Old Dutch Batavia
Ready for the next big holiday to a far destination, Indonesia, starting at its vibrant capital Jakarta. That’s the 3rd great trip so far this year, or 4th if considering the long-weekend trip to Turkey just few months earlier in the year, and of course plenty of weekends all over Europe. And as I know it won’t be still the last for this year it means I remain excited and will remain happy even when this holiday is over after returning from Indonesia and looking forward to the next one; or well, not that much long to wait, just 5 more days until flying again for one of the usual weekend trips.
If last year was Philippines, this year is the turn for Indonesia. It does not really matter when in the year but there is always one trip to anywhere in Southeast Asia or far East Asia; and I hope to keep it going this way as it works really well while always escaping the bad weather back in Europe in search of sun and heat at destinations mostly within the Tropics. Not the longest daylight hours per day but hey! I cannot see any other “downside” point apart from that. The only workaround is starting the days very early in order to maximise the day, and rest in the evening once sunset.
Jakarta was our entry point and first encounter to Indonesia. This huge capital city is not what you might have though and been told on first instance. I’ve always heard from my friends who’ve been there before that there is really nothing to see and do and that everything is ugly and unorganised. This was in reality very untrue!. The city is instead very vibrant, day and night, and so vastly large there is always something to do and places to go. From the ultramodern skyscrapers mushrooming everywhere, to the more traditional Indonesian, and to the great Old Town, former Dutch colonial city which has retained majority of its buildings almost intact and unspoiled, nowadays beautifully restored to their former glory with a much larger ongoing project to recover more and more of these structures and make the city more tourist friendly.
This was a great experience we had here and loved every place we’ve been. I really cannot understand now the people who told us such a different point of view and experience, yet it is in fact something we’ve already come across in the past when we visited Manila for example. Exactly the same, but furthermore in this case Jakarta has even more places to visit in a much better shape than those in Manila, but considering the past history of both cities, it is very different, with the unfortunate lost of the “Pearl of the Orient” that once was known Manila during the destruction in World War II. Jakarta, fortunately, was entirely out of it.
The only major issue I could think of is the extremely bad public transportation, resumed to almost non-existent apart from buses and the ongoing expansion of the reserved lanes for the express TransJakarta buses. While the commuter railway might be a bit of help depending if you are located near a train station as it was out case for example, where the hotel was next door to Cikini station, hence 2 stops to Merdeka Square and 7 to the Old Town, there is no other public transportation as trams or metro system, although it’s planned but will take some years to be a reality. Fortunately as of October 2015 Uber is new in the city and plentiful! And very cheap too. Without doubt it was our best choice and took it everywhere.
Changing the subject, in the same sense as it is for Bangkok in Thailand, Jakarta has a huge and wide variety of food of every range and for everyone’s taste. You don’t need to search any far for it, sometimes really nice fresh food is done at street food stalls. Of course there is a basic rule in here, as long as what they are cooking is on the wok or at very high temperatures then it is totally safe and OK to eat. I would mind a little bit more on meat dishes specially chicken. As long as it looks fresh and clean then it’s fine.
As for restaurants there are everywhere, noticeable at the immense food courts of the huge shopping malls. At the many markets and everywhere around the old town streets. It really is inexpensive and really great in taste, yet mind they use quite a lot of spice. It will be good if you check before if the dish is really spicy or not so much. Their cuisine is heavily influenced by European, Indian, Chinese, Javanese, Sudanese, Malay… So looking for something truly traditional to Indonesia is hard nowadays.
Some traditional dishes you should try are gado-gado (salad with peanut sauce), nasi uduk (rice boiled in coconut milk and spices and serve with a side of salad, meat or vegetables), soto betawi (beef cooked in a stew of coconut or cow milk), nasi goreng (fried rice) or kerak telor (spicy omelette) to name a few. Although I tried more dishes than those I cannot remember their names, but for the above mentioned you will find them everywhere at ease.
