A fashionably dressed young woman stands at the entrance to a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station in Central Jakarta, her eyes wide with excitement. Eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic crawl past her along Jalan Sudirman, one of Jakarta’s notoriously clogged thoroughfares, but the woman pays them no attention. Instead, she is holding aloft her smartphone poised to record a video, beaming widely as she explains how eager she is to ride the Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit system for the very first time.
“It’s like being overseas!” she gushes, filming her descent underground. The escalator glides smoothly downwards into a large open hall – brightly lit and sparklingly clean, it’s surprisingly quiet as people efficiently go about their travels. The woman points at the sign for Bundaran HI Station and grins even wider. “It says Bundaran HI, but it looks like Singapore.”
This sort of reaction may sound over the top, but for many Jakartans, the city’s new MRT, which opened in March 2019, is something they never believed was actually going to happen. Indeed, for decades it seemed liked it was just a pipe dream. The system was first proposed way back in 1985, but it was only in 2012 that the project was finally given the green light by the provincial government.
Greater Jakarta is currently home to around 30 million people, and residents are constantly warned of the risk of total gridlock on the city’s roads within a few years. Despite this, private cars remain the desired form of transport and an important status symbol for many.
But with the introduction of a fast, clean and modern subway system, the Jakarta government hopes to encourage more residents to make the move away from cars. The MRT’s initial 13 stations link the luxurious shopping malls of Bundaran HI southwards to the suburbs of Lebak Bulus, and the line also connects to the new airport rail link at Dukuh Atas.
“I never imagined we would be able to travel from Bundaran HI to Lebak Bulus in under one hour,” raves Nita Sellya. The local freelance travel writer, like many people working in Jakarta, lives in Bogor, 60 minutes south by commuter train; she comes to the city for meetings most days and used to find travelling around the city incredibly frustrating. “The MRT makes my life so much easier,” she says.
The ease of doing business aside, the new stations have also imbued Jakartans with an energy and desire to explore the city, as evidenced by Dari Halte ke Halte (DHKH), a social media platform dedicated to helping people make their way around Jakarta by public transport. Meaning “from stop to stop”, DHKH’s Twitter and Instagram accounts regularly post about interesting places to eat, drink and visit that are easily accessible by train, bus and the new MRT.
Bowo, one of DKHK’s two co-founders, moved to Jakarta in 2003. Since launching the platform in March 2019, he has been spending at least four hours a day taking care of DHKH and the requests from its 25,000+ followers. “I have to be online 24/7, really,” he laughs. “There’s always people messaging us and asking us where they should eat today.”
Of course, it’s not only Jakartans whose lives have been changed by the MRT. For the millions of visitors to Indonesia, for whom the capital’s overwhelming traffic has long been a deterrent, the city’s diverse neighbourhoods are now ripe for easy exploration. From the narrow alleys of the urban kampung (village) that is Fatmawati to the trendy streets of Senopati, we pick out some highlights that are now waiting to be discovered by MRT in Southeast Asia’s biggest metropolis.
Blok A Station
The neighbourhood of Fatmawati is perhaps one of the best examples of how the MRT is starting to transform Jakarta. Dilapidated shophouses with peeling paint and rusty metal doors can still be found, but more are being revitalised as restaurants and boutiques.
Andrew Prasetya Johan is one new business owner who is benefiting from the MRT’s impact here. The 26-year-old opened a small café called Ratangga Coffee & Bites this April, just after the MRT began operating. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers use the MRT,” Andrew says, adding that he is both pleased and surprised by the changes the new station has brought, with the wide footpaths being among the most obvious differences. “Walkways like these will definitely encourage people to use public transport more often.”
These walkways also make it easier to drop by Dharmawangsa Square, a small mall full of upmarket boutiques, like Tulisan, which sells handcrafted bags, cushions and prints that feature the work of Indonesian designer Melissa Sunjaya. The brand has store in Singapore, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, but this is where it all started.
Bundaran HI Station
Located at the start of the new line, the affluent Bundaran HI area, where high-rise towers dominate the skyline, offers plenty outside its luxury malls.
