Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jakarta - Great food but not a lot else

The Republic of Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands (only about 6,000 are inhabited though) stretching from Malaysia in the west across the Pacific past Darwin, Australia in the east. It is the 4th most populated country in the world (230 million people according to Wikipedia) with the world's largest population of Muslims. After over 300 years as a Dutch colony, Indonesia won its independence after World War II; we were in Indonesia for the Independence Day celebrations on 17 August. The largest island within the country is Java and this is where Indonesia's capital city, Jakarta, is found and where we started our trip. From Jakarta we then flew to Bali to spend time in Ubud in the hills and Kuta on the coast.

The only reason to visit Jakarta on holiday is if you are visiting friends or relatives who live there - that is what we were doing as my sister, Lucy and her boyfriend, Jamie live there. If you don't know anyone in the city then my advice would be to avoid Jakarta because you won't be missing anything. Jakarta's population is approximately 10 million and it seemed to us that most of them owned either a scooter or car - no 'old-fashioned' bicycles here. This means that traffic is a nightmare at rush hour times and that there is so much pollution you never see a truly blue sky.

We visited the historic area of Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square) which is where the few remaining colonial buildings, such as the old Town Hall, are still standing. The square is cobbled and pedestrianised with museums housed in the various buildings. Those buildings that haven't been converted to museums are however crumbling and have no windows, no floors and trees growing inside them which give the area an unkempt, dilapidated feel. We wanted to visit Sunda Kelapa (the old port) but after heading off in what we thought was the right direction, the heat, smells from the open drains and feeling that we were going the wrong way made us decide to turn back and head for lunch instead. We got as far as a river with slums along its banks; in light of Indonesia's oil riches, it is extremely sad to see the level of poverty of many Indonesians.

Taman Fatahillah is the site of Cafe Batavia - Batavia was the old Dutch name for Jakarta - which I had read in Lonely Planet was a 'must visit'. The building is 150 years old and has that Raffles-colonial charm. Downstairs was very dark so we sat upstairs in the conservatory where the old-world charm stretched to having ceiling fans and inefficient ACs so you really felt like they would have done 100 years ago: extremely hot and humid. Our meal was mediocre and I feel that after an extensive refurbishment almost 20 years ago and winning various awards in the mid-90s, it has sadly not been properly managed or maintained.

I have to also mention the National Monument which stands in a large park in the centre of Jakarta. Unfortunately we weren't able to go into the park because there were protests going on outside. It seems that organised protests are a common thing in Jakarta so there was no way we were going to venture past the police, army, truck with barbed wire at the ready and hordes of shouting Indonesians just to walk through the park! Driving past though, I think the park would make a great picnic spot surrounded by greenery and no traffic.

Jakarta is not all doom and gloom though! It has a fantastic restaurant scene and if you enjoy shopping there are over 1,000 shopping malls. Lucy and Jamie live in an expat area near the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Simon and I had the best massages of our holiday there (the most expensive as well though at $50 each). The Pasaraya shopping centre is a huge department store with the top floor entirely devoted to Indonesian art & crafts. We bought a few souvenirs and marvelled at the huge amount of work that must go into the wood carvings on sale, although we weren't sure who would buy 5 foot animal carvings - hotels perhaps? Over at Ratu Plaza we were able to buy high quality copy DVDs. Yes, copy DVDs are illegal but in the Far East you cannot buy originals since they just do not exist. Simon and I are not big shoppers so half a day of shopping was more than enough for us.

Unlike Dubai, all restaurants in Jakarta can sell alcohol so you don't need to eat in 5 star hotels in order to have a glass of wine with your dinner. We had lunch on our first day at a small Italian restaurant called Trattoria where we were able to sit outside having a beer and watch the Independence Day parade march past. Even though it was Ramadan during our holiday (which in Dubai means that nobody is allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours), in Indonesia they maintain normal daily life which means that non-Muslims are not adversely affected by the Holy Month. That night we ate at Harum Manis which is a fine dining Indonesian restaurant - if you are in Jakarta then I recommend you have at least one meal here. Although some dishes (beef rendang for example) were too spicy for Simon and I to eat, all the food was beautifully presented and the non-spicy food tasted fabulous. The restaurants we ate at weren't of the roadside variety, but the prices were still excellent and a 3 course meal with drinks cost about $45-60 (Dhs 165-220 / £30-40) which are just unheard of value compared to Dubai.

Two other great restaurants we ate at were Loewy in the Oakwood Shopping Arcade and C's at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. These were almost the only non-Indonesian dinners we had in our whole holiday and I can confirm that you can get just as good foreign food as you can Indonesian. Loewy is a French brasserie and we were told it is packed every single night, the night we were there being no exception. My prawn salad was divine and had the biggest prawns ever; after 3 courses and numerous drinks we had to be rolled home - handy then that Lucy and Jamie live right upstairs from Loewy. Our meal at C's was without fault: attentive service and wonderful food. A garlic prawn 'amuse bouche' was served and as I had already told the waiter about not eating garlic, I was given a mozarella and tomato amuse bouche instead. Impressive service. C's has an open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant with crates of fresh herbs and spices dotted around creating not only an original design but also great smells. Every single dish served was perfect, including scallop salad, crab claws, fresh crab cakes, steaks and vegetables. The only thing lacking was other diners - we were almost the only table there.

On our last day in Jakarta we headed out of the city to the Taman Safari Park and up into the tea country for lunch. Taman Safari is an open park where you drive your own vehicle through - many of the animals are free to come right up to the car and put their head in the window looking for food. On the approach to the park there are countless stalls selling bananas and carrotts for feeding the animals. Even in the lion and tiger areas, the big cats were lying by the side of the road - me leaning out of the window to photograph the tiger prompted our driver to ask me to close the window since tigers can move 8 times faster than humans and he was not that far away from us! The safari is one thing I would definitely recommend in the Jakarta area, although going to Jakarta just for that would be a bit much. From Taman Safari we headed up to the Puncuk Pass which, at over 1200m was considerably cooler and fresher than the smog and humidity of Jakarta. The tea plantations were not as abundant as those we've seen in Sri Lanka but they provided a refreshing change of scenery. We ate lunch at the Puncuk Pass Resort and had an edible, but not amazing meal.

Visiting Jakarta was worth it for us since we got to spend time with my sister and Jamie. However, if we had gone there with no family to visit and had expected something like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur then we would have been sorely disappointed. There are countless temples, the floating market and so much life to see in Bangkok and in KL (we visited 3 years ago) we had a full day tour with a car and driver and there were plenty of interesting places to visit and sites to see. Sadly Jakarta does not rank up there with those Asian cities so I would say to just bypass it completely and head straight to the other islands.


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