Bounded to the north by the Java Sea and the south by the low Bogor Hills, Indonesia’s overwhelming capital, Jakarta, has long been the focus of the country’s changing political face, most dramatically with the student-led demonstrations against Suharto in 1998. Indonesia’s most populous city, it has grown from 900,000 inhabitants in 1945 to well over thirteen million (and more than twenty million if you take into account the greater urban region known as Jabotabek). Emblematic of the nation’s most striking contrasts, the capital sprawls over 661 square kilometres of northern Java in an amalgam of glamorous shopping malls, colonial-era relics, upscale neighbourhoods and slums spread beneath a soaring skyline. While few foreign visitors find the city as alluring as the local population does, there is no better place to glimpse the modern face of Indonesia. Among the city’s highlights are Kota in the north, the former heart of the old Dutch city, and the neighbouring Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s bustling old port. Both districts are dotted with historic buildings, including a few of the country’s finest museums, among them the Maritime Museum, the Wayang Museum and the National Museum.
To head from north to south through the centre of Jakarta is to go forward in time, from the quaint old Dutch area of Kota in the north, to the modern golf courses and amusement parks in the south. Medan Merdeka, a giant, threadbare patch of grass, marks the spiritual centre of Jakarta, if not exactly its geographical one, bordered to the west by the city’s major north–south thoroughfare. The main commercial district and the budget accommodation enclave of Jalan Jaksa lie just a short distance to the south of Medan Merdeka.