It is often overlooked that Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, and the sprawling capital of Jakarta is a fitting testament to this reality. Located on the island of Java, Jakarta today is the largest urban center in Southeast Asia, with more than 10 million people living in the city limits and twice as many in the surrounding areas. Aptly nicknamed the “Big Durian,” this steamy, sweltering, jam-packed conurbation is the cultural, economic, and administrative center of the country. Having attracted migrants from all over Indonesia and abroad throughout its history, the city is home to an incredible diversity of linguistic and ethnic groups, with Javanese, Betawi, Sundanese, and Indonesian Chinese forming some of the largest. While Jakarta might shock you at first, once you penetrate the surface you’ll discover a spectacular melting pot of rich flavor and intriguing surprises.
History & Culture
The island of Java has been inhabited since prehistory, and the location of present-day Jakarta has been recorded in history under many names as successive empires re-invented it in their own image. By the 13th to 16th centuries the port town was known as Sunda Kelapa to the Hindu dynasties of the Sunda Kingdom that ruled there. Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to arrive and in 1522 secured an agreement with the local authorities granting them permission to settle, but in 1527 they were driven out by a Javanese Muslim sultanate which then ruled the settlement under the name of Jayakarta, as part of the ongoing consolidation of Islam as the majority religion on Java and other islands during this period. The European powers’ mercantile yearning for the lucrative spice trade of the East Indies could not be checked, however, and in 1612 Jayakarta fell to the Dutch East India Company, who razed it and founded their own colony of Batavia. Dutch colonial rule endured more or less steadily until World War II, when Imperial Japan’s military conquered much of Southeast Asia. Though the Dutch returned to power with the Allied victory in 1945, Indonesian nationalists would no longer be kept down. Under their leader Sukarno who would become the country’s autocratic founding president, they fought fiercely for independence, winning it in 1950 and renaming the capital to Jakarta.
In the wake of independence, rural migration swelled amid ambitious urban planning policies as Jakarta was seen as the bright nexus of opportunity for the newly established nation. In 1965 a struggle between the right and left wings led to a failed coup attempt, the brutal massacre of over 500,000 suspected communist sympathizers, and the overthrow of Sukarno’s government by General Suharto, who instituted a “New Order” that would last for three decades. Suharto’s Western-friendly government attracted heavy foreign investment, resulting in Jakarta’s economic boom. Though evidence of corruption and nepotism was widespread, this was largely overlooked until the Asian financial crisis of 1998, which devastated Indonesia’s economy and led to a democratic revolution against Suharto that same year.
Despite achieving democracy and returning to a more or less sound economic footing, Indonesia has faced other challenges in the early 21st century. Jakarta was fortunate to be spared from the worst damages of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that wracked Indonesia, but it has seen several episodes of severe flooding, and a spate of high-profile terrorist bombings perpetrated by Islamic extremists.
Economics & Politics
Despite its turbulent history, the economic trend in Jakarta is one of overall improvement. The 1998 Asian financial crisis was particularly destructive and the urban poor in Jakarta suffered its worst effects due to inflationary pressures and reduced employment opportunities. Income inequality today remains among the worst in the world (Indonesia also currently has the fastest-rising number of high net worth individuals in Asia). The economy performed better in the last decade, continuing to grow despite the global downturn. It benefited from strong domestic demand for goods and services, unlike some of its export-reliant neighbors, and is now the fastest-growing country in the G20 after China and India. As a financial and banking hub, Jakarta has attracted many multinational companies and a steady stream of international expatriates.
The transition to liberal democracy in Indonesia has ushered in a gradual move towards legal reforms, civil pluralism, and transparency that continues to the present day. Similar to the U.S. the government is structured as a presidential system of checks and balances. The president serves a maximum of two five-year terms; at the time of writing the office is currently held by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was first elected in 2004. The next general election will take place in mid-2014. Jakarta itself is actually governed as a province, the “Special Capital City District” or DKI Jakarta, and has a governor instead of a mayor. The city administration has recently imposed laws that prohibit squatting, outlaw giving money to beggars and street performers, and penalize spitting and smoking on public transportation.
Places to Visit & Cuisine
While Jakarta is not widely reputed as a famous sightseeing city, the persevering traveler will be rewarded with many noteworthy discoveries. You won’t be able to miss Monumen Nasional or Monas for short, a 137 m tall obelisk commemorating Indonesia’s independence. There are many fine museums including the Museum Nasional, which boasts an impressive treasure collection, and the Jakarta History Museum, located in Old Batavia, the city’s historical district. The Ancol Dream Park is a more modern highlight; it is one of the largest amusement parks in Asia and includes water rides, a vast aquarium, theatrical shows, and other themed attractions as well as upscale hotels and restaurants.
For history buffs, on the other hand, numerous buildings that were important during colonial times also have particular resonance for the modern period, such as Gedung Pancasila, where Sukarno gave a famous speech outlining the founding principles of Indonesia’s constitution. While the Merdeka Palace in central Jakarta is regal in its own right, it’s worth traveling 60 km south to visit Bogor Palace, the former official residence of the Dutch governors who preferred the cooler hill climate, and its adjoining botanical gardens. Jakarta’s Chinatown is also steeped in tradition and contains its own architectural delights such as the Jin De Yuan Buddhist temple.
Indonesia is renowned for its delicious cuisine that reflects the diversity and cultural mixing of the islands, and Jakarta is no exception. Beware of street foods, though, as your outsider’s stomach will need ample time to adjust before daring to partake of these. Stick to mid- to upscale restaurants and mall food courts for safer cosmopolitan dining. Dapur Sunda is a chain restaurant that offers great traditional Sundanese food. Rice dishes like nasi uduk and nasi ulam are essential to try, along with different iterations of soto soup. Gado-gado is a (mostly) healthy vegetable dish found throughout Indonesia, and you’ll no doubt encounter tempeh, a traditional soy food. Of course, for the more adventurous of palate there is a variety of astonishing seafood, including both freshwater and saltwater fish. Most Javanese cuisine omits pork, but beef and especially chicken are quite popular. In this incredible melting pot city, the wide range of culinary influences will no doubt leave you hungering for a return visit soon.