Like Manila, Jakarta suffers from an image problem. Tourists would rather skip this polluted, poverty-ridden and “dangerous” Southeast Asian megacity and scoot off to the cultural heart of Yogyakarta or the resort island of Bali, just as Philippine visitors would rather spend more time frolicking in Cordillera, Boracay, or Palawan. Nonetheless, Jakarta, like most Asian megacities, is an exciting primer to the country’s diverse culture, food and everyday life.
The more people discouraged me from visiting, all the more I became more curious to explore and bring to light the best this capital of 9.5 million has to offer. I’ve visited Jakarta twice en route to other destinations researching for a travel story on Java’s famous volcanoes.
The most popular sights are concentrated within Jakarta Old Town at the northern part of the city by coast, where Dutch colonizers established a thriving trading post called Batavia in the 16th century. While most of Jakarta’s colonial structures have succumbed to modern urban development or neglect, a peek at colonial life can be seen at the well-preserved edifices at Fatahillah Square or the pier area of Sunda Kelapa, where large, wooden commercial schooners are moored before long voyages to other islands in the world’s largest archipelago, just as they have for centuries.
Other fascinating areas are Glodok (the little Chinatown), Merdeka Square (punctuated by the city’s most imposing structure, the Monas or National Monument, aka Sukarno’s Last Erection) and the financial district of Central Jakarta, characterized by shiny skyscrapers, impressive bronze monuments and grand roundabouts like Bunderan H.I. (pronounced HAH-EE). Jakarta has some of the best nightlife in the region, too; check out backpacker fave, Jalan Jakarta, or the glitzier bars and clubs of South Jakarta. Compared to Manila, it’s a bit harder to get around since there is no metro line. Most the sights are accessible by TransJakarta, the rapid bus transit system that plies the major thoroughfares
The best thing I loved about Jakarta is the accessible street food! Near Sunda Kelapa, I sampled nasi goreng ayam (fried chicken rice), best enjoyed – as with most Indonesian dishes – with a generous dollop of sambal (chili sauce). My Indonesian friends also introduced me to kerak telor, a spicy omelet snack made from glutinous rice, egg, shallots, coconut and shrimp. This “pizza-like dish” – for a lack of a better comparison – is unique to the Jakarta area, originating from the Betawi, descendants of Batavia residents in the 17th century.
HOW TO GET THERE: From Manila, Jakarta is serviced by Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Air. From the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, 20 km from the city center, one can catch a DAMRI bus (IDR 20,000/PHP 100) bound for the “Block M” to the city center.
If headed to the central or northern part of the city, tell the bus driver to drop you off at Semanggi station of the TransJakarta, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Or alight at Block M, if you’re headed south. TransJakarta costs IDR 3,500 (PHP 18) per ride. To negotiate narrow streets or alleyways, hop on a bajaj (autorickshaw) or ojek (motorbike).