Traditional wooden boats at Sunda Kelapa harbor, Jakarta.

Welcome to Jakarta: Old-town Charm

As Jakarta celebrates its 489th anniversary, Colours explores in and around Old Jakarta to discover the city’s heart behind its modern exterior.

Words and Photography by Aditya Saputra

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A middle-aged woman sits by herself in the corner of a café enjoying a morning cup of coffee and light snack. She has travelled thousands of kilometres from the Netherlands in memory of her father, who once told her of the glory of this city.

This particular café is a tourist favourite and the most popular in the area located on the northwestern corner of Fatahillah Square, once the centre of Old Jakarta – known as Batavia in the day – hence the name Café Batavia. It’s a quaint little café with revolving ceiling fans, shuttered windows and faded photographs hanging on the walls – and like the rest of this historic square, it paints a vivid picture of colonial Jakarta.

A short walk from the café, there are three excellent museums flanking Fatahillah Square: the Jakarta History Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the Wayang Museum.

AN69XJ Cafe Batavia Old Batavia Square Taman Fatahilah Square Jakarta Indonesia. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.

My new café friend says she remembers being regaled as a child by tales of her father’s life in the city now displayed in the halls of the Jakarta History Museum. Her father was a sailor docked nearby at Sunda Kelapa Harbour to bring spices back to the Netherlands. Thinking about those stories, she says she’s amazed at how Jakarta has grown into a sprawling mega-metropolis.

Inspired by the Dutch tourist’s stories, I decide to explore the Jakarta History Museum first-hand. Indeed, it provides a great insight into this great city’s rich, colourful history, with an eclectic collection of more than 23,000 objects, from fascinating colonial memorabilia, along with prehistoric and Portuguese- period artefacts, to dioramas and permanent exhibits that retell key points leading up to Indonesian Independence in 1945.

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The building itself is an impressive historic landmark, first completed in 1710 by the Dutch East India Company as the former City Hall of Batavia and modelled after the Royal Palace in Amsterdam with a strikingly similar façade.

Next is a treat for arts and culture enthusiasts: the Wayang Museum on the west side of the square houses thousands of authentic handmade traditional Indonesian puppets and masks from all corners of the archipelago – some are more than a hundred years old. If you visit, be sure to check the schedule of puppet performances to see these beautiful creations come to life.

BWREWR Cafe Batavia, Fatahillah Square, old Kota, Jakarta, Indonesia.. Image shot 10/2010. Exact date unknown.

On the east side of the square is the Fine Arts Museum, formerly the Court Building, first built in 1879. Here you can find a large collection of painted sculptures by modern Indonesian artists, a beautiful exhibition of ceramics and porcelain, and more, with some key pieces dating back to the 14th century.

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Leaving Fatahillah Square, I admire the buildings one more time – they’ve been wonderfully restored recently by the DKI Jakarta Provincial Government through its revitalisation programme supported by UNESCO with the aim of achieving UNESCO World Heritage status by 2017. If you have an interest in Old Dutch architecture and Indonesian culture and history, it doesn’t get better than Fatahillah Square. Around the periphery of the square there are even more world-class museums, including the Bank Indonesia Museum, which is highly recommended for its modern slickly presented interactive displays and exhibits about the spice trade and the financial and economic history of Indonesia, its vast collection of old coins and currencies, and the expertly restored neoclassical building that houses it all.

After museum-hopping, I continue on foot to Petak Sembilan, Batavia’s unofficial Chinatown, complete with charming narrow laneways and street-side markets and shops selling everything from coffee and culinary curiosities to watches, leather belts, children’s toys, glassware, traditional herbs and Chinese medicine, incense and candles,
and everything in between. There’s also an intricately decorated brilliant bright red Chinese pagoda here, the Jun De Yuan temple, which dates back to 1650.

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Also within walking distance is Sunda Kelapa Harbour. This centuries-old spice trading port at the mouth of the Ciliwung River has been in continuous use since the 1800s. There’s a nostalgic romance about this harbour that is enhanced by the impressive 50m-long traditional schooners docked across the 2km-long wharf. Vibrantly painted, these characterful vessels aren’t just for show – they continue to play a vital role in modern-day Indonesia with goods being loaded and unloaded throughout the morning. Adventurous foodies will love the nearby Fish Market, where friendly hawkers offer ocean-fresh seafood that you can have cooked on the spot to enjoy as the sun sets.

To get the best view across the harbour, climb to the top of the Harbour-Master Tower, a 19th-century Dutch lookout tower. From here the ocean panorama is a stunning sight to behold – the reward for those who give Jakarta the time of day to discover the beauty behind its skyscrapers.

From Colours June 2016

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FR3PDP A traditional Betawi food vendor, cooks Kerak Telor, a food made from a mixture of egg and rice and fried with charcoal during the Betawi Eid Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, 10 September 2012. Jakarta residents gathered at the event to celebrate Eid in the traditional Betawi style. The Betawi are the people who live around Batavia (the colonial name for Jakarta). Betawi people are in majority Muslims. Islamic teachings and traditions are alive and well embedded within their culture and social system. EPA/BAGUS INDAHONO

5 Senses – Taste
KERAK TELOR

When in Old Jakarta, you have to try kerak telor, a traditional Betawi-style omelette of duck egg with glutinous rice served with fried shredded coconut, fried shallots and dried salty shrimp on top, all cooked over a charcoal fire. It has a lovely crispy texture and is the highlight dish during the annual Jakarta Fair celebrating the city’s anniversary.