Jakarta: A city of contrasts

Contrasting Jakarta (Photo: Nadia Arini Yahya)In March 2010 I packed a suitcase, sold my car, gave most personal items to my parents for safekeeping and boarded a bus from Aberdeen station to Glasgow to spend the night on the first step of a journey to the southern hemisphere - to Jakarta - where I would be working and living for at least a year. Indonesia is an incredible place. The atmosphere of the cities is intensely cosmopolitan. Going for a car ride with some local friends through downtown it’s possible to see a corporate utopia, gleaming glass towers of wealth standing tall and proud in the tropical heat. A ride through the downtown of any of its larger cities will probably result in a strained neck from marvelling at the post-modern architecture as the buildings, statues, flags, monuments and palm-treed streets bid a warm welcome to Indonesia. The capital city of Jakarta is one so full of contrasts - big and small, ostentatious and modest, astronomically rich and devastatingly poor - that it, like the rest of the country, simply has to be seen to be believed.

Shopping malls are the past time of the rich in Jakarta. The city is full of them, shining like emerald and silver aloof, their gaudy features dominating the city. They remain unconcerned about the heat in the streets that surround them as advanced air condition systems keep them at a sprightly room temperature. In Plaza Indonesia, or Plaza Senayan, everything is on offer: the finest Italian clothes, silk ties and elegant leather shoes are displayed next to the latest French fashions in bedroom furniture. Diamond crusted gold watches glisten on the mirrored show tables, perfumes from the show houses of Paris and Tokyo, pure cut diamonds and sapphires from Papua New Guinea and South Africa sparkle with the intensity of stars at Pacific Quay.

With a population larger than the whole of Scotland, Jakarta has business and shopping on a scale unheard of in the homeland. Asian movie stars sit alongside western business men working in the oil industry. Bottles of wine are sold at three or four hundred pounds each, glamorous young women market private schools for the children of expats. Investors and consultants from India clamour to develop the next mall or housing complex. Building work is evident everywhere.Jakarta traffic: slow and frustrating (Mowat)

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, so this tropical city is one crowded place full of contrasts. The first noticeable difference between Jakarta and any western city is the millions of motorbikes on its roads. They weave between trucks and cars at unimaginable speeds; accidents, when they happen, are nasty. And it's not just the motorbikes. Traffic in this heaving city is awful, and roads are permanently congested. It's almost as if traffic here moves as a single entity, like slowly clotting blood making its way through choked arteries. Travel across the city by public transportation can take up to five hours! Rules on the road do not exist, and movement is achieved by a consensual Indonesian application of a unique code of politeness. Speeding is rare and traffic is not unduly aggressive; it’s just slow, and frustrating. Sometimes pavements and walkways double up as motorcycle lanes in rush hour!

The wide paved streets contrast sharply with the narrow maze of streets that cross them. Like other parts of Asia there is a close proximity of squalor and wealth, misery and ostentation. Warren-like side streets house whole communities of rich and poor; they live as neighbours, but inhabit completely different planets. A visit to a retired house maid was enough to see there was no running water or sanitation. Children played in open drains, which doubled up as latrines for scores of households. Chickens, too, squabble with each other among the children, hemmed in by ramshackle walls that are topped with deadly sharp glass guarding the mansions on the other side. The old maids’ husband had died some years earlier, and her only insurance policy against starvation was her handful of chickens that fought in the makeshift latrine.

A recent trip was to a place called Thousand Island, a regular weekend destination of mine. This is a small archipelago off the coast of Jakarta; and still part of the city municipality. It is a paradise on earth. Crisp clean water, lush young mangrove plantations, unspoilt white secluded sand beaches and sea turtle breeding centres; overall a haven from bustling city life. I was first told of Thousand Island - which, incidentally, is one of about 140 islands, by a local friend. On this occasion I travelled with an online travel community couch surfing who arranged travel, accommodation, food and activity excursions. They do the same for all locations throughout Indonesia. Couch surfing serves as a point of cultural exchange, local language lessons, friendship and advice. The site can be found at, where you can register details and location, and begin meeting local people and joining trips right away.

