Jakarta – not on your bucket list (I hope)

 | Wed 3 Jul 2013 05:53 ICT

Some cities, Paris, London, New York and Tokyo for example, are destined for greatness from the moment they are conceived. Then there are cities like Chiang Mai; not particularly grand but delightful and subtly seductive. At the other extreme are those cities which somehow stumble into the world, experience a short, sharp and brutal existence followed by an ignominious ending; loved by few and remembered only for their capacity to provide work for the massed hordes – until that is, the hordes themselves have had enough of the place, leave and set up home elsewhere.

One such city is Jakarta.

Sorry all you friendly Jakartians, but your city is a lost cause.

Not only is it sinking back into the sea, it appears designed by egotistical but incompetent politicians, run by one of the most corrupt police forces in Asia, threatened by maniacal Islamist terrorists, and about to collapse under the weight of 30 million cars and twice that number of motor scooters.

Jakarta is a mess. It has few if any redeeming features.

I have just spent the past four days in Jakarta and I can say with absolute authority that it is never, ever, going to make the Top 500 Cities of the World.

When a local Jakarta person meets a visitor for the first time, they are almost certain to say “what do you think of the traffic?”. That tells you everything you need to know. When a city is world renown not for its hospitality, not for its restaurants and hotels, not for its culture, not for its history, not for its shopping and sophisticated boulevards, but for its traffic jams, then you know something is not quite right.

Visit Jakarta and experience one of the worlds’ great traffic jams for yourself!

Yes, I can see Garuda Airlines using precisely that slogan.

But having waited patiently in non-moving traffic for three hours and finally got to your hotel, what do you have to look forward to? Well, I have been to some of the best hotels in South East Asia, but only in Jakarta do hostelries such as the Shangri La and Ritz Carlton employ an army of guards and security personnel; international airport level security for every visitor (e.g. body frisk downs, baggage screening) full inspection of every car that ventures near the front door, including checking passengers, boots, and engines for bombs; bomb blast walls outside the hotel; and anti-car bomb devises. At times it felt to me as if the whole city was under siege. But from what?

Well, from the same group of mad Mullahs who bombed Bali in 2005, killing over 200; took out the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in 2009; and only a couple of months back tried to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta (the Islamic terrorists do not like the Marriott Hotel – they’ve now bombed the place twice – 2003 and 2009).

During my stay I visited Jakarta International School, one of the most impressive international schools in Asia. However, trying to get in the place is equally fraught – guards everywhere. Not surprising really, as the Indonesian anti-terrorist squad recently discovered that JIS was on a terrorist list of ‘places to be bombed’.

But that said, one could clearly live a lifetime in teeming Jakarta with its population of nearly 20 million and never ever hear, see, nor experience any terrorist activity. But what you will certainly experience, see and hear, from the moment you sit in your airport taxi and take the 2 to 3 hour drive into the city (just 40 kilometres) is the traffic.

I’ll tell you how bad it is – after just a few hours in the city I was already conditioned to assume any venturing out of my place of residence by car was going to take me at least an hour, if I was lucky. There are no rules of the road whatsoever. There are no speed limits (traffic congestion takes care of that one), there are no traffic police (well, one or two) and there are no rights of way (first in, first served).

I thought Bangkok was bad. Believe me, Bangkok is heaven on earth by comparison to Jakarta. And Chiang Mai traffic just a Sunday afternoon stroll. 

Look, how can the Indonesians allow a city the size of Jakarta to develop and yet have NO public transport system? Just amazing. We are not talking the smooth and silky ride of the Taipei or Hong Kong underground. We are not even talking the rush hour congestion of the Tokyo subway or the Bangkok BTS. No, we are talking of not a single public transport vehicle for a city of 20 million people. OK, they have a few buses, but have you seen them? They look like the sort of vehicles one would come across in any post-apocalyptic setting in which the humans have mostly disappeared and the few survivors are reduced to eating each other.  

So no, Jakarta should not be on anyone’s bucket list.

However, I must tell you about the one place in Jakarta that is worth visiting should you ever have to go there for work (I am assuming no one in their right mind would go there for a holiday). And that place is BATS nightclub, in the basement of the Shangri-La Hotel.


I was taken there last Friday night by my Russian friend Julia, and her German friend, Gaby. Now I have been in some good clubs in Asia, but for me Bats is the best. The live band were great – loud enough, harmonious, lively, but not giving you a headache. The beer was plentiful and cheap, the ladies friendly and fantastic (as sweet as Thai), the atmosphere relaxed but buzzing, and the whole scene just memorable.

Bats is actually good enough to even entice me back to Jakarta one day, though I would book into the Shangri-La hotel and never, ever venture outside its perimeters until time to go home.

If I ever do make the effort to hit Jakarta a second time, you’ll be the first to know.