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4 Days in Jakarta: Notes from a Startled Traveller

At the courtyard of the Sumpah Pemuda Museum, Jalan Kramat Raya, No.106, Kwitang, Senen, Kota Jakarta Pusat, Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta 10420, Indonesia.
At the courtyard of the Sumpah Pemuda Museum, Jalan Kramat Raya, No.106, Kwitang, Senen, Kota Jakarta Pusat, Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta 10420, Indonesia.

OUR CARBON COPY? OUR ASEAN ALTER EGO, only a lot more hardier than their soft-bellied cousins in Malaysia? Jakarta is only two hours away by flight or 1,188km from Kuala Lumpur and I was there, for the first time in my life ─ wide-eyed and eager to learn of their culture ─ for four hot days.

Caption for Featured Image above: Sistem GanjilGenap in action in downtown Jakarta as a way to fix the perpetual jams. Pic from www.pelangi.or.id from TEMPO/Aditia Noviansyah

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The 6 Degrees of Separation: Observation 1 ─ It’s Hot in Jakarta!

Yes, the first thing I noticed was how hot it was. I had arrived by Air Asia through Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on the early morning flight. It was only 8am when I stepped through what resembled our Subang International Airport to grab the first available cab. The scene before me wasn’t too far removed from what I was used to back home ─ airport terminal, purposeful travellers, waiting cars ─ but already it was stifling, the sun was glaring, the air was thick ─ which was a funny thing because the temperature was only 27°C from where I was standing whereas it was 33°C in KL, yet it seemed a lot hotter and stuffier in Jakarta.

Left: The wings of the AK380 at 6.50am from my window seat. Right: The Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (pic from google satellite maps).
Left: The wings of the AK380 at 6.50am from my window seat. Right: The Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (pic from google satellite maps).

A Need for Speed All the Time: Observation 2 ─ Everybody Drives Fast in Jakarta!

A typical everyday street scene.
A typical everyday street scene.

The taxi driver was half asleep. But he sure could drive while sleeping. And fast too. And he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Come to think of it, I don’t think anybody does. But for a fact, everybody drives fast in Jakarta, at 80kmh at least, at any time of the day or night, anywhere. If you’re not used to the driving style, you will probably claw the edges of your seat until your knuckles turn white, sweat and get a heart attack at the same time or maybe experience all three as I did.

The hotel I stayed in ─ the Ibis Jakarta Senen Hotel (the red one). Buildings are generally colourful as you can see and slotted tight into every available space in the city centre.
The hotel I stayed in ─ the Ibis Jakarta Senen Hotel (the red one). Buildings are generally colourful as you can see and slotted tight into every available space in the city centre.

We were headed for the Ibis Jakarta Senen Hotel, Kwitang, Senen, Central Jakarta, right in the thick of it ─ yes ─ and we sped there within the hour, careening down roads through the jam, swinging round corners at breakneck speeds. We were having close shaves of a hair’s breadth all the time, you can literally measure the distance between cars with your fingers. It’s that harrowing. The journey to the hotel was my first terrifying initiation at Driving in Jakarta.

Traffic Rules in Jakarta: Observation 3 ─ There are No Rules!

Don’t know what the gabbra’s about in that cluster on the road but squeezing and weaving’s the norm apparently. This is an overhead view of the roads downtown from an overhead bridge. The taxis are blue but blue seems to be a favourite colour there in general.
Don’t know what the gabbra’s about in that cluster on the road but squeezing and weaving’s the norm apparently. This is an overhead view of the roads downtown from an overhead bridge. The taxis are blue but blue seems to be a favourite colour there in general.

Drivers don’t signal. They jump lanes very frequently, mostly at high speed while racing in between two lanes. Out of the blue, cars from the left lane can swing into the right lane and vice versa. The same applies to U-turns. You can do a U-turn on the same road at anytime you like, and sometimes while driving down the road, you will have cars and bikes coming up that road straight at you.

Yeah! This was pretty much how I was for 4 days!
Yeah! This was pretty much how I was for 4 days!
Ah….more blue and more views from the overhead bridge I was standing on.
Ah….more blue and more views from the overhead bridge I was standing on.

