What I Learned About Jakarta By Reading Old Travel Guides

Old, dog-eared Lonely Planet travel guides are actually a decent way to track Jakarta's changes over the years.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
22 June 2017, 11:48am

Jakarta is a bit of everything. It's got all the ills of a Third World megacity—the pollution, the overcrowding, the traffic, the shoddy infrastructure. But it's also got some of the beauty of life in the tropics—tiny islands, palm trees, and lizards galore. The capital has slums and some of the poshest restaurants I've seen in my entire life. It's got mansions, Ferraris, and old guys pedaling becak (bicycle rickshaws) in worn flip-flops.

But one thing Jakarta has never been is a big tourist draw. Historically, about half as many tourists arrive in Jakarta than Bali. What's keeping everyone away? I went out and collected some travel guides published between the New Order and today to see what they had to say about the Indonesian capital. And what I found was a pretty realistic portrayal of the city's history from Suharto to now, warts and all.

Photo by Anjar/ Flickr CC License

What is Jakarta?

Jakarta is all Indonesia rolled into one huge urban sprawl of nearly nine million people. Indonesians come from all over the archipelago to seek fame and fortune, or just to eke out a living. Bataks and Minangkabau from Sumatra, Ambonese from Maluku, Dani from Irian Jaya, Minahasans from Sulawesi, Balinese, Madurese and Timorese are all united by Bahasa Indonesia and a desire to make it in the capital. For it is in Jakarta that the latest styles and thoughts are formed, the important political decisions are made. Jakarta is the main centre for the economy, a place to find work, do deals and court government officials.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (1997)

Indonesia's capital is a congested sprawl of wealth and poverty, modernity and tradition, attracting Indonesians from all over the archipelago in search of a better life. The hopeful keep coming, despite the economic downturn and increased poverty.

South-East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet (2001)

Jakarta is a hard city to love. One of the world's greatest metropolises , its grey, relentlessly urban sprawl spreads for tens of kilometers across a flood-prone plain with barely a park to break the concrete monotony.

And yet beneath the unappealing facade of high-rises, slums and gridlocked streets, this is a city of surprises and many faces.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (2010)

One of the world's greatest megalopolises, Jakarta is a dynamic city of daunting extremes with surreal juxtapositions on every street corner.

Introducing Jakarta (2017)

It's weird that Jakarta seemed like a more optimistic place during Suharto's New Order regime. Were travel writers ignoring the poverty, plummeting economy, and rising political instability of the time? Since then the city has been steadily improving, by some metrics. We're in the process of building our first MRT, and expanding the TransJakarta bus system too. But it's also getting worse—just look at the traffic, rising intolerance, and increasing sprawl. All those stickers on the back of trucks might be onto something... maybe it was better back in the day.

Photo by Axel Drainville

Jakarta is always transforming

Over the last decade or so, Jakarta has undergone a huge transformation. Once, it's miserable poverty and crumbling infrastructure made it one of the hell holes of Asian travel. Now, the city's face is being changed by the constant construction of more skyscrapers, flyovers, hotels and shopping malls.

The showpiece of the prosperous new Jakarta is the central business district bounded by Jl Thamrin/Sudirman, Jl Rasuna Said, and JL Gatot Subroto. The 'Golden Triangle,' as it known, is crammed with office towers, luxury hotels and foreign embassies. Viewed from here, Jakarta has all the appearances of a prosperous Asian boom city.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (1997)

Some parts of the city still bear the scars of the riots that brought down Soeharto. Following the shooting of four students by the military on 12 May 1998, the urban poor went on a shocking rampage of rioting and looting that left over 1000 people dead.

Life in Jakarta has returned much to normal, though the city is now the political cauldron for a democratic Indonesia. The freeways, office towers, luxury hotels and shopping centres of the good times remain, but the empty building sites and flyovers going nowhere are a testament to Indonesia's uncertain future.

South-East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet (2001)

Though Jakarta's infamous traffic jams still choke the city, an ever-expanding modern busway network has speeded up travel considerably in recent years.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (2010)

An organism unto itself, Jakarta is a town in the midst of a very public metamorphosis and, despite the maddening traffic, life here is lived at an all-out pace, driven by an industriousness and optimism that's palpable. Dysfunction be damned. It's developing at a pace that throws up challenges. Translation: it's no oil painting, yet beneath the unappealing facade of new build high-rises, relentless concrete and gridlocked streets, fringed with rickety slums and shrouded in a persistent blanket of smog, Jakarta has many faces and plenty of surprises.

Introducing Jakarta (2017)

So the city is dysfunctional, unappealing, and gridlocked... at least it's no longer "one of the hell holes of Asian travel." Now that's what I call progress.

Photo by Tommy Wahyu Utomo/ Flickr CC License

Our nightlife isn't as fun as it once was

Jakarta is the most sophisticated , broad-minded and corrupt city in Indonesia, and has nightlife to match. Hundreds of bars, discos, karaoke lounges and nightclubs range from the sleazy to the refined.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (1997)

Jakarta is the most sophisticated , broad-minded, and corrupt city in Indonesia, and has nightlife to match. And despite the economic downturn and protests by religious fanatics, the city's nightlife still rages.

South-East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet (2001)

Jakarta is Indonesia's most broad-minded, sophisticated and decadent city, with the nightlife to match. The club scene is nothing short of incendiary.

Occasionally, bars and clubs have been smashed up by the city's self-appointed morality police, the Jakarta-based Front Pembela islam (FPI or Islamic Defenders Front), especially during Ramadan.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (2010)

It's pretty surprising that a travel guide somehow captured the rise of the FPI. Way back in Suharto's New Order, the hardline group didn't even exist. A few years later, some "religious fanatics" had started to appear. By 2010, the group was mentioned BY NAME as a potential danger for partying tourists. It makes me wonder what next year's edition is going to say.

Photo by Seika/ Flickr CC License

The rise and fall of Jl Jaksa

Once upon a time, so the story goes, a backpacker arrived at Jakarta's Gambir train station and wandered off looking for a hotel, without success. He chanced down Jl Jaksa and a family took pity on him and gave him a bed for the night. The word spread and soon other backpackers started arriving at the house, so the family decided to open a hostel. Other guesthouses followed and now Jl Jaksa is a lively strip of cheap hotels and restaurants, conveniently central near Jakarta's main drag, Jl Thamrin and only a 10 to 15 minute walk from Gambir train station.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (1997)

Jakarta's cheap accommodation is almost all centered on Jl Jaksa.

South-East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet (2001)

This is the traveller's ghetto in Jakarta, but today it's a shadow of its former gap-year glory and looking pretty rundown. The handful of remaining budget places are looking grungy, but the area does have some decent midrange options and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Indonesia Lonely Planet (2010)

Jl Jaksa has fallen on some hard times. It's always been pretty rundown, but in recent years a lot of the bars and guesthouses vanished after the construction of a luxury apartment tower ate about half the block. As the apartment tower went up, the reggae bars came down. So it's so long to the dive bar greats like Obama Fan Club and Absolute and hello to bland Padang restaurants and dead ass streets.

I was never a fan of the street, but it's a bit weird that nearly every other Southeast Asian capital has a thriving backpacker district and today we have... nothing.