Jakarta’s Metropolitan Makeover

  • Jakarta's iconic Bundaran H.I.

    Jakarta's iconic Bundaran H.I.

  • Jakarta's Tugu Kunstkring Paleis.

    Jakarta's Tugu Kunstkring Paleis.

  • Waiting for the lunchtime rush at Salt Grill.

    Waiting for the lunchtime rush at Salt Grill.

  • A blue swimmer crab cake with mesclun salad and beef tartare with fries at Potato Head Garage.

    A blue swimmer crab cake with mesclun salad and beef tartare with fries at Potato Head Garage.

  • The entrance to Tugu Kunstkring Paleis.

    The entrance to Tugu Kunstkring Paleis.

  • Jakarta's ubiquitous three-wheeled  bajaj taxi and driver.

    Jakarta's ubiquitous three-wheeled bajaj taxi and driver.

  • A traditional Indonesian meal at the Keraton.

    A traditional Indonesian meal at the Keraton.

  • A soto mie (noodle soup) vendor in the Old Town.

    A soto mie (noodle soup) vendor in the Old Town.

  • The Friday night crowd at Skye.

    The Friday night crowd at Skye.

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For all its urban sprawl and congested streets, the Indonesian capital has emerged as one of the region’s most dynamic metropolises, with a rapidly rising skyline, gleaming shopping plazas, and a new breed of design-savvy restaurants and bars. Isn’t it time you paid a visit?

By Lawrence Osborne
Photographs by Muhammad Fadli

One night, my second in a city I didn’t know at all, I was sitting at the 365 Eco Bar in Kemang sipping a long drink called, without irony, an “Illusion.” The place was empty, uncharacteristically one might assume, and with its corrugated roofing and steel trusses it felt like a tiny aircraft hanger after all the planes have left. Out in the sultry night, a strange mist or haze had fallen, and up on the main road girls done up like parakeets staggered home through lines of slowly closing clubs. It was long after 1 a.m. At the bar, I recognized an Australian from my nearby hotel—one of those up-at-night businessmen with jetlag who seem to know all the cities of the world.

“First time in the Big Mango?” he asked, after telling me that he loved the Zombies at Eco Bar.

“I live in Bangkok,” I said, “and Bangkok is the Big Mango, not Jakarta.”

“Oh, right mate. This one’s the Big Durian. They’re all some kind of big fruit.”

I told him it was indeed my first trip and that I had no idea where I was. Jakarta, the biggest metropolis in Southeast Asia, is home to more than 10 million people, a number that almost triples if you include everyone living in the greater metropolitan area. It sprawls across a flat alluvial plain on the northeast coast of Java, with little in the way of natural features to help you get your bearings. Nor does it have the media-fed familiarity of Bangkok, which attracts far, far more visitors. Jakarta  thus remained—to me, anyway—more enigmatic, more enticing. I had decided to just plunge in and see what it was like.

“It’s a wild crazy place, mate,” said my red-faced companion. “I wouldn’t just plunge in if I were you. I wouldn’t do it.”

He then began to tell me of his previous trips to the Indonesian capital: the drug-fueled “business” parties and the nightmare traffic; the raucous visits to the Stadium disco and the bars around Blok M; the expense-account binges at Dragonfly; the smog and the stifling kampungs (inner-city villages) and the sundry shadowy oil men. And, above all,the incomprehensible scale and chaos of the place.

The usual clichés, in other words.

“So you hate it?” I asked.

He seemed nonplussed by the question. “I wouldn’t say hate exactly,” he muttered. “Love-hate, maybe. Sixty percent hate. But there’s the forty percent that you love, you know—god knows why. Maybe it’s because I’m always confused here. You never get to the end of the confusion.”

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