Jakarta: A City of Traditions

Jakarta by night | Photo credit: Flickr user Thrillseekr

The islands of the Indonesian archipelago are strung like beads across the equator. Clear blue seas lap pristine beaches, gentle breezes carry scents of spices and flowers, and divers are entranced by the ocean’s riches. Inland, dramatic volcanic ranges tower above a green mantle of terraced hillsides and lush rainforest.

Jakarta is the ultimate city of contrasts, an intoxicating Asian destination where on one side of the city old sailing schooners trade spices in a scene that has not changed for centuries, while just streets away gleaming new glass and steel skyscrapers reach for the heavens in a skyline that has been transformed beyond all recognition over the last few decades. Bustling Jakarta exhibits Indonesia’s cosmopolitan, modern face.

Some say the Indonesian capital is an easy city to dislike, but delve below its often smoggy surface and myriad layers expose themselves, each revealing more of the character of what is a fascinating home to millions of people.

Jakarta is a city of both wealth and poverty, with a gaggle of shanty towns clinging to the city limits, while expense account toting expats cut multi-million dollar deals in some of Indonesia’s finest restaurants.

As the economic and political capital of Indonesia, Jakarta attracts many foreign as well as domestic immigrants. As a result, Jakarta has a decidedly cosmopolitan flavour and a diverse culture. Many of the immigrants are from the other parts of the island of Java, bringing along a mixture of dialects of the Javanese and Sundanese languages, as well as their traditional foods and customs.

Jakarta is sometimes called “The Big Durian” by foreigners resident in the city. The durian is a tropical fruit with a distinctive odour and acquired taste. A bustling urban metropolis, Jakarta is known for its overcrowding, traffic congestion, and income disparity.

This bold, brash and bustling city buzzes along and after a few days it is hard not to get caught up in its palpable energy.

Jakarta’s growth really began in the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived to find an established port, which they soon made use of to expand their colonial aims. Over the next few centuries the Portuguese vied for control with the British and the Dutch (who named the city Batavia) and it was not until the 20th century that Indonesia finally broke free from the shackles of colonial meddling with Jakarta, which translates fittingly as the ‘Victorious City’, its proud capital.

Economic crises, the Bali and Jakarta bombings, the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 and a recent tragic run of subsequent natural disasters have upset both the country’s growing prosperity and tourism, but Jakarta is still the beating heart of Indonesia and one of the most captivating cities in the region.

Did You Know?

  • Jakarta, the capital and largest city of Indonesia, is located on the Indonesian island of Java.
  • You may need more than one watch: Indonesia’s expansive stretch of land covers three time zones. Jakarta is in the WIB (Western Indonesian Time; 7 hours ahead of GMT). The other time zones are WITA (Central Indonesia Time; 8 hours ahead of GMT) and WIT (Eastern Indonesia Time; 9 hours ahead of GMT). Jakarta is one hour behind Bali and two hours behind the Mollucas and Papua.
  • Jakarta was formerly known as Sunda Kelapa (397-1527), Jayakarta (1527-1619), Batavia (1619-1942), and Djakarta (1942-1972).
  • Wandering the alleys on any day of the week are jamu (traditional medicine) vendors. Supposedly, some 1,000 natural products go into making jamu, and it is used to treat everything from impotence to sore hands.
  • The daily English newspaper in Jakarta is the Jakarta Post

How to Get Here  

Taxi! | Photo credit: Jakob Montrasio

Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) is located approximately 26 km west of the city, or about a 20-minute drive to the where many of the major hotels are located. International flights arrive and depart from Terminal 2, while local flights use either Terminal 1 or 2.

There are information desks in both terminals. There are also 24-hour tourist information desks in Terminal 2 (International Terminal).

Taxis can be booked at counters in the Arrivals areas of the terminals (Travel time to city centre is 30-45 minutes). There are large taxi ranks outside both airport terminals. Do not use the services of unofficial drivers who may approach you inside and outside the terminal building.

Car Rental companies have desks located in the Arrivals areas of both terminals. Chauffeured car hire is also available.

The least expensive way into town is the DAMRI airport bus, which will take you to Gambir station in Merdeka Square (Travel time – 1 hour). The DAMRI shuttle bus route runs between Rawamangun, Blok M/Kebayoran, Gambir, Bekasi, Depok and Bogor.

When you are departing Jakarta, JCAT (Jakarta City Air Terminal) is located on the ground floor in Plaza Indonesia. JCAT offers downtown check-in facilities, transport to the airport and assistance with luggage, check- in and passport control, all for a reasonable handling fee.

Indonesian currency is denominated in Rupiah. Major world currencies and travellers checks (U.S. currency is suggested) can be converted to or from Indonesian Rupiah at all major banks or hotels. Exchange rates are somewhat more favourable at local banks, and better still at special money-changing offices.

