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Travels through Korea and Indonesia

The air was hazy and thick as the plane descended towards Incheon International Airport. So thick that you couldn’t see the ground until you were almost upon it. My thoughts were almost as foggy as the air outside. I was worried, just a little, but worried nonetheless. And for someone who worries rather little, particularly when travelling, that is a serious thing.

I’d been there before of course, a year ago. The airport had only been open a day and the sky was sunny and bright. On the sides of all the planes was emblazoned the slogan ‘2001 – Official Visit Korea Year’. But I wasn’t visiting, or at least not really. Technically I was, and I had done so the previous fortnight also, but does popping in and out of customs whilst in transit really count? I only did it to waste time and get the passport stamps, so in my mind it doesn’t count, not really. Thus this was my first visit to the Republic of Korea.

‘Why worried though?’ I hear you ask. After all, Korea is hardly that extreme a travel destination, not compared with Cambodia and Albania, and I coped with them all right. Besides, I live in Japan, right? If any country is similar to Korea, then it must surely be the Land of the Rising Sun.

Ok, point taken, but in fact it wasn’t Korea that was worrying me, I was only stopping there for a night anyway. No, it was the fact that I was alone, ‘on me todd’, by myself that was bothering my mind. This was a first, in all the travels that I’ve been on before I’ve either journeyed with a companion or two, or met a friendly face at the other end who would take care of all my worldly needs and wants. No, I’m sorry to say, but no extreme adventurer am I, no setting off alone to distant, unknown lands. Well, not until this time that is. This time, for a whole fortnight it was just me, moi. And that in my mind was a challenge. Could I cope with it? Would I go out of my mind with boredom, or would I meet lots of great new people? Would I even prefer to be alone, away from pestering friends? Who knows, but one thing was for sure, I was about to find out!

Straight after I’d returned from the Philippines in January I’d been on the phone to the travel agent. “Indonesia, what have you got? Get me to Jakarta, mate!” spake I. Why Indonesia? Simple, Indonesia is a Muslim country and at the moment the so-called civilised world seems to be in ‘Let’s attack Evil Muslims!’ mode. I wanted to protest, to stick two fingers up at the warmongers in Washington, and pour my hard-earned cash into the hands of a misunderstood people.

Hmm, maybe. Ok, so I wasn’t being entirely truthful there. Actually I’d thought first about going to Vietnam again, but it was pointed out to me by the wise how stupid that idea was since I’m making plans to go and live there in two years time anyway. So then I thought about India, (a former housemate was living in Bangalore), but that proved to be out of my price range, as did going back to Blighty.
“We’re off to China; Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,” said Jen and Catherine, my Vietnam travelling companions, “you’re welcome to come!” But I was due to go to those exact same places in the summer in my trek across Asia.
“Where’s cheap?” I asked Risa, my friendly representative at Number One Travel.
“Thailand is 45,000 yen.” (225 pounds) she suggested. I thought of hippies. Bangkok is the epicentre of the hippie trail. Thailand is the hippie trail. Maybe not.
“Philippines, 50,000 yen.” (250 pounds). I was tempted, but I’d only been there three months before.
“Or there’s Jakarta for 44,000 yen.” (220 quid). Indonesia, former Dutch colony, hot, cheap and I don’t know a lot about it.
“I’ll take it.”
“It’s with Korean Airways, sir. You have to stop a night in Seoul to qualify for this ticket.”
“All the better.”
Thus it was set.

Islam, the second biggest religion in the world, a billion believers. It’s had a bad press over the last twenty years in the west; Palestinian terrorists, women shrouded in burqas oppressed by the Taleban, fanatics and veiled figures bowing down towards the Almighty Allah, waging war on the Free World! Yet how representative is that view of the Islamic world? About as accurate a representation as George W. Bush is of the West I imagine, we are not all ignorant Texans with an inability to speak English and consume pretzels you know. And so too, most Muslims are likely not to be crazed fanatics. Indeed most of the Muslims that I’d met seemed a world away from bin Laden and friends.

Here’s a little exersize then. Picture the Islamic world in your head, go on, do it. What images do you come up with, the Arab states, Afghanistan or Pakistan perhaps, maybe Iran. Swarthy men in headdresses leading camels across a parched desert, women covered in black kept safely inside a mud brick desert home. Yet how correct are these images? Well, there is an element of truth in them I don’t deny, but representative of the Islamic World they are not. By far the biggest Islamic nation is none of the above. It has no deserts and no more gunmen than your average Third World country. It has more Muslims than the whole Arabian peninsular put together, and culturally more akin with Manila than Mecca. That country is the fourth most populated state on earth. That country is Indonesia.