The only time cars are not weaving in and out all over the place is when traffic is bumper to bumper. Most times it is. And even so, they can still do it. It’s amazing. Oh, and drivers like to flash their lights at each other all the time too, as if to say ─ “Hey, I am driving faster than you. Catch me if you can”. Uh huh. I would describe driving there as being consistently maniacal. It was maniacal for all the four days I was there. Everytime I was in a car, I would think of our traffic system back home and feel truly thankful.

The Hotel Ibis Senen: Observation 4 ─ Hospitality is Warm, Everyone is Friendly

I arrived at my hotel in one piece, shaken, stirred but in one piece. Ibis Senen on Jalan Kramat Raya is a budget hotel. The hospitality is about standard for a 3-star.

The hotel employees spoke in Bahasa Indonesia, as do most people in the streets. The room is a bit like Tune Hotel, the facilities are there, nice bathroom, comfortable bed, I had a flat screen TV but my view from the window was blocked by another hotel that was just opening next door. The new hotel had wedged itself in the last available piece of space on the street and was mere metres apart as you can see from the pictures.

Left: Side view of the Iblis Senen. Right: Pic from google satellite maps
Left: Side view of the Iblis Senen. Right: Pic from google satellite maps
Here is what my room looked like. Picture taken from both perspectives of the room. It was comfy.
Here is what my room looked like. Picture taken from both perspectives of the room. It was comfy.
Ah! As you can see, I had a room with a view. Well, at least I could get a sliver of a glimpse if I craned my neck hard enough. The blue-lined building next door is another hotel that is just opening for business. And the colourful building across the road is yet another hotel! The low roofed building next to it is Dunkin Donuts.
Ah! As you can see, I had a room with a view. Well, at least I could get a sliver of a glimpse if I craned my neck hard enough. The blue-lined building next door is another hotel that is just opening for business. And the colourful building across the road is yet another hotel! The low roofed building next to it is Dunkin Donuts.

Everyone is Indonesian: Observation 5 ─ No Racial Segregation

Whenever I travel, I always take the opportunity to look beneath the surface. Here’s what I discovered about the people. Unlike Malaysia where every race is separated and defined through their individual ethnicity, there is no racial segregation in Indonesia. In fact, the opposite is true, everyone is integrated and united as one nationality, and that is ─ Indonesian.

Pic from pipipedia.com
Pic from pipipedia.com

Indonesia is home to as many as 300 ethnic groups but whether or not one is Chinese, Malay, Bugis or Javanese by descent, they are all known as Bangsa Indonesia and they all have Indonesian names. They will say to you: “I am Indonesian”, not “I am Indonesian Chinese, my name is Mr Chan Ah Fook”. Nope, that doesn’t happen.

Busts of the great leaders who were instrumental in shaping Indonesia into what she is today.
Busts of the great leaders who were instrumental in shaping Indonesia into what she is today.

As for salutations, an older lady, someone we would refer to as Auntie here is called Ibu there. An older man would be called Pak.

Indonesian women are very attractive. They have distinct, unique facial features with thick eyebrows and well-defined lips. The men wear a lot of Batik, traditional Indonesian Batik which they wear as office outfit. But there are no muscular men in Indonesia, I guess it’s because they have no time to go to the gym and work out, unlike us. The economy is such that everyone has to work very hard for their living.  That is why there are also no fat people there.

The Economy: Observation 6 ─ They Work Hard for their Money, So Hard for their Money

Central Jakarta (pic from google satellite map)
Central Jakarta (pic from google satellite map)

Central Jakarta is where the economy can be seen churning its cogs and wheels. Landscape-wise, you could say that Central Jakarta is a little like Central Kuala Lumpur around the vicinity of Dataran Merdeka and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, only you need to add in lots and lots of people and lots and lots of cars into your mental picture. It’s also a lot dirtier too, there is broken concrete here, cracked walls there, rubbish everywhere, and the buildings are not maintained. It comes back to the economy. I guess there is no money for maintenance. Maintenance costs money.

Want to know the Cost of Living in Indonesia? Here is a table taken from www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Indonesia. How accurate it is, I cannot verify but these are the prices. Of course, there is a range and you can see that in the right-most column. I did a conversion of the average prices for some of the rates into RM in the last row so you can make a comparison.
Want to know the Cost of Living in Indonesia? Here is a table taken from www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Indonesia. How accurate it is, I cannot verify but these are the prices. Of course, there is a range and you can see that in the right-most column. I did a conversion of the average prices for some of the rates into RM in the last row so you can make a comparison.

