Escape from Budapest to Java in Indonesia - Part 1: Jakarta, Eclectic Capital of Contrasts

  • 23 Apr 2024 11:11 AM
Escape from Budapest to Java in Indonesia - Part 1: Jakarta, Eclectic Capital of Contrasts
Indonesia is blessed with some of nature's most beautiful creations, even when compared to other amazing Asian destinations, and comes complete with many man-made wonders. It’s a country with an extraordinary history, and an all-embracing population of over 275 million. They're a genuinely welcoming and hospitable people, plenty of whom speak English - frequently they're totally fluent in the dynamic capital of Jakarta.

Spanning the heart of Southeast Asia, between the Indian and Pacific oceans, it’s fair to say that Indonesia is probably the most culturally and ecologically diverse country on earth.

Even so, a lot of well-seasoned travellers don't fully appreciate the multifaceted characteristics of Indonesia, many instantly just picture the famous beaches of Bali.

Yet there is so much more to Indonesia than that famed tropical paradise, inhabited mostly by Hindus. As the largest archipelago in the world, Indonesia has over 17,000 islands and more than 200 ethnic groups.

Many don't realise that Indonesia is the world's third-largest democracy. Notably, Indonesia has one of the largest populations of Muslim worldwide, with around 241 million, however it is not an Islamic nation according to its constitution.

There is a significant percentage of Christians there, 29 million or so, and a large proportion are Roman Catholics. Only around 3 million people identify as Catholics in Hungary these days, and for a more general country comparison - made with due respect by an expat in Budapest – Indonesia offers countless experiences that are simply impossible to enjoy in Hungary, or many other nations:

Rare pink beaches, iconic rice terraces, palaces of Sultans, and world-class diving along untouched coastlines...

Real dragons from Komodo, sublime rainforests with waterfalls, awesome active volcanoes and graceful misty mountains...

Biggest Buddhist temple in the world, colourful monumental mosques, stunning Hindu shrines, plenty of picture-perfect paradise islands, and the list goes on.

Undeniable the beauty of Bali is world famous, its name resonates internationally as a vacation sensation – it was voted as the ‘Best Island in Asia’ by Corde Nast readers in 2023 - and accordingly it’s on many bucket-lists. But why wait any longer before visiting there - and elsewhere in Indonesia - you’re wholeheartedly advised to find a way go (again) as soon as you can.

Actually, the best time of year to visit Indonesia is between April and October, when the weather is ideal for both city sightseeing and seaside relaxation, as well as mountain hiking, island-hopping and snorkelling with turtles.

Bridging the Equator, Indonesia is hot all year with the only key change coming between November and March when there’s widespread rain and humidity, particularly down south.

Anyway back to the main point, why not start planning a holiday to Indonesia, or just drop everything and escape for a break in Bali? Because it’s far away you may say, and flights there are expensive you might add...

Well here’s the first travel hack to help you make it well worth the journey:

Fly to Jakarta first and explore the island of Java, or just the Indonesian capital, before taking a cheap flight to Bali using a low-cost airline like Lion Air and Air Asia. You can pay a bit more for the the privilege of flying there in more comfort from Jakarta with Garuda, the flag carrier of Indonesia.

Why visit Java?

Many don’t know that it’s the world's most populous island, home to more than half of Indonesia's population. So as you can imagine there’s a lot to see and do, plus Java is less costly than neighbouring Bali.

Back to the topic of resting assured, the next travel hack is to stay at local accommodation rather than at an (overly expensive) international hotel chain - where you may pay extra for brand recognition. The trick of course is to know which local hotels are most trustworthy, and which offer best value and comfort in the many visit-worthy locations around Indonesia.

That’s where this article about Java comes in - and a partner piece about Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands. Since there are plenty of ‘flowery guides’ to Indonesia available, this one focuses on practical information about what to see and do there for two weeks or so – including travel hacks, top tips and varied recommendations about where’s a safe choice to stay for an inspiring vacation you’ll passionately remember forever.

For the record, it’s important to mention how helpful the Indonesian Embassy in Budapest are regarding travel advice. Plus, the hotels featured are all tried and tested: from first-hand experience in March 2024 they're all highly recommended.