But if Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq, then what exactly is it? The fact was, I hadn’t a clue, and I wanted to find out. Was it a bastion of US-hating fundamentalists, or was it a Philippines with mosques instead of churches? And the one way to truly find out what a place is like, is to go there.

And then there is Korea, another country that I’d long wished to visit. Well, sort of. Actually, it was always the northern bit that fascinated me, the last Stalinist country on earth. But alas, in true Stalinist spirit, it is only accessible to those on an organised tour. And organised tours cost money, more money than I have. Perhaps if I can actually sell some of the books that I write then one day… Buy a book please! Think of it as a good cause, the ‘Send Matt to Pyonyang Foundation’. I promise to write about it afterwards!

But there must be something to see in the south too. After all, they share the same culture. Not only that, but also how many countries have risen from third to first world status in only half a century? And how many countries have such a funky writing system? It must be worth a look at least!

On the journey into Seoul I was not as aware as I’d like to have been. Due to receiving very little sleep the night before, I kept continuously drifting in and out of consciousness. One minute we were travelling through an industrial wilderness on a fast toll road, and then the next thing I knew, we were in the midst of dozens of huge Soviet-style apartment blocks which house most of the city’s twelve million people. Then when I next awoke, there were skyscrapers everywhere, just like Shinjuku in Tokyo, except that the writing was in a different alphabet.

And through it all ran the mighty Han River, criss-crossed with countless concrete crossovers, but surging onwards to the Yellow Sea nonetheless. Seeing the river made me feel a little sad. It was the river that gave Seoul it’s life, without the river the city would never have existed. Seoul grew up as a port, trading goods from all over the Orient, the Han navigable up to that point. Yet nowadays no ships ply its waters. The breath of the Han must be twice that of the Thames in London, yet I saw not a single boat upon her, not even a pleasure craft for the tourists. She was now empty, instead of being the bustling heart of the city she was a void, an embarrassment to be crossed over on high concrete pillars, forgotten and ignored by the pulsating, business-orientated, modern city of Seoul.

A friend had recommended a hotel to me in the Kangnam-gu district of the city named Kum Sung. At Samseoung station, where the bus dropped me off, I hailed a taxi and showed him the card. The hotel proved to be only around the corner, reasonable and quite sufficient for my humble needs. What’s more, joy of joys, I discovered that it had a heated floor, something I’d not come across in any hotel that I’ve stayed at before; what more could a man want?! Tired as I was, I realised that I had only one day to explore the city, so against the wishes of my aching body, after a quick and refreshing shower, I headed off into the urban jungle, starting point, Hangnyoul subway station.

Seoul’s subway, whilst perhaps not as exciting as it’s socialist neighbour’s a few miles north, (no fantastic murals to the achievements of the Korean Proletariat here), functions well and is a convenient way of getting around the city. Or at least the trains function well and are on time, the sign posting is a little less brilliant. At every station I went I was directed by the signs to the wrong platforms, the wrong lines or simple around in circles. Eventually however, I got to my train, and after having purchased what was possibly the most disgusting cup of tea that I ever drank from a vending machine, (it had a salty taste for God’s sake!) I sat down and made my way to Samgakchi station, the stop for the Korean War Memorial, my main tourist site of the day.

The War Memorial turned out to be quite unlike I’d imagined it to be. What had I imagined then? Something similar to the War Museum in Vietnam I suppose; a few old planes and tanks outside a building filled with tales and pictures of atrocities by the enemy. Oh yeah, and a cenotaph.

I was right about the planes and tanks outside, and of course the tales of enemy atrocities inside. What I hadn’t prepared myself for however, was the setting. For a place dedicated to denouncing and demonising the Stalinist regime a few miles north, I thought it rather ironic that the huge structure that housed it all was as Stalinist as anything old Kim could have come up with. It was huge! A vast, imposing stone edifice, surrounded by ornamental lakes, (the process of being cleaned during my visit), and across the top, proudly proclaimed the memorial’s motto, “Freedom is not Free!” Very catchy I must say, and being a bit of a fan of Stalinist architecture and all the good Socialist Realism that comes along with it, I for one was impressed.

Although the Lonely Planet had described this more as a war museum than a memorial, for the first few rooms it lived up to it’s title. The first consisted of statues of all of Korea’s most famous war heroes from the year dot, (well, excluding all the left-wingers of course). Above, on the ceiling, was a painting by a famous Korean artist, (famous in Korea but nowhere else I assume), of some shapes and symbols, which symbolised the agony and despair of the divided Korean people. Apparently. I couldn’t see it myself, I must admit, but I am a Philistine when it comes to modern art. The next few rooms continued in the same mode, one had a fountain and another ceiling painting which again symbolised the desire for unity, (or something cheesy like that), whilst another contained huge long paintings of the Korean landscape during the four seasons. Once more this symbolised the People’s Desire for Unity, and once more I didn’t get it, though I must admit to liking these paintings greatly, since unlike the others they were in the traditional style and so you could actually tell what the pictures were of.