The population of Indonesia is around 260 million (Sept 2016) and counting, in a total land area of 1,919, 440sq km.  The population of Malaysia is 30 million in a total land area of 329,613sq km. The population of Jakarta alone is 30 million. That’s the whole of Malaysia crammed into 1/5 of Malaysia ─ the thereabouts of Jakarta’s landsize! Imagine the density. That is why Jakarta is the most populous city in Southeast Asia.

Another view of the courtyard and entrance of the Museum Sumpah Pemuda on Jalan Kramat Raya in the middle of town.
Another view of the courtyard and entrance of the Museum Sumpah Pemuda on Jalan Kramat Raya in the middle of town.

Given the scenario, everyone has to work hard for their share of the livelihood pie. 70% of the population is below the poverty line. It’s a Do or Die kind of life. That’s why they are so busy. That’s why they have no time to indulge. That’s why there are no fat people. Indonesians are not privileged like Malaysians. The government doesn’t spoon feed them. And I think to myself ─ We are so lucky. Let’s appreciate that.

Some of the displays inside the museum.
Some of the displays inside the museum.

Public Transport & the Go-Jek Ojek: Observation 7 ─ Have Bike Will Travel!

Back to the action on the road ─ needless to say, in a city that is choc bloc full, there are traffic jams everywhere.  As a way to mitigate it, some traffic rules are applied, at least for public transport vehicles. For example, once you reach the inner city area, there are specific lanes drawn around the roads allocated just for buses. All buses drive in them and all buses in Jakarta, and presumably in the whole of Indonesia, are double decker.

A line of Go-Jek bikers ready to rev. Pic from techinasia.com
A line of Go-Jek bikers ready to rev. Pic from techinasia.com

And then, there’s the smarter way to travel ─ Go-Jek! It’s the GrabCar version of a taxi on a bike and the Indonesians invented it, or rather, it was Nadiem Makarim who started Go-Jek playing with the word ojek which means motorcycle taxi in Bahasa Indonesia.

Actually, the Indonesians didn’t invent ojek, I was just kidding. Many countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines and even some western countries including the US and UK, have been using motorcycle taxis since time immemorial. It is the logical choice for speedier transport through areas where four-wheeled vehicles cannot get through.

Caught one of them Go-Jekers on the road myself.
Caught one of them Go-Jekers on the road myself.

In Jakarta, where traffic jams are the norm, the ojek is widely used. It’s just that Nadiem Makarim had a brainwave one day in 2010 and put in a tech-spin complete with mobile app and green uniforms to reinvent the age-old business. The result today, is a Go-Jek courier, transport and shopping service with a fleet of 200,000 motorcycles, cars and trucks for 14 cities in Indonesia. The start-up had beginnings that were humble enough. Go-Jek began as a call centre in a small room with just 20 bikes. But now everybody is hailing the Go-Jek founder as the techie maverick who put “vroom”-power into the definition of entrepreneurship in Indonesia. Way to go!

Screen shot of the Go-Jek mobile apps.
Screen shot of the Go-Jek mobile apps.

Gas and Vehicle Styles: Observation 8 ─ Tinting’s the In-Thing

Petrol is expensive in Indonesia. It is Rp7,774 for a litre of petrol and that works out to be around RM2.44 per litre, the exchange rate being RM1.00 to Rp3,182 as of mid-September 2016. (I was in Jakarta in mid August 2016). Our RON95 is retailed at RM1.70 per litre while RON97 is going for RM2.05 per litre.

Because petrol is expensive, everybody drives manual cars.

Bikes dominate the road as you can see. Their crash helmets usually come highly decorated. And note the tinting on the cars.
Bikes dominate the road as you can see. Their crash helmets usually come highly decorated. And note the tinting on the cars.

The choice of make is Japanese: Daihatsu, Honda, Toyota etc. There wasn’t a single Malaysian-made car there, or at least I didn’t ever see one in the four days I was on the road in the middle of town.

Here is an original Daihatsu, rebadged for Myvi. Again, see the tinting?
Here is an original Daihatsu, rebadged for Myvi. Again, see the tinting?

