Old Jakarta, Kota Tua, Batavia, Jakarta Kota: the old city of Jakarta goes by many a name, but this old heart of the city is seeing somewhat of a renaissance after years of being overshadowed by, initially the grand planned city around Weltervelt during the Dutch replaning, and by the area around Thamrin-Sudirman in modern Indonesia. A distinct charm is ever pleasant, and it is one of the most interesting places to see a different side of Urban Indonesia.
The focus of Old Jakarta, or Batavia if you are so inclined, is the old town square, now named after one of Indonesia’s local heroes. Most of the monumental buildings of Old Jakarta built during Batavia’s heyday in the 18th century was concentrated here, before the gradual move upriver in the 19th century.
On weekends, this square becomes alive, with buskers, street performers and tradespeople vying for the attention of youth armed with large cameras, families grouping in for selfies and couples cycling on tandem bikes: this old square becomes the nexus of local Jakarta life.
Look out for the old cannon, and look very carefully at the end: I’m convinced the cannon is trying to indicate something with that fist.
Stadthuis/Town Hall/Jakarta History Museum
The iconic backdrop to Jakarta, the old Town Hall dominates the square, with her white washed walls, wooden outward opening windows and frontage evoking, unsurprisingly, a small town Dutch civic building.
What was the old hear of the Dutch East Indies, and functioning as the governor’s offices and residence, is now a museum to the Dutch East Indies, with a rather, if I may say, eclectic display of artefacts.
Personally, the internal architecture, old staircase, statements the rooms tried to exude and the view from the loggia are the main highlights, with stunning views overlooking the square. Worth a detour if you don’t mind the crowds on weekends.
The wayang kulit, or shadow puppet, is a cultural institution in Indonesia, and a potent symbol of the rich heritage of the region. This collection of old trading houses built in the style of, naturally, a Dutch merchant’s establishment, is filled with it, with fine display cases showcasing the different types of puppets, the different styles and the unique history of the art form from ancient times to present.
The collection is not only confined to shadow puppets, made from cow hide, but also conventional puppets, each with their own style and story to tell. The gift shop downstairs by the exit as a fine collection of puppets on display. Do haggle, it becomes part of the ‘game.’
Numerous Bank Buildings
Part of the restoration of the Kota Tua/Old Jakarta involved active private sector participation, and quite a number of the modern iterations of old Batavian banks took up their old buildings and did them up as museums of their respective banks.
The architecture is monumental, and the restoration commendable, making them a shining beacon amidst the forlorn buildings that surround them. While the interiors are stunning and the setting elegant, crossing the street from the Fatahilah Square quarter to them might take nerves of steel: it is at a busy junction.
Jakarta Art Gallery
Housed in a fine, low neoclassical building, the gallery is set in its own gardens, and serves as a green oasis set apart but adjoining the ever busy Fatahilah Square. A nice stop if only for the elegant architecture and imposing yet human scale of the buildings.
This is essentially an institution in Jakarta, and especially of the Old City/Kota Tua. A perfect pit-stop and a respite from the heat after a day looking around the Kota Tua. There is a decent selection of local cuisine in the menu, local drinks including the local concoction they call jamu which, in a nutshell, makes me think of a juice mixer.
The décor feels as if someone froze the café in the 1950s, with old black and white pictures and period posters placed all over the walls and in the washrooms. The bar is well appointed, with a fine wooden grand staircase and dark wood abounds in the upstairs dining area.
Grab a seat by the window and watch the world go by from your perch, overlooking the hectic yet quaint Kota Tua of Jakarta.
Side Trip: Jakarta’s Old Port, Sunda Kelapa. This destination is not exactly walking distance from the Kota Tua. Advisable to get a car. The sights of old, wooden ships, mast up high, ready to sail the high seas is something.
Transport?: I rented a Silver Bird from the hotel to bring me to and fro, including stops. You can get your taxi to wait for you as you explore. Taxis can be challenging to get to in this part of town, in particular the ever reliable Blue Bird or Silver Bird taxis, but the local ojeks or motorcycle taxis are everywhere.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot.