Major international credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Diner’s Club) are widely accepted. Automated teller machines (ATMs) can be found throughout the city.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Jakarta has a pleasant tropical climate (25-38 Celsius) most of the year, with gentle breezes. The temperature drops slightly at night.

From late October to April, there is usually a rain shower every day. Jakarta’s wettest season is January and the dry season low point is August. The city is humid throughout the year.

Getting Around

One of the most populous cities in the world, Jakarta is strained by transportation problems. In Indonesia, most communal transport is provided by bemos, which are privately run minibuses.

TransJakarta operates on a special bus-line called the busway. The busway network is optimized for busy city routes and is a relatively effective means for travel in Jakarta. If you are taking public transportation, ensure you know which route to take. A Jakarta Monorail is currently under construction.

Within the city, taxis are situated at hotels or major buildings, or can be flagged on the street. Given the overcrowded nature of much of Jakarta’s public transport network, taxis are considered to be the best way of getting around.

Driving in Jakarta can be both challenging and dangerous due to poor local driving standards. There are, however, a number of international car hire companies that have offices in Jakarta. National car rental firms are represented at the airport and in the city. Free city maps are available from most car rental firms, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in an unfamiliar destination.

What not to miss …

World Heritage Site(s)

Jakarta History Museum | Photo credit: Brian Giesen

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently seven World Heritage Sites in Indonesia

The Indonesian capital is a vast city that sprawls across an area of  well over 600 sq km. The main points of interest, though, tend to be fairly central, with many sightseeing trips starting off at the historic waterfront and the Kota district, and then working inland towards the Gambir and Menteng districts. The Kota district, the centre of old Batavia, is the visitor hub of Jakarta. The heart of the action is on historic Taman Fatahillah, a cobbled timewarp of a square that somehow still survives in modern Jakarta. Sunda Kelapa is the old port area and many of the scenes are unchanged since the likes of Joseph Conrad evocatively described the sailing schooners striding around the high seas and then tying up at the quayside to trade exotic spices.

Kota is home to the Jakarta History Museum, the Puppet Museum and the old port of Sunda Kelapa with its charming old schooners, which turn the clock back through the centuries and provide visitors a real flavour of old Batavia. This is the most attractive part of the city and a great place to spend time in on a hot day when there are cooling sea breezes.

Inland highlights dotted amongst the gleaming new glass and steel offices and malls include the National Museum and the National Monument, which both provide their own insights into the culture and history of this uniquely diverse country, as well as a sprinkling of temples and mosques that are testament to the various religions and creeds who comingle in Jakarta.

National Museum The city’s most impressive museum delves into the history both of the capital city and the rest of the country. The 19th-century building is suitably dramatic and its highlights include early Chinese ceramics, pieces culled from Java’s myriad temples and a bronze elephant that was gifted to the museum by the King of Thailand. The museum is also exhibits a number of eclectic temporary exhibitions.

Maritime Museum What was once a warehouse as far back as the 19th century for the Dutch down in Sunda Kelapa is now fittingly home to a museum that tells the story of Jakarta’s rich maritime history. Model boats and faded sepia photos depicting various adventures at sea and in and around the Batavia waterfront are the highlights. The old watchtower offers good views out over the area.

Puppet Museum Housed in an early 20th-century colonial legacy, the building that stands on the site of an old Dutch church is in itself part of the attraction. Those interested in traditional wayang kulit and wayang golek Indonesian puppets will be in heaven in this illuminating museum. As well as thousands of puppets from all over Indonesia, there are also exhibits from elsewhere around Southeast Asia. The museum also hosts regular puppet shows.

The National Monument is an unmissable column that rises over 130m into the heavens above Independence Square. It is a potent symbol to many people in many ways. For some, it is a celebration of Indonesia’s successful drive to escape from the claws of the European colonial powers, while others see it as a fittingly legacy of the man – Soeharto, the former dictator still beloved of some Indonesians but reviled by many others – who commissioned its construction. At a time when much of the country lived in poverty, its grand gold leaf topping said enough for many critics. The top of the monument has an observation deck that, on a clear day, offers a stunning panoramic view of the city.

Heading south from Taman Fatahillah takes you to Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, but this is a Chinatown that doesn’t really come into its own until the evening. You can also head farther south to Jalan Juanda and pass the northern entrance of the Istana Negara, the State Palace where the president’s office is located. You will soon reach the huge modernist Mesjid Istiqlal (Grand Mosque), which is open to visitors, except during services. The Grand Mosque is the largest in southeast Asia, and took it took 17 years to complete.

The Taman Mini Indonesia Indah or ‘Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park’, as it rather nattily translates, is an interesting and unusual diversion. Opened in 1975 this sprawling 100-hectare park has a series of cable cars and shuttle buses to help those that don’t come with their own cars get around. There is a pavilion for each of Indonesia’s provinces with the highlight Java’s mini-Borobudur. There are also regular cultural performances on site. The park is perhaps the most enjoyable of Soeharto’s grand projects.

