Jakarta's road to revelation

BRIGID DELANEY
Last updated 11:15 18/12/2013

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Mention you're visiting Jakarta and all anyone wants to talk about is the traffic. It operates as a sort of urban bellwether, like the tides of Venice, the rain of London and the smog of Beijing.

It is the deity that must be consulted before decisions are made. Want to go to that hip new restaurant in Kemang but you're staying in Kuningan? Maybe you should set out for dinner at 4pm.

An Australian expat tells me of his 4½ hour journey home from the airport. He lives 35 kilometres away.

One woman recalls meeting a guy for a first date. They jump in a cab to go to a restaurant before ending up in a two-hour traffic jam. It was a good way of getting to know each other, the woman says ruefully, before admitting there wasn't a second date.

The day before I arrive in Jakarta, a story about the city's insane traffic is front page of the International Herald Tribune. Citizens, already weary from Ramadan fasts, are "commuting" for about four hours a day.

Jakartans have "long since become inured to the physical realities of commuting in Jakarta, where horrific traffic and an inefficient public transportation system condemn many people to sitting in cars, buses and minivans or on motorcycles for four hours a day or longer, year-round",' according to the story, which is also published in the New York Times.

I fly into Jakarta prepared for the traffic but feel a bit intimidated. It is my first visit and I'm travelling alone to this big, overwhelming, chaotic city: how will I know where to go? And once I know where to go - will it be possible to get there?

I'm collected from the airport by a driver employed by my hotel, Kemang Icon. There are magazines, homemade Indonesian savoury snacks and bottles of water in the seat pockets. I've seen people crossing the Nullarbor with fewer provisions. But we sail into town in 30 minutes. Where is the traffic?

Twenty-eight million people live in Jakarta but the city is much quieter than usual due to the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid - when most people travel out of the city back to their villages.

Visitors to Jakarta at other times of the year should plan ahead, and, in the words of Andrew Tan, who manages the Alila Jakarta hotel: "Plot what you want to seeby neighbourhood and don't try and cover too much distance in one day."

But don't let the traffic put you off. Jakarta is special. It feels poised on the point of a big moment, moving from a developing country to sophisticated regional superpower. Yet there is still enough chaos and surprise to make a visit to Jakarta feel like a genuine adventure into the unknown.

STAY

My suite at the Kemang Icon in south Jakarta is the largest hotel room I have stayed in, with a massive black bed, high ceiling and black curtains.

A favourite haunt for touring musicians and DJs, a rock'n'roll vibe permeates the hotel, especially on the rooftop bar with its overflow pool, voted one of the 20 coolest hotel pools in the world by Forbes magazine.

Kemang itself is an appealing neighbourhood that doesn't have the imposing scale of much of modern Jakarta, with its small windy roads, the barbershops opened out in the street, old mosques, street food vendors, plus good bars and bookshops.

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By contrast, Central Jakarta is stamped with the modernist, sweeping vision laid down in a post-independence grand statement by President Sukarno in the 1950s and '60s.

US President Barack Obama grew up in Jakarta where he went to the International School. He noted in 2010 how much Jakarta had changed and modernised.

"When I first came here in 1967 everyone rode on becaks [cycle rickshaws], you stood in the back and it was very crowded.

Now, as president, I couldn't see any traffic because they had blocked off all the streets."

The traffic again . . . it even exists in nostalgia - and even in the recollections of a US president.

If you want to stay in central Jakarta, the Hotel Pullman, which is undergoing an exciting renovation, is in a perfect position, close to some of the city's best malls. The Pullman is also a short cab ride away from the "old town", colonial Jakarta (known as Kota).

Cafe Batavia is a must-see for visitors to this part of town. It's a little bit of old Jakarta spruced up. Decorated in colonial chic with slow moving ceiling fans and brocade couches, you can eat, drink and enjoy live music here.

But while Cafe Batavia is charming, it doesn't really fit with the culinary mood of the city, which is exciting, forward-thinking and worldly.

FOOD

When people aren't talking about the traffic in Jakarta, they're talking about the food. Jakarta has great eateries and beautifully designed, atmospheric restaurants.

"There is a fantastic selection of every imaginable type of cuisine in Jakarta," Andrew Tan tells me. "Every month a new restaurant opens up and there's been a huge increase in sophistication."

Bali-based Australian restaurateur Janet DeNeefe sighs when I tell her I'm going to Jakarta and reels off a dozen restaurants I should visit.

The food press is healthy too with many glossy food mags creating celebrities among the chefs flocking to the city.

Australia's Luke Mangan is the latest international chef to open a restaurant in Jakarta, with Salt Grill at Altitude.

At Skye, on the top floor of the 56-storey BCA Tower, and Altitude on the 46th floor of the Plaza tower - both in central Jakarta - the food and views impress.

My first stop is lunch at E&O (East and Oriental) where we order chicken betel leaf with roasted chilli relish, soft shell crab salad with rose apple and more.

Room must be left for a traditional Indonesian dessert: pumpkin and pandan "cendol". It is all delicious with incredibly fresh ingredients and delightful mixtures of flavours and spices.

Dinner is at Union, a pumping joint in the centre of Jakarta. Even though it is the tail end of Ramadan the place is packed. After dinner we repair to the white-tiled bar Loewy. It's like something you'd find in New York.

SHOPPING

There are computer malls all over Jakarta but there's a distinction to be made between the clean malls and the dirty malls. Not only do the "clean" malls actually look physically cleaner, they offer genuine software and computers with some good discounts.

The dirty malls, of which there are many, are sweaty, vaguely exciting places where you can buy Adobe Suite for $10 instead of $1600.

As an experiment, I buy some pirated software, which I soon find won't install on my machine. It ends up in the bin. Lesson learnt.

For other retail therapy, Grand Indonesia is one of the biggest malls in Asia Pacific, and Plaza Indonesia, also across from the Hotel Pullman, has all the major luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and Marc Jacobs.

I want to buy something memorable, so the Kemang Icon driver takes me to the antiques market at Jalan Surabya.

I'm particularly taken with a silver antique necklace that's bulging with stones. After some bartering, the stallholder and I settle on 230,000 rupiah (about NZ$24) - a price that nearly gives my driver a heart attack. "I would have paid $2.30," he says.

GETTING AROUND

Taxis are plentiful and cheap in Jakarta - Bluebirds is a reliable company. Your hotel can also arrange a driver for you. Jakarta's public transport system is woefully under-resourced. Every Sunday is car-free on the city's main boulevards Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin and people take to their bikes.

WHEN TO GO

Jakarta weather is divided into wet season (December to April) and dry season (April to November).

The writer stayed in Jakarta courtesy of the Pullman and Kemang Icon hotels.

STAYING THERE

Kemang Icon on Jalan Kemang Raya No 1 Jakarta in South Jakarta City is priced from NZ$200 a night; see alilahotels.com/kemangicon. For details on Pullman Jakarta, see pullmanjakartaindonesia.com. It's priced from about NZ$220. Alila Jakarta is at Jalan Pecenongan Kav 7-17; see alilahotels.com/jakarta.

EATING THERE

Altitude - The Plaza, Jl MH Thamrin; Skye - Level 56, No.1 Jl MH Thamrin; Loewy - Jl Lingkar Mega Kuningan; Eastern & Oriental - Jl Dr Ide Anak Agung Gde Agung; Union, see unionjkt.com/index.php.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit the Jakarta tourism site jakarta-tourism.go.id.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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