Despite having ancestry from various parts of Indonesia, I haven’t explored it much. I can’t really say why. Maybe it’s because Indonesia’s main destinations are too similar to my country that I tended to put it off to later. It’s not that there aren’t places in Indonesia I want to visit. I have gone to some in my pre-blogging days, like Yogyakarta and Bali. And yet, I actually ended up visiting Indonesia mostly for work reasons, and almost always to Jakarta. These were always high priority trips too, and always inconveniently timed somehow. Annoyingly, I could never manage to add on a decent vacation on the sides. So I contented myself by re-visiting Jakarta’s old city, Kota Tua.

The saving grace for this was that I ended up periodically re-visiting Kota Tua over almost a decade. From the beginning of Indonesia’s Jokowi era, to the Indonesia of today. But my most informative visit was in 2022. For I went with a local then, and Baiti knew a lot of her Indonesian history.

Kota Tua: The “Old City” of Batavia

Kota Tua, literally “Old City”, refers to the last remaining part of Dutch Batavia. The main area is the old square, now named Fatahillah Square. Several Dutch era buildings remain around the square, notably the Jakarta History Museum. But there are also newer buildings among them.

Baiti met up with me at my hotel – which was always in South Jakarta for these work trips – and we took a taxi to Kota Tua. We got off at Jalan Kunir, along the northern part of the square. The street was filled with snack vendors and traffic and people.

Street vendors crowding the street north of Kota Tua.
Arriving at Kota Tua

Before crossing the road to Fatahillah Square, Baiti suggested I try a local Betawi snack. Called ‘kerak telor’ (crusty egg), it’s basically a spiced omelette made crispy with rice. It was just ok for me. But if you’re looking for the signature Betawi snack, look out for it.

Street vendor making kerak telor, a signature Betawi snack in Jakarta.
Kerak telor made on the spot

There was a festival in the square that weekend. There were long rows of pavilions selling snacks. Long before the evening concert, people were already arriving to stake out their spots in the square.

Festival-goers to the 2022 Festival Batavia in Fatahillah Square, Kota Tua.
Festival Batavia in Fatahillah square

The older city beneath Kota Tua

The history of Jakarta is far older than Kota Tua. For Batavia was not founded by opening up a new city settlement. The Dutch city was built on top of Sunda Kelapa, the main port of the Sunda kingdom. Today, the only trace is in the old Batavia port area which has been re-named back to Sunda Kelapa.

I’ve actually visited it in my earlier phase of business trips to Jakarta. It was recommended to me as a place of interest, but I couldn’t figure out why at the time. It doesn’t look like much now. However, Muzium Bahari (“Nautical Museum”) is nearby, and is worth visiting. It gives a good sense of the maritime history in the region. Archipelagic Southeast Asia is the region that produced Malahayati, the first – and still only – female Admiral of the Navy of a sovereign state. The museum provides a great record of what a naval and diplomatic badass she was.

Fatahillah vs the Portuguese

The Dutch, however, did not capture Sunda Kelapa from Sunda. Sunda had already lost it to Demak, whose commander Fatahillah conquered it after the Hindu kingdom allied with the Portuguese newcomers who had established themselves in Melaka after capturing the port city. It was Fatahillah who named it Jayakarta, from which its current name is derived.

Whenever I visit a place with a local woman who is a history nerd, I always get a deeper sense of what the place is about. So after visiting Kota Tua three times, I finally learned who was Fatahillah of Fatahillah Square and why he’s such a big deal.

Apparently, though he commanded the Demak army, Fatahillah himself was a prince of Pasai lineage from North Sumatra. He was supposedly a son-in-law of one of the Wali Songo, the nine Muslim saints credited with the propagation of Islam in the western part of the archipelago. He is considered one of the great heroes of Indonesia, as his conquest of Jakarta (then Sunda Kelapa) is considered as liberating it from Portuguese intrusion.*

In the coming centuries, the regional Muslim kingdoms of the time wrote to their trading partner, the Ottoman Turks, requesting reinforcements, cannon and guns, to retake territories captured by the Europeans. The Ottomans periodically sent help. One example was following the Dutch massacre of Maluku to control the source of nutmeg and cloves, which the Ottoman Caliph considered sufficiently severe to justify a Muslim state to engage in a legal defensive war.

