The Pleasure Pain Principle: Jakarta to Bali

Is time spent in the Indonesian capital the price to pay for paradise?

Feature by RaRa | 06 Aug 2013
  • Jakarta

Life is defined by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, some guy called Freud once said. Even hardcore hedonists struggle to achieve both these goals. Exploitative internships lead to dream jobs, months of cake-avoidance and sit ups lead to abs, long haul flights lead to paradise – pain is an unavoidable obstacle in the pursuit of pleasure.

This frustrating joy/pain struggle often strikes backpackers – those insatiable pleasure junkies – on the way to Bali. The Indonesian traveller nirvana, with its golden beaches, turquoise waters, drinks promos and half-naked randy Aussies is high on the ‘desirable destinations’ list for those braving Asia. Sadly not everyone can afford to fly directly into Bali, geographically or financially. If you’re counting pennies and can only fly through Jakarta, you must earn your week of getting high and laid by surfers by putting in some miserable time in the pain-zone. Jakarta is the grotesque, smoggy purgatory you must bide your time in before enjoying a cold beer on Kuta Beach.

The Indonesian capital is a sprawling, land-locked farrago of skyscrapers, slums and shanty districts. There is no definable centre, nor many green spaces, and catastrophic transport infrastructure allows a ten-minute taxi journey to take four hours. The latter usually occurs in a cab with no air- conditioning, driven by a man hell bent on swindling you and suffering from uncontrollable flatulence. The general ambience of Indonesia’s capital is one of foreboding and control, by comparison to the yoga-on-the-balcony, ‘yeah, bro I’m just here to, like, work out what I wanna do’ incense-tinged atmosphere of Bali. Jakarta is a chaotic metropolis, slowly asphyxiating beneath viscous smog, sound-tracked by the guttural cry of the mosque.

Most people stumble out of Soekarno-Hatta airport with their rucksacks on and head straight for Jalan Jaksa – the only backpacker-friendly area named in traveller bible Lonely Planet. The street is not a ‘get-a-free-shot-on-arrival-and-go-home-with-a-sexy-stranger’ kind of backpacker zone, unless the shot in question is a stray firework to the face and the sexy stranger is a prostitute. Instead, Jaksa is a one-way street of ramshackle bars, none of them particularly appealing. Most people stopping over in Jakarta take a quick look around Jaksa, then opt to stay in their hostel and plead time go faster.

If you’re over-eager (or a North American tourist) and are determined to be productive during your Jakarta stop-over, you could always celebrate the white European invasion by visiting the Dutch quarter of Kota Tua. Here you can cycle gaily around the square on colourful rented bicycles and admire the slow decay of buildings that were once Asia’s grand centres of commerce. There’s also a puppet museum where you can watch delicate Wayang shadow-puppet shows performed with handmade models – some of them centuries old.

Alternatively, you can visit Jakarta’s extremely low budget Disney rip-off, Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. Creaking cable cars, eerie fairground music and attractions such as an aquarium of mutant fish will have you wondering when Scooby and the gang are going to rock up to save the day. Huge, furry Taman Mini mascots wander around in 40 degree heat waving dutifully at kids, but are more often seen with their animal heads off, smoking cigarettes and sweating profusely. Monkeys in chains wearing masks perform tricks for visitors, beating their drums and skating on mini monkey skateboards. It’s a surreal, verging on nightmarish cultural experience.

Taman Mini may be your only chance to stroke a real-life Komodo dragon, which (unless you are an anti-zoo activist and hardcore animal lover, in which case – Indonesia might not be for you) is an opportunity difficult to pass up. The 20-year-old captive Taman Mini dragon is approximately seven feet long and docile enough to be petted – visitors are actively encouraged to get in the pen and stroke him. There is also a nearby water park called Snow Bay (Florida’s Blizzard Beach ring any bells?) where you can splash down the rides – but ensure you wear Islam-friendly swim gear so as not to upset local families. The warnings at the top of the flumes read ‘No Smoking and No Jeans.’

At night the choice for backpackers is simple – warm, cheap beer outside a 7/11 on an uneventful ‘backpacker strip’ or clubbing at Stadium. Visitors to this predominately Muslim metropolis may be shocked by what goes on inside the latter. It’s a five-floor nightclub that throbs with trance and progressive house, in which the waiters deliver your ecstasy tablets in a menu board with a glass of water (should you be brave enough to risk both Indonesian chemistry and law.) Food is served until 9am, not like you’ll be needing it, and there isn’t much of a dress code unlike other snooty Jakarta clubs. If the idea of a five-storey vice den doesn’t get your pulse racing, there are lots of high-end clubs such as Immigrant and Embassy (dress code is film star, not backpacker) and there are Ladies' Nights in venues every night of the week if girls want to drink for free and guys don’t mind paying full price.

For people living here – mainly English language teachers locked into annual contracts, or older white men with smoking hot Indonesian wives – this hectic, polluted city is what it is, for all its faults. For backpackers passing through, by the time you sink your toes into the sand at Bali’s Jimbaran beach and get your Eat Pray Love kicks in Ubud, you will be glad you put in the time within the borderline intolerable, yet fascinating, Asian capital of Jakarta.