Also worth noting, within the last month flights from Budapest to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) return on a major airline cost a little over HUF 350.000 – with just one stop and good connection times each way.

So that’s not expensive for such a trip, even considering what it cost in pre-Covid days, especially as it was booked at short notice. Another travel hack to consider, if you're on a tight budget you can use to find special routes to Jakarta, which will take more travel time but cost a lot less cash - rest assured that's not a plug to get commission.

Is Indonesia expensive?

Not really, when compared to Hungary. In fact it's significantly cheaper than some other popular destinations in S.E. Asia, and certainly great food and drink costs way less there than it does in Budapest these days.

Maybe surprisingly to some, it's ranked the 7th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, however the GDP per capita in Indonesia is only USD 4,788 - in Hungary the same figure is USD 18,390.

Still, Indonesia is a rising economic powerhouse, already the largest in S.E. Asia. It has vast oil and gas stockpiles, and the biggest nickel reserves in the world - but perhaps Indonesia's most valuable resource is the diverse, digitally savy and relatively young population.

The Big Mac Index, a real metric developed by The Economist magazine, initially served as a light-hearted tool to measure purchasing power parity between countries. Today it has evolved into a significant indicator, and in Indonesia you can buy such a burger for less than half the price of a Big Mac in the US - it's lower there than the cost in Hungary, too.

Also, well-known brands of cigarettes cost two-thirds less in Indonesia than in Hungary, smoking is still such a common habit that there are often smoking rooms in hotels and homestays - a homestay in Indonesia is different from a traditional low-budget guesthouse or suchlike as you'll usually find hospitable owners living on the premises too.

Where’s best to stay in Jakarta?

After landing at Jakarta’s main airport, it's advised to head for a hotel in the centrally located business district of the capital, due to its easy access to the key sights and landmarks.

Located around 40 minutes away from the airport, there is some traffic involved in getting there - or anywhere in the capital - however nothing like the horror stories that do the rounds about Jakarta being constantly gridlocked.

A little travel hack here is to use the new Sky Train to easily travel efficiently between the airport and the city. Plus, you can use it free of charge between the three terminals at the airport if you’re catching a connecting flight to and from Jakarta.

Indonesia’s eclectic capital of contrasts is one of the fastest growing and most exciting places in South-East Asia these days. It's busy, buzzing and even chaotic in parts, which is not that surprising since Jakarta is the world's second-most-populous urban area.

When considering where to stay, Kemang is a more laid-back and trendier district located in South Jakarta, but it's less convenient if you’re not planning to stay long in the city. Still, you might like to visit as that area is popular among expats due to its hip cafes, art galleries, and boutique shops. Kemang is also known for its vibrant nightlife with lots of bars and clubs
– more on that to come.

Formerly the colonial capital of the Dutch East Indies, Jakarta has grown from its original seaport origins into a sprawling metropolis, complete with high-rise hotels, huge shopping malls and all.

Jakarta, home to more people than the population of Hungary, is a truly sensational melting pot of cultures and customs from across Indonesia and beyond.

The capital located on the island of Java manages to harmoniously blend the newly restored areas of the city with its ancient parts, seamlessly incorporating over 10 million multicultural inhabitants. 

The hub of the city is Taman Merdeka (Independence Square), which is dominated by the impressive National Monument (132 m tall) crowned by a stylized metal flame. The area where it stands includes a large market, food stalls and a park which is perfect for picnics.

In the Indonesian language ‘Monumen Nasional’, which is locally abbreviated to Monas, can be viewed from the Sky Lounge at Hotel Santika Premiere Hayam Wuruk in central Jakarta.

A little research reveals that Hayam Vuruk was a Javanese Hindu emperor from the Rajasa dynasty, and he reigned the empire at the time of its greatest power. These days, Hayam Wuruk Street is the oldest thoroughfare in Jakarta running through a bustling area in the capital's heart.

It’s known locally for a diverse range of nearby activities, from main-stream shopping to a red-light district, apparently. Also, there is a night market selling an abundance of exotic flavours, one unusual street-food offering is fresh cobra - you can have it grilled or even drink its blood.

