Dutch colonial buildings in Jakarta's old town.


Indonesia is increasingly the flavour of the month with Australian tourists, more than one million of us having visited , a 266% increase, in 2013-14. While for some Bali is the drawcard, increasingly visitors are venturing elsewhere, particularly to Java, with its treasures such as Borobudur and Yogyakarta.

Lesser-appreciated on the tourism radar is the sprawling capital Jakarta. Often considered somewhat of a melting pot because of its unique diversity of languages, cultures and traditions, Jakarta is a fascinating, dynamic city, its downtown area centred on Merdeka Park with its 132m National Monument (Monas) in marble and gold and heroes-of-socialism statues. Inside the base of Monas is the Natural History Museum. Nearby is the Presidential Palace (Istana Merdeka).

More fascinating, however, is the area to the north around the old port on the Java Sea, where vestiges of its Dutch colonial era still exist. The Jakarta History Museum, housed in the former Batavia Town Hall, is arguably the most solid reminder of Dutch rule anywhere in Indonesia. The large bell-towered hall which was built in 1627 and at one time served as a prison, today contains masses of heavy carved furniture and other memorabilia from the colonial period.

The old town precinct reeks colonial history. At one time, it had a massive shoreline fortress, complete with moat and sturdy walls. Much of the old town has been destroyed but those buildings that remain are fascinating - and increasingly being restored for their nostalgic value.

The central point of the area is the cobblestone square known as Taman Fatahillah while nearby is Kali Besar, the great canal that once marked out the high-class residential areas of Batavia. Along its west bank stand the last of the large private residences dating back to the early 18th century. The last of the Dutch-era drawbridges, called Chicken Market Bridge, is located to the north.

Between the main square and the canal can be found a maze of dilapidated buildings in various states of disrepair. A handful have been restored and doubtlessly, those left standing under heritage orders will become chic cafes and restaurants in the future, judging by the trend elsewhere in South-east Asia.

A number of fascinating museums face onto Taman Fatahillah, which is centrally located near Kota railway station. A 10-minute walk north brings you to the old port, Sunda Kelapa, where magnificent brightly-painted Makassar schooners are moared, close to Thousand Islands (Pulau Seribu) in the Bay of Jakarta.

There’s a great sense of history in Old Batavia’s old buildings, which ooze character as well as dilapidation. It can be most rewarding to wander its streets, viewing formerly grand buildings from another era – and certainly, to my mind, every bit as interesting as Bali!

B/O Box:

Australians love affair with Indonesia

Tourism Minister Oni Yulifan contrasted Indonesia’s “limited vision and infrastructure” of a decade ago to the present-day “uniqueness and culture of major attractions”, adding that more than 704,500 Australians had visited from the start of 2014. He predicts that the millionth Australian will touch down early this month.

The other great news is that Indonesia will scrap its $US35 visa entry for Australian nationals from January 1, 2015.

Getting around:

The tollway from Sukarno-Hatta International Airport avoids the cluttered streets of Jakarta but traffic jams can still be horrendous so leave plenty of time if boarding a plane. Taxis are quite cheap.

Where to stay:

The newly-opened Hermitage Hotel (Leading Hotels of the World) in Menteng is centrally-located and luxuriously-appointed, in a refurbished two-storey Dutch colonial building, with a new higher-rise tower added. L’Avenue Restaurant is adorned with marble and colonial-era artwork while the more casual Courtyard is an al fresco oasis, complete with muted rattan furnishings and umbrellas. The rooftop Infinity Pool and chic La Vue bar are resort-style with an al fresco observation deck.

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