of July. The heat got to me and I found it hard to comprehend the chronology of events that lead to colonisation. I expected to learn more about Indonesia’s history, including the freedom struggle, but I felt the museum focussed extensively on Batavia: A model city built by Dutch colonists.
The outer courtyard was occupied by families: taking a break from the sun, munching a morning meal, and enjoying a lazy Sunday morning at the local museum.
I was clueless about the complex history of many Asian countries before our travels. While some may consider it to be the way things worked back then (some may argue only names/definitions have changed today); I think it’s heartbreaking to lose independence — of any kind. Ironically, the struggle to be free is as intrinsic as the quest to conquer. From the highest floor, the fluttering flag formed a contrasting visual to the old square and what it represented.
The museum has an impressive collection of old furniture, coins, notes, and memorabilia. Back in the day, Batavia seemed to be an ideal immigrant town. I was hooked by the statement of diversity and then, I read about the Chinese massacre on the block above it. There couldn’t have been a more contradictory statement.
Wayang Museum (Museum for Puppets)
The sun was having fun at our expense and we weren’t inclined to enter the close confines of another museum. We skipped visiting Wayang Museum. There’s a small cafe near POS Indonesia, but they only accept cash and we didn’t have much to spare.
Fine Arts and Ceramic Museum
It was too early for lunch, so we entered another museum. We found refuge in the tree-lined corridors of the museum and took a break to take it all in. The heat reminded me of my summer holidays in my hometown — often coinciding with lent. I might have got delirious at some point, because I felt like bearing this heat was akin to seeking repentance for my sins.
Cafe Batavia is an iconic restaurant in Batavia City Square and a hit among tourists and locals. We were lucky to get a place at noon. The windows were all reserved or taken.
We ordered Batavia Fried rice, Bir Pletok(a Batavian drink), Nasi Goreng, and Crostini (appetiser). The flavour was spot on and I could have spent another hour at that restaurant.
The server at Cafe Batavia told us that Sunda Kelapa was a 15 minute walk from the old town. It was too hot and we didn’t want to take a chance and took a taxi instead. Our driver was confused with the route and took us to a dead end. Eventually, he asked for directions and dropped us to the port.
Sunda Kalapa was the main port of the Hindu Sunda Kingdom. The Portuguese signed a treaty with the Hindu King in 1522 and traded military assistance for access to the spice trade. The Portuguese military alliance didn’t last very long and the Sultanate of Demak’s commander, Fatahillah, conquered the port in 1527. And that’s how it got its name “Jayakarta” or “Victorious City”.
The harbour has a striking collection of old boats and gigantic wooden hulls. The noisome smell of paint and burning metal filled the warm afternoon air. We were the only tourists and attracted more attention than I would have liked. Without any tree cover, the heat was unbearable, and I got a throbbing headache.
It would have been nice to enjoy the views from the port side in the evening or night, but we decided to skip it.
Bay Walk Mall
Bay Walk Mall is an unlikely neighbour to Sunda Kelapa. The air-conditioning was a welcome change from the outside heat and its environs felt like an oasis in the midst of nowhere. The mall is spread across multiple floors and each floor has something to catch your eye.
There’s an outdoor deck that offers a bird’s-eye view of the harbour below. Pluit City is an ambitious project that will change the face of the waterfront and will become a sought after piece of realty. Although, my thoughts drifted to possible natural disasters.
Coffee with a View
They say money can’t buy happiness, however, on a sweltering afternoon — I beg to differ. We chose a cosy cafe with a wonderful view and sipped a cool drink. It was sheer bliss, even if it was short-lived.
We took a taxi to Monas: the National Monument. Once again, the driver dropped us at a gate, on the far end of the monument. There are multiple entry points and you might want to enter the one (IRTI Parking Area) that leads directly to the underground entrance of the monument.
The sprawling grounds of Merdeka Square is perfect for the National Monument of Indonesia’s freedom struggle. At 132 meters, the towering obelisk rises triumphantly with a gold flame at its apex. The monument encapsulates the union of two contrasting elements: the phallic tower represents the male (linga) energy while the lower base represents the female (yoni) energy. It’s like a yin and yang combination.
The Elusive Entrance
Finding the entrance to Monas can feel like a hunt for an ancient crypt. After circling the outer gates of the tower, we found a signboard leading to an underground entrance. The entrance was teeming with people and I thought of aborting our plan to enter the monument. Basil persevered and joined the line for a ticket. A female security officer asked me to wait at the tunnel until he bought the ticket. After a few tense moments of fighting claustrophobia, Basil emerged with the tickets. Now, you can buy tickets to the top (puncak) or to the first level (cawan).
We were tired after a really long day and we didn’t spend much time inside the museum. Dioramas explain the history of Indonesia, but it was hard to concentrate with the dull lighting and musty smell.
The View from Cawan (first level)
After sunset, temperatures dipped and the evening breeze was pleasant. We found a spot to enjoy the city view whist the wind carried the sounds of Zamfir and sweet smells of scented perfume. We could see the white dome of Istiqlal Mosque from above.
The Wait to Reach the Top (pawan)
We didn’t know we had a ticket to the top. The line, for night viewing, starts an hour before entry. We saw people gather around the gates and walked back to the ticket counter, before realising that we could go to the top of the tower. Fortunately, our tickets could be swiped again and we rushed to make it to the tail end of the queue.
We waited patiently, along with 4 other foreigners and resilient locals (some with very well behaved kids), for 2 hours to finally make it to the lift. We reached the top at 9 p.m. (almost closing time) and barely had few minutes to enjoy the views of the city below.
It wasn’t easy getting a taxi back to the hotel and we considered taking a motorised rickshaw. But, the rickshaw was more expensive than a taxi. After a cool shower, we ordered an arabic meal (in our hotel) and called it a night.