Old Jakarta (or Batavia as christened by the Dutch) still has remnants of days gone by. Unlike Manila, I don’t think it suffered intense bombing during the second world war, and therefore didn’t lose so many of its historical buildings. But there’s hardly an Altstadt either. Nonetheless, we went down to have a look around, starting at the famous Sunda Kelapa docks. The docks were lined as far as the eye could see with old schooners that are still sailing all over Indonesia, carrying cargos to the many, many islands of the archipelago. Most of them have hoists nowadays so loading is partially mechanized, but they are also loaded by hand just as they were for hundreds of years. The schooners were In various stages of care or neglect, and we walked along the extremely hot dock to see them closer up. Had it no been so brain-boilingly hot, it would have been fun to walk to the end and see just how many there were. But it was literally too hot to walk, think or breathe. (Funny how most photos can’t capture how hot it is!) Instead we shortened the tour to see just a few in details. Lethargic sailors squatted on their decks but, as I am always too concerned about being voyageristic, I didn’t capture their faces. I just walked past, wondering what it must be like to live and work year round in those conditions. Very hard indeed. I can only imagine.
The area was very poor with a few vendors selling snacks and drinks to the sailors, but interestingly there was also some evidence of attempts at attracting tourists…(old signs in English, postcards of the docks) but clearly it hadn’t been a success. Too bad as it was worth seeing and, if there had been a little shade somewhere, I might have stayed longer. An interesting place; I really felt like I had stepped back into the 17th century.
After we left the docks, we headed to a well known seafood place aptly named Sunda Kelapa Seafood Restaurant. Honestly, I would never have known to stop there. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside the walls were covered with photos of Indonesian famous folk and politicians – proving that the word is out on the food here. It was too early to have lunch and the place was empty when we walked in. It must have just opened, but it quickly filled up during our stay. We had drinks to rehydrate after the docks, and some sample seafood dishes to try out the food. And the food was good…we sampled grilled prawns, stuffed squid and various other tasty seafood dishes during our short stay. Next, we moved on to the central square in Batavia.
Here the Governors House is the main attraction, along with Cafe Batavia, a museum and some old colonial structures still awaiting renovation. The square was a mix of wandering people: vendors selling souvenirs to school groups and Indonesian tourists (as well as a few foreign ones), lots of people on bicycles (I got the impression that someone was renting them to tourists), and others just hanging out in the small spaces of shade that could be found. We headed over to the airconditioning and restored colonial splendor of Cafe Batavia to have a look around and grab a cold drink.
Cafe Batavia was everything you’d expect from a historical restaurant in an old city. They’d done an excellent job refitting it and recreating colonial elegance. But along with that came high end tourism, New York drink prices, and I’m told overpriced, not very good food. We didn’t eat there, so I can’t really comment. But it was comfortable to sit in, interesting to see, and fun to watch the square below from the upstairs bar.
In Manila the only remaining part of the old city is Intramuras, a small warren of streets and buildings in the center of the city. Manila has the World Heritage site, San Agustine Cathedral, as its highlight, and Jakarta has Batavia square and a number of surrounding streets. Some attempt has been made in both cities to preserve them, and protect their countries heritage. Neither cities are known as tourist destinations, and in third world countries where there are so many other economic priorities take precedence, its easy to see why historical preservation doesn’t make it very high up on the priority scale. So preserved historical buildings are random and few. Sad, but true.