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Surviving Jakarta

At a recent dinner inside a five-star hotel fronting Jakarta’s most-photographed roundabout, hosted by a visiting uncle, an Emirati diplomat based in Hong Kong recounted her experience of a weekend traffic jam from a beauty parlor down south. “On the way here, the driver told me it would be another 15 minutes but it was really 45. I wanted to hang myself!” she half-jokingly declared. “How do you even live here?”

People more used to developed countries and cities with far less people might describe Jakarta as a dystopian nightmare. Sure, the sprawling Indonesian capital might not have the efficiency and supreme orderliness of Singapore. By no means is it a bona fide tourist destination; I would not recommend the place to anyone looking for a convenient, family-friendly getaway. But if you happen to be adventurous, have a taste for chaotic megacities, and don’t mind a bit of grime and pollution, perhaps Jakarta will surprise and delight you as much as it has with me. In spite of the soul-destroying traffic, my attachment to this wild, rambunctious beast of a city has only deepened in the three years since I moved here from Hong Kong.

What is it about Jakarta that I find so alluring? I love the raw energy and sense of optimism pulsing through the streets, the creative, entrepreneurial streak shared by so many of its inhabitants, the surprises at every turn. I also love the fact that, in the capital of a diverse Muslim-majority nation (and the world’s most populous one at that), I can still satisfy my occasional pork cravings without any difficulties. And that no one bats an eye when large numbers of hijab-wearing office workers dine in canteens at lunchtime during Ramadan.

Of course, that pragmatic, relaxed attitude toward other people’s lives isn’t shared by all 10 million Jakarta residents. There are deeply conservative and intolerant segments of the populace – as shown by the existence of the FPI, an association of thugs who masquerade as hardline, ultra-religious people with long beards – but the Jakarta I know well, and the ordinary Jakartans I interact with on a day-to-day basis, could not be more different.

I think of Roni, the young barber who gives me a monthly haircut and the chance to make linguistic mistakes as I test the limits of my Bahasa Indonesia. Among the regular coterie of Bluebird taxi drivers Bama and I depend on to get to work every weekday, Ridwan stands out for his ever-cheerful demeanor and openness to honest conversation. Then there’s Regina, the kind but serious-faced vendor at my office building’s canteen who greets me by name and knows exactly how I like my nasi goreng (fried rice): with shredded chicken, just the right amount of chopped bird’s-eye chilies, and a runny fried egg on top.

And how could I neglect to mention my good-humored coworkers? They are my primary source of Jakarta slang – expressions and phrases not found in any textbook – and never fail to lift my spirits whenever the going gets tough. Most will even buy a generous stack of pizzas on their birthdays to share with the entire office. (Here in Indonesia, the general rule of thumb is that the one celebrating the milestone treats everyone else, not the other way around.)

The 67th-floor alfresco bar at Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Henshin

Henshin’s octopus tiradito (Peruvian-style sashimi) with chimichurri and olive sauce

A church in South Jakarta; the exterior of Living with L.O.F.

Comfort food at Living with L.O.F.; inside the plant-filled café

Getting straight to the point; the skyscrapers of the Sudirman Central Business District

As it happens, Jakarta is celebrating its 492nd anniversary this weekend. It commemorates the date in 1527 when military commander Fatahillah, fighting for the Javanese Sultanate of Demak, captured the important port of Sunda Kelapa from the Hindu-Buddhist Sunda kingdom. Sunda had signed an alliance with the Portuguese to counter the rising power of Demak just five years before, granting them access to the lucrative pepper trade in exchange for military assistance. Fatahillah renamed the place Jayakarta, Sanskrit for “Accomplished Victory”; it would eventually become the root of the modern-day moniker Jakarta. But then Jayakarta was razed less than a century later by the Dutch, and, as arrogant colonialists do, they christened it Batavia after their own ancestors, an ancient Germanic people called the Batavi who fought against the Romans.

The name stuck for the next three centuries. Indigenous Indonesians soon adapted it into the more palatable Malay form, Betawi. In time, a whole new ethnic group, the Betawi people, would emerge from the intermingling of immigrant communities – not least the Javanese, Sundanese, Malays, Chinese, and Arabs. Betawi culture and food today reflect those melting-pot origins.