Southeast Asia without a doubt a memorable destination: from futuristic city skylines to decadent beach bars, from jungle terrace retreats to riverine vistas, there is bound to be something interesting for everyone. This is Jay’s take, Part 1, because let’s be honest, there will be more as we travel and discover unique spots.
Catch Beach Club, Phuket
Images of an idyllic island retreat usually includes either a fancy lounge or a small hut serving coconuts. This particular spot definitely qualifies in the former category, and then some.
The previous location of Catch on Surin Beach was iconic, as it was fringed on one corner by large rocks and on another by the beach, with the most realistic entrance via the beach. The new location, as of early 2017, is on the next beach up on Bangtao Beach, with an equally stunning view, and arguably a better spot for a sunset.
The crowd has also gone upmarket, with a fantastic, single storey setting and with a very euro-white theme all-around. Naturally, there are magnum bottles of Moet everywhere, and the cocktails are really, really good.
rGrab a spot around 5pm to get a good seat for sunset, and stay a while longer as the beach-club lounge house beats set your beach escapade soundtrack.
View: West, towards the Andaman Sea. Fantastic setting for the sunset
Drinks: good selection of drinks, cocktails are my favourite here
Price Point: Reasonable. THB 300++/drink
Feel: come by in the late afternoon onwards. Perfect, chilled atmosphere. Also: if you happen to be staying at the Twin Palms Surin, there is a shuttle service between Catch Beach Club and the Twin Palms.
Address: Choeng Thale, Thalang District, Phuket 83110, Thailand
(Tel: +66 65 348 2017)
Helipad @ Heli Lounge, Kuala Lumpur
While Marini’s takes the cake as the highest bar in town, and SkyBar has the unrivalled view of the Petronas Twin Towers, the Helipad is among the few places where you can say ‘oh, the helicopter dropped me off’ as you chat someone up by the lounge. When it isn’t used as an outdoor terrace, this place still functions as a helipad.
The views here are stunning: an unrivalled 360* view of Kuala Lumpur, all the way to the Titiwangsa Range and beyond. The spot is high enough for you to enjoy a view of the city, but just right for you to feel as if you are still surrounded by other buildings, giving you an urban feel.
Happy Hours are not exactly present, but the relaxed atmosphere, where you can walk around in shorts, gives it a chilled feel. After 9pm though, you need to wear trousers, and there is a minimum spend, and there is a live band on some evenings. The chilled lounge beats from 6pm provides a nicer, more relaxed setting, as you watch the world go by while the sun changes hue at dusk.
View: 360* view of Kuala Lumpur, from the Twin Towers to KL Tower to everything else in between.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and the usual beers.
Price Point: Reasonably priced at the MYR 30++ point.
Feel: This is a somewhat popular place, for both locals and visitors. Come by around 6pm to get a good seat and watch the sun set from 7pm.
Address: 34th Floor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
(Tel: +60 3 2110 5034)
How about a craft brewery 33 floors above the city? This is what LeVeL33 is all about, as you are greeted by bronze tanks as you walk through the bar. With a nice, wooden feel and an east-facing terrace, Level33 is definitely one of the more unique watering holes in Asia.
The beer selection is eclectic, with sampling options if you can’t decide which brew tickles your fancy. The good selection of beers and ales, coupled with a reasonably priced happy hour selection makes this a regular after-work haunt for the bankers, lawyers and finance-types that populate the Marina Bay and Raffles Place towers next door.
While it may not have as iconic a view as the outlets at the Marina Bay Sands Skypark, you get an unrivalled view of the Marina Bay Sands in one end, the financial district of Raffles Place on the other end and the iconic colonial buildings and Esplanade Theatres right in front of you.
View: 180* view of the Singapore skyline, with parts of Raffles Place, all of Marina Bay and of course, unobstructed views of the Marina Bay Sands.
Drinks: Expansive beer selection, from craft brews to special editions.
Price Point: Reasonable by Singapore standards, especially at happy hours. SGD 11 at Happy Hour, SGD 17 after.
Feel: Business casual. Expect lots of professional types, but not too stuffy as a venue.
Address: 8 Marina Boulevard 33-01, Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, Singapore 018981
(Tel: +65 6834 3133)
Red Sky, Bangkok
Located at the top terrace of Centra at CentralWorld, this bar tops off the dining and entertainment selection in this large tower. While not as popular as Lebua at State Tower, this particular perch has unrivalled views of Bangkok with its city centre location.
