March 2012


The Big Durian
March 2012




The roundabout at Welcome Statute

There are so many reasons to dislike Jakarta: the traffic, floods, noise and abandoned construction sites. The Indonesian capital is probably listed in Urban Planning 101 classes at universities across the world as a classic example of how not to design a city. But after living there for two years, I still have an admiration for the megalopolis - and, particularly, its resilient and amiable populace who maintain a vital sense of humour and a bewildering pride in their ibu kota (‘mother city').

Words and Photography Paul Greenway

Proudly labelled as the ‘Big Durian', named after the fruit with the intimidating, spiky skin and overbearing smell and taste that people love or loathe, Jakarta - Indonesia's capital is tough and unrelenting, but escape the shopping malls and traffic jams, and you will find pockets of culture and history to enjoy.

From the early 1980s to the mid-90s, Jakarta was transformed as overpasses were built over parks, and office blocks and shopping centres replaced anything remotely old. Nothing remains from pre-colonial days, and very little from the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras.

But various Governors have made concerted efforts to resurrect Kota Tua (‘Old City'), former location of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies.

The remains of Kota Tua are now based around Taman Fatahillah square, dominated by the Jakarta History Museum, a 300-year-old former city hall and dungeon. Inside, displays indicate how Batavia was originally planned for a maximum of 100,000 inhabitants. With about one million at the time of independence in 1945, Jakarta is now permanent home to some ten million, which probably doubles each day as workers flock from outlying towns that apparently make Greater Jakarta the world's largest urban area after Tokyo-Yokohama.

I often visited Kota Tua on Sundays, and was always happily accosted by scores of local school kids interviewing (and photographing) me in broken English as part of their school projects. There is always something happening at the square - festivals, buskers, markets - and the best place to people-watch is the charming Café Batavia, facing the museum, where suitably-attired waiters offer an assortment of drinks in a cool, colonial-style room lined with photos of Old Batavia and Hollywood heroes.

Proudly labelled as the ‘Big Durian... Jakarta - Indonesia's capital is tough and unrelenting

From the square, I used to charter an ojek sepeda ('Bicycle Taxis'). Balancing on a torn cushion and hanging tightly to the bicycle rider, we would pass the old Dutch shipyards, now converted to restaurants, and the riverside watchtower, on the way to the Maritime Museum. Located in the fish market area, this delightfully quiet, white-washed building boasts a superb collection showcasing Batavia's former glory.

Braving modern-day traffic, we would continue to the port of Sunda Kelapa, a sterling reminder that there's far more to Indonesia than Jakarta, and that freeways are not the only transport routes. Massive schooners, which used to unload cloves from the Spice Islands to the east, now unload timber from Borneo and reload concrete - clear signs of the urban development and environmental destruction across the archipelago. A gratifying diversion is to take a chartered row-boat and inspect the schooners while waving at kids from the fishing villages splashing about in the shiny, grey water.

If Jakarta has a centre, it's probably Medan Merdeka (‘Freedom Square'), a large, barren field dominated by the remarkable National Monument, known as Monas. On the ground floor of this thin 135m-high landmark, topped by a ‘golden flame', are informative, if a little selective, dioramas about Indonesian history. A claustrophobic elevator shoots to the top of Monas, but the enormous Istiqlal Mosque was all I could really see through the smog.

I often escaped by train from the Big Durian to Bogor,a former hill station and now a virtual suburb

The National Museum nearby houses a dusty collection of 140,000 artefacts that illustrate the extraordinary culture of one of the most diverse nations on the planet. But for a real cultural overload, I'd always head south to Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. This agreeably tacky and enlightening park features dozens of traditional buildings crammed with cultural items representing each regional province. (The number of buildings, however, hasn't kept up with the increasing amount of provinces being carved up across Indonesia.) From inside a cable-car stretched across a man-made lake of islands shaped like the Indonesian archipelago, the park is clearly vast. And it's the only place in Jakarta I would risk riding a bicycle.

But I always found myself drawn more to the people than the city. I loved to watch Jakartans enjoying themselves at Ragunan Zoo, with its Komodo Dragons, orangutans and unique slithers of bamboo forest; and ‘Dreamland', at Ancol, an Indonesian version of Disneyworld, with a man-made ‘beach', kids' rides, art market and aquariums. Inevitably, most Jakartans flock to the numerous mega-malls.

I often escaped by train from the Big Durian to Bogor, a former hill station and now a virtual suburb. Dominated by a palace surrounded by a park full of deer, Bogor also boasts some magnificent botanical gardens inspired by the ubiquitous Governor-General, Stamford Raffles, who also created a memorial there to his beloved wife. Raffles lasted five years in old Jakarta - but perhaps then the city was more like a Small Mango?

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    A typical junction at Blok M, a popular shopping district where buses compete with three-wheeler rickshaws

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    Ota Tua, the old city of Jakarta, is a popular place for sporting events, festivals and visits by scchool children

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    The artificial beaches at Ancol, in northern Jakarta, are incredibly popular on Sundays

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    Bicycles can be rented for trips around Taman Fatillah or chartered with a rider to visit other places in Kota Tua

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    Taman Mini Indonesia Indah is a vast ‘one-country-in-a-park’ that extolls Indonesia’s vast cultural diversity

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    In the middle of the city of Bogor, virtually a suburb of Jakarta, the Presidential Palace is surrounded by a park full of deer, but is off-limits to visitors

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    The 80ha botanical gardens in the middle of Bogor, a satellite city of Jakarta, were inspired by the Governor General Stamford Raffles

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    The Jakarta History Museum in the Old City of Jakarta

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    The National Monument in central Jakarta is topped with a huge flame made of gold

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    Governors of Jakarta continue to resurrect the old buildings around Kota Tua

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    From a cable car, its possible to see shapes of the islands of the Indonesian archipelago in the man-made lake at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah

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