Monday, April 05, 2004

A Canal Tour of Jakarta

A Canal Tour of Jakarta

One of the defining features of Jakarta are the dirty canals that criss-cross various parts of the city. This is a legacy of the Dutch city architects who envisioned Jakarta (then Batavia) as an Amsterdam of the East, with waterways linking the interior with the port of Sunda Kelapa.

Some of the canals used to be rivers that were diverted, widened and straightened to alleviate floods and to allow freeflow of river traffic. Unfortunately such a canal transport system proved to be an untenable thing in a tropical climate; the waterway system soon degenerated into open sewers and became a breeding ground for diseases.

These canals today are a bit of an eye-sore but for some reason they are an endless source of fascination to me. I spent weekends tracing their course and photographing the heaps of rubbish that accumulate at the canal gates. I will probably consider publishing some of my rubbish pictures in my blog someday. Hold your breath.

My favourite is the Molenvliet canal, which was built by the then Chinese Capitan of Batavia, Phoa Bing Gam in 1648. It runs parallel to the busy Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Hayam Wuruk. The canal today is but a huge murky and smelly drain. Passers-by and motorists would hardly even notice it. Though difficult to imagine, the Molenvliet canal used to be a popular public bathing place for the locals.

For a grand tour of the Molenvliet canal, sightseers are recommended to take the Busway service to Kota which runs parallel to the canal for a stretch of the journey. However don't expect to see any pretty maidens bathing in their sarongs as in the good old days. But If you happen to take the Busway journey at night, you might be rewarded with the equally interesting sight of young streetwalkers parading themselves along Jalan Hayam Wuruk.

Now, if you are completely enamoured with the sight of these dirty canals, you can choose to stay at the Shangri-la Jakarta: Rooms facing north offer a fantastic "canal view", where you can enjoy the sight of squatters washing their clothes in the mucky water of Kali Malang.

If the stench of sewage happens to be perfume to your nose, you can also try taking the last of the canal-crossing ferries that still operate at the Ciliwung river/canal along Jalan Gunung Sahari. The canal is hardly a few meters across but there's a 500 rupiah boat service that brings people who are lazy to use the bridge to cross from the Pasar Baru side to Jalan Gunung Sahari. According to a Jakarta Post report today, an average of 200 people use the service daily, giving the boatman a relatively good income of 100K rupiah a day.

The thick brown-black colour of the canal waters often reminds me of a good bowl of rawon--that East Javanese beef soup which I'm very fond of. If your appetite happens to be whetted after the boat ride, I'd recommend the best rawon in town at an East Javanese restaurant along Jalan Juanda, located not far away from the Ciliwung canal.

Ah, these days whenever I think of Jakarta, I'd recall the mouth-watering aroma of rawon and the oozing charm of its innumerable canals.

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