From here, you can see the iconic pixelated tower of the MahaNakhon in the Silom-Sathorn financial district, the office towers along the Witthayu diplomatic enclave, and the never-ending expanse along Sukhumvit Road. Did I mention this is a 360* view? While Vertigo at Banyan Tree also has a 360*, this feels a bit more grounded as it feels wider, with a lot of terrace space to walk and lounge around.
Drinks are pretty good here, and cocktails can be quite stiff. There is, naturally, a champagne lounge, and the terrace seating is conducive for lounging. Definitely a good perch if you want a convenient bar after all that shopping downstairs, especially around 6pm, in time to catch the sun setting.
View: 360* views of Bangkok.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and can be strong.
Price Point: Reasonable by Urban Asia-Pacific standards. THB 400++, and there is a decent happy hour which includes a buy-one-free-one promo.
Feel: Very dressed down and casual in the daytime. Relaxed atmosphere with chilled music just makes you want to do absolutely nothing but relax.
Address: Centara Grand at CentralWorld 56F, Thailand
(Tel: +66 2 100 6255)
River Terrace, Mulu, Sarawak
This spot is definitely the odd one out in this list, but how many times can you lounge on a super large and comfortable day bed with a glass of wine looking at limestone cliffs, a clear river and the very edge of a UNESCO World Heritage Natural Wonder?
With a fine, wide veranda, a small garden fronting the river and pebble beach, the Paku River meanders against a sheer limestone cliff, as the peace and quiet of the jungle lets you unwind for a moment. Oh, and this is one of the few spots in the hotel where you get reliable cell reception and the only few places with WiFi in all of Mulu: this place was designed to be remote.
Drinks selection are good, but let’s be honest: the main reason why we chill here is for cell reception and WiFi. The stunning jungle views, occasional boat that plies the river and comfortable jungle luxury setting just adds on to the ‘plus’ column.
View: Nature, jungle, river and the quaint, rural idyll, set in a 5 star resort, yet you don’t feel too decadent somehow.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and generous carafe options for wine. Good options, considering this is the middle of the jungle and provisions need to be flown in.
Price Point: On the lower end of average upscale Asia-Pacific establishments. MYR 25++
Feel: Relaxed atmosphere and extremely chilled. You may just fall asleep on the day bed, it is that comfortable.
Address: Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa, Sungai Melinau, Box 1145, 98008 Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia
(Tel: +60 85 792 388)
What is my criteria?
-View: do I get a unique insight to the city? And is the view majorly obstructed?
-Drinks Selection: Beer? Wine? Cocktails? Variety helps with the view.
-Price Point: Rooftop bars are known to charge a premium, but is it reasonable?
-Feel: Now this is hard to quantify, but a fantastic view can be spoiled by that intangible thing called ‘feelings’
When someone thinks of Mulu, they may think of a small rainforest hamlet, but with ready facilities. Think again. This is a remote place, where mobile reception is limited, WiFi even more limited and 4G a mere whisper in the clouds, literally. It is the ideal spot to get away from it all and to concentrate on your adventures. With that in mind, I went on a 2-day expedition to visit the 4 Show Caves of Deer, Lang, Wind and Clearwater.
My trip started as soon as I landed in Mulu on the 1045 flight from Miri. I checked in to the Mulu Marriott (a stunning retreat) and after a dip in the pool, I got the complementary Mulu Marriott shuttle bus to the Mulu World Heritage Area Park Office: a short 3-minute drive.
There I was met by my two guides who were super helpful and super knowledgeable: two local boys named Ipoi and Harvey. Our trek started at 1300. Our first stop: the Canopy Walk. Truth be told, I initially was not too keen on it, but since it came inclusive in my expedition package, I went along. On hindsight, I would have regretted had I not.
The Canopy Walk is a 450m detour up in the high trees, 30m above the jungle floor and river below. Apparently, it is the world’s longest canopy walk when measured between trees. I have a head for heights, so I was game for it.
Walking from tree to tree, up in the upper canopy, you notice the ingenious construction of the structure. Not a single nail was used, with the entire canopy walk supported by one very long, continuous durable cable.
