An Afternoon at Ancol
Jakarta is not a beautiful place. Not, at least, in the conventional sense. No decent travel publication would describe this gridlocked, teeming megalopolis of 10 million people – or 28 million if you include the surrounding suburbs and smaller cities – as “picturesque”, “stunning”, or “postcard-perfect”. Unlucky commuters associate the Indonesian capital with unbearable, hours-long traffic jams; civil engineers proclaim it the fastest-sinking city on the planet; and environmentalists warn of Jakarta’s worsening air and plastic pollution. In short, it is not the kind of place most people would fly halfway around the world to see.
And yet, give Jakarta enough time and it will surprise you. Amid the immense sprawl of concrete and chaos, you might be won over by the scent of nasi goreng being stir-fried in a wok by the roadside, a shaded neighborhood park where musicians serenade passersby with their violins and cellos, or the nostalgic restaurant serving up regional Indonesian dishes in a renovated Dutch colonial bungalow. Yes, there are indeed religious zealots in all-white Arabian clothing, and misguided teenagers flying the black flag of a banned organization that wishes to turn this astonishingly diverse nation into a caliphate, but Jakarta is also home to DWP, Southeast Asia’s largest electronic dance music festival. You will inevitably encounter young women in pastel-hued hijabs donning tight tops and jeans, and perhaps even a Muslim contact who privately tells you with a grin, “Whoever says pork isn’t delicious hasn’t tasted it before.” Unlike their easily offended counterparts in Peninsular Malaysia, hardly anyone here seems to care that malls across the capital are putting up porcine-themed decorations for the Year of the Pig.
Another facet that might surprise the casual visitor is the existence of Ancol Dreamland – a rare patch of coastal real estate with a public-access promenade and boardwalk (that said, you do have to pay a fee to get in). Although Jakarta was founded as a trading port, the city has largely developed with its back to the sea. Dutch-era planners are partially to blame: crisscrossed by a network of near-stagnant canals, the original 17th-century Dutch settlement at the mouth of the Ciliwung River became a fertile breeding ground for diseases like malaria, cholera, and dysentery. By the mid-19th century, colonial authorities had moved their base four kilometers to the south, creating a new center of government around a large open field where water buffalo once grazed (today’s Merdeka Square).
It is perhaps a reflection of my own laziness – as well as Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams – that it took me more than two years to pay Ancol a visit. A spate of recent work trips had meant seaside explorations in Thailand, the Philippines, and, right on Singapore’s doorstep, the Indonesian island of Bintan. Bama’s long-simmering plans for a weekend excursion to Ancol Dreamland remained on the backburner until earlier this month.
At first glance, Ancol Dreamland (Taman Impian Jaya Ancol in Indonesian) bears a slight resemblance to Sentosa in Singapore, though it hasn’t been scrubbed within an inch of its life and predates that island’s development by a decade or so. What was once a patchwork of swamp and fishponds were filled in during the 1960s to create a 552-hectare (1,364-acre) entertainment and leisure district containing several theme parks, an aquarium, a colorful artists’ village, two hotels (including one with shingled cottages beneath swaying coconut palms), as well as a bunch of seafood restaurants. Two artificial beaches have also been added, though I personally wouldn’t take a dip in the less-than-clean waters of Jakarta Bay. And for history buffs there’s even a World War II site.
In the middle of it all, wedged between two beaches and a shopping mall’s parking lot, lies the Dutch war cemetery of Ereveld Ancol. The peaceful, well-tended sanctuary marks the spot where the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) executed and buried hundreds of prisoners including Dutch- and Indonesian-born civilians. Outside its gates, teenagers wheel about on tandem bicycles and families picnic in the shade, while young couples stroll on the boardwalk as men with weather-beaten faces offer boat rides around the bay. Ereveld Ancol is somewhat incongruous amid such a festive, colorful locale, but Jakarta would not be Jakarta without that element of surprise. ◊