For more information about Jakarta check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Indonesia’s currency is the Rupiah (IDR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Jakarta
- Kota Tua Or commonly known as Old Town, is the original colonial city settled by the Dutch and known back then as Batavia. Nowadays just a district within the massive city that grew all around it. Here is where you will find most of the historical buildings and it is in fact one of the prime destinations for tourist visiting Jakarta.
-Fatahillah Square The heart of the Old Town since colonial times, acting as the main public square where most of the grand civic buildings were built on its sides and in the immediate nearby streets.
-Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramic Housed in the former 1870’s building of the Court of Justice. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Stadhuis Is the name that receives the former City Hall in Dutch, building dating from 1710, nowadays the main building of the History Museum. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Wayang Museum Dedicated to the Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre). Not only this is a great and different curiosity, but should you have time then gather some information on where you could go and see one of those theatre plays. UNESCO included the wayang kulit in their list Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Cafe Batavia Housed in a beautifully restored colonial building is one of the oldest and most traditional cafe house to survive to our days. For the best view go to the second floor by the window and enjoy a drink overlooking the square and City Hall on the opposite side.
-Central Post Office Built in the 1930’s is one of the few examples of art-deco architecture from the era, known in Dutch a Nieuwe Zakelijkheid.
-Station Square Known as Stationsplein in Dutch is located meters away from the Fatahillah Square and it is the next area where you can see more of the magnificent grand colonial structures in the city.
-Train Station Known during colonial times as Batavia Zuid (South Batavia). Built in 1929 in a mix of art-deco and local Javanese elements.
-Museum Bank Indonesia Housed in the first headquarters of the De Javasche Bank, the central bank of the Dutch East Indies, was then absorbed by the Bank of Indonesia after the country gained independence. Built in 1909 in neo-classical style with strong influence of Javanese elements. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Museum Bank Mandiri Located next to the Bank Indonesia was the headquarters of the Netherlands Trading Society and opened in 1933, hence the art-deco lines of its architecture. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Zion Church Dating from 1695 it is the oldest colonial church in the city and one of the oldest Dutch colonial buildings still standing in the country. In the small graveyard there is the bronze tombstone of Governor General Hendrick Zwaardecroon who died in 1728 and was buried among the “ordinary” people as this was his wish. Not precisely located in the Station Square, but not far, along the eastern side of the train station some meters ahead.
-Kali Besar Canal This small canal divides the Old Town in two while providing direct access to the old Batavia port (Sunda Kelapa) not far to the north.
-Kota Intan Drawbridge Is the only surviving Dutch drawbridge not only in the city but across the entire country.
-Toko Merah Translates as the “red house” in Indonesian, was built in 1730 as the Governor’s House, it served this function for more Governors, then changing to a hotel, then a bank, and nowadays restored as a conference hall.
-Pintu Besar and Pos Kota Streets Are the main pedestrianized streets of the Old Town where many of the beautiful colonial structures have already been restored to their former glory.
-Sunda Kelapa Is the former colonial port, located to the north of the Old Town, Kota Tua, in the district known as Penjaringan; nowadays is a lively and thriving fishing port.
-Harbormaster Tower Beautifully preserved and restored is located at the pier head. From the top you have great views of the entire area with the Maritime Museum on the left and the market streets below. Rs 5000 entrance fee.
-Maritime Museum Housed in what was some of the Dutch East India Company warehouses that were constructed between 1652 and 1771 is worth a visit for its history and exhibits but also for the architecture of the buildings itself. Rs 5000 entrance fee. Meters away from the Harbormaster Tower.
-Pinisis Jakarta hosts the last remaining two mast wind powered sailing ship fleet in the world. A pinisi is traditional to Indonesia, where they are still produced although motorized nowadays. They are inside the port itself, for what you will need to access through the main gates, Rs 2500 entrance fee. It’s a great sight to see them all aligning by the port. They are part of the exhibition of the Maritime Museum, and the best and most unique way to admire them is by getting on one of the many small boats people are renting. Just negotiate the price before heading inside, and they will give you a tour of around 30 minutes. We paid Rs 25000 so have in mind a similar quotation.
-Penjaringan Fish Market Built on a restored warehouse of Dutch East India Company (VOC).
-Remains of the city wall Very few portions of the city wall that once encircled the entire Batavia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Those are located in front of the Maritime Museum, and include 2 out of 23 bastions that once stood; named Zeeburg and Culemborg. Culemborg was used later as the base of a watchtower that is still in place.
-Galangan Kapal VOC Built in 1628 as part of the larger complex of the Dutch East India Company. Located right behind the Culemborg watchtower.
-Luar Batang Mosque Built in 1796 when the area started to be populated by small villages.
- New Town Located 4 kilometers to the south of Kota Tua. Centrepieced around Merdeka Square it’s where the major governmental buildings, embassies and institutions are. The Old Town plus this area of the New Town are the main tourist destinations in the city of Jakarta.
-Merdeka Square Known as Kings Square (Koningsplein) during colonial times; Merdeka translates as Freedom Square in Indonesian. The largest square in the world in size. The nearest train station located at one of the square’s edges is Gambir, and it is served by long distance and commuter trains. Monuments, gardens, fountains and even an area with deer are all around. In order from the center and clockwise, the notable sights are:
-National Monument Located at the centre of the square and completed in 1976, commemorates the country’s independence in 1949. At 137 meters tall, there is a viewing platform with 360 views of the entire city opened from 09.00am until 15.00pm for a fee of Rs 1100.
-Arjuna Wijaya Fountain Depicting a chariot statue based on the story of Mahabharata, one of the oldest and famous Hinduism legend.
-Merdeka Palace In the northern side of the square. Built in 1873 it is one of six presidential palaces in the country, and still serves as the Governor’s home. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit inside, and pictures from the outside might be a bit restricted due to the security guarding the area.
-Istiqlal Mosque North east side of the square, almost adjacent to the Palace. It is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, built in 1978, and although it’s design is not one of the nicest, it is nevertheless quite imposing. Cannot be visited inside.
-Cathedral Right behind the Istiqlal Mosque, is the largest of its kind in the country, legacy from the Dutch time. Built in 1901 in neo-gothic style.
-Immanuel Church Another legacy from the Dutch colonial era, built in 1839. This beautiful church in classical style is notorious for its round shape and black dome.
-National Gallery Established in 1960 and housed in an 1817 building that was originally an Indische Woonhuis (Indies residence).
-Gambir Station Is one of the major train stations in Jakarta and without doubt the easier way to reach the square by commuter train. Originally built in 1884, the current reincarnation dates from 1990 with its characteristic joglo architectural style.
-Embassies and governmental institutions Aligning most of the southern side of the square and nearby streets.
-Bank of Indonesia Located on the south western corner of the square. No such a pretty construction as the former bank buildings located in the Old Town and now musealised, but still an important building.
-National Museum of Indonesia Located on the west side of the square is this large museum housing wings for archaeology, history, ethnology and geography. Opened in 1868 in the current building, nickname Elephant Building due to the statue of the elephant at the front.
-Hotel Indonesia Roundabout To the south west and nearly 2 kilometres from the square along the avenue filled with many skyscrapers. Commonly said to be the absolute centre of Jakarta. Right by the intersection of the main avenue in the city, Jalan M.H. Thamrin. At its centre is the Selamat Datang Monument, one of the landmark monuments, built in 1962, and grand hotels on all sides and mega shopping malls and ever growing skyscrapers all around.
- Thousand Islands Not 1000 as the name might lead to suggest, but a group of 105 islets off the coast in the Jakarta Bay. Many of them are now resorts, while others retain its colonial character with forts and former barracks; but something sure and guaranteed is the beauty of the entire area, with also nice secluded beaches and beautiful piers and fishing villages. The best way to reach them is via boat from Ancol Marina just north of the Old Town in the former Batavia’s port.
