Jakarta. The steaming capital of the fourth most populous nation on earth and home to anywhere between 10 and 19 million people. It has a reputation among travellers as being one of the worst places to visit in Indonesia and a place with absolutely nothing for visitors — meaning they want to escape elsewhere quickly. We agree with some of these sentiments, but some interesting subjects do lie behind the lines of traffic that clog this city from dusk to dawn.
Sure, you might have to walk past litter-filled waterways, rubbish piled on the sides of streets and smog that is enough to make one want to cry (involuntarily), but isn’t this the very essence of a city undergoing a rapid transformation from poverty-stricken urban cesspit to middle-class megalopolis?
Indeed, the vast majority of Jakarta’s citizens live in what in Western eyes seems to be abject poverty. But poverty is often in the eyes of the beholder and the children living in many of these poorer areas play in the streets oblivious to the fact that many of their fellow Jakartans are reaping the benefits of an economy that is growing at a staggering 6.5% per annum.
But with increased wealth comes questions over the city’s older buildings. Should old make way for new as has happened in many cities in the West? Should towering skyscrapers replace squat centuries-old colonial buildings?
From a tourist perspective, the old buildings are a highlight of the city with the area called “Kota” (“city” in English) providing a fascinating glimpse back in time to an era when Dutch overlords sipped cocktails while being waited on hand and foot by locals adorned in starched shirts and shiny shoes.
But what of the other old buildings dotted around town? Some still remain today such as the old Finance Ministry building located a short walk east of Gambir train station. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that appears to be locked in a timewarp.
For many visitors, the Catholic cathedral, simply called “Katedral”, provides a simple reminder that Indonesia is a nation of more than 35 million Christians despite it often being referred to as a Muslim nation.
But Indonesia is dominated by Islam and the largest mosque in Indonesia is located just across the road from Katedral. Mesjid Istiqlal is an enormous structure with multiple floors to accommodate devotees — come here for a tour and to learn more about this greatly misunderstood religion.
Jakarta can often be a gritty place and this no more evident than when visiting one of the city’s infamous bird markets where shady deals and animal exploitation go hand in hand. Those intent on finding the exotic succeed with a little persistence and a small amount of cash to grease the wheels. Want to buy an endangered Javan slow loris? Got fifty bucks? DEAL! (Obviously we didn’t buy the Loris and we don’t condone buying animals!)
Most visitors to Jakarta breeze through with disgust at the grime, smog and traffic; but those with an eye for something different and an interest in the progress of a nation will get something out of Jakarta.
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