Thousands Islands mangroves (Mowat)After booking an early morning taxi to the harbour and dodging our way through Jakarta traffic we arrived amidst the chaos of street sellers. There were open sewers, litter, stench and the biggest fish market I have ever seen at the pick up point for the ferry to the islands. The ferry was large but basic. People crammed onto the roofs and rested on the seatless floor. Two chickens lay snoozing on the back next to the massive roaring engines which carried us. The unique ferry experience is captivating. It cost the equivalent of two pounds for the two hour journey.

We chugged our way through the harbour and past an enormous fishing fleet. Hundreds and hundreds of blue wooden boats moored among the diesel slicks, a putrid stench and morass of litter in the bay. Incredibly, there was not one steel hulled ship in sight. As the ferry cleared the harbour, the Jakarta skyline faded to become something resembling the skyline of Miami as the sight of skyscrapers took over the sight of litter and waste. But all eyes were now fixed on what lay ahead. Our small group lay to rest on the floor amongst the dozens of other bodies, television stars, fishermen, holiday makers, traders and families, all of us together with the two chickens.

Two hours later the ferry arrived at Pramuka Island on the South East side of the Thousand Island archipelago. In good spirits we gathered as a group of nine on the pier looking to the island, which has a small population dominated by the mosque that stands guard. The seas here are rich; the weekend was spent with blissful snorkelling above coral, here a vast underwater forest bursting with colour and life. Fish of all sizes and shapes follow us through the reef hoping for a nibble at rice that we carry in our hands for them. It’s an incredible experience; a feast of colour and movement for the senses matched by warm and welcoming water. The contrast on the way back is stunning: as we approached Jakarta harbour the bloated carcase of a goat drifted lifelessly past our ferry a short distance from Jakarta harbour. The water around us had turned a shade of brown.

The boat picked its way through the rubbish there. A passenger carelessly tossed a cigarette packet and water bottle into Jakarta harbour as we entered the shelter of the pier. The trip was over. I began to realise what a unique weekend the group just had, even for the Jakartan’s among us the weekend had been sensational. We stayed in a basic shared home that weekend. The price was good. Equivalent of £18 paid for our snorkelling, food and accommodation for two days. It’s possible also to hire a seat on a motor boat through a tour operator for Thousand islands, for a different perspective of the place.

The government now operates a fantastic twin engine four stroke air conditioned ferry service to Pramuka and surrounding islands for the same price. The service leaves from a pristine departure dock not far from where the cities fishing fleet is moored. However beware local snorkel guides may still direct you to use the overcrowded traditional option, as they’re paid commission to do so. This second option is only for the hardened budget traveller. It’s best to check at the information desk in Mura Anke, for the speedy ferry early in the morning - around 6:00 am). These are the options for travelling to this collection of delicate little island gems, one of which - Sepa Island - is owned by the daughter, Suharto, Indonesia’s last dictator. Pramuka on the other hand is the most common destination and snorkelling hotspot, while Kotok and Air Island host resort style facilities and giant Biawak monitor lizard populations, similar in size to their Komodo cousins, but relatively harmless and shy. From Mura Ancol luxury boats leave to the islands on a daily basis; the quality is good as it is on the government boat, but the prices are high.

Jakarta is a wonderful place. The splendour and opulence will take your breath away; the poverty will shock and amaze you and may well leave tears in your eyes. You can live like a millionaire for a day on very little or spend an afternoon like a pauper on the same street. If you like challenge, adventure, attention, luxury and a little uncertainty, and don’t mind things occasionally not going how you expect them, this city - together with the rest of the country - is a great ride. Seeing is believing, however, so come and see it for yourself. I highly recommend it.

About the Author

With a background in sociology, education and social justice, Stephen Lee Mowat has strength in visual arts and is currently teaching English. He enjoys sports, the outdoors, experiencing life in other cultures and traveling in Asia & Europe.

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 Full name: Republic of Indonesia

 Population: 248.2 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Jakarta

 Largest city: Jakarta

 Area: 1.9 million (733,594 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Bahasa Indonesia,  Other

 Major religions: Muslim, Protestant, Roman  Catholic, Hindu

 Monetary unit: Rupiah

 GDP per capita: US $4,700

 Internet domain: .id

 International dialling code: +62

 Source: CIA World Factbook