Soekarno-Hatta International is the main and largest airport in the entire country, and for most, the main entry point to the country, together with Bali. Located 20 kilometers northwest of the city. The easiest and hassle free way to reach downtown Jakarta is by taking the frequent DAMRI shuttle buses. Not only is the cheapest option, but will save you from perhaps being scammed by a taxi driver and sometimes even taking longer to reach your final destination. You can pay for the ticket at the counters right upon exiting the terminal building, and with a fixed fare of Rs 35000 to Gambir train station right by Merdeka Square.
A secondary smaller airport, Halim Perdanakusuma serves mostly low cost carriers and private jets solely for internal flights and not international destinations.
With regards to public transportation within the city this is quite of a headache. With such a vast size and large population it has been left chronically behind and it is only now that the government is planning in improvements and new systems as a metro is being planned. As of now (October 2015), you can only depend on a messy network of slow buses and taxis, since the commuter railway lines do not cover even the basic as a branch to the airport; and a faster network of buses, TransJakarta, that use a dedicated lane only them can access, hence cutting travelling time by a lot, although those lines are more specific to link the outskirts with the city centre. You can, of course, count with the famous becaks everywhere (tricycles either motorised or man powered, similar to Thai tuk tuk), just negotiate beforehand the fare and you will enjoy a pleasant ride across the madness of the traffic. The best transportation nowadays, however, is the newly introduced Uber taxi in the city. Only a bad side of this is that you will need to have network with data in your phone in order to be able to use the Uber app.
On a plus side, there are really 2 areas in the entire city that as a tourist you will be navigating around, one is the north, the Old Batavia, the heart of the old town, and the other is around the immense Merdeka Square. Linked between both you can take either a commuter train, bus, becaks or taxi. You could also walk but it’s a long way, nevertheless, easy and all straight following the same road. For other districts should you need to go, it is best to check before the options, or venture in the fastest and easiest option, a taxi, making sure taximeter is on or negotiate the fare beforehand.
The amount of hotels in the city is limitless! Whatever you wish you have it here. It is probably the city with the largest choice I’ve come across, coupled with New York City, Bangkok or Tokyo. But even the choice is so extremely huge, the prices are not that low as you might believe. Indonesia is not cheap in accommodation, but let me first make a note here: I’m talking on good 4*and 5* hotels. The second inconvenience we came across is that majority of the hotels advertised in the usual hotel search engine websites do not include breakfast! And those listing breakfast included were rising the prices even higher. So it took longer than usual to find our hotel, but with patience as usual, you can find a nice deal indeed.
The next yo keep in mind is where about to be located. It is best to reduce the choice to both near the Old Town, Batavia, and the new town around Merdeka Square or walking distance from this place. Believe me, it will save you an enormous hassle and time than having to depend on public transportation (if any), or even money reducing the need to get a taxi instead to move around. So all in all, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Diponegoro, in Jalan Pegangsaan Timur No.17 Cikini. Located to the south east of Merdeka Square, 2 commuter train stops distance. Right at the entrance of the hotel was the train station with frequent trains heading to Old Batavia train station (last stop in the line) and passing through Merdeka Square, hence very good linked by public transport to both of the tourist areas in Jakarta. The hotel was very big and very high up to standards, with an immense pool and every facility you could ever need. An impressive breakfast (after all, Hilton breakfast are very well known), and extremely professional staff everywhere at every moment. The bed, yet again, the world famous Hilton bed; large room with fine new and clean design and extremely comfortable in every sense. True that we paid a little bit more per night than majority of the hotels we had in mind, but we did the right choice, and especially for the priceless rest we had and great joy at the pool, steam room, sauna and jacuzzi after the long days sightseeing and many hours on our feet.
On our last night in Indonesia we also stayed back in Jakarta after leaving Bali, to be already near and hassle free for the following day flight back to London. In this occasion we stayed at the more modest Allium Hotel near the airport, and worked pretty well for us. They provide free transport from/to the airport, there is a small pool and nice breakfast buffet. Very comfortable bed and good size room, and also should you need it, a large shopping mall nearby, the Tang City Mall.