Jakarta isn’t renowned for its tourist attractions, the majority of travellers preferring to pass through on their way to Bali or one of the other myriad islands in the archipelago. If you’re a keen shopper, you’ll find no end of bright, shiny, soulless malls to keep you entertained for hours, but if you’re looking for something a bit more deep and meaningful you might find yourself feeling rather unsatisfied and more than just a little disappointed. That’s not to say there aren’t things to see just that it takes a bit more effort to find them.
Yesterday, a friend and I decided to explore a bit and got a taxi to Glodok, the area in the north of the city where Jakarta’s China Town is situated. We had a book which recommended a little walking tour of the area and we were feeling brave and adventurous so thought we’d give it a go. Trying to get anywhere in this overcrowded city is always a mission due to the ridiculous number of vehicles on the road, but Sundays are usually your best bet for a day out somewhere. It still took us a good 30 minutes to get to where we wanted to be, but it was relatively painless and the taxis here are cheap so it only cost us about £2.
We started with a little wander down China Town’s narrow streets where you can see traders selling all kinds of goods from vegetables to sugar cane juice to frogs’ legs to underpants. This isn’t an area geared towards tourists but an authentic Jakartan neighbourhood, which made it all the more interesting. We came across the brightly-coloured Vihara Jin De Yuan (Temple of the Goddess of Devotion), wandering past many of the locals sitting outside sharing food and the week’s gossip before being invited in by an elderly man at the entrance.
Now, after 2 years in Korea, 3 years in Hong Kong and 12 months in Vietnam, I’ve seen my fair share of temples and I kind of assumed there were no surprises left for me, but this little place had me smitten as soon as I walked through the huge, beautifully carved wooden doors. There was fire everywhere. Not just the normal smoke from the hundreds of incense sticks, but huge, red candles decorated with writhing dragons and large glass bowls of candles lining the altars. It was busy with locals lighting fistfuls of incense sticks and praying vigorously but everyone was very friendly and didn’t seem to mind us taking endless photos of their place of worship.
A few metres down the road and to the right, we came across a completely different kind of church, Saint Mary of Fatima Catholic Church. The building wasn’t particularly impressive (it looked more like a community centre or a library) but the kitsch display built into the rock outside was something to behold. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood inside a small cave and kneeling down opposite her were three young children and a goat. A few feet away, built into a metal platform which looked a bit like scaffolding, was a small effigy of Jesus opening his arms to the world and standing on what resembled a kids’ climbing frame; weird, but strangely appealing.
After another little foray down some very narrow back streets, we happened upon the brilliantly named Temple of Glorious Obligation and decided we just had to go in (Ha! See what I did there?). This little place was cleaner, quieter and far less hectic than the previous temple but still beautifully decorated with huge, red lanterns covering the ceiling and rows and rows of candles lit in memory of loved ones. Again, the locals were unfazed by our presence and we were able to take pictures and just wander round drinking in the atmosphere.
I think I can safely say that since arriving in Jakarta 10 weeks ago, this was the first time I had actually felt like a traveller in the sense that I was seeing something new and different and enjoying an authentic experience. It reminded me that no matter how uninteresting or run-of-the-mill some places appear at first glance (even at the fourth or fifth glance) there are always interesting or surprising things to discover. You just have to make that promise to yourself to get out there and explore!