The first thing many people want to do when they arrive in Jakarta is to leave. And it’s true that first impressions are not very flattering. This “Megatropolis” of some 28 million people (depending on which figures you trust) bears all the hallmarks of a stampede into modernity. Clogged traffic, choking pollution, a dysfunctional infrastructure and a random rush towards concrete and glass does not, on the surface, offer much to love. But beneath this unappealing façade, Jakarta has many faces, the friendliest of people and plenty of pleasant surprises. It may not be a place in which to linger long, but a short visit offers rich rewards.
From humble port to seat of power
Jakarta’s origins can be traced right back to the 12th century when a small trading port was established by the Hindu Sundanese Kingdom, known as Sunda Kelapa. Spices and textiles were shipped far and wide from here, and today it remains a bustling harbour – a magnet for photographers keen to capture the old style two-mast ‘penisi’ boats which still ply the waters.
The lucrative trade became a battleground for centuries. In 1527 the city was conquered by Java’s Islamic kingdoms who renamed the port Jayakarta, meaning “The Glorious Victory”. Inevitably the Europeans wanted a piece of the action - first the Portuguese, then the English, and eventually the Dutch, who had effectively taken control by the beginning of the 17th century. The Dutch razed the old Jayakarta port during their conquest, rebuilt a walled city with canals and renamed it Batavia. For the next 300 years this was the base of the mighty Dutch East Indies mercantile empire, and was known as The Queen of the East.
The name Jakarta was adopted when the city was occupied by the Japanese in 1942. Indonesia gained independence in 1945 and Jakarta became the economic and political capital of the new nation. Post-independence fervour saw mass construction of monuments and public buildings, and the growth – mostly unplanned – has continued ever since. Today, the greater urban sprawl is called Jabodetabeck (Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi), with a combined population of 28 million – and rising.
Rise above it all
The most notable of the post-independence monuments mentioned above is the towering National Monument(Monument Nasional, or MONAS), built by Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno and still the city’s signature landmark. Its observation desk nearly 400ft high gives a superb view of this extraordinary city – warts and all – plus a close-up of the gold flame spiralling into the clouds.
After visiting the tower your city tour takes a trip to Sunda Kelapa Harbour, the place where it all started. Whether you’re a casual snapper or serious photographer, this most photogenic of ports is irresistible, with the brightly painted pinisi boats bobbing in the water while being loaded and unloaded with all manner of goods. It’s a picture that hasn’t changed over hundreds of years, and a glimpse into ancient Jakarta beneath the many layers of the new.