Which brings me to another thing I love about Jakarta: its astounding complexity. Even today, it harbors a mosaic of peoples drawn from just about everywhere in the archipelago, each with their own habits and languages and cuisines. Scanning the horizon from an elevated toll road to the east of downtown, you might spot a church serving the resident Toraja community from South Sulawesi that appears to be a supersized tongkonan, a traditional dwelling with a distinctive roof in the shape of an upturned boat. And part of the city’s complex nature can be attributed to its dominance of the national conversation. In American terms, Jakarta is the equivalent of New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles all rolled into one – it is Indonesia’s unchallenged hub for politics and business and pop culture.

One only has to venture into the hip neighborhoods of South Jakarta, where young people mix random English words (“literally” and “which is” are two oft-quoted examples) into their sentences, to see how worldly Indonesia’s capital has become. Here, plant store owner Darwin Senjaya created Living with L.O.F. (the acronym stands for “Lots of Flowers”) by combining his shop with a whitewashed café. Look through the menu and you’ll find fusion comfort food like baked cheese rice featuring bechamel and meatballs with tomato sauce – all served in a cast iron skillet – and a Korean-inspired fried chicken and kimchi burger. Living with L.O.F. certainly catches the eye: it occupies a zany, lattice-clad building just down the street from the city’s French international school.

Speaking of the expat French community, they can depend on several small companies when it comes to sourcing artisanal, top-quality bread. One of these is BEAU, the brainchild of Jakarta-born, Auckland-raised pastry chef Talita Setyadi, who graduated top of her class at Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu. I have not found croissants as exquisite as hers anywhere else in town: they are wonderfully flaky and delicate on the outside (the paper-thin crusts yield a discernible crackling sound when prodded with a fork) and moist and pillowy within. Together with Bama, I finally made the pilgrimage to Talita’s flagship bakery, patisserie, and café yesterday afternoon to try items like the popular Smørrebrød. These are Danish-style open-faced sandwiches with all manner of toppings: think piquant beef pastrami wrapped around a poached egg on lettuce and caramelized onion; house-cured salmon, beets, and yogurt; and slices of avocado and fresh tomato over a luscious homemade pesto.

Seeking shade at Taman Suropati, a park in the leafy neighborhood of Menteng

A makeshift horse-drawn carriage, known as “andong”

Tugu Kunstkring Paleis, a former Dutch-era immigration office turned restaurant

Andri’s fabulous nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk) with up to six sides

Waiting for the next MRT train at Haji Nawi station

Traffic here is often a free-for-all

Rooftops of South Jakarta

The shaded outdoor seating area at BEAU

BEAU’s Smørrebrød platter and French-inspired treats (including the best croissants in town)

Exploring the upper floor of Pasar Santa, a traditional market and hipster haven

Inside POST, an independent bookstore at Pasar Santa

I like to say that Jakarta is a city of many worlds. A five-minute walk from BEAU brings you to Pasar Santa, an unassuming building with a unique surprise. Imagine Melbourne’s laneways compressed into the upper floor of a traditional Asian market – without air conditioning, of course – where you might order an iced avocado latte or red velvet frappucino to cool down in the sultry tropical heat. There’s a food court strung with fairy lights, colorful murals, and an abundance of pint-sized booths that offer everything from vinyl records and vintage clothes to artisanal coffee and nitrogen ice cream. On a recent visit to Pasar Santa, Bama and I made a beeline for POST, a cozy independent bookstore run by fellow bloggers Teddy and Maesy.

Another Jakarta characteristic I love is the palpable sense of opportunity, the idea that anything can happen as long as you are willing to take risks and work hard. Indonesia’s four unicorns, all headquartered here, immediately come to mind: ride-hailing startup Go-Jek, travel and hotel booking specialists Traveloka, e-commerce companies Tokopedia and Bukalapak. I also think of local fashion designers like Iwet Ramadhan and Stella Liem who are reinterpreting batik and the archipelago’s age-old weaving traditions for the 21st century. But I have a soft spot for the people who go unnoticed – everyday fighters like Andri, who migrated from a rural district of Central Java to build his own small-scale culinary business from scratch, operating a stall with his wife at an apartment complex for more than a decade before being forcibly evicted. Nowadays, he runs a food cart and a weekend delivery service out of his own home.