Then it was onto the museum which I must say was one of the best war museums that I’ve ever set foot in, (and I’ve been in quite a few). Not only the 1950-3 Korean War was covered, but in fact every war conducted on the Korean Peninsular since recorded history began, (particularly those which the Koreans won it must be said), and a few other conflicts set elsewhere too. Not only were all the standard artifacts on show too (i.e. guns, armour, swords), but there was a replica of Admiral Yi-Sun Sin’s ship and an ancient war canoe, countless battle dioramas, a mock-up of a famous mediaeval fort, a chance to walk through the Vietnamese jungle with Korean forces and loads of videos of battle models.

I mentioned Admiral Yi-Sun Sin’s ship, so I suppose I should mention the Admiral himself, since he is, without doubt, Korea’s number one national hero type guy, and a man that any visitor to the country would be hard-pressed to escape, since statues and tributes to the great seafarer are everywhere. In 1592, the Japanese, newly united under Hideyoshi Toyotomi, decided to invade their smaller neighbour to the west. Although the Japanese forces were undoubtedly triumphant on land, their superior weaponry and discipline enabling them to overrun the whole peninsular in only a month, at sea it was a different tale. Yi Sun-Sin was the admiral in charge of the Korean fleet, a fleet that he equipped with his ‘turtle ships’, the Admiral’s great contribution to nautical history, the first ironclad vessels ever. In just six months of battles with the Admiral, the Japanese lost over five hundred ships, a colossal number when one considers that they controlled the land anyway. A great seafarer Yi Sun-Sin may have been, but unfortunately for him that didn’t guarantee the admiration of the ruler, the Admiral fell foul of the Yi court and was dismissed, although it must be added, later recalled when his successor was shown to be not in the same league.

By far the most detailed rooms were those covering the Korean War. These interested me greatly since I knew virtually nothing about the war at all, other than that it was fought between the north and the south, in the early fifties, with a lot of interference from the Americans and the Chinese.

From looking through the exhibits I learnt a lot more. What happened is that at the end of the Second World War, Korea, (formerly a Japanese colony), was partitioned between the Soviets in the north and the Americans in the south, along the 38th parallel, prior to making a decision as to what to do with it. In the meantime both powers set up their own form of government to run the country during the interim period, which was (surprise, surprise), communist and nominally democratic in the north, and capitalist and nominally democratic in the south. With no settlement in sight, the communists in the north grew impatient, and so decided to reunite the peninsular by force. In 1950 they attacked, expecting the southern proletariat to rise in their favour. Rise they did not, but the army of the south, woefully ill-equipped was pushed back rapidly until within a few months, all that remained in capitalist hands was an enclave around the port of Pusan in the south. Then the Americans joined in, leading a UN force to restore the legitimate southern government. After landings near Incheon they rapidly pushed the communists back beyond the 38th parallel, and then proceeded to take almost all of the peninsular. An end was in sight, a capitalist victory it seemed, but that was without reckoning upon the Mighty Mao of China. He supplied Kim Il Sung (the President of North Korea), with a million men, and the capitalists were pushed back south. Around the 38th parallel, (i.e. roughly where the whole thing started), a stalemate soon developed, and three years later, on 1953, a cease-fire was signed. Technically the war was over, on paper it still continues to this day.

In my mind, the Korean War and the ensuing division of the peninsular was one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. A war that lasted three years, and cost countless lives, yet it resolved nothing, and indeed the outcome could hardly have been worse. One could blame it on the Americans, for if it hadn’t been for them then there would have been a united, communist Korea, or one could blame it on the Chinese, for without them there would have been a united capitalist Korea. I don’t know whom to blame but the tragedy is plainly there to see, nonetheless.

The situation now is that there are two Koreas. The south is a prosperous, successful country, the thirteenth biggest economy on earth. That in itself is a staggering achievement, considering that at the end of the Second World War it was merely the poorer half of an impoverished Japanese colony. All but the most blinkered must agree that this situation is better than that in the north which, whilst probably not as undeveloped as the western press likes to make out, is without a doubt, stuck in the middle of a terrible famine caused by governmental incompetence and with an economy that contracts annually rather than grows. Looking at the situation like that, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that even the present situation is better than if the north had one; better only half the population poor than all of it.

Yet my gut feeling is that, had one side, capitalist or communist won, life today would be better for all Korea. It is my thinking that the northerners are so isolated, so rigid, so scared of reform precisely because there is a successfully government in the south just waiting to take their place. Had South Korea not existed, then it is likely that the North would have gone the way of China or Vietnam and reformed itself, having no serious enemies in sight. But alas, the worst outcome has come true, and whilst all Koreans may hope for reunification, the sad truth of the matter is, that the north is so far behind now, that fully integrating the two countries will prove to be very, very difficult indeed, if not impossible. The situation here is very far removed from that of East and West Germany.

Leaving the War Memorial, I realised that I was feeling more than a little peckish, so after a quick consultation of the guidebook, I headed up the hill, past U.S. Army bases and Swiss peacekeepers, to the infamous Itaewon district of the city. London may have it’s Soho, Tokyo it’s Shinjuku and Amsterdam that well-known locality behind the Oude Kerke, and Seoul is not to be outdone either. Itaewon is rooms rentable by the hour, every kind of junk imaginable on sale and some of the city’s finest and cheapest cuisine. I chose one establishment named ‘Il Song Jung’ and settled down amidst a host of aquariums, to sample some fine Korean fayre.

After having perused a menu that I couldn’t read, (but it did have little pictures), I chose a small bowl of chicken soup and something named pibimbap which, (the owner assured me), contained rice and meat. Thus, having ordered, I sat down to eat the complementary kimchi. Kimchi is Korea, you can smell it as soon as you get off the plane and they eat nothing else. Or at least, that is what the Japanese say if you ask them. But there again, they are a food obsessed nation, and when you ask anything about a different country, you normally get told straightaway about the staple diet of the natives. Nonetheless, the Koreans do have a love affair with their kimchi, which is basically a side dish consisting of hot and spicy pickled cabbage. As side dishes go, it’s not bad, and whilst in Korea, do as the Koreans do. Besides, it comes free with everything, and the quality here was noticeably better than the quality of the kimchi across the water in the Land of the Rising Sun; even someone with tastebuds as blunt as mine could spot that. Having filled up on the free food however, I was then presented with what I ordered, and immediately wished I hadn’t bothered. It was not that the food was not good, it was in fact very good, (although the chicken soup was a wee bit bland it must be said), but the problem was the size. The waitress, (who was, I must add, quite bonnie), had assured me that the dishes were small. Now, I know not who talk her the limited English that she had, but they obviously messed up with the word ‘small’. Koreans are small, as are toothpicks, hundreds and thousands and average attendances at Vale Park. Small things are, (in my experience), not normally big. These dishes however, would be better described using the latter word, or alternatively, the word ‘huge’ would have been appropriate. Thankfully, my appetite is also huge, and so I set to in an effort to finish, something I almost did, although in the end the chicken soup defeated me. Full and bloated I stumbled out into the fast falling light and had a look around Itaewon.

After wandering around the junk shops for a short while, I then ventured into the back streets, tiny alleys wide enough only for two at most to walk abreast. This was the traditional Seoul, alleys with small courtyards, around which one finds tiny dwellings more suited to the third world than the first. Down one alley I found a Buddhist temple, another was blocked by washing; it was a nice break from the soaring modernity of most of today’s city.

I’d taken the subway from Itaewon into the city’s heart, the Kwanghwamun District. Gone was the sleaze, here was a carbon copy of Tokyo or Osaka. All around stood the towers of commerce and at street level large shops crammed with buyers. I walked leisurely towards the railway station, pausing to go into a bookshop, and to admire the Namdaemun Gate, which sits in the middle of one of the city’s busiest interchanges, and adorns many a tourist brochure. The gate, dating from the late 14th century was one of the main entrances to the old city. It now sits stranded in the middle of a roundabout, but is impressive nonetheless and a potent indicator that all in Seoul is not as new as it seems.

Behind the gate lies the Namdaemun Market, one of Seoul’s many Oriental bazaar-type markets, that sell everything from vegetables to Osama bin Laden T-shirts. I wandered around for a while, buying a traditional Korean doll, (my mother collects them you see), before heading down the road to the railway station.

Upon reaching Seoul Station I got a sense of déjà vu, surely I’d been here before? It was soon explained by the plaque on the wall; the station was built by the Japanese during the occupation of the peninsular and is modelled on Tokyo’s station buildings. Seoul’s however, were better kept and less crowded, and I was satisfied. After all, my main purpose in visiting the railway terminus was to see if it would be a suitable meeting spot for four months time, when I was to meet a Dutch comrade in the city, before we embarked upon our Marco Polo-esque jaunt across the Asian land-mass. Suitable it was and thus satisfied I took the subway back to Seoul’s World Trade Centre, which unlike New York’s was still standing, and what’s more, was adjacent to my hotel.

Next to the World Trade Centre, was a shopping complex, and as it was still fairly early, I decided to lose myself within it for a while. After a little searching I soon found what I had been looking for, a huge bookstore, with the finest selection of titles that I’d seen since leaving the U.K. I browsed within for an hour or so, and eventually emerged with some Tolstoy, a book about Palestine and another about North Korea; ideal reading material for a trip to Indonesia, maybe?

Up early the following morning, I managed to enjoy the whole trip to Incheon Airport fully awake. From then it was through the customs and onto the plane that would take me to Jakarta. The flight was uneventful, although the film, (which I expected to be awful, it was about some military prison), which was called ‘The Castle’ was rather entertaining.

Airports are, generally speaking, not the most inspiring places on earth. In fact, for most people, (particularly my Vietnam travelling companions Jen and Catherine), they are most likely quite the opposite. Airports mean checks, formalities, hassle and waiting and usually generate feelings of stress rather than elation. Nevertheless, when you’ve been to a fair few, you start to be able to tell the difference between the good and the bad ones, and I, (in true Nick Hornby ‘High Infidelity’ style), have started to make my unconscious list of ports for air travel. Bottom, without a doubt, comes Kerkyra Kapodistras (Corfu), which, even with it’s new Departures terminal, is appallingly inadequate when one considers the traffic that it has to deal with and the fact that it is in an E.U. country, supposedly part of the most advanced region on earth.

Whilst it may not come quite top of the list, certainly a good contender for best airport must be Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatto. Some airports such as the new one at Incheon that I’d just passed through and the one at Kansai where I’d started my journey, one expects to be fairly nice, but Soekarno-Hatta came as a pleasant surprise. Sparkling and brand-new it was not, but nestled amongst palm groves and Garuda Indonesia jumbo jets, I found attractive terminal buildings constructed in a very Indonesian style, with red tiled roofs and dark concrete which, from a distance, looked like the wood used to build traditional houses. Inside, it was rather dark, but filled with decorations and sculptures, all in a traditional style, and the progress through the immigration checks was efficient. No complaints from me anyway, and a rap on the knuckles of Lonely Planet who described the place as a “dull affair”. Jakarta’s air hub was actually the best that I’ve been through in a developing country, and what it lacks in plushness and amenities compared with Asia’s new First World terminals, it more than makes up for in character.

Once out of the airport however, things ran far less smoothly. I boarded the Damri bus to the city centre, but alas I was far from being the only one, and I ended up spending most of the journey standing up, wedged in-between the gear stick and the luggage rack, with my baggage between my feet. Still, it was cheap, and although my unenviable position meant that I did not get the best view of the passing scenery, I did have plenty of opportunity to look at the other vehicles on the road.

You can tell a lot about a country’s economy and politics by the cars driven by it’s populous. In Japan, with it’s huge automotive industry and protectionist policies, almost every car is homegrown, whereas in Britain the virtually all vehicles are E.U. built, (including the Toyotas, Nissans and Fords).Bulgaria, with it’s previous close ties to the USSR is full of Ladas, (though more EU cars are appearing daily), and Romania, previously under the nationalistic Ceaucescu, is today full of Dacias. In Albania, where cars were illegal for the general public until 1990, one finds a dearth of stolen Mercedes, whereas in the Philippines the automobiles of the former occupiers America, and of nearby Japan. Nowhere however, (in my experience at least), displays the variety that Indonesia’s roads have to offer: Toyotas, Fords, General Motors, Hyundais, Nissans, Fiats, Volvos, Rovers, Daewoos, Chryslers, Indian tuk-tuks (you know what I mean, those motorised tricycles that ply the streets of India’s great cities and were famously ridden by Bond in ‘Octopussy’), Ladas, Mercedes, Moskviches, some ancient home-grown lorries, all jostling for space with a myriad of motorbikes, tricycle rickshaws, pedestrians, mobile stalls, push bikes and beggars. More inspiring examples of globalisation can be found no doubt, but few so accurate I would imagine.

The bus finally drew into Gambir bus terminal, one of the city’s main bus stations and nestled neatly between the elevated Gambir railway station and Sukarno’s masterpiece, Lapangan Merdekan, with it’s Monas thrusting itself proudly towards the heavens.

