The capital city of Indonesia
and biggest conurbation of the country too (and in fact one of the largest in the world), at roughly 10 million inhabitants in the city alone and up to 30 millions in the metropolitan area with its several satellite cities. Its smoggy, hectic, traffic-clogged sprawl is not easy to like, so most Indonesia tourists give it a well-deserved wide berth. But for the dark tourist there are a couple of unusual sights here that make a day or two a worthwhile stopover.
More background info:
You wouldn't imagine it now, but the history of Jakarta goes back over a thousand years, though it was only with the Dutch
choosing the place as their colonial capital – then called Batavia – that its status as the country's main hub was established. It has attracted an influx of migrants ever since.
With the arrival of the Japanese occupying forces in WWII
the name was changed back to Jakarta, but it wasn't until 1950 that the city officially became the capital of the newly independent state of Indonesia
It's not only the largest, most modern, commercially most significant city in the country, it is also the centre of gravity in political terms, the seat of power in this vast multi-ethnic nation. And power in Indonesia also means corruption and controversy.
When the latter years of the Suharto regime saw economic hardship descend on the city in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, rioting broke out that almost turned into civil war. Police shot protesters, protesters looted shopping malls, and as so often in these parts the Chinese minority got particularly badly hit by retribution-seeking mobs – so there was even a xenophobic/racial element in the violence.
With Suharto deposed, things improved rapidly, but violence returned in the form of Islamic fundamentalist bombing attacks (cf. Bali bombing sites
) targeting financial institutions and foreigners' hotels, especially American-owned ones in 2002, 2003, 2004 and as recently as 2009. Since then things have been much quieter, but there remains an underlying tension that could always erupt again should there be a sufficient trigger (even from as far away as the Middle East
Overall, however, Jakarta is quite a safe city by international standards and given its enormous size. Crime levels are lower than might be expected. But the city's exponential growth has created problems, especially with regard to transport.
Jakarta's gridlocked roads and pollution are infamous. The nickname for the city is the “Big Durian” – in analogy to New York
's “Big Apple”. If you've ever smelled a durian fruit you'll understand that the epithet is not a exactly compliment (though there are many who actually like the taste of durian – but believe me it is an acquired taste, one that I failed to acquire despite trying it on more than one occasion; and its smell is so notorious that it is generally forbidden to take durians into hotels, shopping centres, post offices and other public buildings).
Unlike many other Asian metropolises Jakarta has done precious little to try and alleviate the clogged up road traffic through a public transport system. There are special bus lanes now, but still no metro system. For locals, the motorbike remains the main mode of transport, though increasingly the city's more affluent residents joined the international trend of driving far too big cars around (and seriously, there can't be anything more ridiculous than an SUV on a Jakarta thoroughfare!). For the visiting tourist this means that the main problem in Jakarta is getting from A to B. Allow plenty of time and try to stay calm, is the usual advice in this regard.
As it happened, though, when I was there in late July/early August 2014, I found many streets almost empty, or at least with only light, free-flowing traffic. Explanation: it was Hari Raya (or “Eid” in other parts of the world) – i.e. the Islamic holiday at the end of Ramadan, hence millions of Jakartans had left to visit their original home towns and villages, as tradition dictates. For me that meant that I was largely spared that worst aspect of the city. Even the smog didn't seem quite so bad at that time. Mind you, it was still grimy and the heat of the air made the atmosphere stifling all the same out at street level.
I also had made it easier for me to explore the points in the city that I was interested in (and which lay quite far apart from each other) by investing in a guide and car with driver. It really paid off by eliminating any stress of getting around.
What there is to see: Two specific sites are granted their own separate entries here, for similar reasons, namely a highly biased, warped (almost comically so) and thus positively weird portrayal of Indonesia's recent history and politics:
In addition there are a few more minor points of interest, such as the Armed Forces Museum
. That's not so much for the military content of the museum, or the big war toys placed in the park in front as open-air exhibits (including missiles, a MiG-21 fighter jet, armoured police vehicles and even a torpedo speedboat) but more so because it used to be Sukarno's home, and an adjacent villa in this complex (now turned into a mosque) was allegedly the place where Indonesia's first president was put under house arrest for a while after the take-over of power by his military dictator successor Suharto – see under Indonesia
Suharto himself, on the other hand, has his own museum in the southern outskirts near the Taman Mini Park (see below
). Its official name is Purna Bhakti Pertiwi Museum, but is informally known as the “Suharto Museum
”. It houses all those gifts the man was given by other world leaders during his over 30 years in power. Descriptions I have read suggest that the place must be almost North Korean
in this style (cf. International Friendship Exhibition
). Obviously this place was very high on my priority list when I finally got to visit Jakarta. Unfortunately, however, when I got there I found it closed, allegedly for refurbishment. Whether that is really so, and, if so, whether the changes in progress will incorporate any elements of revisionism, I cannot say. I'd be grateful for any hints in the future once the museum reopens, whenever that may be (contact me
). As it was, I only saw the outside of the building and the park around it – complete with a statue of Mrs Suharto. The architecture of the main building includes several cone-shaped turrets of sorts. These are supposed to resemble the tumpeng, the traditional form of serving rice in the centre of a large platter of small dishes and condiments. Maybe Suharto thought it represented his centrality to national politics just as the tumpeng does to the national cuisine.
