Photo: Hansel & Gretel.


The steaming capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, sits at the western end of Java on the northern coast. It's an immense city with incredible contrasts in wealth and modernity with sections seemingly more modern than many Western cities and other parts representing some of the worst poverty in Indonesia.

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Jakarta was established as a trading port centuries ago and was primarily used by the Sundanese people to ship spices to the rest of the world, with local pepper in particular being highly sought after. Over the years, the city changed hands as a result of the constant battle for control of the lucrative spice trade. It eventually ended up in Dutch hands and was named Batavia, which stuck for hundreds of years, and resulted in a distinct culture and separate language from the surrounding Sundanese people.

With the onset of World War II and the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies, separatist activities increased in intensity and an agreement was struck between the Japanese occupying authority and the separatists for greater autonomy after the war was complete. On the cessation of fighting in World War II, Indonesia declared independence and took up arms against the Dutch, who returned to enforce their authority over the Dutch East Indies. After a prolonged battle and intense diplomacy, the Dutch finally withdrew from these lands and Indonesia gained the autonomy which they greatly craved. At this time the government moved its activities to the modern-day capital, Jakarta.

The layout of Jakarta is fairly straightforward, with Merdeka Square and the Monumen Nasional (Monas) an easy reference point for everything else in the city. A short walk south of Monas is the extremely popular backpacker district of Jalan Jaksa, with its seedy bars and sometimes even seedier accommodation. This is the sad first impression that many visitors get of Jakarta; it's the main reason that many choose to move on as fast as possible and we can't blame them. A short walk west of Jalan Jaksa brings you to Bundaran HI and two massive shopping malls, Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia.

At the southeastern corner of Merdeka Square is Gambir train station, the main station in Jakarta. There are frequent connections to Bogor, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang and Surabaya. It's from here that you can also catch a bus to the airport.

From Gambir, a natural tourist walking route heads east past Gereja Emanuel to Lapangan Banteng and the important religious buildings of Gereja Katedral and Masjid Istiqlal. At the eastern end of Lapangan Banteng is the colonial building which now houses the Finance Ministry, and it's around this area that many people will choose to have a bite to eat at one of the many warungs.

In the north of the city is the area commonly referred to as Kota Tua or simply Kota. Here visitors will find a large collection of colonial buildings, museums and touristy things to see and do. It can feel a little bit cliched at times, but it's certainly worth a visit. A short walk north from the main square in Kota Tua, Taman Fatahillah, is the maritime museum, Museum Bahari. Located next to the old port, it's a great place to check out and an opportunity to get lost in some of the back streets of the nearby kampung.

Jakarta is a modern city, with ATMs on plenty of street corners, access to modern medical care and police assistance easy to come by. The city is completely covered with 3G communications and those starting their Indonesian adventure here are well-advised to pick up a pre-paid SIM card for 5,000 rupiah at any of the streetside kiosks in town. Telkomsel is generally regarded as the operator with the best coverage in Indonesia and 1GB of data should cost no more than 100,000 rupiah.

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