The beginning of Dutch Batavia

The historical buildings in Kota Tua always seemed neglected to me, during my earlier visits. To some extent, it is not uncommon in developing countries, since you only have so many resources. But I felt that pre-Jokowi Indonesia rejected its colonial traces. Compared to Kuala Lumpur’s colonial buildings, few of Jakarta’s seemed to remain.

From Baiti’s narration of the Dutch colonial period, and the bloody, bitter resistance by Indonesia’s old kingdoms, I thought I could understand. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who took Batavia for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was exceptionally cruel in his mission to monopolise all spice supplies in the islands. It was he who massacred the Banda Islands. The beginning of colonisation in Batavia was, therefore, marked with harshness**.

The Mataram kingdom, last of the Javanese to be colonised, sieged Batavia unsuccessfully, granting them the fame of valiant resistance despite failure. Though Batavia did not fall, Coen died during the siege, officially from cholera. But according to local legend, he was poisoned by a slave woman who was really a Mataram princess. No one ever referred to her noble birth. But on her grave a tree was found planted, which was the royal tree of Mataram. And according to another local legend, his head was taken from his grave and re-buried on the steps to the tomb of the Mataram king, so that every time visitors come to pay their respects, they would tread on his head.

There have been many colonial officers from many coloniser nations. But I think you had to have been especially bad to be singled out for vengeance like Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

Crowd of festival-goers in Fatahillah Square in the foreground. Cafe Batavia and Gedoeng Jasindo beyond.
Dutch era historical buildings: Cafe Batavia and the warehouse Gedoeng Jasindo

The living statues of Indonesia’s freedom fighters

I think you can’t really understand Indonesia without knowing this history. Indonesia was once many separate nations and kingdoms. They became a country today, unified essentially by mutual resistance against the Dutch. It’s why their historical monuments and museums are disproportionately related to the independence struggle, and why streets bear the same names across its major cities. And I guess, it’s not for tourists to notice. But if you have reason to understand how Indonesia thinks – for example, because you have business in the country – you should probably be aware that they name their streets after independence heroes.

We idled in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, to watch the fading sunlight across Fatahillah square. The crowd grew larger, waiting for the concert to begin. As night fell, we wandered along the streets around the square. That night, there were living statues around the square and along the streets leading away from it. Most of the performers portrayed Indonesia’s independence figures. Many were military leaders and officers, reminding me that Indonesia won its independence by force of arms.

Street performer acting as a living statues of Indonesia's national hero Letnan S. Parman in Kota Tua
Living statue in Kota Tua

Baiti told me about some of these legends. One of them, Jenderal Sudirman (General Sudirman), was a particular badass. His is a common street name in Indonesian cities. He famously lost one of his lungs, yet continued to command resistance forces while his one-lunged self was carried by his men through the jungle.

She also enlightened me as to why Yogyakarta is a special region in Indonesia. The Yogyakarta sultanate is a successor to the old Mataram, and had immediately provided strong support to the formation of Indonesia and its independence. Many of the first state institutions of Indonesia began there, and the sultanate played a crucial role in sustaining the economy of the newly independent nation***.

Opening hours for museums in Kota Tua

Despite going several times to Kota Tua, I still have not managed to go inside its museums. There are two reasons for this, which is important for your travel planning if you want to visit the museums: I keep being late on Sundays, and then forgetting I can’t just go again the next day on a Monday.

In the area immediately around Fatahillah Square, there are several notable museums. The ones that I wanted to see are the Jakarta History Museum, occupying the most prominent building in the square, the Puppetry Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics.