The epicentre of Indonesian politics, past and present, is around the huge Merdeka Square
(with the Monas
at its centre), including the presidential palace and the National Museum
. The latter may be of marginal interest to dark tourists too, albeit only with regard to some arbitrary grimness of certain exhibits. Most of the museum content is the classic, somewhat stuffy and musty cultural artefacts style. But there are a few surprising finds: such as a green neon-lit replica burial place with a skeleton in it, or the big statue standing on an infant, supported by a plinth ringed by skulls. Also of curiosity interest may be the exhibits of Papuan penis gourds. Overall, however, it's only really for those who like such old-style ethnographic museums.
Jakarta also has more than its fair share of weird monuments and statues, mostly dating back to either the latter years of the Sukarno era or to the reign of Suharto. For instance there is the “Irian Jaya Liberation Monument” commemorating the annexation, oh, sorry, liberation
, of the western half of Papua (New Guinea) by Sukarno from the Dutch in the early 1960s. It's to be found in the park just to the east of the Catholic Cathedral and the Istiqlal Mosque in front of the Treasury building (ah, that might be a hint as to the true nature of the take-over of that region!). Another example is the (Soviet
-made!) Heroes' Statue on a square south-east of Merdeka Park. Or take the totally weird, oversized monument of a chariot drawn by five pairs of horses (called Arjuna Wijaya statue) near the roundabout at the south-western corner of Merdeka Square. This one wouldn't look out of place in Turkmenistan
On a less over-glamorized level, the small old town part of Kota, the former colonial quarter, may have a certain appeal for those dark tourists into the aesthetics of dilapidation. Many an old Dutch colonial building stands crumbling and exuding faded glory. Most of Jakarta, however, is just an endless grey concrete maze that is of very limited appeal, even for those dark tourists with a taste for ugliness.
So on balance, it's really not a place to spend too much time in. Use it as a convenient arrival/departure point, take in the few dark attractions it has of its own, and then get out into the country. Other big cities (such as Surabaya – see Sidoarjo
) and major traffic arteries may also be stressy, but beyond these Indonesia
has plenty of calm and serenity to offer, interspersed with the odd dark highlight outlined on this website.
on the northern coast of West Java, Indonesia
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to, not at all easy to get around in, but generally quite cheap for such a metropolis.
Getting to Jakarta is the easy bit. Its international airport (Soekarno-Hatta, IATA code CGK) to the north-west of the city is very well connected, especially via the hubs of Singapore
and Kuala Lumpur. Domestic flights to all over Indonesia also use this airport; the older Halim airport south of the city centre has been largely phased out for passenger traffic. For domestic transport high-speed trains, ferries and the ubiquitous buses also make onward journeys manageable without taking to the air.
Getting around WITHIN Jakarta, on the other hand, is a different story. There is no metro, and the few commuter train lines are crowded, stuffy, sweltering affairs not particularly suited to tourist use. It's a similar story with the bus network, although there are now so-called TransJakarta Busways that partly fill the gap. These are high-wheeled, air-conditioned buses that run on dedicated bus lanes (separated from other traffic) between dedicated platforms set out along some of the main thoroughfares. It's still a far cry from the super-efficient metro transport systems in Singapore
or Kuala Lumpur, but it's a start.
Other than that you will have to rely on taxis – which means sitting around in traffic jams a lot. Jakarta taxis also do not have the best of reputations, even though there are reputable companies too.
All public transport, on the other hand, is quite cheap – but make sure you have the required small change!
Except for certain pockets in the city centre and the old town, Jakarta really is not a city for walking! At least not for more than very short distances. The generally vast distances between points of interest otherwise preclude walking as an option – as does the heat, smog and crazy road traffic.
So when I visited Jakarta I hired a guide and car with driver to take me to/from the hotel and the various sights as a kind of one-day city tour. It was money well invested.
Accommodation in Jakarta is generally astonishingly affordable, even for rather swanky hotels. In which other top metropolis can you find a 4-star hotel room for under 50USD? Even going quite upmarket can be relatively affordable, but those with really tight budgets or a drive to save money wherever possible can also find countless super-cheap backpacker options, especially in the Jalan Jaksa area south of the centre.
