The best way to start to explore the historical and cultural side of Jakarta is to take a walking tour around Fatahillah Square. It is named after the national hero who gave Jakarta its name, ‘Jayakarta’, meaning “town of victory”. Some of the best-preserved colonial buildings in the city can be found around Fatahillah Square, which dates back to 1619. These include the Indonesian Maritime Museum, the Wayang (Puppet) Museum and the Fine Art and Ceramics Museum. The grandest of them all, however, is the Jakarta History Museum, also known as Fatahillah Museum, which was established in 1527 and houses over 23,000 objects including the richest collection of Betawi (original Javanese) style furnishings from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
To get to know Jakarta and its culture, you will need to become familiar with the Betawis. These people are very different from the Sundanese and Javanese, the other major ethnic groups in the capital. They form part of the Malay family, and their traditions and customs have Malay roots. If you see giant puppet figures walking the streets, then you have come face to face with Betawi culture. Called ondel-ondel, these are often seen parading around the old square and other public places, including the shopping malls which abound in Jakarta. They usually appear in pairs accompanied by live music. On cue, when the music starts to play, the ondel-ondel perform a Betawi folk dance. Records of the first ondel-ondels date back to 1605.
Continue your walking tour from the square to take in the nearby old Sunda Kelapa Harbour. Here you will see two-masted wooden sailing ships called pinisi lining the docks. These elegant boats have been built by master builders from South Sulawesi since the 13th century, when the port of Sunda Kelapa was the hub of international spice trade with Europe. The pinisi continue to carry cargo between Indonesian islands and are among the last large merchant sailing vessels in the world today.
Spices still dominate the local food scene, so sample some of the delicious food served by local street vendors from carts. These are called kaki lima (5 feet) carts, reflecting the three-wheels of the cart and the two feet of the cart pusher. They offer a mix of taste sensations that blends Betawi, Chinese, Javanese and Sundanese culinary styles.
The vendors have different calls, depending on what delicacies they are peddling. Try ketoprak, a compressed rice cake with a peanut, spicy and sweet flavour or go for a martabak manis, a sweet pancake stuffed with peanuts, chocolate, cheese, condensed milk and more. Like fish? Try the otak-otak grilled fish cake. Or try the Chinese influenced rujak juhi, a spicy salad with steamed potato. These kaki lima carts can be found everywhere in Jakarta, from the old port to the heart of the CDB and even exist in the leafy residential streets of elite suburbs. If you fancy hot steaming soy beans or satay on a stick or even ice-cream, listen for the vendor’s high-pitched call above traffic noise. You will see the caller moving along with the pedestrian traffic or just standing on a corner, ready to provide a delicious snack.
If you want to capture something of the flavour of the Indonesian archipelago in just one day, then don’t miss Taman Mini. It is a sprawling outdoor museum complex that features beautifully presented traditional houses from different regions. These include stunning examples of architecture from Bali, Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua. As you walk through the complex, or drive through in a cart, stop and meet people from the various ethnic groups whose houses are on display. They are usually found carving, weaving or playing traditional instruments inside the houses. Curators move house to house to answer any of your questions. The complex also has an excellent museum.
Remember to check the daily dance and music performance schedule to immerse in a complete cultural experience
Published Serendib Magazine, September, 2018
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf, Ferry R. Tan, Solid Void Visuals
David Metcalf runs photo workshops in Bali and cultural photography tours in Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Odisha India and Myanmar.