Sukarno is undoubtedly the greatest of Indonesia’s few Presidents and a man who more than left his mark on the country in general and Jakarta in particular. The great man was a Javan himself, from the east of the island and an early nationalist whilst the country was still the Dutch East Indies. In 1929 he formed the Partai Nasional Indonesia, and during the Japanese Occupation (1942-5), he rose to prominence amongst the (Japanese encouraged) nationalist leaders. On 17th August 1945, in Jakarta, he proclaimed the Independence of the new Indonesian Republic. It was not until four years, and many bloody battles against the former colonial power the Dutch, and the British, however, that an Independent Indonesia finally became a reality, and when the red and white flag was raised at Jakarta’s Istana Merdeka, (Freedom Palace), on 27th December, 1949, Sukarno was the President. Sukarno’s reign was a long and with many ups and downs, the lowest point perhaps being the ‘Slaughter of the Communists’, which started on the 30th September 1965 and claimed the lives of around half a million Communist Party (previously Sukarno’s allies) members and supporters. Nonetheless, the reign was long, lasting until 1968, and these days Sukarno is remembered favourably by most Indonesians, (or at least, most non-Communists). Throughout his stay in power, Sukarno, ever the nationalist, erected countless statues and symbols of the new, powerful and independent Indonesia, most of which can still be seen in cities around the country. None however is quite so potent as the Monas, set in the centre of Sukarno’s new and grand public space in Jakarta, the Lapangan Merdekan, (Freedom Park). This 132 metre high column of Italian marble (very Indonesian…) and top by a huge golden flame, (which utilises 35 kilogrammes of gold leaf), was started in 1961 and eventually completed in 1975. It’s phallic design is said to represent the new nation’s independence and strength, (though pessimists claim, more Sukarno’s staying power between the sheets), and despite the criticism, it’s now the city’s number one landmark. Whatever, it impressed me, who has always been a sucker for the odd bit of totalitarian architecture, and I decided to have a proper look at it later that evening.

First however, I had business to attend to, that business being finding a bed for the night and train out of town the following day. I had no fixed itinerary in my mind at that point, but having consulted the guidebook I had discovered that most boats to most of Indonesia’s many islands left from the port of Surabaya, a city at the opposite end of Java to Jakarta. Therefore, that would be my next port-of-call; I could explore the capital on the way back.

I hailed a tuk-tuk and asked him to take me to Jalna Jaksa, the city’s backpacker ghetto and the place with the cheapest hotels. Having had some experience with backpacker ghettos in the past, I decided not to opt for the cheapest place in the book, nor the one’s that came highly recommended, instead plumping for the Hotel Djody. I did not choose wisely, the place was dirty, dreary and most annoyingly, the bedroom light was located directly above the ceiling fan so that one either had to try and read a book in a light that would give an epileptic fits or sweat to death. For the time being I chose neither, and instead headed off out to Gambir station to buy a train ticket.

I woke early that morning showered and breakfasted on Indonesian Fried Rice, (washed down with the most disgusting glass of orange juice that I’d ever tasted), in tourist town, before hailing a tuk-tuk to take me to Gambir railway station.

The journey out through Jakarta was one of those where the joys of travel, and train travel in particular, are confirmed beyond doubt. Sadly I’d only been able to get Eksekutiv Class the night before, which meant being confined to a plastic, air-conditioned, soft-music-playing capsule of a carriage. Luckily however, it had seen better days and one of the automatic doors had not shut, so I stood in the aperture and gazed out at the passing sights.

The great teeming metropolii of the Third World all share many similarities in appearance and make-up. The primate cities is what the geographer calls them, bloated by massive immigration from the provinces, swelled beyond all comprehension by the countless rural poor all seeking fame and fortune amongst the bright lights, far away from their fields and villages. It is here that the races mix, the revolutions occur and the staggering differences between the rich and poor can be viewed. Jakarta was no exception.

Jakarta’s early beginnings were around the port of Sunda Kelapanear to the present day Kota. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522 the city was already a busy port, part of the Pajajaran Dynasty, the Hindu West Javan Kingdom. In 1527 the city was taken by the fearsome Sunan Gunungjati, a Muslim warrior saint who renamed Sunda Kelapa, Jayakarta, ‘City of Victory’. By the seventeenth century both the British and the Dutch had trading centres in the city that competed viciously with one another for power. In 1618, the Jayakartans attacked the Dutch with the aid of the British. The plan backfired however, the Banten Sultan, (now ruler of the area), was angry with the Jayakartan leaders for entering into an unofficial alliance with the British. The attackers departed and the Dutch renamed their fortress ‘Batavia’. The following year, the Netherlanders retaliated under the mighty Pieterszoon Coen who stormed Jayakarta and burnt it to the ground. He then rebuilt his fortress and started to create a new city around it. Although attacked on numerous occasions, the Dutch never submitted and eventually Batavia became the capital of the Dutch East Indies.

