Navigating Jakarta is a daunting proposition for any traveller. As an expat living in the city, I’ve witnessed countless backpackers trudging along the side of the road through the thick pollution and endless traffic that has come to define the city. Invariably, these weary travellers bear the look of utter bewilderment, as if asking themselves “what the hell am I doing here??”
You see, there are few sidewalks in Jakarta and most are crammed with street vendors, making getting around by foot unfeasible. Complicating matters more, it’s a mall city, meaning that aside from a few neighborhoods, there is virtually nothing of interest in walking distance, not even the refuge of the cozy coffee shop. And on top of allt that, Jakarta is complete smog-filled tropically heated gridlock from 7-11 am, and again from 3-9 pm.
This hot simmering mess of humanity is difficult to appreciate from the perspective of a backpacker, but the city does have charm and character. The key to unraveling it is overcoming the traffic. Here are my suggestions:
1. Get out at night, Jakarta never sleeps
This is the best time to see the city. Its cooler, the pollution has blown off, the grime is hidden, the city shimmers with light and most importantly, the traffic is manageable.
2. Take an Ojek (motorcycle taxi)
If you have to go out during rush hour, hop on an Ojek, it will cut your transit time by at least half. Be sure to bargain hard for the price, they usually ask 30-40% more than the going rate. Also, wear a pollution mask (your lungs and brain will thank you) – you can pick one up for 4-5 USD at any mall in Jakarta. Ojek drivers can be found at almost any corner, usually sittin in the shade, shirts rolled up, hands rubbing their fat bellies.
3. Use Blue Bird Taxi
Of all the taxi services in the city, Bluebird is the most reliable. At least its drivers seem to have a general sense of the layout of the city. The others, not so much. You can spot bluebird cabs by their distinctly blue paint job and the bird logo on their door and light. Other less reliable options include Express and Taksiku. Taxis are quite cheap: an hour and a half taxi ride through traffic will cost you 5-6 USD.
Blue Bird Taxi
4. Take advantage of public transit
TransJakarta is the official public bus system in the city and has been steadily improving over the past five years, adding more busses and routs. Dedicated bus lanes mean this is quicker way to get through rush hour traffic than taxies, but at times the lanes are overwhelmed with private vehicles and it grinds to a half. Fares run Rp. 3,500 (0.35 USD) per journey. Private bus companies also run routs all around the city. Kopaja and Metro Mini run proper sized buses from the early sixties, while a whole range of companies operate “microlets” small vans that run shorter routs. Single journey fairs on these private buses cost Rp. 2,000 (0.20 USD).
Once you’ve mastered the ebb and flow of Jakarta traffic, you’ll be well placed to get out an experience the city on your own terms, rather than suffer the frustration of traffic hell on earth.