Bama and I regularly indulge in Andri’s version of the Betawi dish nasi uduk, or rice cooked in coconut milk, with all the trimmings: fried, skin-on chicken, thin slices of marinated tempe (fermented, earthy soybean cakes), flavorsome rice vermicelli stir-fried with sweet soy sauce and kaffir lime leaf, boiled egg and diced potato coated in a spicy chili-and-tomato sambal, and a side of shrimp crackers.

That hearty nasi uduk only costs the equivalent of less than two U.S. dollars, but what if you were willing to splurge on a meal with a bird’s eye view of the capital? A “secret door” in the ground-floor lobby of The Westin Jakarta leads to a trio of express elevators that whisk knowing patrons to Henshin, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant taking up the top three floors (Level 67–69) of the hotel. From the alfresco bar, perched 270 meters (885 feet) above the ground, the sprawl of Jakarta is at once majestic and strangely beautiful, stretching to infinity across a sweltering coastal plain. Look down at the eight-lane avenue fronting The Westin and you’ll see the concrete U-beams and sturdy pylons of the LRT Jabodebek, a much-needed elevated rail line that will connect the downtown area with suburbs in the east and south.

The biggest improvement in infrastructure these days is of course the MRT system, whose first line opened at the end of March. Jakartans have been waiting a very long time for this dream to be realized. The project initially took root 34 years ago; subsequent administrations shelved those plans for financial reasons even as the population grew by more than two million and traffic jams worsened by the year. The MRT was only revived in 2012 under then-Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, who is now the Indonesian president. The cleanliness and modernity of both the trains and stations, which use Japanese technology, are undeniably impressive. I’m convinced that the MRT is on par with that of Singapore and a far cry from the crumbling, antiquated New York subway. “Finally,” Bama said as we stood inside a spotless carriage filled with excited families after spending a few hours at Pasar Santa. “I don’t have to go abroad to take the metro.”

Disembarking at the northern terminus below Bundaran HI, the iconic Hotel Indonesia Roundabout, we walked on in the sweltering heat for an early dinner of Middle Eastern–influenced goat fried rice at Nasi Goreng Kambing Kebon Sirih. This is a no-frills culinary institution of sorts that has been operating since 1985, garnering rave reviews by locals and visitors alike, and becoming the subject of many Youtube videos in the process. Bama and I were keen to see what all the fuss was about.

The first thing that caught my attention was an enormous mound of rice in an equally enormous wok. I’d seen videos that depicted vendors spooning out liberal amounts of curry powder before emptying an entire bottle of sweet soy sauce and then a tin of ghee prior to mixing it all. But the nasi goreng itself proved to be a resounding disappointment. The taste wore thin after the first few bites, the goat meat was sinewy, and for lackluster street food from a makeshift stall, it was very expensive. I craved the heat of chopped bird’s-eye chilies and the smokiness of Regina’s stellar fried rice, which I knew had been constantly stirred over high heat in individual portions.

Still, the place was big on atmosphere. Bama and I sat on low communal benches under orange tarpaulin, digging into our meals and occasionally swatting at flies as roving buskers made their rounds. The experience was a reminder that Jakarta, despite its high-rise pretenses and brand-new infrastructure like the MRT, essentially remains one enormous village. I observed a young couple across from us striking up a conversation with an older man and couldn’t help smiling. For in this city of 10 million people, it is entirely possible to laugh and chat with strangers like old friends.

A typical “bajaj” – auto rickshaws imported from India

Taking a sunset jog in view of the National Mosque and Jakarta Cathedral

Reflections of the future and a vendor preparing goat fried rice on the street

The Welcome Monument at Bundaran HI (the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout)

Onwards and upwards

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. beta_expositor #

    I concur. Despite the many ways Jakarta can get on my nerves or test my patience, I just can’t get enough of it.

    June 23, 2019
    • It is strange, isn’t it, how addictive Jakarta can be. Every time I leave for just a couple of days I end up missing the place.

      June 25, 2019
  2. As always, great stories of Indonesia, and such wonderful photos of food.

    June 23, 2019
    • Thank you, I.J. – I wonder what you would make of Jakarta if you ever decided to come!