If looking down at the jungle floor makes you jaded, then perhaps a view of the river below may change your mind. If that is not enough, then the view of the limestone cliffs that hint at the caves beyond should stir on your inner adventurer. Add in a little drizzle on a narrow walkway that is wet, and your guide walking 20 steps behind you as the walkway sways just that bit and you get a feel how Indiana Jones felt running along his makeshift rope bridge in the Temple of Doom.
3.5km from the canopy walk (and being tempted by the Mt Mulu sign), we reached the first of the show caves: the Deer Cave. The cave got its name from deer tracks spotted by the local trackers. Why do the deers go in you ask? They want salt, and in a giant cave filled with millions upon millions of bats, you are guaranteed salt from the literal mountains of guano (a.k.a. poop).
Mother Nature has a way of making a grand spectacle: Petra has the Wadi Path that leads through a chasm in the desert rock to the Treasury. Mulu has an equally stunning approach towards the Deer Cave grand entrance. As you walk along left rock face, you pass a somewhat narrow pass, cut through the limestone from erosion over a period of a million years. You get hints of what lies beyond through ‘breaks’ in between the massive boulders. Glimpses of brightly lit interiors against the darkness of this pass make you ponder, wonder at what lies beyond. A prelude, a hint, a tease.
And then it hits you as the path opens up: the sheer scale of the chamber. Pictures do no justice to the majesty of the space. You definitely need humans for scale. Standing at the edge, the cavern dwarfs you, with the high ceiling soaring above, greater than any grand cathedrals of Europe. The light dancing between the cracks and caverns, the nooks and crannies of the cavern walls playing, teasing your senses. You take a picture, you try every angle, yet it fails to capture the sheer sight of something that must be seen in person
You ignore the smell, the hint of stench, of manure. You ignore the damp, the humidity, the stickiness you feel. All you sense around you is the primeval beauty, the sound of water dripping from the cavern ceiling and the clicks of swiftlets flying above. For a brief moment, you are one with the nature, awestruck by the sheer scale, and now miniscule and insignificant we truly are.
Yet this is just the start. You proceed further, deeper in to the chamber. You suddenly see a traveller, gingerly balancing himself on the edge of a rock high above, taking a picture before going back behind the railings. You wonder what he was up to, before your guide tells you to look behind, as you stand in one very specific spot. You look back, and then spot an old friend.
Now, this image has been used as a tourism poster for Sarawak for as long as I could remember and I could see why. There at the entrance is the famous profile of Abraham Lincoln against the rock face, his silhouette against the light. You try, you struggle, you adjust the light settings on your camera, you take a picture. You try to recreate that iconic image, yet that mental and actual image can never truly translate in to a digital copy. Some things must be seen in person.
You proceed further down in to the cave and finally catch the sheer size of the space. The water dripping down, echoing through the chamber as your party looks around in amazement at this sight, as you stand in the middle of the entrance, the soaring heights daring you not to be amazed. You see hints, reflections of light further beyond, and you wonder what took you so long to visit this place.
Water trickles all around: above from the ceiling, against the walls, down below and in the distance. You walk up along a path, concrete in some parts, steel in others. You notice patches of brown piled high in certain corners and are reminded of what that brown this is on the railing. You try to stop yourself from touching it, despite the occasional want for a handrail. The thought of having guano on your hands must stay firm to prevent you from touching anything.
Walking up along rocks and ledges, raised sections and platforms, you finally see what was causing that rushing sound: a stream flows through the cave, that artist’s brush which carved this massive cavern from the limestone. Artificial lights illuminate the flow, the rock and the cave face, focussing on the sight.
And then your guide tells you to look up, yet your eyes are transfixed ahead, towards that bright ray of light ahead. You listen to your guide, occasionally looking up at a ‘shower head’ with a steady shower streaming from it: the famous ‘Eve’s Shower.’ You hear something about ‘Adam’s Shower’ yet you look ahead, transfixed.
“The Garden of Eden” your guide says, finally breaking the spell which caught you in this daze.
‘Ah’, you think to yourself. ‘No wonder Adam and Eve have shower heads here.’