The city that the Dutch built on the swampland surrounding their fort was undoubtedly inspired by their own reclaimed cities in Northern Europe. Countless canals were constructed, (many of which carried more disease than cargo), and tall houses with Dutch-style crenulated roofs. Despite the disease however, the city expanded quickly, with Indonesians and also Chinese merchants flocking from far and wide, drawn by the commercial opportunities offered there. The Chinese in particular suffered much from the racist attitudes of the locals who vented their anger on the foreigners when the pressures of over-population and other tensions rose. On October 9th 1740 the people rose and murdered five thousand Chinese which caused the Dutch to move them all outside the city walls to the area of Glodok, where even today a strong Chinese community exists. The persecutions however, have continued, the latest, on 12th May 1998 left Glodok looking like a war zone. The death toll was over a thousand.

The rule of the Dutch came to an end in 1942 when the Japanese occupied Batavia and restored its old name, ‘Jakarta’. Although the Dutch returned after the war, the fire of independence had been lit and in 1950 Jakarta became the capital of the new Republic of Indonesia. At the time it’s population was just under a million.

Since the establishment of Indonesia, the city of Jakarta has undoubtedly changed beyond all recognition. Partly, is due to Sukarno, the first President who wanted to transform the sprawling port into a potent symbol of the new Indonesia, and a major world centre. Sports stadiums, (for the 1962 Asia Games), the biggest mosque in South-East Asia, the fourteen storey Hotel Indonesia and the Jalna Thamrin motorway were all constructed. The centrepiece however, was the Lapangan Merdeka Park, the vast expanse of green in the city’s heart, with the Monas rising triumphantly upwards.

Great as Sukarno’s changes were though however, the real changes to Jakarta were wreaked by the Indonesian people who flocked to the capital in droves. Today the population stands at over nine million and the metropolis is a sprawling expanse of shantytowns and humble dwellings.

The train pulled slowly out of the elevated Gambir station only ten minutes later than the scheduled time. All around stood the gleaming towers of commerce and the high-rise, high-class apartments of the high-living Indonesian elite. In the centre of the city stood the gleaming Monas, looking as triumphant in the day as it had done at night. I gazed down upon streets full of Japanese cars, tuk-tuks and rusty taxis, all rushing around and, (unlike me), with a definite purpose in mind. Jilbabed women, half-naked children and nut-brown railway workers looked up at the fat foreigner in the train doorway and waved with delight. The train picked up speed and took me onwards, into the suburbs, past packed commuter stations and Ekonomi trains full to the brim with people. The trains betrayed their origins by the Chinese and Japanese characters on the sides, but there was no sense of Oriental order and efficiency about them now. People hung out of the open doors and sat nonchalantly on the roves, mere centimetres away from the lethal electric cables that gave the trains their power.

The buildings had changed now. Gone were the glistening, clean office blocks and dwellings of the successful, go-ahead Jakarta. The houses now were small, wooden structures, surrounded by palms. It reminded me a little of the Philippines but there were some differences. The roves, instead of being constructed from palm leaves or corrugated iron, all sported beautiful red tiles instead, that looked radiant and clean under the tropical sun. I’d seen such tiles before, somewhere on my travels, where was it? That’s it, it was the Netherlands of course! But wait a minute, Indonesia used to be Dutch, the Dutch East Indies. Were the tiles their legacy here, or was it just coincidence? Whereas the Spanish left churches and the British, railway lines, had the Dutch bequeathed red roof tiles to their colonies? Somehow the idea seemed to fit in with the practical and understated nature of the Netherlanders.

Slowly the train chugged east. We trundled onwards through the city that they call the ‘Big Durian’. Durian, the foul-smelling tropical fruit, loved by some and hated by others; the description was apt. A refuse filled river, terrible slums of shantytowns with dirt roads, ramshackle dwellings punctuated every so often by a tiny, well-kept, red-roofed mosque, tipped by a gleaming crescent moon. A busy road, motorbikes waiting by the barrier for us to pass, a large market by the roadside; cheap T-shirts, vegetables, fruit, cigarettes and what’s that? Even a store full of cycle helmets! A huge factory, (what does it produce, I’ll never know?), palm trees, a concrete highway, a church, a mosque, more shacks, telegraph wires, a sea of red roof tiles.

The city thinned out and the train engineer came and shut the door. I returned to my carriage with it’s tinted windows, (to keep out the gazes of the curious poor), and piped music and settled down. I read, wrote and watched Java past by my window. This was the northern part of the island; flat as the proverbial pancake, pious and populated; lush rice paddies with cone-hatted coolies, palm groves and more towns of red roofs. The train stopped only three times throughout the entire journey; the first I assume was unscheduled. It was at a place called Haurgeulis, so small that it wasn’t mentioned on the map.