Anyway, this 4-star property in the heart of Jakarta is a safe choice for a great base in the capital, it goes above and beyond a typical 4-star, hence the Premiere label. It includes a swimming pool, fitness centre and has a wide range of well-appointed and affordable city centre rooms to choose between.

Several other big-name hotels are nearby, so it was easy to do some due-diligence and check the neighbouring property. In short that internationally recognised brand’s facilities are inferior yet the prices there are higher.

Since there is so much to see around the capital, and such little time to do everything you might like, it makes little sense to stay at a pricey luxury hotel given the limited time you'll be able to use the facilities.

What to see and do in Jakarta?

Only a 5-minute drive from this hotel is Jakarta’s History Museum (also known as Fatahillah Museum), it just takes 10-minutes by taxi to ITC Mangga Dua Shopping Centre, and around a 30-minutes by road is Ancol Dreamland Theme Park.

Particularly handy is that you can walk around the corner from the hotel to the authentic night market to check-out the street-food options - including satay, fried duck, as well as fresh snake supper - along with counterfeit perfumes, designer bags and suchlike.

As for on-site dining options, at the hotel’s 22Sky Lounge (on the 22nd floor) you can arrange dining and drinks with superb city views – giving you chance to see Monas illuminated at night - while its Kicir-Kicir Restaurant serves a wide range of quality Indonesian and international dishes.

Not far from the hotel is the Glodok District, the heart of Jakarta’s substantial Chinese community. Both the market and temple there are worth a look – and as well as seeing the historical Candra Naya Building you can visit the nearby Santa Maria de Fatima Catholic Church, which underlines the real multicultural nature of this city.

Not far away Pantjoran Tea House is a special place for refreshments, before taking a look at the impressive Merdeka Presidential Palace. Also worth a stroll is Sunda Kelapa, the old port, which is lined with warehouses dating back to the colonial era, as you can see old-fashioned schooners that still carry cargo between Jakarta and the outlying islands. Significantly, there’s an abundance of tourism and entertainment option around here.

The city has several other noteworthy museums, another obvious option worth visiting is the new Art1 Museum, a less obvious one is the Museum Wayang which is dedicated to keeping the ancient Indonesian art of shadow-puppetry alive.

Since Indonesia is an island nation it seems relevant to visit the Maritime Museum (AKA Bahari), situated in a 17th century Dutch warehouse on the docks at Sunda Kelapa.

It has a captivating collection of traditional sailing vessels from all over the Indonesian archipelago, and is well worth a visit after you stroll around nearby Kota Tua (Jakarta’s Old Town) which is a sightseeing essential.

If your schedule allows, you can take a tour of Indonesia’s vast and diverse culture, landscape and biodiversity in a single day at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah

Jakarta is also a fast growing city of evening entertainment, with nightlife ranging from down-to-earth bars and cheap eateries to up-scale restaurants, fancy clubs, and karaoke venues.

Night-owls can opt for bar-hopping throughout the vast city centre area or spend the night socialising and dancing until the early hours in the Kemang a district - located in the south of the city it’s popular with local expats for nightlife.

Two or three days in Jakarta is enough time to experience a decent selection of the top attractions - whilst saving plenty of landmarks and entertainment options for a return visit – before moving on to explore further afield on an adventurous road-trip.

The Indonesian Embassy recommended Yogyakarta as a key destination in Java for cultural immersion and to explore historical treasures - for instance it's the only Indonesian royal city still ruled by a monarchy - so that's the next travel goal by road via Cirebon and Linggarjati.

See part 2 of this epic adventure in Java here

Follow this link to read the related guide to Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands

Photos by the author + some pictures courtesy of the venues, Flickr and - unless shown otherwise.

Related links

Escape from Budapest to Java in Indonesia – Part 2: Cirebon, Linggarjati, Yogyakarta

Escape from Budapest to Bali - Part 1. Holiday Heaven: Sun, Sea & Spirituality

Escape from Budapest to Bali - Part 2. Seminyak, Lombok & The Gili Islands

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