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 jet-lag 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 cliches, in other words.

«So you hate it?» I asked.

He seemed nonplussed by the question. «I wouldn’t say hate exactly,» ho muttered. «Love-hate, maybe. Sixty percent hate. But this elusive quality, which sets them apart from the orderly and programed nature of their Western equivalents. I was, of course, familiar with it from years of living in Bangkok. But Jakarta seemed at once to take this sweet confusion to a very different level. I had expected, perhaps, a vestige of Dutch colonial neatness, or at least of the postcolonial city planning of the 1950s and ’60s. And these two things do exist in Jakarta, especially the nationalist grandeur of the urban visions of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. A civil engineer by training, Sukarno launched a monumental building spree meant to transform Jakarta from a colonial backwater to a showpiece of Indonesia’s arrival as a modern, dynamic nation: multilane boulevards; a 100,000-seat sports stadium; Modernist landmarks such as the massive Istiqlal state mosque and Hotel Indonesia; and the Monumen Nasional (Monas), a 13’2-meter-tall obelisk that juts symbolically—if not phallically—from the center of Taman Merdeka, the ceremonial square originally laid down by the Dutch in the early 19th century. But confusion seems to have come crashing in since those distant days. Even the Monas now feels like something from a distant, half-forgotten past. And the even older past—of the Dutch city of Batavia, with its graceful colonnades and Javanese limasan roofs—barely survives at all.

As I walked around Kemang during my first few nights, I wondered how old this South Jakarta neighborhood of winding lanes, little bars, and soaring condo towers might be. The towers were more glacially imposing and lofty than anything even in Bangkok. But there were also innumerable corners where guys stood around barbershops and two-bit drinking holes with jukeboxes and warung night food. There were 24 hour dim sum depots, and hookah joints, and pubs and clubs with terraces where girls in punk leather sat about with expressions of sly expectation—as if the night they were prowling through could bring surprises. There were pet shops and smart furniture boutiques (long since closed for the day), and sidewalks crammed with hipster locals and expat kids looking for fun. All of this gives Kemang an idiosyncratic vibe and cosmopolitan intimacy that seems entirely new to the city’s topography. And yet one can, with a little sweat, walk from 365 Eco Bar to a century-old mosque, and even within a single street one can pass (or so it feels) between decades.

Even far beyond Kemang, however, it felt to me that Jakarta is no longer content to be a sprawling mass of skyscrapers, fetid canals, and gridlocks, of commercial amnesia and anonymous architectural gigantism. Although neighborhoods like Kemang are admittedly few and far between, there is a new and fresh yearning for cosmopolitan elegance and pleasurable refinement in the air, a growing sophistication that one can feel throughout the tonier parts of the city. Where is all the money coming from? I wonder Probably best not to ask. But wealth there is; according to a report by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, Jakarta is one of the fastest-growing property markets in Asia.

The city is converging with the other great cities of its region. As trade grows with Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok, Jakarta’s landscapes, social pleasures, habitudes, and sins come increasingly to resemble theirs. Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously, about the turmoil of the 1965 coup attempt, now seems as distantly historical as the building in which many of its scenes were set. Hotel Indonesia. And yet the past still hovers within Jakarta —barely perceptible sometimes, but quietly present all the same.

ITS A SLIGHTLY STRANGE EXPERIENCE walking around Hotel Indonesia today; the property was closed for a (bur-year overhaul in 20O4 and is now managed in sleek style by the Kempinski group. After my sojourn in Kemang, I moved to the Grand Hyatt next door, and from time to time Id stroll over and wander through its renovated halls, perhaps hoping tor a glimpse of the hotel that Koch described as riding «like a luxury ship in mid-ocean … With its restaurants, nightclubs, bars, swimming pool, and shops, it was a world complete. It was also majestically expensive, but heat or gastritis usually broke the resolve of those transients who tried the decaying colonial hotels of the Old City.» Back then, Hotel Indonesia, with its 14-story guest wing, was the tallest building in the city; today, it is dwarfed by its neighbors. On the first floor is a gallery devoted to the paintings of artists popular in the 1960s and ’70s—pieces like Djataju Fights Ramayana for Princess Sinta by Basuki Abdullah and Meeting in Bali by Alimin, which portrays three Balinese girls in Gauguinesque poses with flowers in their hair. It is nostalgic and folkloric in mood, but this room of local masters is the only vestige left in the hotel of that earlier era—a time that most Jakartans, I suspect, are happy to forget.

Which is not to say that forward-looking Jakarta is entirely shunning its past. Nearby, in the leafy old-money residential neighborhood of Men ten g, not far from where U.S. President Barack Obama attended elementary school in the late ’60s, a much older structure, lately rechristened the Tugu Kunstkring Paleis, is done up like some grand Javanese salon circa 1914, the year the building was inaugurated.

Originally designed by the Dutch architect P.A.J. Mooijen as the home of the Batavia Art Circle before becoming an immigration office in the 1950s and, more recently, an ill-fated outpost of French lounge chain Buddha Bar (which was forced to close in the wake of protests by religious groups), the Kunstkring is now run by the Tugu hotel and restaurant group, who have returned it to its proper vocation again, as both an art gallery and tine-dining restaurant. Set under twin octagonal towers, the various rooms now shine with carved Javanese doorways, ornately carved mirrors, and period furnishings, while the menu is strong on old-style Indonesische dishes.