      June 25, 2019
  3. Looks like a mesmerizing place! Beautiful photos as always! 🙂

    June 24, 2019
    • Cheers, Nicole! 🙂 Mesmerizing is a pretty good adjective for Jakarta, especially when night falls and all the lights come on. But I reckon most people would not see it as being conventionally beautiful during the daytime!

      June 25, 2019
  4. Another great piece, James. and your pics depict everyday life in Jakarta so well.

    June 24, 2019
    • Much appreciated, Sudarsana. And thank you for reading all the way through – I can’t deny that was a long post!

      June 25, 2019
  5. A fascinating article, James! Though I have never been to Jakarta, I see some similarities to my hometown Saigon. The city is indeed chaotic, polluted, and in term of attractions, there are not very much to see. And we are still waiting for the first metro line which is scheduled to be finished in 2021 (estimated time only haha).
    But the city is a dynamic and intimidating place. As you mentioned, it’s like a giant village where you can effortlessly make conversation with most people. I think that’s another reason for my come back. It’s nice in Europe, but the people are quite distant.

    June 24, 2019
    • Len, it’s so interesting how you brought up the similarities with Saigon. I was there a few years ago on a short trip with family and actually loved the city. Something about the vibe, the optimism, and the palpable energy really drew me in – I felt like I was witnessing Vietnam in the middle of a huge transformation – and seeing those huge glass skyscrapers next to the stately French colonial buildings was another highlight.

      June 25, 2019
      • I hope you can see a metro line by your next visit. Honestly, I don’t want to wait 34 years to ride metro in my hometown 🙂

        June 25, 2019
  6. James, this is such a fascinating and heartfelt description of Jakarta. I enjoyed reading about the many “ordinary” folks like Roni, Regina, and Andri who seem to define this sense of village within a “chaotic megacity”. Your post makes me want to jump on a plane to Jakarta and try Andri’s nasi uduk (the ingredients sound awesome) and that gorgeous rooftop restaurant (the presentation of the sashimi is a work of art). It’s lovely to read your insider account of Jakarta as I assume this is the kind of city that requires more than a short visit to truly appreciate. Great post!

    June 24, 2019
    • Thank you so much, Caroline! I wonder if I was partially inspired by your own recent post on Colombo on a subconscious level – the connecting thread is that there’s so much to discover in these teeming port cities that people tend to write off as places of transit. Andri’s nasi uduk is one of the things I most look forward to on weekends; I would love to document him and his wife making it step-by-step but I’m not sure he would want to give the recipe away!

      June 25, 2019
      • These mega cities are so overwhelming that it takes several days/weeks to even get your bearings as a visitor (time that many people don’t have). I remember not particularly liking Bangkok my first time there— I think it was stimulus overload (particularly after arriving from Toronto in January). A few months later, when I visited again and had become accustomed to travel in SE Asia, I loved it.
        A step-by-step post of how the recipe is made would be fun—good luck!

        July 7, 2019
  7. This reminds me of a few things you haven’t tried in Jakarta (kerak telor and bir pletok, for example), and places you’ve never been in the city. When the weather is good I should take you to Taman Mini and one of the small islands, and we should do some culinary adventure around Mangga Besar/Kota as well. Actually there are a lot parts of the city that I haven’t been to for at least five years and would love to show you. So many places, so little time, as always!

    June 24, 2019
    • Well, I definitely won’t say no to your offer of bringing me to Taman Mini and the Thousand Islands sometime. After what you’ve told me in the past, I’m very curious about kerak telor. I think what keeps us from exploring more of Jakarta is probably the traffic… and the prevalence of smoggy or rainy days depending on the season!

      June 25, 2019
  8. Great post James. And it certainly sounds as if you’re doing more than surviving Jakarta. You sound quite at home.

    June 26, 2019
    • Much appreciated, Alison! And you’re absolutely right about me being at home. The last time I went back to Hong Kong for Christmas, I couldn’t wait to return to Jakarta after a couple of days. I still adore the place in spite of all its problems and shortcomings.

      June 26, 2019
  9. I enjoy your occasional paeans to your adopted city! Like you, I now live in an under-appreciated big city, and I love it for many of the same reasons you love yours. I could list all the perceived negatives of Houston or provide all sorts of defenses, but for me the fierce love I feel for this sprawling, mish-mash of a place is neither because of nor in spite of all those things; it’s simply an inexplicable attachment to an imperfect but utterly beguiling hot mess!

