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Bar Bali and jump into Jakarta for an extra big city sensation

IT is a rare event when someone thinking of a holiday in Indonesia considers the capital Jakarta. The city may be Southeast Asia's most populous, but frankly, that often works against it as people forgo the urban sprawl in favor of the calm and serenity of picturesque Bali.

While the charms of the island resort are undeniable, it would be remiss to skip the capital altogether, yet that's exactly what scores of so-called seasoned travelers do to get to their sun, sea and sand.

But this city has plenty of other treats to offer.

The city is split into two distinct components - a modern, skyscraper-filled metropolis that is typical of the megacities across Asia, and Jakarta Old Town, a meshing of leftovers from the Dutch colonial rule and the aspirations of a fledgling, independent government after the Japanese occupation and a bitter civil war.

While the earliest recorded mention of the city was as far back as the fourth century, it came to prominence under the Dutch (when it was called Batavia) and much of the city's most interesting architecture is from the Dutch era. Both the National Museum and National Historical Museum, vast, majestic treasure troves of the country's cultural heritage, were built during that time, the former famous for the bronze elephant statue in the courtyard. The statue was donated by Siam's (Thailand's) King Chulalongkorn in 1871, and leads to the museum's more popular name, Gedung Gajah (Elephant House).

Further along in old Jakarta is Monas, or the National Monument. Standing a massive 137 meters, topped with a 14.5-ton bronze flame and plated with 35 kilograms of gold, the tower, which took 14 years to build, has come to symbolize the nation's excesses rather than its original purpose of celebrating its struggle for independence.

Visitors can get a bird's eye view of the city from the platform beneath the flame, much akin to New York's Statue of Liberty. Directly beyond the confines of the Medan Merdeka Park (where the monument is situated) in which deer roam freely is the Istiqlal Mosque. Also built following the end of colonialism (Istiqlal is Arabic for independence), the massive place of worship is befitting of the world's largest Muslim population. Built in 1978, 120,000 people can gather within.

Jakarta was not built for pedestrians, and its wide roads and long distances are unnavigatable by foot. Most hotels are happy to arrange a city tour by bus, however, and most of the other monuments were built during Sukarno's rule and can be seen easily over a few hours. On one of these tours, it could be fun to visit the primary school where US President Barack Obama attended from 1967-1971. Much controversy has been aroused over his supposed education in a Muslim school, but this proud little compound in a wealthy residential area was a typical school rather than a madarassa. The building still functions as a school and has Obama's face on a plaque out front beaming with pride, but other than that, most locals are barely concerned with the fact that a world leader of such significance was once among their mix.

Shopper's Paradise

Indonesians love to shop, and Jakarta is slowly evolving into a shopper's paradise to rival its neighboring countries. The scale is of Chinese proportions, and mega mall offers the latest brands and luxury goods at prices comparable to Shanghai.

Most of the designer labels are available at malls such as Plaza Senayan, while a few middle market brands not found in the Chinese mainland can also be purchased.

If international brands don't interest you, then a trip to the antique market on Jalan Surabaya may be more your bag. Don't expect too much °?- many of the prize possessions have already been spoken for, but patient treasure hunters are bound to walk away with a trinket or statue. Vinyl lovers are also in for a treat, with hundreds of LPs on sale. Just don't forget to bargain.

As the sun goes down, head over to Kemang, about 45 minutes away from Jakarta's downtown business districts. Here you can find a collection of breezy cafes and cool bars to enjoy a quick tipple before dinner at one of the area's many restaurants. The city is slowly developing its fine-dining scene and while progress is hampered by a weak currency and overworked logistics, the city is starting to attract top chefs to set up outposts here.

Late nights are fueled by a healthy hotel bar scene, often with cracking cover bands, or massive nightclubs like X2 Club in Jalan Asia Afrika or Stadium in West Jakarta, where drinks are priced like they are here (around US$8-12) and the party goes on all night long.

Where to Stay

Jakarta has the usual collection of international brand hotels, but for something a little more local opt for the 996-room Hotel Mulia Senayan, This five-star property offers all the lavish pampering a typical five-star hotel does but with a local twist. It may not be as new as some of China's many hotels but the hotel's finishings have stood the test of time and service is equally exquisite.


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