Thursday, October 05, 2006

Street of Broken Dreams

When fresh faced young student backpackers land in Jakarta on their globetrotting travels, budget restrictions usually preclude a stay at the Hilton or the Grand Hyatt. And so, it is to Jl. Jaksa, just south of the national monument, that they flock, quite literally in their tens. The poor lambs then have to run the gauntlet of the expats on the slide, dipsomaniacal English teachers, local gangsters, dentally challenged ladies of the night, bestubbled transvestites and overoptimistic blowpipe salesman who have made the street their own. Yes, it is in Jaksa that initial conclusions about Indonesia are usually drawn by the tie-dyed, visa-upon-arrival brigade. Many, unwittingly interpreting Jaksa as a metonym for the whole country, will come away from their experiences slightly shell-shocked and with a strong sense of the weird and confusing nature of Indonesia.

But how fair is it to castigate Jaksa as a Bintang soaked repository for the city's transnational lowlife? The street is undoubtedly the cheapest place to drink in town and this will always be a factor in its popularity. However, there's no reason why one shouldn't, with adequate preparation and a clean change of underwear at hand, enjoy a life affirming evening on the infamous strip. Jaksa is a laid-back, mellow kind of a place in comparison with its famous, chaotically packed equivalent in Thailand, namely Bangkok's Khao San Road. Just grab a Bajaj to the top end of the street and saunter from bar to bar until you reach the bottom end, exhausted but enlightened.

The first bar on Jaksa is also the newest. Absolute Bar resides where P's Place used to and has the mosquito repelling advantage of being both inside and air-conditioned. Drinks are as cheap as they come here and ex P's Place groupies should head down and check out the minimally stylish decor (and the vodka). Opposite Absolute, BFC Bar's tree stump stools and tables do tend to make one feel like an outsize garden gnome but the place is cheap, usually busy and attracts a good cross-section of locals and foreigners. Further down, Memories and Betawi Cafe occupy the centre of the street and can certainly pack them in although they have a rather shall we say down-home approach to decor and ambience. Next to these two, Ali's bar houses Jaksa's African patrons. Africans elsewhere in Jakarta tend to be, for various reasons, slightly suspicious of their Jaksa frequenting brethren but at least Ali's Place plays infectious African pop music and has a party atmosphere. Further down, Pappa's Cafe is open 24/7 and is a cheap and cheerful place in which to drink yourself unconscious. It also serves the dodgiest Spaghetti Bolognese you'll ever encounter. Forget Al Dente, you can break your teeth on this stuff. Gourmets should instead head for the deservedly popular Ya Udah Bistro next door which serves delicious European cuisine at great prices. Opposite YUB, Romance is Jaksa's other indoor, mozzy free environment and is pretty miniature inside although good fun if you can manage to annex the place with a group of friends. You will then be home and dry at the end of the strip with only the bearded lady boys who hang around the end of Jl. Wahid Hasyim to slalom through before a taxi home and a Panadol enema.

Swanky restaurants and bars may wax and wane in Jakarta but Jaksa will for ever shine out as a rather dog eared beacon of unpretentious. It is a true multicultural melting pot and the perfect antidote to the terror/war on terror tedium of our times. They will never defeat our street.

Simon Pitchforth