Asian Games 2018
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A walkway with hanging lamps and lanterns in Jakarta’s Old Town district. Photo: Alamy

2018 Asian Games: five things to see in Jakarta, and where to stay, if you’re visiting for the tournament, or any time

From the Dutch colonial-era Old Town to the bustle of Chinatown, and a wealth of history at the National Museum, there’s plenty to see between Asian Games contests in the city some call the ‘big durian’. Just mind the traffic

The upcoming 2018 Asian Games, to be held in Indonesia, is the largest event of the year for any sports fan in Asia.

The Indonesian government has spent 45 trillion rupiah (US$3.2 billion) on infrastructure, logistics and advertising for the two-week-long, pan-Asian multi-sport event, which starts on August 18. Teams from 45 countries will compete in 40 sports in two cities, Palembang and the capital, Jakarta.

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Most events, and the opening and closing ceremonies, will be held at the Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex, although two new facilities have been built in the capital for the Games – a velodrome in East Jakarta and an equestrian facility in North Jakarta.

The tournament is expected to draw 200,000 visitors to Indonesia, according to Bambang Brodjonegoro, minister of national development planning. If you are visiting Jakarta for the Asian Games next month – or any time – it is worth putting aside some time to enjoy the city.

Despite its reputation for bad traffic, the “big durian” – as it is known among expats because of the famous pungent local fruit – does have its charms. So immerse yourself while you’re there, and follow our tips to make the most of your stay.

The National Monument, or Monas, is 132 metres high. Photo: Agoes Rudianto
1. National Monument

The National Monument, or Monas, in Merdeka Square at the centre of the city is a 132-metre-high tower symbolising Indonesia’s struggle for independence. The tower is shaped like a candle with a gold-plated bronze flame on top, which most local children believe is made of real gold. The monument and observation deck open daily, including at night.

Take the lift to the top for a 360-degree view of the city’s skyline. Only a limited number of tickets to the observation deck are made available daily to avoid long queues, so get there early to enjoy the view.

The monument has a diorama area at the bottom that chronicles the Indonesians’ struggle for independence during the Dutch occupation that began in the 19th century and ended when Japanese troops invaded the country in 1942.

A minibus promoting the Asian Games banner near the National Monument. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

2. Old Town

Also known as Kota Tua, this was the historical downtown area of Jakarta during the Dutch occupation. The neighbourhood has Dutch-style buildings dating back to the 17th century. You can hire a 1970s-style antique bike to get around.

Get a feel for the colonial era and its cuisine at Cafe Batavia in Fatahillah Square, famous for its bitterballen, a Dutch bite-sized meat croquette served with mustard.

The dining room upstairs has wooden floorboards, tall ceilings and rows of French windows, and is decorated in classic European style with wooden chairs and white-clothed tables. A live band plays downstairs every now and then.

Around the square you will find people, painted head to toe in silver or bronze, standing stock still posing as statues for a photo opportunity. Be prepared to entertain selfie requests and chat with curious locals.

The Jakarta History Museum, in the city’s Old Town district. Photo: Alamy

3. National Museum

Indonesia boasts a rich history as the biggest archipelagic country. The National Museum on Medan Merdeka Barat has been showcasing the country’s history for the past two centuries, and houses 141,000 objects in a building that was constructed in the 1800s.

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Inside, you’ll find plenty of interesting collections, including fossilised human bones from the Mesolithic period and fossil remains of Homo floresiensis – human ancestors a metre tall, dubbed hobbits because of their stature, from Liang Bua on the island of Flores. A must for history enthusiasts, the museum is also known as the Museum Gajah, meaning elephant museum, a reference to the bronze elephant statue in front of the building, a gift from the then Siamese king Rama V, or Chulalongkorn, during a visit in 1896.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jakarta. Photo: Alamy

4. Istiqlal Mosque and Jakarta Cathedral

Although it is the country with the biggest Muslim population, Indonesia has a diverse culture – with more than 300 ethnic groups and five main religions – which the people honour through the state motto bhinneka tunggal ika (“Unity in Diversity”). The Istiqlal Mosque is the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia, and its location next to the cathedral illustrates the religious harmony Indonesia has been known for. During prayers, visitors can go to the second floor to observe the Islamic rite in the main hall.

The cathedral was opened in 1901, while the Istiqlal mosque was established in 1978. The cathedral has ornate decorations in Gothic style like a European church, complete with an altar and an organ. The cathedral is open to the public daily, and attracts sparrows, which fly around inside.

Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque is the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

5. Glodok (Chinatown)

A district in West Jakarta, Glodok, or Chinatown, is where many Indonesians of Chinese descent live. The area is not on most tourists’ itineraries, but locals head to its Petak Sembilan Market for delicious street food, such as mie ayam (Chicken Noodle) or gado gado (salad with peanut sauce), and to Glodok Market for cheap electronic gadgets.

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While you are there, visit the oldest Buddhist temple in Jakarta, Vihara Dharma Bhakti, built in the 1600s. The scent of incense will greet you as soon as you step into the building, and you can make an offering, or pray to one of the gods and goddesses, inside the red and gold Chinese-style temple.

Getting there: Garuda Indonesia and Cathay Pacific fly direct from Hong Kong to Jakarta several times a day. The flight takes around four hours and 30 minutes. Tickets to the games can be bought from the official Asian Games website.
Indonesian dancers perform during the Asian Games 2018 media world press briefing in Jakarta. Photo: AFP

How to get around: Jakarta is famously congested, so carefully plan your daily itinerary around that. Avoid travelling during rush hour, and use public transport such as the TransJakarta buses, which serve most of the main roads in the city. Locals use ride-hailing apps such as Grab or Go-Jek, which are available in any part of the city – if you’re really in a hurry, opt for motorbikes over cars.

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Where to stay: As travelling around Jakarta can be time-consuming, you may want to consider staying at a hotel near the main sports complex. Book as early as possible to get a room at the best price as they are likely to fill up quickly during the Asian Games.

Fairmont Hotel in Senayan offers five-star facilities and is only a stone’s throw away from the Gelora Bung Karno.
Harris Suites Fx Sudirman is a more reasonably priced option with four-star facilities. Harris Suites targets business travellers, and is in a shopping centre next to the sports complex.
The Fave Hotel is a chain of budget hotels with several properties in Jakarta. The ones nearest the Games are Fave Hotel Melawai and Fave Hotel Gatot Subroto.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fun and Games in Jakarta