However, the museums don’t open on Mondays. So arriving in Jakarta early in the week to pop over to Kota Tua before moving on with your remaining travel agenda is not a good plan.

Secondly, the museums only open between 9AM to 3PM. This means that you need to go first thing in the morning.

Related places of interest near Kota Tua

If you’re interested in Kota Tua, you might also like the places below.

Sunda Kelapa harbour

The harbour of Sunda Kelapa is the location of the old Batavia port. It’s connected to Kali Besar, the shipping canal which is typical of Dutch colonial port cities. Traditional Indonesian boats still come here. There isn’t much else to the harbour. However, considering the restoration and uplift taking place in the canal area, perhaps the harbour would get an upgrade in the future.

Muzium Bahari

The only museum I’ve visited in the vicinity of Kota Tua is Muzium Bahari, or the Nautical Museum. I happened to be in Jakarta with an early-rising colleague and we decided to go to Kota Tua and Sunda Kelapa. I remember it as an excellent museum, providing an interesting history of Indonesian seafaring, and my first introduction to Acheh’s Admiral Malahayati.

Photo by said alamri on Unsplash

Exploring the streets around Kota Tua

The Kota Tua heritage area is not very large. Aside from the area immediately around the square, the other heritage buildings lie between it and the colonial era train station not far to the south (now the Jakarta Kota station), and along the canal to the east. The notable buildings to the south are mainly banking museums. Whereas the heritage buildings along the canal were, unsurprisingly, warehouses.

We wandered past the grand banking buildings of yesteryear on our way to the train station. Baiti had one more place to take me to that night, and since I was with a local, I was going to try out Jakarta’s public transport system. But I glimpsed enough of the canal that I decided to return to explore it the next day.

Horse cart rides for tourists in the Kota Tua area

Kali Besar: The Grand Canal of Batavia

After my day out with Baiti, I returned to Kota Tua the following day to explore the canal side. It seemed as though the area has had an uplift, and I wanted to see what had changed.

As things are inconveniently closed on Mondays, and I was by myself this time, I decided to be a proper tourist. I had lunch at Cafe Batavia, a restaurant inside a former Dutch colonial building, and one of the more prominent buildings around Fatahillah Square. The cuisine is pan-Indonesian, but with signature Betawi (Batavian) items. I decided to be adventurous and ordered bajigur, a Sundanese spiced coffee latte. It was quite good.

When the day was a bit cooler, I wandered over towards the Kali Besar area, or the old Grand Canal.

Dutch era historical warehouses in Kota Tua

The reason I was interested to explore the canal area, was because I never noticed it in my past visits. In the past, the Kota Tua area felt a bit neglected in general. And there were no line of sight views that would draw you towards the canal. So it had never occurred to me that it even existed, nor that there would be anything interesting there. I did see the area get more lively even in my visit before the last. There were colourful bicycles for rent, and people spending recreational time, which was unlike my earliest visits.

But during my visit in 2022, the area around the square looked subtly more restored, and some buildings were in the midst of painting and repair. The area seemed brighter, more lively, even though it was still soon after the pandemic, and businesses weren’t all fully recovered. The streets, or the square, seemed like it had new paving, and the paving seemed to lead you towards the canal, where I could also see signs of ongoing restoration.

Indeed, there were major restoration works along the old grand canal. Much of it was already completed in 2022, so I imagine it must be finished by now. The canal already looked quite gentrified even then. I’m not sure if the old Dutch warehouses that still remain along Kali Besar were restored, but they are more obvious now. The old colonial drawbridge at the northern end of the canal is restored and open to pedestrians. Public art and plaques provide the history of the canal and associated historical buildings.

There is clearly a vision to revive Kota Tua and make it into a vibrant heritage area. Once all the projects are done, I can imagine Kali Besar is going to be a nice waterfront zone.