It’s a similar scene at other Tugu restaurants in the city, particularly Dapur Babah and Lara Djonggrang. Both are stuffed with antiques and bric-a-brac according to a historical theme (Peranakan in the case of the former; imperial Java in the latter)—a gesture that might come across as kitsch in a different city, but which in Jakarta fills a curious void, tor between the humble waning and the five-star international dining scene Indonesian food had for a long time gotten a little lost. Indeed, during my visit I got somewhat addicted to exploring the fabulously decorated rabbit’s warren of rooms at Lara Djonggrang and eating satay on sticks inserted into a huge conch shell. It felt like the house of some wealthy Javanese aunt whose staff had just made dinner, a home away from home. And that note of affluent domesticity is what a huge and chaotic city needs.

A JAVANESE AESTHETIC! ALSO informs the design of Jakarta’s newest five-star hotel, but in a resolutely contemporary setting. Tucked behind the Plaza Indonesia shopping mall, the Keraton at the Plaza, where I spent a blissful night, takes its name from the old sultans’ palaces of Java, and dazzles you upon arrival in the lobby with a soaring wall of batik-patterned metalwork. Its ground floor is like a private club whose back door opens—via a long passageway—into Plaza Indonesia, and its lounge lias the quiet pace of a library studded with antiques. The hotel’s integration into a mall would be strange anywhere else, but Plaza Indonesia is a part of Jakarta’s public space; and indeed the interconnection between all the properties around the CBD feels both natural and eccentrically inevitable now.

Each day, as I would not do in Bangkok, I wandered out from the Keraton into the mall and pored through the outlets of Hunting World and Charles & Keith until I reached a strange Japanese chocolate store called Maqui’s where, as ephemeral (and edible) souvenirs, I bought chocolate bars shaped as tools, as spanners, wrenches, screwdrivers. When your mall has a chocolate outlet from Kobe selling candy spanners, your city has truly «arrived,» One could say the same, moreover, of high-altitude bars and restaurants, those lofty gastronomic perches that nearly all Southeast Asian cities now boast. Jakarta has been somewhat tardy in this regard, but is catching up fast: last year saw the opening of Skye on the top of a 56-story bank tower in the CBD, while Altitude, a sleek three-in-one restaurant venture occupying the entire 46th floor of another nearby skyscraper, opened just weeks before my April visit.

I ate one lunch at Altitude’s Salt Grill, the domain of Australian chef Luke Mangan, and then poked my nose into the adjacent Italian and Japanese dining rooms. It seemed like a bold move, all in all, to open such a concentration of expensive eateries 160 meters above the earth and to put a wine cellar and cigar lounge at their core. The scale and commitment were impressive.

Later, I asked art collector and restaurateur Ronald Akili, whose latest venture is a 2,000 square-meter steakhouse and bar called Potato Head Garage, if the money was there to make it all work.

«Jakarta is definitely transforming itself into a major metropolitan city in Southeast Asia,» he said. «Over the past couple of years the hospitality industry has expanding rapidly. We have new restaurants opening almost every month, and some major five-star hotels on the way. The recent boom in commodities has put a lot of new wealth flowing through the city, and people arc spending more of their income on entertainment and leisure.»

The food at Salt Grill is worldly and subtle, and dining there close to the windows one feels the unique, crackling immensity of the city. On a clear day, there’s even a glimpse of volcanic mountains in the blue distance, and of the hazy expanse of the Java Sea to the north, where the container cranes of Tanjung Priok Port bristle along a woefully industrialized shoreline. At night, from here or from the breezy rooftop terrace at Skye, one sees the long, glittering ribbons of traffic stretching to the horizon. The benefit of altitude is serenity, perspective. The beauty of Jakarta lies in its scale, its very enormity. That scale is not just a burden and a hassle. It affords the city space and a strange kind of majesty.

But of course, Jakarta is not so serene at ground level. When I asked Mea Panigoro, one of Jakarta’s top musical producers, whether it was an easy city to live in, she was distinctly amused. «Some say if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. Well, try Jakarta. If you can make it here, you definitely can make it anywhere. Including the moon.»

One night, out of curiosity, I made my way to the Stadium in Kota and I did so as late as I could bear. On many a hoary expat forum— and in many a conversation with travelers— this is the night spot touted with a winking eye and a knowing nudge as something to do with the «real» Jakarta. Sure enough, the prancing horse statue was there, leaping out of the facade under a spotlight, and the many floors of nonstop entertainment were heaving away to hip-hop, trance, deep-house. On the smoky, stifling landings the girls and the Johns and the gawpers were all there as they have been for years. But I had an iced coffee in the ground floor lobby among the gladiator outfits and I noticed that everyone there was Indonesian. The foreigners appeared to have moved on elsewhere, thus rendering all that winking advice anachronistic. So quickly does the city change its habits that even its nocturnal escapades change social complexion faster than any rumor can pinpoint.

After an hour at Stadium I moved on to Jalan Jaksa—Jakarta’s anemic answer to Khao San Road in Bangkok—and the Obama Fans Club bar, where they were hosting a Papuan Ladies Night. Never on any of my frequent for ays to Papua had I ever witnessed a Papuan Ladies Night, but it was a reminder that Jakarta is the capital of one of the largest and most variegated nations on earth. On a street nearby, I huddled down among the rofe’vendors and satay stalls and kaki lima carts for a bowl ai’ketoprak. An assemblage of moist rice cakes, tofu, beansprouts, and fragrant peanut sauce, it’s a street food to rival anything in Bangkok.

Like many cities, Jakarta comes into its own at night. The sweltering boulevards and kampungs, the wilted jacarandas and soot-stained overpasses transform into a vast and secretive playground, a honeycomb of pleasure chambers that its people know how to operate with charm and an off-hand skill. The city is, as its citizens continually complain, too big, its infrastructure woefully inadequate; one sometimes cannot fathom how 28 million people coexist on a single waterlogged plain. But Jakarta was a joy to visit, and a surprise to boot—the Big Durian it may be, but like that most odoriferous of Asian fruits, its tough-looking exterior gives way to a complexly textured experience within.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: