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February 6, 2012

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Jakarta makes traffic in Shanghai look good

BORN and bred in a metropolis like Shanghai, with more than 22 million residents, I find that traffic jams and rude unruly drivers are a way of life.

But I was still giddy and bewildered by Jakarta's chaotic traffic - at least I was grateful I was in a taxi on the way to a hotel, so I would not be swallowed by onrushing vehicles.

The traffic congestion gave me plenty of time to figure out how complicated Jakarta's transport system really is: Cars, microlets (blue mini buses) and ojeks (motorcycle taxis) crawl along not-very-spacious downtown roads with strikingly old buses with open doors and spewing exhaust in one lane as motorcycles seize every opportunity to squeeze between four-wheel vehicles.

In the middle of two main thoroughfares, I found some office workers waiting for buses on elevated stations.

My cabbie told me that's the "busway," a dedicated traffic lane to ease traffic congestion during rush hour. A mass rapid transit system is under construction, adding to the traffic woes.

During my three-day visit in Jakarta, I spent at least five hours getting around due to gridlock. One day I got fed up and decided to walk to a supermarket - that's when I found out how dangerous it is to cross roads in downtown Jakarta. There were no traffic lights or zebra crossings.

I wasn't brave enough to take on the careening cars and motorcycles. Finally, a woman "rescued" me by raising her hands to signal traffic to let me proceed.

Jakarta has been long plagued by macet (congestion). The city of around 10 million registered residents has around 12 million privately owned motor vehicles choking the megacity every day. Road infrastructure is poor and there's no subway system.

As the economic and political capital of Indonesia, Jakarta didn't fail to impress visitors with skyscrapers, high-end shopping malls, well-developed business centers, fancy hotels and swanky restaurants.

Its history dates back to the 14th century when it was a small harbor town called Sunda Kelapa, located at the mouth of the Ciliwung River. Sunda Kalapa was the main port of the Hindu Kingdom of Sunda.

One can still see the old-style sailing ships, the magnificent Makassar schooners, but also a lot of garbage in the river.

Banten commander Sultan Fatahillah attacked and conquered Sunda Kelapa and changed its name to Jayakarta, the City of Victory, on June 22, 1527, the day Jakarta celebrates its birthday.

The city's current name Jakarta originated from Jayakarta and Fatahillah is regarded as its founder.

Dutch rule

In 1619, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) razed Jayakarta to the ground and founded a new settlement, calling it Batavia in honor of their ancestors. The Dutch made Batavia the Queen of the East - the center of trade and commerce in Asia for nearly three and a half centuries.

Touring the car-free Kota Tua, also known as Old Batavia, is a quick escape from the hustle and bustle. Cycling on rented bicycles (onthel) with a colonial-era hat is a must for a historical trip back to the period of Dutch rule.

Just a 10-minute walk from Sunda Kalapa, the Jakarta History Museum or Fatahillah Museum, stands as a solid reminder of this history. The building, built by VOC in 1710, once served as a city hall, a court and even an underground prison. Today, it showcases history from prehistoric days to Indonesia's Independence in 1945.

At first, the port city faced a shortage of laborers. The Dutch tried every means to attract Chinese immigrants. The Chinese, working as laborers, merchants, middlemen or brokers, contributed greatly to the prosperity of the port.

Glodok, just south of Batavia, is the Chinatown of Jakarta. Today, it (mainly the new Chinatown) is vibrant and crowded, teeming with shops, restaurants, entertainment complexes and temples. As a minority in the world's most populous Islamic country, Chinese Indonesians now enjoy equal rights.

In this sense, Jakarta is like a fascinating kaleidoscope blending diverse nationalities and ethnicities that retain their own characteristics. The national motto is "Unity in Diversity".

How to get there

Garuda Indonesia has a daily flight from Shanghai to Jakarta, departing at 10:05am and arriving at 3:40pm. Check or call 5239-1000 for details.


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