And here is the interesting thing ─ All the cars sport black tinting. Very black, as in 99.9% black. They come like that I was told, already fully-tinted when you buy brand new. Tinting’s the in-thing. Everything is tinted. Some cars even sport tinting on the head lamps and the tail lights! But wouldn’t that dim the lights?, I was thinking. Well, yeah but…you know, tinting’s the in-thing.

Since you are stuck in the jam, enterprising street peddlers take the opportunity to come up to your car to sell you drinks, cigarettes, snacks, anything. It’s a quick business on the go.
Since you are stuck in the jam, enterprising street peddlers take the opportunity to come up to your car to sell you drinks, cigarettes, snacks, anything. It’s a quick business on the go.

Apparently Indonesians tint their cars jet black for three reasons:

Here’s another street peddler caught on camera.
Here’s another street peddler caught on camera.
  • It’s hot there, tinting cuts off UV rays and helps in effective aircon cooling.
  • Thwart robbers from smashing any glass parts of the car, the film will prevent easy disintegration somewhat.
  • Stop people from looking into the car. So you won’t know who is driving.

Even crash helmets are tinted.

Another interesting city-centre anti-rush hour congestion method used is the Sistem Ganjil Genap or the Odd-Even System (click link to see report). During the week, certain roads ─ particularly the one where I was at around the roundabout at Monument Selamat Datang ─ are closed during certain hours of the day and only certain cars with certain number plates can drive in. This means, for certain days of the week, only cars with even number plates may drive in.  On other days, it would be the odd number plates allowed in.  Does it work? Can’t say, because it’s still jammed.

Museum Sumpah Pemuda: Observation 9 ─ Revisiting Indonesia’s Past

I woke up extra early on my third day to make time for the museum. The Museum Sumpah Pemuda on Jalan Kramat Raya was just across the road from where I was staying so I took the opportunity to see what I could glean from it.

Inside the museum ─ the history of the National Anthem
Inside the museum ─ the history of the National Anthem

Museum Sumpah Pemuda is a museum of the history of the struggle for independence in the Republic of Indonesia. It is managed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and is open everyday except for Mondays and public holidays. The museum has a collection of photographs and objects relating to the history of youth from 1928, as well as the activities of the national youth movement of Indonesia. It was established by decree of the Governor in 1972 and has become a national cultural heritage centre.

The displays inside on the first recordings of the anthem.
The displays inside on the first recordings of the anthem.

I was there for an hour, I was the only visitor there. The guards were very friendly and helpful. They helped me take pictures.  I had breakfast after that. I ate Dunkin Donuts. There are a lot of fastfood restaurants in Jakarta.

More mannequin displays of the history of Jalan Kramat, where the museum is located.
More mannequin displays of the history of Jalan Kramat, where the museum is located.
The achievements of the Youth Movement towards Merdeka.
The achievements of the Youth Movement towards Merdeka.

Shopping & Eating: Observation 10 ─ No Bombs Allowed in Shopping Complexes

Whenever you enter big shopping complexes like the one I went to called The Grand Indonesia on Jalan MH Thamrin, you will see security scanners at the entrance to ensure you are not bringing guns, grenades, dynamites or bombs of any sort into the building. It’s just in case you’re thinking of setting one off while you’re doing your shopping.

Terror at Starbucks in Menara Cakrawala, Jalan MH Thamrin on January 14th 2016. Left: Pic from the independent.co.uk. Right: Pic from CNN.
Terror at Starbucks in Menara Cakrawala, Jalan MH Thamrin on January 14th 2016. Left: Pic from the independent.co.uk. Right: Pic from CNN.

Now this may sound peculiar, funny even, to someone who has never suffered a terrorist attack but the incident that triggered heightened security was the deadly bomb blast at Starbucks in Menara Cakrawala on the same road in mid-January this year. The explosions killed seven people (of which five were the suicide bombers themselves) and left 19 people injured with Starbucks wrecked and completely decimated. There were at least six blasts that rocked the building and blew out windows. The militants were suspected to be ISIS attackers.

The Starbucks at Menara Cakrawala. There are a lot of fastfood outlets in Jakarta. Pic from google satellite map.
The Starbucks at Menara Cakrawala. There are a lot of fastfood outlets in Jakarta. Pic from google satellite map.