The highlight has to be one of the city’s best contemporary Indonesian restaurants: KAUM, tucked away in a colonial-style house on the leafy side street of Jalan Dr Kusuma Atmaja. KAUM aims to produce modern takes on recipes from across the Indonesian archipelago, resulting in dishes such as wagyu beef sate (meat skewers), crispy duck with green mango salad and fried noodles with andaliman (similar to Sichuan pepper) and curry leaves.
Further underlining the area’s identity as a pleasure ground for the hip and well-heeled is 1/15 Coffee, right next door. Arguably a catalyst for Jakarta’s coffee revolution in the early 2010s, it was founded by a group of young Indonesians who studied in Australia and fell in love with the country’s coffee culture. You can grab a latte or single-origin brew made with local beans from Flores, Sumatra or Sulawesi, but for something unique, sample the iced ginger milk coffee, the perfect thirst-quencher.
Surrounding Senayan Station is Senopati, arguably the city’s trendiest neighbourhood, which began booming a few years ago; a situation that’s only accelerated with the MRT opening.
It all began with Pacific Place, a luxurious mall complete with a Ritz- Carlton hotel and a Lamborghini store, plus the only Southeast Asian outlet of Galeries Lafayette from France. For a more traditional souvenir, the mall also houses batik stores, where silk scarves are hand-dyed using natural colours.
The district’s main road and its many offshoots are overflowing with high-end sushi restaurants, Korean barbecue spots, third-wave coffee shops and buzzy bars. The best places to shop and eat can be found along the tree-sheltered footpaths leading from Pacific Place to the main through-road of Jalan Senopati.
One such spot is Gioi, a modern Southeast Asian restaurant decorated with wooden panels and plenty of green plants. Gioi’s signature dish is salmon lodeh, a salmon fillet served over a traditional Indonesian coconut milk broth with corn, eggplant and long beans. If you come here in a group, do also order the crispy duck.
About 200m down Jalan Gunawarman, just off Jalan Senopati, No. 21, a plain-looking two-storey building conceals some gems. Downstairs is upscale teppanyaki and sake restaurant Fujin, while upstairs you’ll find local streetwear label Monstore and menswear boutique otoko. Store. The latter specialises in Japanese brands with an edge – think canvas sneakers, leather jackets and bold printed shirts.
On the first floor you’ll find LOLA – Espiritu y Libación, a bar with the vibe of a South American speakeasy. Art Nouveau lamps and mirrors offer an air of sophistication to the mix-and-match velvet sofas and rattan-backed chairs. There’s no clearly marked entrance – just search for the bright pink light above a plain door.
Bendungan Hilir Station
Bendungan Hilir – or Benhil for short – is popular with university students for its affordable Indonesian food. Along the main road of Jalan Bendungan Hilir Raya, eateries are squeezed in between printing shops, key cutters and boarding houses. At night, canvas-covered stalls take over the footpaths, selling everything from fresh seafood to martabak manis (sweet pancakes).
DHKH’s Bowo recommends Bopet Mini, a modest two-storey spot that serves up what many consider to be Jakarta’s best Minang (Padang) food. “‘Bopet’ means a small food stall that serves breakfast,” Bowo says, going on to explain that Bopet Mini began doing just that in the 1980s near the old Benhil market. “They cook many dishes that are increasingly hard to find in Jakarta,” Bowo continues. “That was what kept us coming back – their ketupat sayur, rice cakes with jackfruit and fern-tip curry.” Other must-try dishes from Bowo include the rendang ayam (chicken curry) and gulai ikan tauco (yellow curry with vegetables and fermented soybean paste).
Bowo says that it’s the huge number of traditional restaurants at Benhil that makes it one of his favourite places to eat. You’ll find all sorts of Indonesian cuisine, including gudeg (deep-purple jackfruit curry) with sides of stewed buffalo skin, chicken, egg, tofu and spicy red sambal (chilli) at Gudeg Pejompongan, for example, and mie Aceh (Acehnese-style egg noodles in curry sauce) at Mie Aceh Seulawah.
For a spiritual break from all that eating, head to Kristus Raja Church, which has been recently renovated. The Catholic church holds an impressive giant cross made by Balinese Hindu artist I Wayan Winten.
Singapore Airlines flies to Jakarta nine times daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine