Monday, March 26, 2007

The Virtual Republic

If you're after a family day out that doesn't involve the sterile confines of a shopping plaza, then the two main options are probably Ancol and Taman Mini. I've delved into the murky waters and relative merits of Ancol in previous Metro Mads, so I thought that I would revisit Taman Mini - the Indonesia in miniature park - for the first time since I fled to these shores a number of years ago.

Taman Mini was first set up at the behest of Ibu Tien Soeharto in the 1970s. Ibu Tien (sometimes referred to as Ibu Tien Percent for various pecuniary reasons) was the nation's matriarch and the actual mother of such fine, upstanding citizens as young Tommy. Inevitably she thought that such a park would somehow help to unite the nation and no doubt make her a few shekels into the bargain.

Taman Mini is located way out in East Jakarta but is situated right next to the toll road for relatively easy access. Leave the toll then head past the inevitable Tamini shopping mall and the huge Masjid Agung Mosque (another of the Ibu's pet projects) until you roll up at the Taman Mini entrance. A day ticket only costs Rp.10,000. I guess that if this was really an Indonesia in miniature experience, then the guy at the ticket office would charge me an extra Rp.10,000, "Administration fee", to get in. Thankfully however the park's authenticity doesn’t stretch this far.

If you have wheels, you can drive around the park but if not you can utilize the elevated train and cable car in order to visit the various parts of the sprawling mini republic. However, these, and the various other attractions in the park, cost a few thousand extra Rupiah each time you use them. Taman Mini itself isn't in too bad a shape considering that the Soeharto era came crashing ignominiously to the ground nearly a decade ago. I was expecting a malodorous wasteland but the old place is still worth a visit.

I thumbed a ride over the park in the cable car first. The centerpiece of Taman Mini is a model Indonesian Archipelago several hundred meters long. All of the country's islands have been faithfully, and quite impressively, recreated in a large lake and from the cable car, the familiar map of the country becomes clear for all to see. For added authenticity, perhaps the parks management should consider buying smoke machines and having a constant haze blowing over the model islands. Local features could also be added such as a hosepipe spouting mud over the eastern section of the mini Java or a large digital readout on the mockup Borneo counting down the number of hectares of remaining rainforest. Go with the times I say.

After disembarking, a stroll around the various mockup houses from each of Indonesia's provinces proved to be the most genuinely interesting part of Taman Mini. They really do live in some huge wooden feats of engineering and carpentry in the country's far-flung regions. Fantastic stuff. This is a real taste of Asia and I'd take these palaces over the chance to live in a filing cabinet in Japan any day.

Other attractions worth a look are the huge aviary (just watch out for those white stains on the clothes) and PLN World (yes really). In PLN World I learned exactly how electricity is generated in the country although there seemed to be nothing on either the forthcoming nuclear power plant or on how PLN manages to miraculously run at a loss despite being a state-run monopoly. Still, at least it was something genuinely educational for the pixel-eyed PlayStation generation to check out when they come here on school trips.

After this didactic diversion I took the skytrain/monorail back to the front of the park. Actually, the Taman Mini skytrain is quite a good approximation of what it's going to feel like bowling down Jl. Rasuna Said on the Jakarta Monorail if it ever gets finished (don't hold your breath). The view was great but the carriages were a bit dog-eared. At the front of the park you'll find the Keong Mas (Golden Snail) theatre which shows those disorienting but impressively panoramic IMAX movies. Definitely worth a look.

So what does Taman Mini say about the fractious reality of Indonesia? The recently deceased, poncey French sociologist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard once summed up that other great theme park, Disneyland, thusly:
The Disney enterprise goes beyond the imaginary. Disney, the precursor, the grand initiator of the imaginary as virtual reality, is now in the process of capturing all the real world to integrate it into its synthetic universe, in the form of a vast, "reality show," where reality itself becomes a spectacle, where the real becomes a theme park.

Perhaps the deodorized, micro-Archipelago of Taman Mini, along with the endless Sinetron fantasies peddled by Indonesian TV stations also reflect Baudrillard's ideas of how our modern, technology driven fantasy world has become a simulation of itself. In this sense, Soeharto’s Taman Mini doesn't reflect reality but constructs it for its visitors who may come away with an unconsciously reinforced view of their country as all seamless surface and no depth; a land of shiny California Fried Chickens, smiling ethnic diversity and colorful costumes.

Oh well, back to Ancol next time I suppose.

Simon Pitchforth