Surprisingly, Starbucks was rebuilt and reopened in a matter of two weeks in February this year and I was there looking at it from across the road from the Grand Indonesia shopping complex. Which brings up the question ─ Is Indonesia safe to visit? I didn’t feel threatened. Everything seemed normal to me.

The Grand Indonesia. Jakarta at a glance. Pic by honeyvia via google satellite map.
The Grand Indonesia. Jakarta at a glance. Pic by honeyvia via google satellite map.
The Mall section of the Grand Indonesia. The security scanners are located at all entrances to the Mall. Pic by HeliAgus via google satellite map.
The Mall section of the Grand Indonesia. The security scanners are located at all entrances to the Mall. Pic by HeliAgus via google satellite map.

For food, the most famous Indonesian delicacies would be:

  • Gado Gado ─ a dish of mixed vegetables, kerepek and spicy peanut sauce
  • Telur Bakar ─ a fried egg pancake with bits of fried garlic and anchovies on top
  • Nasi Goreng Padang ─ basically fried rice Kampung style
  • Bakso Mee ─ Spicy Mee Rebus with beef balls.

You can see the pictures below.

From Left: Gado Gado and Telur Bakar. You see the kerepek? The kerepek, it seems, is a compulsory addition to most food in Indonesia.
From Left: Gado Gado and Telur Bakar. You see the kerepek? The kerepek, it seems, is a compulsory addition to most food in Indonesia.
I ate the above food here, at the Food Court inside the Grand Indonesia. Pic by David Anthony Werner via google satellite map.
I ate the above food at one of the restaurants at the Food Court inside the Grand Indonesia. Pic by David Anthony Werner via google satellite map.

Food is generally cheap in Indonesia. There are hawkers with push carts along the streets who sell food that don’t cost more than 10,000Rp to 20,000Rp (RM3.00 to RM6.00). Just don’t drink the tap water. It is unsafe. Always drink only bottled or boiled water.

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What I Take Away from My 4-Day Visit

A 2014 picture of President Jokowi when he was still the governor of Jakarta. Pic from globalsherpa.org
A 2014 picture of President Jokowi when he was still the governor of Jakarta. Pic from globalsherpa.org

Indonesians are humble, down-to-earth people who are genuinely warm and welcoming. They work hard for their living. It is an emergent economy but it isn’t emerging fast enough to prosper its people. There is a middle class but it’s less than 20% of the population. In comparison, we Malaysians have it good, we take a lot of things for granted.

I did take the opportunity to slip out after work to look at what lies behind the glossy touristy facades. I visited the slums. Yes, a lot of Jakarta is slumland. Jakarta is what I would call a city of contrasts. There are skyscrapers and swanky fastfood and coffee franchises on the frontend but at the backend, the poor are stacked on top of each other in crumbling houses where eking out a living from the surrounding dereliction and garbage is a daily struggle. It was too dark to take a picture when I visited but what I saw and smelt before me, was humbling.

Jakarta’s slums. The good news is ─ these are oldish pictures from some years back. The bad news is ─ not much has changed. Left: Pic by Fred Sedlar from his blog at www.carryology and accompanying post-flood article called ‘Slum Dogging in Jakarta’. http://www.carryology.com/insights/carry-culture/slum-dogging-frank-sedlar/ Centre: After the rain, a man opens his food stall at the Jakarta Slums. Pic by Jonathan McIntosh. File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution at commons.wikimedia.org. Right: Jakarta slums backdropped by modern skyscrapers. Pic from abc.net.au.
Jakarta’s slums. The good news is ─ these are oldish pictures from some years back. The bad news is ─ not much has changed. Left: Pic by Fred Sedlar from his blog at www.carryology and accompanying post-flood article called ‘Slum Dogging in Jakarta’. Centre: After the rain, a man opens his food stall at the Jakarta Slums. Pic by Jonathan McIntosh. (File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution at commons.wikimedia.org). Right: Jakarta slums backdropped by modern skyscrapers. Pic from abc.net.au.

So the question is ─ should you visit Jakarta? Is it safe? I say go ahead. The way of life will give you an eye-opening lesson but don’t show off your money there. And when going around town in a car, don’t sit in the front passenger seat.

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