    June 28, 2019
    • Oh, Houston sounds so much like Jakarta – this place is indeed a hot mess, in every sense of the term! If I ever do come by (and it is more likely than not since a few close relatives live there), I have a feeling that it will strike me as being very, very familiar.

      June 29, 2019
  10. I absolutely love the first picture. Also the write-up, it’s great. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    July 4, 2019
    • Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks in turn for reading and commenting. 🙂

      August 1, 2019
  11. Reblogged this on Misled Meg's travel blog.

    July 8, 2019
  12. Ah, Jakarta is quite the metropolis city. Your post took me down memory lane when I used to live there years ago. Definitely agree about the traffic. Even when I wanted to go to a restaurant that was a ten minute drive away, it would usually take 45 minutes because of the stand-still traffic. It’s something the locals put up with so well.

    You highlighted the good naturedness of the locals over there. Lol the birthday person has to treat everyone on their birthday. It’s not just about you on your birthday but everyone else too 😛 I remember the people over there being very friendly. For instance whenever I walked into an air-conditioned mall, the sales assistants would be very friendly from the moment I walked in until I left, even still smiling when I didn’t buy anything. When approaching street-side vendors, know that sometimes can get chaotic when so many shop vendors or people selling things approach you at once – and I have to remind myself never to engage. While there are some very well-off in Jakarta, there are also a good number who are not so.

    The food is quite amazing over there. As from what you wrote and what I saw, Jakarta does rice very well. I didn’t see baked cheese rice over there, but it sounds good. It also takes some skill to make a runny friend egg. When I was there I remember eating bakmi goreng from Bakmi GM. That place didn’t make me fall ill unlike some other places

    July 28, 2019
    • Yes, the birthday tradition here took a while to get used to! It just seems so counter-intuitive for those of us who have lived in the West.

      There’s no doubt about the friendliness of Indonesians, but I feel that as a whole, the service standard in restaurants is much higher in Australia. Just today at lunchtime I was left waiting for 10 minutes at a dirty table; the waitstaff were too preoccupied to take away the plates left by the previous diner and wipe down the surface or even hand me a menu. In the end I had to get up and fetch the menu myself. Only then did they realize I needed to be served. I didn’t make a fuss about it, but it wasn’t such a great experience especially during a limited lunch break.

      Speaking of bakmi, I went to Glodok, Jakarta’s original Chinatown, the other weekend to have some pork noodles for breakfast. It was divine!

      August 1, 2019
      • So interesting to hear you say you feel the service standard in restaurants in Australia is better. Maybe it’s time I visit Jakarta again and see how things are now 🙂

        Have more bakmi and enjoy, James. It is always a satisfying go-to meal to have 🙂

        August 2, 2019
  13. Amazing tour!!! The views, the food, the greeneries… Everything is just WOW.

    August 26, 2019
    • Thanks for the comment, and apologies for the very late reply – I only just saw this!

      December 2, 2019
  14. Somehow I missed this post when it came out, but I’m glad I read it. I like how you describe Jakarta as L.A., NYC and Washington D.C. all in one. That makes sense because no other city in the archipelago even comes close to the clout and prestige as Jakarta.

    Is the new metro system helping at all with the congestion? I think that traffic would be the worst part of living there.

    I imagine one of the best parts of learning Bahasa Indonesia is the ability to take it all over the country and have much deeper and more meaningful travel experiences.

    Do you think you’ll stay there long term, or do you think you may move to another country in the future?

    November 29, 2019
    • The metro system is still in its infancy – there’s only one line so far! It does help a lot if you happen to be going in a north-south direction along a particular route, but the network isn’t extensive enough to make a real impact on solving Jakarta’s traffic woes. That said, quite a few of my coworkers have switched from driving to riding the MRT because it saves them so much travel time. And the next few years will see a separate elevated rail system connect the downtown area with suburbs in the south and east.

      To be honest I’d love to stay in Indonesia long term. I’m not very keen on moving countries at this stage and I’m content with the life I’ve built here the past three years or so.

      December 2, 2019

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