Kali Besar from the old drawbridge

The tragedy of Geger Pencinan, or the 1740 Batavia massacre

A history display along the canal summarised the founding of Kota Tua and Kali Besar, providing the context of Chinese migration to Jakarta. Chinese merchants and diplomats have always been known to pre-colonial Java, of course. All its major kingdoms traded with China, and diplomatic relations had even included wedding local royals to Chinese princesses.

But Dutch Batavia did not seek quite that kind of relationship with China. After founding Batavia on the site of the native city of Sunda Kelapa/Jayakarta, the VOC sent ships to China to invite Chinese to migrate en masse to help build up the new city. Which resulted in what they wanted – a large migration of Chinese to Batavia. Decades later, the Dutch then decided they didn’t like the policy anymore, and began deporting them back to China. Later, this expanded into deportation as forced labour to Dutch cinnamon farms in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). This eventually led to a revolt, and the Dutch responded with violent force.

Meanwhile, the native ethnics had been growing increasingly resentful of the waves of Chinese migration into the new Dutch city founded on native territory, and of their growing wealth. During the Chinese riots, rumours also spread among the native ethnics in Batavia that the rioting Chinese intended to attack them. Mobs formed and pre-emptively burned Chinese houses along the main river.

Dutch soldiers followed, razing Chinese settlements elsewhere in the city, and massacring its residents. 10,000 Chinese were killed, and only 600-3000 were estimated to survive. Since the event, Batavia began to decline, becoming dirty and disease-infested, and gradually abandoned.

Chinese lion statue in front of an abandoned building along Kali Besar, Jakarta

Monas: The “new city” of Jakarta

Baiti didn’t just take me to Kota Tua. We finished the night at the other main Jakarta landmark, the National Monument, or Monas. I had gone to Monas before, but never at night. So it was only then that I discovered that Monas is lighted up at night, and that the area around it can be quite lively then.

Built to commemorate Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands, the area around Monas is much better maintained than Kota Tua had been. In hindsight, I guess they meant it as the replacement city centre, rejecting the colonial one.

The monument is surrounded by a wide park, forming a green square around which were Indonesia’s main ministry buildings, its national library, museum, and gallery. The famous Istiqlal mosque, largest in Southeast Asia, is off a road to the northeast, with Jakarta cathedral across the road from it.

Monas in Jakarta at night, lighted in blue with a yellow flame.
Monas at night
Jakarta Cathedral at night
Jakarta Cathedral

Entering the park, we stumbled upon yet another concert at the foot of Monas, so we sat down for a bit to listen to some opera and symphony orchestra.

Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque at night
Istiqlal Mosque

Interesting shopping streets around Monas

On the theme of shopping and heritage, there are a couple of other notable spots in the Central Jakarta area. I have visited both, but on different trips to Jakarta. Baiti took me to Passar Baroe on a different visit, whereas I went to Jalan Surabaya to occupy my weekend on one of my earlier business trips that sometimes extended for longer than a week.

Passar Baroe

Passar Baroe is an old colonial shopping street to the northeast of Monas, and walkable from there. The street runs between the larger streets of Samanhudi and Antara. Nowadays, it just looks like a contemporary street with modern shops. But there still remains a brick arch at one end, and you can get good bargains inside the malls.

Surabaya Street

Jalan Surabaya is an antique market some distance away from Monas to the southwest, two train stations away. This is a street comprised of a row of shops selling antiques and vintage items. A great place for those who love to bargain, but you should be able to tell between real antiques and fakes, or buy at your own risk!

Pasar Baru brick arch in Jakarta, commemorating the colonial shopping street established in 1820 Batavia.

How to go to Kota Tua & other landmarks

For the longest time, Jakarta had the infamy of being the most congested capital in Southeast Asia, with a close challenge by Manila. And in my early visits to Jakarta for work, I have personally suffered through the torture of that traffic. Despite being from a city where people complain perpetually about traffic, it’s just no comparison.

However, by 2022, even though there was still lots of traffic, Jakarta is now noticeably less congested. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has really expanded, as did the LRT system in the city centre. I saw lots of MRT construction were still ongoing along MH Thamrin road, in partnership with Japan. And of course, the original train lines are still being used as well.