That source of bright light is truly a garden, with lush greenery, beautiful majestic trees and foliage being framed against the cave chamber’s wall. It makes you think of a terrarium, and in scale, it does look small, before you recall how massive rainforest trees can truly get. The light and the dark, the green and the brown, life and death, of an everlasting renewal of nature’s cycle, all in one diorama.
Your guide notices your fascination. He may not have known you for long, but he knows that look on your face, that look of wonder, that look of amazement, that look of need: that explorer’s look of wanderlust. “There are guided hikes to explore the Garden of Eden,” he says with a smile, before leading you out.
Walking back through the path we were just on, the cavernous chamber still mesmerizes you. The second time around and you still get awestruck. You try and sneak another picture, just to capture the moment. ‘There, people for scale! I can finally get that #humanforscale shot!’ Naturally, that shot failed to capture what you want to portray, and you mentally tell yourself to delete that picture.
We exit one cave and enter another, just a short 5-minute walk from the entrance of the Deer Cave. Before entering, our guide tells us that the cave is narrow, the cave is low, the cave is not as fantastic as our first show. Yet it was still something we had to see, so onwards we went, some with glee.
Lang’s Cave, or Lang Cave, was discovered by a local named ‘Lang.’ The sights inside it may have either mesmerized him or terrorized him. The sights of the stalactites and stalagmites at the entrance was a mere tease, with both the white of the limestone and the brightness of the sunlight hiding what the shadows could throw in for effect.
We walked in, with the ceiling at times almost reaching our heads. If you were 6’, you may get a sore neck, as you bow your heads continuously in between sections of the passageway. Away from the light, the small water-and-light show of a stalactite-in-progress, and nature’s science lesson of a limestone column in various stages of formation, you enter in to what could be a page from the Necronomicon.
There you see images in the rock face. Depending on who you ask, you may see different things. My party saw jellyfish. My guides saw jellyfish. Against the light and shadows, I on the other had saw something else. I saw an Ancient One, an image, a companion of Cthulhu set in stone. There, frozen, nay, encased in limestone, grimacing with an intimidating show of teeth, with a face like an angler fish, or some creature from the deep. Had I come here with a torchlight in the darkness, I would have thought I found an entrance to R’lyeh and encountered that image which brought Alhazred to madness.
Before long, we exited and headed out towards the bat observation area. Our timing was good, so we found a good corner to view the evening exodus of bats off for their dinner. It was 1700, and it was a good time for a drink, so I lay back against the seating and sipped from my whiskey flask.
The bat exodus, the flight of the bat, the bat flight, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the highlights for a Mulu expedition. If you can catch one, you are in for a treat, as these microbats, the same ones pooping in the Deer Cave, can be quite temperamental when the weather is not ideal.
We all sat, watching the entrance of the Deer Cave for a sight of bats, as we were told they fly out from 1700 onwards. We waited, and waited, and waited. If the people around you talk too much while waiting, tell them ‘oh, look! I see something!’ and there will be sudden silence.
And then at 1745, we saw the first round. It was still bright, but a flock flew out from behind the cave. This group must have come out from the Garden of Eden. We waited ever patiently, and more groups came out, first from the back, then from cracks in the middle against the trees. The sun was setting fast, and as the last rays of sun left the face of the Deer Cave entrance, they came.
They came in droves, in a continuous large group. You could hear the clicking, the flapping of their bat wings, the sounds being made in this large movement. They do not fly in one continuous line, but dance and twirl, somersault and vault, twist and curl like a great wave. Some saw an image of dragons dancing, others a snake slivering. I just saw something that will without a doubt continue to feed my wanderlust and fascination for adventure and exploration.
For part 2, click here.
I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking's personalized services for my Mulu trip. Contact them for your bespoke adventure. www.borneorainforesttrekking.com
The Royal Court of Yogyakarta, of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, is one of those interesting quirks of Southeast Asian History. Officially the Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, with the governorship of the Region held hereditary by and connected to the rulers of Yogyakarta, this is among the very few instances where royal houses still retain power amidst a declared republic.
A Becak Ride Away
In a city as storied as Yogyakarta, it only makes sense to ride in a rickshaw from the oldest and arguably grandest hotel in central Jogja (the nickname of Yogyakarta), the Hotel Phoenix, to the Royal Palace, the Keraton Yogyakarta. Having paid a decent price of IDR 100,000, for the return trip, including waiting time, I made my way along the main axis of Malioboro towards the monumental Royal Quarter.
