This guest post was written by Dr Stephen Whitehead, and first published on his website.
Some cities are destined for greatness from the moment they’re conceived. Other cities however 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 a job for the massed hordes. That is until the hordes themselves have had enough of the place, leave and set up home elsewhere.
In the West there’s Paris, Rome, London, New York, Madrid and Amsterdam – all that delight the senses in different ways.
But what are the great cities of Southeast Asia? Well they include Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, and coming up fast, Ho Chi Minh city. But one city that no one would ever include is Jakarta.
Travel to Jakarta – not for me
Sorry all you friendly Jakartians, but your city’s not for me. Not only is it sinking back into the sea, it appears to be designed by egotistical but incompetent politicians. On top of this, it’s run by one of the most corrupt police forces in Asia. Jakarta faces constant terrorist threats, and is about to collapse under the weight of 30 million cars and twice that number of motor scooters.
Jakarta’s a mess. It has few if any redeeming features.
Having spent 4 days in Jakarta, I can say with absolute authority that it’s never going to make the Top 500 Cities of the World.
When a local person meets a visitor for the first time, they’re almost certain to ask “what do you think of the traffic?” That tells you everything you need to know. When a city’s world renown not for its hospitality, culture or history, but for its traffic jams, then you know something’s not quite right.
Visit Jakarta and experience it for yourself…
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 3 hours and finally at your hotel, what do you have to look forward to?
Well, I’ve been to some of the best hotels in Southeast Asia, but only in Jakarta do the Shangri-La and Ritz Carlton employ an army of guards and security personnel. There’s international airport level security for every visitor (eg body frisk downs, baggage screening) and full car inspection. This includes checking passengers, boots, and engines for bombs.
At times it felt as if the whole city was under siege, but from what? Well from the same group of Mullahs who bombed Bali in 2005 killing over 200; took out the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in 2009. A couple of months back they also tried to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta. This group clearly don’t like the Marriott Hotel – they’ve now bombed the place twice: 2003 and 2009.
During my stay I visited Jakarta International School (JIS), one of the most impressive international schools in Asia. However, trying to get in the place is equally fraught. Not surprising really, as the Indonesian anti-terrorist squad recently discovered it was on a terrorist list of ‘places to be bombed’.
Jakarta – the traffic
But that said, one could live a lifetime in Jakarta with its population of nearly 20 million and never ever hear or see any terrorist activity. But what you’ll certainly experience from the moment you sit in your airport taxi and take the 2 to 3 hour drive into the city (just 40km) is the traffic.
I’ll tell you how bad it is. After just 48 hours in the city, I was already conditioned to assume that going anywhere by car was going to take at least an hour, if lucky. There are no rules of the road whatsoever: no speed limits (traffic congestion takes care of that one), or traffic police. There are also no rights of way (first in, first served).
Travel to Jakarta – really bad traffic
I thought Bangkok was bad. Believe me, Bangkok is heaven on earth by comparison to Jakarta.
How the Indonesians can allow a city the size of Jakarta to develop and yet have no public transport system is mind-boggling. We’re not talking the smooth and silky ride of the Taipei or Hong Kong underground.
We are not even talking about 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.
There are a few buses that look like the sort of vehicles one would come across in a post-apocalyptic movie.
So no, Jakarta should not be on anyone’s bucket list.
The good thing about Jakarta!
However, I do omit to 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 B.A.T.S. nightclub, in the basement of the Shangri-La Hotel.
I was taken there one night by my Russian friend Julia, and her German friend, Gaby. Now I’ve been in some clubs in Asia, but for me B.A.T.S. is the best. The live band’s great – loud enough, harmonious, lively, but not so that it gives you a headache. The beer’s plentiful and cheap, the ladies friendly and fantastic, and the whole scene just memorable.
B.A.T.S. is actually good enough to even entice me back to Jakarta one day. However, I’d book into the Shangri-La hotel and never venture outside its perimeters until it’s time to go home.
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