Time required: at a push, and provided you have private transport, a single day can suffice to see all the dark-tourism places specially outlined above. That would mean you need only two nights in Jakarta. If you want to take things at a more leisurely pace, and also see some of the other sights, and especially if you are intent on doing things independently, you will need several days. Getting around from A to B to C alone will eat up a significant amount of time.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Some may say Jakarta as such is quite a dark place in itself, though that is perhaps too much of an exaggeration. It is smoggy, grimy and stressy, OK, but at least in recent years the city hasn't seen any of the terrorist bombings or violent demonstrations and riots that made the headlines in the 1990s and 2000s. Nor are there any traces of these incidents to be seen, as far as I am aware.
Only if big city ugliness is your thing will your heart be leaping at the sight of most of Jakarta – it is a concrete monster of the highest order, with hardly any green braking the monotony (Merdeka Square being the one grand exception). The city also keeps growing at a great pace, and in the process is swallowing up vast amounts of building materials (cf. Merapi
). It even grows, Japan
- or Dubai-style out into the sea, through land reclamation schemes visible when flying in from the north. Some new land is already built up, including some extravagant skyscrapers.
To get to further proper dark-tourism sights you have to get out of the city. The nearest top-notch dark attraction would be Krakatoa
, which can be done as a 3-day package excursion from Jakarta.
For yet more places further afield see under Indonesia
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Jakarta hardly offers much for mainstream tourists. Apart from the city centre attractions of the Monas
and the National Museum (see above
), most visitors concentrate on the old town centre of Kota
. In addition to some remnants of colonial architecture there are also a few more museums that might be of interest to some, such as the Museum Wayang (puppet museum), the Jakarta History Museum or the Fine Arts Museum. There's also a Maritime Museum further north by the old harbour.
Outside this area, mainstream attractions and old architecture are thin on the ground; but there are exceptions. More colonial architectural bits can also be found in the city centre in the vicinity of Merdeka Square, likewise the twin-spired Catholic Cathedral, in neo-gothic style dating from the early 20th century.
This, however, contrasts rather feebly with the enormous hulk of the Istiqlal Mosque right next to it. Now this is a building designed to impress! It's the largest mosque in South-East Asia and truly enormous. It can accommodate tens of thousands of worshippers, its central dome is 45m (150 feet) in diameter, and its minaret well over 90m (300 feet) tall. The architecture is quite modern and monochrome, hence unusual for Indonesia (which usually prefers brightly coloured domes and more traditional shapes). The inside shows the origin of the designs from the 1960s (although the construction took until 1978 to be completed), especially in the metal-clad eight columns that support the central dome. Non-Muslim foreign visitors are welcome, but have to be accompanied by a guide (and of course women have to cover up appropriately).
Far out on the south-eastern fringes of the city is the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah
– a kind of Indonesian Disney-World-style theme park that sports replicas of traditional houses from all different parts of multi-ethnic Indonesia
(and still including East Timor
!), as well as scaled-down copies of Borobudur, a very much scaled-up Komodo
-dragon-shaped building that houses a zoological exhibition, and further museums, cinemas and theatres to boot, making it one of the most popular of Jakarata's attractions for domestic tourists in particular. To see it all you'd need a full days at least. Monorail trains, shuttle buses and a cable car ease covering the distances within the park.
Jakarta has a reputation for being a bargain-hunters' shopping
paradise, especially with respect to electronics and clothes. Jakarta is also different from most other big cities in Muslim Indonesia (outside Bali
that is) in having a vibrant nightlife
with countless bars, live-music venues and dance clubs.
- Jakarta 01 - not the prettiest of skylines
- Jakarta 02 - Suharto Museum
- Jakarta 03 - statue of Mrs Suharto
- Jakarta 04 - the villa in which Sukarno was put under house arrest
- Jakarta 05 - next to the military museum
- Jakarta 06 - military gear outside
- Jakarta 07 - MiG, tank and armoured police vehicle
- Jakarta 08 - even a torpedo boat, left high and dry
- Jakarta 09 - theme park
- Jakarta 10 - Timorese sacred house replica
- Jakarta 11 - giant Komodo dragon
- Jakarta 12 - weird horse monument
- Jakarta 13 - National Museum
- Jakarta 14 - standing on a baby that is lying on a pedestal which is supported by skulls
- Jakarta 15 - eerie
- Jakarta 16 - lots of construction work going on
- Jakarta 17 - the city is literally expanding
- Jakarta 18 - outskirts with factories
- Jakarta 19 - yet another mosque
- Jakarta 20 - downtown with unusually little traffic