Jakarta Today

Any commentary on Jakarta today requires to open with a bit of frankness: the city is not immediately appreciated by first time visitors often overwhelmed by its traffic and congested streets (which ranges from bad to horrific depending on the time of day and whether rain is involved).

Yet legions of expatriates and business travelers rave about the city and its hidden precincts. Today the capital is slowly and persistently playing catch-up with other metropolises in S.E. Asia for its nascent design, cuisine, shopping and entertainment scene. And no surprise the capital of the fifth fastest growing G20 country in 2010 is attracting more leisure travelers than at anytime in its modern history.

The Viator Travel Blog (http://travelblog.viator.com/rethinking-jakarta/) describes today’s Jakarta quite accurately: “It is a fairly common occurrence that when people are mapping their exciting campaign through Southeast Asia they’ll run their finger over Laos down to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, then just as they get into Indonesia, skip over Jakarta and dot the ‘i’ in Bali. Where it is true that Jakarta is a sweltering metropolis of government and business that has traditionally scared off tourists, a flourishing of modern amenities, attractions, mixed with inlaid charms make it an interesting destination choice for culture and history enthusiasts.”

I only need to visit pushy Hong Kong or punctilious Singapore to appreciate Jakarta hospitality, which is arguably without rival. No matter where you happen to be, whether a spa session at one of its many authentic Javanese wellness centers, a morning of golf at any one its top-flight courses (said to be S.E. Asia’s most underrated) or a day sashaying in opulent shopping plazas, you will be greeted with a consistent and refined courtesy that is, like its national treasure batik, purely Indonesian.

Jakarta has been a sought after destination for business and trade for centuries, from frontiersmen to global nomads and adventurers to entrepreneurs and merchants. Since the 4th century, the alluvial plain on which the city is built has had its fair share of denizens. Jakarta has been variously the Indian kingdom of Tarumanegara, the Hindu kingdom of Sunda, a Muslim sultanate and an entrepot of the Dutch East Indies.

Here’s a city that now has more reasons to look forward with an of-the-moment optimism as the rest of the world deals with its economic woes. Could Jakarta once again be considered a new frontier?

Perhaps the city’s most dramatic acceleration is unseen, its residents’ penchant for social networking. If Facebook were a country, Jakarta would be its capital according to Socialbakers, which places the city at the pinnacle of Facebook’s worldwide citizenship with a mind numbing 17 million members. This phenomenal IT explosion has all happened in only the past few years, and the numbers are nothing short of remarkable. That all of its neighborhoods combine for a population of 19 million, a size wedged in between Manila and Los Angeles (note: both cities have equally appalling traffic), makes for an unbelievable statistic.

That doesn’t mean Jakarta is a place where people sit at home and update their profiles. This is a city where residents are forever going somewhere (despite the traffic… or could it be these social mobs are the reason for the traffic?) for a dose of face time with dining and entertainment venues springing up at a dizzying pace. I’ve never experienced a city with so many day-to-day product launches, fashion shows, festivals, grand openings, soft openings, exhibitions, concerts, anniversaries, ceremonies… you name it, Jakartans are out in droves.

The other notable consistency is its pace of change. While the lack of infrastructure remains a topic as thorny as a durian amongst Jakartans, the city’s architects have nonetheless acted on robust demand, building up from brick and mortar shop houses to gleaming glass and marble towers of commerce and trade. Each time I return I am bowled over at the capital’s achievements especially within its tight packed kampungs (neighborhoods).

Unlike virtually all of the city’s international hotels, the Kemang Icon and Alila Jakarta are uniquely positioned away from the tussle of the metropolis’s central business district in neighborhoods of unique discovery. Both locations offer a range of choice for travelers wanting a sampling of the city that doesn’t involve the bustling (and often predictable) golden triangle of Jl. Sudirman and Jl. Rasuna Said, the country’s two busiest streets.

Alila Jakarta, located on Jalan Pecenongan (said to be one of the city’s most vibrant food streets) makes for close discovery with its brightly lit and colorful food stalls that come alive, carnival-like, just before dusk. Situated north of the presidential palace, and bordering on Chinatown and the district of Menteng (where the American president Barack Obama schooled from 1968-71), the hotel is in easy range of a number of key places of interest.

Image : Alila Jakarta – Suite

Only a five-minute drive away is Istiqlal Mosque, the largest place of worship in S.E Asia located near the National Monument (Monas) a 132-meter tower (considered Jakarta’s only true iconic symbol) in the centre of Merdeka Square. Head north into enigmatic Chinatown where there are a number of museums (of note is the ceramic and puppet museums) near Fatilah Square and shopping plazas with inimitable textiles and handicrafts found nowhere else in the city. Note: don’t just set out, you’ll need a car and diver, map and guidebook; early weekend mornings are best.

The extremely private Kemang Icon, smack in the middle of the forever-changing expatriate district of Kemang is considered, with its 12 designer suites, the city’s only true boutique hotel. Here’s a neighborhood replete with antique stores, art galleries and eccentric shops more akin to Bali’s Seminyak; some streets lined cheek-to-jowl with artisans sanding and joining homewares and furniture a mere few meters from traffic and passers-by.

Image : Kemang Icon – Roof Top Pool, listed in Forbes World’s 20 Coolest Hotel Pools 2011

Pasaraya shopping center (10 minutes away by car) really a giant emporium of handmade Indonesian products offers a local shopping experience appreciated by expats and visitors for its amply spaced floors of handicrafts and homewares, trinkets and textiles from around the archipelago. And nearby batik shops like Incubare designed by renowned cloth maker Obin and Majju purvey chic and casual hand-stitched cloth. Note: much of Kemang can be discovered by 10-minute taxi excursions from the hotel.

If you wish to get an inside track on Jakarta, venture out on foot to two well-greased drinking establishments, Murphy’s Irish pub and Eastern Promise, each within a five-minute walk from the Kemang Icon. There you’ll find plenty of regulars who will be glad to bend your ear on the many virtues of Jakarta today.

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