With Baiti’s local knowledge, I tried out some of Jakarta public transport and their practical connectivity to one another, to get to Kota Tua and from there to other landmarks like Monas.

Trains & buses

Jakarta is actually well-connected with the BRT system. This is an integrated bus system, often with special lanes, and with bus stops and stations that are designed with platforms like it’s for a train. Some of the busway stops (called ‘halte’ after the Dutch term) are large enough that there are prayer amenities and device charging services.

You can get to all the landmarks above by BRT. The catch is, because of how extensive the system is, it can be quite daunting to figure out the route connections if you’re not local. Additionally, the information and notices are typically only in Indonesian.

Harmoni Busway Station in Jakarta. This is all elevated and straddling the space between two major roads.

The train system may be kinder to figure out. Although then, you would need to have a station near your accommodation in the first place. When I say train, I mean the commuter train, not the LRT which is still mostly under construction and thus is not as extensive coverage-wise. No doubt this will change.

Both Kota Tua and Monas are reachable by train. The Jakarta Kota station is worth stepping into just to have a look for its older art deco architecture. For Monas, you’ll want to go to Gambir station. And for Surabaya Street, go onwards to Cikini station.

Curved art deco ceiling of Jakarta Kota train station.
Jakarta Kota train station

In 2022, they streamlined the public transport passes. I remember it, because Baiti was occupied with trying to figure out whether we should use the BRT or the train, and there was conflicting information on whether the bus pass and the rail pass were interchangeable. Each person entering the system needs their own pass, but we eventually learned (when we had already taken the more arduous way) that actually, both passes were now interchangeable.

Taxis and e-hailing

Taxis and ride shares are both available in Indonesia. These can be more comfortable than public transport, and are easier for foreigners, even if it might not be any faster. Taxis can be hailed from the street, but the Blue Bird group also has its own app. Grab is the other e-hailing option for both taxis and ride shares. I’ve even seen an EV option with both Grab and Bluebird, albeit it was at the airport. To slip through the traffic jam on a motorcycle, hail one on the Gojek app.


Notes:

* The situation was probably a bit more complicated than that. Sunda was a Hindu kingdom, while Demak was among the growing number of kingdoms surrounding it that had converted to Islam. Unlike the kingdoms on the peninsula, the kingdoms on the islands were considerably more warlike, with power struggles between them featuring more frequently in their histories. The Hindu Sunda kingdom, fearing the growing influence of the Muslim kingdoms, likely saw the newcomer Portuguese differently.

From the other perspective, the port of Melaka was captured by a European people almost immediately after they first arrived to trade in the region. As it was a Muslim city, other Muslim kingdoms like Demak would understandably be suspicious of Portuguese activity in their own neighbourhood.

The origin of the expression ‘hidung belang

** Hidung belang (striped nose) is an expression in Malay and Indonesian, meaning a womaniser. I always wondered what connection a stripy nose could possibly have with womanising. I finally learned the origins from Baiti.

The term originated in Dutch Batavia, from a scandal that rocked Batavian society during the rule of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. An illegitimate young woman of Dutch and Japanese parentage was placed into Coen’s care by her father. However, the teenager fell in love with a 17-year old Dutch soldier. Discovering his ward in a compromising situation with the soldier, Coen sentenced her to flogging, and sentenced the soldier to death. Before executing him, he marked the soldier’s nose with charcoal lines, thus forever associating a lecherous man with a striped nose.

Indonesia and Palestine go way back

*** In this extremely crucial period of Indonesian history, strong support had also come from Palestine. Palestinians had been the first people who supported Indonesian independence, giving their recognition even before Indonesia officially declared it. You will therefore understand the strength of Indonesia’s position on Palestine’s independence.

Carbon offset information to Jakarta

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta produces carbon emissions of approximately 906 lbs CO2e. It costs about $5 to offset this. 


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