Under a bridge outside Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, I spiritedly tried to bargain with a taxi driver a little after sundown. “Two hundred thousand Indonesian Rupiah (IDR),” he said, opening the proceedings. I pulled out my notebook and began scribbling on the last page. “Fifty thousand rupiah,” I wrote. This went on for five minutes as we parried using fingers, ink, and notes of Indonesia’s hyper-inflated currency to express ourselves. Eventually we settled on IDR 70,000/Rs 345.
The driver was a rider, and the taxi a bike. In Jakarta they are slender Bajaj-like bikes known as ojeks. In the city’s famously congested highways, where traffic stalls for vast swathes of time, the ojek is the best way to get around. Clutching feverishly to the back of the bike and snaking through waiting cars, over bridges and through side lanes—here was a bespoke adrenaline rush in a sprawling East Asian megapolis.
Jakarta is panned as an over-crowded, hopelessly jam-packed city, but it’s still possible to eke out some good bits from Indonesia’s capital. The beaches are in Bali and the culture is in Jogjakarta, but if you’re passing through Jakarta, some fun can yet be had.
The bike is of course a means of transport rather than a tourist attraction, yet the ojek for the ojek’s sake certainly has its moments. (If you really want to go native, you should buy an anti-pollution face mask—now available in dazzling colours, cutting-edge patterns and often embossed with movie characters.) The reason I had needed one in the first place was because I was just coming from the city’s old town—Batavia—the former Dutch centre. The hulking ships lurk near the water’s edge, and a whiff of colonial hangover still pervades the area.
To get to Sunda Kelapa, the old port, I had to take a cycle taxi from the old square, perched precariously as the old cyclist pulled my weight. I deboarded and took a little ride around the harbour. “Fifty-thousand rupiah,” began the whiskery boatman, as he tried to lure me into his little wooden vessel. The port has none of the grandeur from times past, but it has a certain gravitas and character. It’s Jakarta’s faint nod to its Dutch past. The boatman ultimately prevailed, though I only parted with IDR 20,000/Rs 100 for a quick tour of the very dark grey swampy waters.
The Fatahillah square in Batavia is somewhat more appealing—it represents the old settlement established by the colonisers. The area was once the centre of the Dutch East Indies and a lively site of the bustling spice trade that dominated the 17th and 18th centuries. The 1.3 square kilometres of the heritage quarter has a clutch of museums and places to eat; though even simply walking around is its own pleasure.
That apart, the city has a few monuments, many are concentrated in the centre. Monumen Nasional (Monas), Jakarta’s national monument, at the spiritual heart is a monument commemorating the Indonesian independence struggle, and is determinedly minimalist. Visitors can take an elevator to the observation deck that offers grand views of the city. Nearby is the impressive National Museum of Indonesia; covering various periods of history and showcasing multiple cultural artefacts. (Monas, daily 8.30 a.m.- 5 p.m.; closed last Mon of the month; National Museum, www.museumnasional.or.id; open Tue-Fri 8.30 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat-Sun 8.30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
However, one of the things the city is proudest of is its association with the former first citizen of the United States. At a school in the posh Menteng area is a statue erected in honour of its most famous student; Barry to schoolmates, President Obama to everyone else. “A young boy named Barry,” says the commemorative plaque, “played with his mother Ann in Menteng area. He grew up to be the 44th president of the United States and Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama.” He spent four years of his childhood in the country after his mother married Lolo Sotero, her Indonesian second husband.
By the time I had arrived at the Barry pilgrimage halt, I had spent my third day in the capital, and was ready to hit the smaller towns outside. But not before one last stop that evening: the Skye bar and restaurant. This is one among other bars in the city lording over everything from a suitably high vantage point. It’s on the 56th floor, and sits atop a mall. At night, as the bright lights in the big city come on, what better way to sign off from the capital than with a beer in hand, from a vertiginously high rooftop? (www.ismaya.com; daily 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; beer from IDR 60,000/Rs 290.)
Orientation Jakarta is a sprawling megapolis in northwest Java, with a population of 9.6 million.
Getting There Singapore Airlines, Malindo, Air India, all fly to Jakarta from Mumbai and Delhi with a stop at a Southeast Asian gateway.
Getting Around Blue Bird Taxis are reasonable, air-conditioned, ply by meter, and can be hailed on the spot. Ojeks, the motorcycle taxis, are a speedy delight, and can be hailed on the spot as well. Bargaining might get you a better price.
Visa For Indian tourists, visas can be obtained on arrival. A 30-day single- entry visa costs $35/Rs 2,260.