Wandering Smoky Jakarta, and Staying in Kemang

Jakarta, a city of around 10 million people, has a couple of central districts where tourists like to stay, namely Kota (the old Dutch quarter near the harbor) and the area farther south around the Monas (National Monument; also called “Sukarno’s Last Erection”). The Monas is near Gambir Train Station, and you can take the train north into Kota from there.

Todd and I, however, stayed way south of Kota and the Monas, at Bangka Bed & Breakfast in Kemang, South Jakarta. A lot of expats live in that area, but no trains go that far south (just buses).

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Bangka B&B consists of two houses, both run by members of the same family, who live downstairs in each house. Bangka gets good reviews on Trip Advisor, but what clinched the deal was the driver they sent to pick us up from the airport. Even with good traffic, it took an hour to get from the airport to the B&B, but we were so glad we didn’t have to find a taxi or try to deal with the bus or train systems on our first night ever in an Asian city.

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We traveled to Jakarta during one of the worst “burning seasons” in years. This dry season, far too many individuals and corporations burned the rainforest to clear land for agriculture. The rooms at Bangka were air-conditioned, but not the rest of the house, and the windows were open from dawn to dusk.

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When we woke up in the morning and walked into the main room to fix ourselves some breakfast, the air was often hot and smoky, and the sky was pearl-colored for most of our stay.

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The weather surprised both of us. While we were planning this five-month trip, we focused on starting in Australia and New Zealand, picking the best time to visit India, and staying in Thailand during the Lantern Festival in November. We stuck Indonesia in the middle somewhere and, because of our lack of planning, had to breathe some bad air, but I’m glad I got to see the smoke created by the world’s demand for palm oil, rather than being snootily outraged from a distance.

Todd and I walked around a lot in Jakarta, usually in the street. I never felt the air was bad enough to warrant wearing a mask, but some people riding motorbikes did wear them. They were spending a significant amount of time in traffic, though, breathing fumes.

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If you have any respiratory problems, I would definitely research the burning season for each country you plan to visit.

Two days after we arrived at Bangka, a man knocked on our door and offered to take us on a driving tour of Jakarta’s central city. At first we were skeptical, wondering if this was some sort of a scam, but he identified himself as Rama Slamet, the guest relations manager for the B&B, and said the tour was free and he would pay for his own lunch. He said he would pick us up the next morning.

Rama showed up earlier than the scheduled time, so we rushed around a bit and piled into the car. First he took us farther south in Kemang because he needed to go to the post office (Kantor Pos), and it happens to be on a street with lots of flower shops. (I went back to that area later because I liked the look of it so much. It was about a 20-minute walk from our B&B, but driving seemed to take much longer.)

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Then we drove past the shantytown near the river, which is also close to high-rises and the Lippo Mall.

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To our surprise, Rama informed us that he spent a lot of time in the United States and actually went to college in Warrensburg, Missouri, about an hour from where I grew up in Kansas City. He is fond of the United States and stays informed on U.S. events and politics. He said he was a fan of Hillary.

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One of the reasons Rama conducts these tours is to showcase the tolerant nature of Indonesian society, so as we drove around the Monas, he pointed out the mosque right next to a cathedral.

He drove us through Kota, the old Dutch quarter, and talked about the canals the Dutch built to make themselves feel at home. They’re neglected now, and full of trash. If you squint at the buildings in Kota, you can see a faint resemblance to the row houses of Amsterdam.

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Kota is simultaneously falling down and undergoing renovation. To me, that makes it interesting and worth a visit.

One of the stops Rama planned for us was Cafe Batavia, a hangout for expats on Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square). Batavia was the old name for the Dutch quarter (Kota is part of a term meaning “old town”), and this cafe is one of the few places that retains it, just as this square has some of the few remaining examples of colonial architecture.

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We went upstairs and sat at a window overlooking the square, marveling at the teak floors and paneling in the cafe. There are two museums on the square, Sejarah Jakarta, a history museum in the former town hall (shown below), and Wayang, a puppet museum. As we left the cafe, I wanted to stop for a puppet show, but Rama (in the rust-colored shirt below, with Todd) said those puppets weren’t traditional and led us on.

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One way to get around Kota more easily is to rent bikes on the square and wear the bright wide hats to keep the sun off your face. Lots of school kids were renting them that afternoon and circling the square, playing. I do wonder about the safety of riding bikes in Jakarta’s traffic—I felt pretty safe walking, but I don’t think I’d like riding a bike and having all the scooters maneuvering around me.

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After the square, I thought we would go home, but Rama drove us farther north to a marina filled with wooden boats that take cargo between islands. We walked for a while along the pier until his knee began to hurt too much. Crew members hung out near the boats, some of them barefoot. Rama said he always wears shoes to protect his feet, though he was wearing slide sandals, not flipflops or closed-toe shoes.

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When we got back into traffic, it became apparent why Rama hadn’t wanted us to watch the puppet show on Fatahillah Square. He had been worried about getting home, and rightly so. Our driver had to stop several times to ask directions from the marina, and traffic was slower than usual because of rush hour.

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This tour was not the last we saw of Rama. He found out we wanted to buy some clothes, especially batik (which he said refers only to dyed fabrics from the island of Java, where Jakarta is located), and took us to malls. It was strange, sometimes, to be taken around by an Indonesian who was so knowledgeable about America and so interested in sharing his love of Indonesian and American culture. One day he brought us magazines in English, and he showed us books in English about world politics that speculated whether China, Europe, or the United States would dominate in the twenty-first century.

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If you get a chance to spend time touring with a local—anywhere!—I suggest you take it. If you combine that with visiting the typical tourist haunts and just walking around, discovering things for yourself, your travel experience will be so much richer.

Mentioned in This Post

Bangka Bed and Breakfast