As I sat there, I began to notice that it was getting hot. ‘Good, they’ve turned down the air-con’ I thought to myself. But this was too hot; I started sweating. I was hungry too, time for the buffet car thought I. I arose as the train thundered over a bridge that crossed a mighty, muddy river and walked to the end of the coach. I pressed the button on the automatic door, but nothing happened. I pressed again. There was about as much action as a Virginia Woolf novel. And it was getting hotter.
“It’s broken,” explained a helpful speaker of English. “This car, all broken doors. The air, very hot!”
“Very hot,” I agreed. So we were imprisoned, entombed within the sweltering plastic prison of coach number two of the Argo Bromo express train. Well, ok, it wasn’t that serious. The engineer came and freed us after about half an hour or so, but I must admit, I was beginning to get a wee bit worried; images of suffocating on a Javan express train flowing through my mind.

When release did eventually come, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t need to venture to the buffet car at all. This was Eksekutiv Class on the Argo Bromo you see. They brought dinner to you, on little plastic trays, airline-style. The food was uninspiring however, but it was paid for and it filled a gap. The sugary tea however, did nothing to quench my thirst, so afterwards I retired to the Buffet car anyway where I consumed two cups of the world’s worst tea, and sat reading the accounts of Britain’s finest contemporary writers who were all describing Sudan in a charity book that I’d picked up at Hong Kong airport entitled The Weekenders. After reading that, Indonesia felt positively rich and developed and once more I thought about how inaccurate and misleading the term ‘third world’ is. There can be as big a difference between two third world countries as there can between the UK and Indonesia; at least Indonesia has houses, roads, railways, some industry plus a fairly reliable water and power supply. Sudan it seems, would be grateful for any of those.

Talking of Africa, strangely enough, like the hotel the previous night, this journey reminded me a lot of my trip to Egypt five years previously. The flat, lush green Javan countryside dotted with mosques bears many resemblances to the Nile valley along which I travelled in a train not too dissimilar to the Argo Bromo. The only difference was the absence of the mighty river which the Egyptian train would cross over every so often on a huge girder bridge. But Java did have plenty of smaller, equally muddy waterways to make up for it, I suppose.

One city that the train stopped at, Semarang, looked like a most-interesting place. Before we pulled into the station, I glimpsed a large canal and along each side were ranged Dutch-style houses. At the end stood a fine town hall; there was certainly no doubt as to who the colonisers here had been. But alas, time to stop I did not have and onwards I went, the train hugging the seashore for one pleasant section of the journey, the deep blue of the Java Sea contrasting beautiful with the greens of the island. Another strange site a little later, as the sun was setting, was of a massive flame burning to the north, several hundred metres high. What it was a knew not, though I suspect, as Indonesia does have considerable natural resources, it was connected with the oil industry. Whatever the case, it certainly looked eerie in the fading sunlight. Slowly but surely however, darkness fell and for the final hour or two I could see nothing, so I merely sat and read.

At what time the train finally pulled into Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city I know not, but it had already been dark for some time that made me suspect that it was sometime later than the scheduled hour of 18:30. I took a taxi to Hotel Paviljoen, the hotel that I’d picked for the night out of the guidebook. I’d chosen that establishment precisely because it wasn’t the one recommended, and what’s more it was described as having a colonial air, which sounded rather nice. I might have missed the era where an Englishman, (or in Surabaya, a Dutchman), could stroll around in a crisp white suit and straw hat as if one owned the place, (because one probably did own the place), but it was nice to pretend nonetheless, even if I was lacking a crisp white suit.

I was not disappointed. The building was well kept, grand and imperialistic, a fitting home for Lawrence of Arabia, Clive of India or any other of the ‘Old Boys’. On top of that the owner, a wizened old Catholic gent, was extremely polite and friendly and the room was fine; certainly an improvement on the Djody.

After depositing my stuff and showering I decided to explore my surroundings. I was not far from the city centre so I strolled in. Surabaya seemed typical of many South East Asian cities; streets filled with traffic, a few smart new buildings, a lot more broken-down older ones, and smack in the middle of it all, a huge Shopping Centre. I figured that this might be the place to head since I was looking for an Internet Café and boy was I not mistaken! Not only did this place have several Internet Cafes but it seemed to have several of everything else on earth too. It was enormous; six storeys high and a multitude of annexes. At the centre of it all was an ice rink, filled with adolescent girls holding hands and sagely observed by six floors of interested shoppers. I later learnt from Wim, (I’ll come to him in a bit), that this was reputedly the largest Shopping Centre in South East Asia. I could believe it, certainly no other complex that I’d seen anywhere else on earth, came close. The question that remains in my mind however, is why build it in Surabaya?

Huge the Shopping Centre may have been, but I doubt that the revenues earned are so mighty. Virtually everyone there seemed to be just walking around, enjoying the sights yet not doing a lot of shopping at all. The reason, I imagine, is a simple one. With the average wage at around eighty pounds a month, most of the products on offer are quite simply out of the price range of the average Indonesian.

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