Now, Malioboro Street is part of the spiritual and geographic axis of Yogyakarta, linking the Sultans of Yogyakarta, to Mt Merapi to the north to the Southern Ocean to the south. Having just ascended Mt Merapi, a trip to the seat of spiritual power, to the Keraton, the seat of temporal (and arguably some more spiritual power), made sense.
The Inner City
Passing the gates of the Keraton, it gives you a glimpse of what it once was in the 18th century. While other grand palace complexes in Bangkok and Beijing have effectively become tourist spots, with the ‘living palace’ relegated to a footnote, the Keraton Yogyakarta still maintains the ‘living palace’ feel.
As you enter the inner entrances, people still mill about: some tourists, some actual palace staff, some actual palace courtiers. At the outer gate, you are greeted by a post office and ticket office, and for a small fee, including camera fee, you are free to roam most of the palace.
Now, I brought my Royal Javanese fan with me, as it was hot. Little did I realize this was the perfect accessory for this crowd. I followed a few palace courtiers in the main entrance: a simple, elegant construction that followed traditional Javanese-Bali constructs, filled with right angles.
Inside the main courtyard, you will see small pavilions all about, with large, well maintained, mature trees providing shade from the midday sun. In one pavilion was set a stage: the audience pavilion, where the Sultans used to hold court. Nowadays, there are daily cultural performances from 10am until 12pm, with a focus on gamelan, dance or drama, depending on the day.
Conveniently, when I was there, they were doing Javanese Court Gamelan. The sheer dedication, skill and acoustic beauty of this performance mesmerized all who were about, and made me appreciate the refined court culture Southeast Asia has. It also gave me an opportune moment to fan myself, sitting down, appreciating the multiple sopranos, accompanied by the fine brass percussions.
A Living Palace
One thing you will notice as you walk around the palace complex is that is it very much a living palace. Courtiers still live in the inner palace, artisans still produce fine works, musicians still practice their artforms. Courtiers and palace staff, the abdi dalem or inner staff, shuffle about. Some practice their music, others restore the palace fittings. All easily spotted with their distinctive batik and black uniform, a combination of browns and gold, accented in black.
Some sections of the palace are closed to visitors, but on occasion, you can get a glimpse of what lies behind the forbidden gates: courtiers and staff laughing, doing housekeeping, or just generally being themselves.
One thing I like about the palace is the scale. It may be wide, may be open, but it is not overly opulent, neither is it too overbearing. The scale is very human: not set to overwhelm but rather to calm.
As you walk around, you will hear the occasional warm-up of gongs, as the gamelan orchestra practice their singing and dinging. It is at this moment, you realize you are invited in to this sacred, royal, deeply intimate world of Javanese court culture. The pomp, the circumstance, becomes a play, a theatre of state, but rather than imposing will, this incorporates will, and incorporates all.
Respite of Peace
Unlike other palaces, where once you leave, you feel awestruck, even overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the place, the Keraton Yogyakarta leaves you feeling at peace. The green spaces calm you, the space gives you peace yet enough human contact to remind you that you are not alone.
The palace courtiers greet you with a smile and a small bow as they shuffle from hall to hall. Paintings by Dutch masters remind you that this Royal House is still Europeanized, yet the little details emphasize their distinct Javanese heritage. You feel like a guest, and you do not feel so much as an intruder, a voyeur, but more like a welcomed spectator to see, to learn, to appreciate their refined culture.
This is when I realize the significance of the axis: where the spiritual and temporal merge, where the strength of the volcano and sea combine with the elegance of culture and human touch.
Agency: Self-tour. There are guides available at the ticket counter.
Preparation: Lots of walking involved, but nothing too strenuous.
Bring: Camera and water. The sights alone will make you snap away.
Wear: Something light. This is the tropics. This is still a working palace, so do not dress as if you were going to the beach.
Time: I spent 1.5 hours in the palace. I was in a bit of a rush, so if you have time, 2 hours is just nice to walk around the palace compounds and catch the performances at 10am.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.