Sex-Rated: The VICE Guide to Sex

What It's Like to Work In a West Jakarta Love Motel

I spent a night in a hotel where most rooms were rented for a few hours at a time.
The author hangs out in an empty room. All photos by Dicho Riva.

This is an installment of "Sex-Rated: The VICE Guide to Sex," an series that's about all things sex. In this story, we spend some time with Adi Renaldi as he figures out the inner-workings of a downmarket "love motel," in Mangga Besar.


During the daylight hours, West Jakarta's Mangga Besar is a nondescript, run-down neighborhood off Jalan Hayam Waruk, the kind of place that looks like so many other places in urban Indonesia. But when the sun sets, Mangga Besar shows its true colors as the city's biggest—now unofficial—red light district. And it wasn't all that long ago that Mangga Besar was an official red light district. Back in the 1960s, the neighborhood first began to earn its reputation as a place for sin and vice. Today, the seedy atmosphere continues to hang heavy in the neighborhood.

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Walk down Jalan Mangga Besar after in the late evening and you'll watch to see the place start to wake up. Waitresses and hostesses show up at the door in ironed uniforms, waiting to greet customers who were sure to show up soon enough.

I was in Mangga Besar to figure out what it was like to work in the middle of one of the seediest parts of Jakarta. The street, Jalan Mangga Besar V, is in a crowded, sex-soaked part of the city where street carts sell knock-off Viagra and Cialis, as well as cheaper herbal supplements and tiny drinks that all promise to provide men with "vitality" and "stamina."

A narrow, fetid canal runs down the middle of the street and the entire block reeked of sewage and rotten water, not that anyone seemed to mind much. The street was crowded and it was only 7 pm, still hours from when the strip clubs, karaoke rooms, and dark, heavily air-conditioned nightclubs open their doors. This one hotel stood out above all the others in Mangga Besar. I don't want to put its name out there because Wasnen, the 36-year-old front desk worker was kind enough to let me hang out, but the place definitely stood out. One of the tallest buildings on the block, the hotel's faded, rainbow-colored facade and open front door were about as welcoming as things could get in Mangga Besar.

The front door.

I walked in under the arched sign reading "Selamat Datang," or welcome, and met Wasnen sitting behind a well-worn front desk. The desk itself looked more like a piece of wood than a finished desk, and the plastic chairs were worn-out and unstable. The entire reception area was covered in smudges, dents, and stains, the kind that come from years of use and neglect.

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Wasnen was wearing a gray t-shirt and pressed black pants. He was staring at a Nokia phone and seemed a bit bored with the job after spending three years behind that wooden desk. He was nervous as we spoke, and it took a while before the personal details started to tumble out.

He was from Tegal, Central Java, a small coastal city some 287 kilometers east of Jakarta. He has two children back in Tegal, but he only gets to see them once a year. Wasnen spends the rest of his time trying to make money in the Indonesian capital. The first couple years, he bounced from job to job, until he landed the front desk gig at this hotel, where he works 12 hours aday, six days a week, and shares a room upstairs with three other employees. The take home is Rp 700,000 a month, less than half the city's minimum wage, but Wasnen stayed employed there regardless.

“It’s a pretty boring job because all I do is sit here all day,” he told me. “But it’s not too bad, you know. They gave me a place to stay and sometimes I get free food, too. So I can send some of my salary to my family back home.”

Wasnen and I hang out in the reception area.

The hotel filled-in as we talked. The parking lot outside was way too small, and crime a constant concern, so a lot of the customers parked their motorbikes right inside the front lobby. Six couples came in during my time at the hotel. Each was required to leave their IDs behind and pay only in cash, choosing either three hours (Rp 70,000), 12 hours (Rp 160,000), or 24 hours (Rp 200,000).

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Each couple got a tiny plastic satchel of shower gel and was shown their room by Suhartati, one of the hotel's two house keepers on staff. I trailed along with Suhartati as she showed me around the place. The hallways were dimly lit by low-wattage bulbs, and Suhartati brought the couple right to a vacant room. "Thank you," she said as she shut the door. "Hope you get a good rest."

Walking down a hallway at the hotel.

There are 24 rooms per-floor, each of them a cramped 3 meters by 5 meters big, with a small ensuite bathroom that included a squat toilet and a bucket of water to wash yourself. None of the rooms had air conditioning and the horrendous odor from outside wafted in through the windows. The sheets were stained from heavy use.

But despite all of this, the hotel is still a pretty popular spot on weekends. Suhartati told me that on a single Saturday, as many as 150 couples check into the hotel, most of them young, working class lovers who are only looking for a few moments away from their families. Most Indonesians live at home until they get married, and in poorer households, privacy is sacrificed for economy. The houses are too small, too cramped, for actual privacy, and even in a house big enough, the neighbor's prying eyes and judgmental whispers are still a concern.

That's why cheap love hotels like this are so common in Jakarta. The city's outward conservatism drives an industry of by-the-hour hotels in the parts of the capital where authorities turn a blind eye to far worse industries. The relative safety of the hotel is another reason why it's so popular with couples, Suhartati said, adding that during her entire time working there, it hadn't been raided once.

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“On a regular working day, only a few dozen customers check in,” she said. “But the beginning of the month is our peak time. This area is safe from raids, so that’s why we have a lot of regulars.”

Pelajar dilarang masuk. Tapi faktanya ya enggak ada yang ngecek KTP.

I went back downstairs and sat with Wasnen some more. The lobby was full of customers, whom all inquired about the rates. Still, despite the busy night, I felt pretty bored. Wasnen said he often feels the same way. But boredom is better than exciting in a hotel where anything goes. He told me about one recent night where a man was so drunk he had to be carried to his room. The next morning he left the place covered in vomit.

Other nights, people rent out the rooms to party inside.

“That’s pretty common,” Wasnen told me. “One time there were a group of people who checked into the same room. One room should’ve been only for two customers, but I couldn’t do anything. They paid for it.”

Relaxing on the overnight shift.

And other times, life in the hotel took a dark turn. In 2012, a woman was murdered in room 109, Wasnen explained. He didn't work at the hotel at the time, but the killing still left him shook. The murder was never caught. The hotel didn't have any CCTV—it still doesn't today—and the best police could do was show a sketch of the suspect around the neighborhood.

“It still feels weird today,” Wasnen said. “It just feels weird when you know that a murder took place at your workplace. But thank God so far nothing that awful happened again.”

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By 10 pm, Wasnen got up and checked all the floors. I followed behind. The halls were eerily quiet and full of cigarette smoke. Wasnen told me that he makes the rounds to be sure no one is staying longer than they paid for.

“I usually check the floors two times every night,” Wasnen said. “Besides, if all I do is sit around all night and don’t move, my body would get stiff.”

By midnight, a new wave of customers arrived. An impatient man and a woman in heavy make-up walked up to the front desk. The woman asked Wasnen for a condom. He told her that he didn't have any while the man stared at the clock on the wall.

The hours slowly ticked by. By the time we hit 5 am, Wasnen prepared to end his shift. He made some coffee and sat behind the front desk and stared out at the room. Wasnen turned to me and said that he was grateful for this job. It was way better than begging or stealing, he said.

“People think that working at a place like this can’t be good," he said. "But motels like these give people what they need: a sense of privacy. Tell me, what is so wrong with that?”