You can find some wonderful things in the most unlikely of places. In this particular case a trek – well actually a very lengthy cycle ride – into one of Jakarta’s dodgiest districts, Tanjung Priok, a rough and ready port area, which very few expats get to visit. I’d only ever been here a few times before – to catch Pelni ships to far flung places in the archipelago - and it was during my first trip to Priok about 20 years ago that someone slashed open my rucksack from behind but, luckily for me, didn’t manage to steal anything of value – probably put off by the stench given off by unwashed T shirts I guess! Besides, anything of value – which wasn’t much - was safely kept in my money belt strapped tightly around my waist.
Not far from the gigantic port – which was established by the Dutch after the traditional Sunda Kelapa port revealed its limitations - are a motley collection of bars and dangdut joints. Parched as a castaway on a remote Indonesian island, I felt like popping in for a much needed Guinness, but the charmingly-named Monalisa wasn’t yet open for custom, alas.
“Later on”, the security guys told me. But if Priok is rough during the day, I can’t imagine what the bar would be like at night. Well actually I can. As can be seen in this YouTube video recorded a while back in Priok featuring the inimitable Chacha Romeo, a 58 year old dangdut singer who likes to get it on with six supporting female singers – ranging in age from a positively aging twenty-something down to only 15.
Besides the area’s dodgy bars, drunken sailors and multitudes of street hoodlums, Tanjung Priok is also known for its riots. It was back in the glory years dark days of the Suharto era that bloody riots kicked off on 12 September 1984 after a Suharto stooge infuriated Muslims by entering a mosque without taking his shoes off in an attempt to remove some brochures and banners critical of the government. During the riots, nine members of a Chinese Muslim family headed by Tan Kioe Liem perished in their pharmacy which was burned to the ground while scores and possibly hundreds of rioters were shot dead.
More recently, in April 2010, protestors went on the rampage in response to government plans to bulldoze illegal buildings, including gates to a sacred tomb complex which apparently did not have permits. Three public security offices (Satpol PP) were battered to death and hundreds of protestors and security officers were injured.
So what is the wonderful thing I mention at the beginning of this article? Well, right in the heart of Priok stands the magnificent Tanjung Priok train station, built by the Dutch back in 1914 and one of the oldest stations in Indonesia which is also designated a heritage building by the city’s government.
This is the station which would have allowed travelers who had arrived by ship at the nearby port to continue their journey by train, taking them to faraway places such as Malang and Surabaya in East Java, which, at that time, would have entailed a journey through Java’s dense jungle, then so full of tigers that they were described by villagers as “the plague”. How times change!
From inside, the sheer scale of the train station building is truly impressive and it features what must be one of the largest roofs on any building in the whole of Indonesia. Unfortunately for me, however, an overzealous little man in a uniform which looked about six sizes too small for him objected to me taking any photos in the station. I would have to have a permit, he said, obtained from another historic railway station called Stasiun Kota – about 7 or 8 kilometers away. What he really meant, of course, was that he was after a bung – and there was no f***ing way he was going to get that from me!
Despite its designation as a heritage building, the condition of the station is a bit of a concern to be honest and many of the doors and windows are boarded up. So will this remarkable building from a bygone age just be left to rot like many of the old buildings in Jakarta’s historic Dutch quarters of Kota? Well possibly not. Its fate, as recently touched on by the Director General of Transportation, might be to be converted into either apartments or a luxury shopping mall. And you know what? That doesn’t surprise me at all!
- Tanjung Priok is one of Jakarta’s roughest areas, so play it safe and don’t carry too much cash etc.
- The dodgy bars are an experience but bear in mind that you may well stick out like an orangutan in Plaza Indonesia. There’s also a good chance that locals will try and provoke you into a fight – especially as the night progresses and people get drunk. If you’re not the type to turn the other cheek then stay well away from these bars – Indonesians never lose a fight.
- As Jakarta’s port area, the traffic jams can be monstrous – even by Jakarta’s insane standards. Consider using the train – trains leave for the Tanjung Priok station from the busy Jakarta Kota station. If you want to drive, traffic is much lighter on Sundays.
- Other interesting places to visit in North Jakarta are Ancol Dreamworld, the historic Dutch quarters of Kota, and the old Sunda Kelapa harbor. Oh and Alexis is also nearby – although that’s another story altogether!
*A slightly different version of this article has been published in Jakarta Expat.