For those who don’t have time to head east to Komodo National Park, Ragunan Zoo is a great place to see the famous dragons in the flesh. Another highlight are the equally fearsome Java tigers. Opened as long ago as 1864, the zoo closed temporarily a few years ago after a bird flu scare, but is now open for business again.

About Shopping

Quench your thirst with a Kelapa Muda coconut drink | Photo credit: Danumurthi Mahendra

Jakarta is something of a retail paradise, albeit frenzied and sometimes confusing for the uninitiated.

Whether you’re a serious spender or half-hearted shopper, shopping in Jakarta can be delightful. Lately, Jakarta has been booming with super size, mega malls where you can find everything from a pair of sunglasses to subdue the glare of tropical sunlight to a silk batik tie to a Makarena CD or a printer cartridge. With the spread of new shopping malls, Jakarta has achieved its ambition of duplicating Singapore’s success as one of Asia’s foremost heavens for purchasing almost anything.

English is widely spoken and attentive service guaranteed. Bargaining is the rule when shopping, even though department stores and some shop displays prices.

Beyond the malls, there are many streets that used to be the “downtown” areas of the old neighbourhoods. The blok M area, for example, easily reachable from anywhere because it is the location of one of Jakarta’s public transportation hub, has many stores to satisfy one’s shopping desires.

And then there are the “pasar” or markets. You can still find markets that are only open on certain days of the week, where buyers meet sellers who are usually also producers. Pasar Ikan is an example. The name implies that sometime in the past, it was a place for fishermen to meet with their customers. Pasar Baru is another. Literally it means the New Market, and has been transformed into a market where locals shop for various things like fabrics.

If you are looking for something novel, go to Ciputat Raya where rows of stores are packed to overflowing with everything from antique furniture, brassware, ornate lamps, old China, and faux antiques.

Another interesting place is the Jatinegara gemstone market, where you can find a variety of precious and semiprecious stones.

Jakarta after dark …

Jakarta is not the most buzzing nightlife of destinations in the region, though it does boast plenty of nocturnal venues from stylish bars catering to the expat crowd to more authentic local haunts.

Entertainment in Jakarta is all about the theatres and clubs. Jakarta has quite an active arts scene, although the quality varies tremendously, and there are no high-profile companies of international stature.

For the refined and the erudite, Jakarta provides visitors numerous options for cultural entertainment. You can enjoy ballet performances in the theatres or see traditional performances of Indonesia like as Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet shows). Entertainment venues in Jakarta include the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Arts Center, the Jakarta Arts Center, which has art galleries, cinemas and theatres and Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Playhouse).

But be sure to see the Javanese Wayang Wong or Wayang Orang. These are dance dramas of the Javanese culture. People throng to The Bharata Theatre to watch these performances.

Local Customs and Etiquette

As the economic and political capital of Indonesia, Jakarta attracts many foreign as well as domestic immigrants. As a result, Jakarta has a decidedly cosmopolitan flavour and a diverse culture. Many of the immigrants are from the other parts of the island of Java, bringing along a mixture of dialects of the Javanese and Sundanese languages, as well as traditional foods and customs.


As with most cultures, hierarchy plays an important role in Indonesian culture. Hierarchical relationships are respected, emphasised and maintained. Superiors are often called “bapak” or “ibu”, which means the equivalent of father or mother, sir or madam.

Greetings can be rather formal as they are meant to show respect. A handshake is the most common greeting accompanied with the word “Selamat”. Many Indonesians may give a slight bow or place their hands on their heart after shaking your hand. If you are being introduced to several people, always start with the eldest or most senior person first. Many Indonesians, especially those from Java, may have had an extremely long name, which was shortened into a sort of nickname for everyday conversation.

Gift giving etiquette for the Chinese

Applying the finishing touches | Photo credit: Tanti Ruwani

It is considered polite to verbally refuse a gift before accepting it. This shows that the recipient is not greedy.
Items to avoid include scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate that you want to sever the relationship. Elaborate wrapping is expected – gold and red and considered auspicious. Gifts are not opened when received.

Gift giving etiquette for ethnic Malays / Muslims

In Islam alcohol is forbidden. Only give alcohol if you know the recipient will appreciate it. Any food substance should be “halal” – things that are not halal include anything with alcoholic ingredients or anything with pork derivatives such as gelatine. Halal meat means the animal has been slaughtered according to Islamic principles. Offer gifts with the right hand only. Gifts are not opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

Dining etiquette is generally relaxed but depends on the setting and context. The more formal the occasion, the more formal the behaviour. Wait to be shown to your place – as a guest you will have a specific position. Food is often taken from a shared dish in the middle. You will be served the food and it would not be considered rude if you helped yourself after that. If food is served buffet style then the guest is generally asked to help themselves first. It is considered polite that the guest insist others go before him/her but this would never happen … In formal situations, men are served before women. Wait to be invited to eat before you start. Eat or pass food with your right hand only.

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