The joys of Jakarta

Image of Tyler Brûlé

How about we kick off the weekend with a little Saturday morning game of “Fast Lane Word Association?” The rules are pretty straightforward – I give you the name of a city and you need to give me the first three or four words that come to mind.

For example, if I said “Vienna” you might say “Sacher Torte, Ludwig Reiter brogues and drinks at the Loos Bar.” Or if I said “San Francisco” you might say “fog, excellent sandwiches from Tartine and tech billionaires in surprisingly bad footwear.” OK, ready to start?

We’ll commence with an easy one – Muscat? Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock ... Very good! Low-rise architecture, the scent of oud and a sultan with an exquisitely trimmed beard are all pretty spot on. How about Rio de Janeiro? That’s right, 2016 summer Olympics, bronzed torsos and the fine urban planting of Roberto Burle Marx all sum up Brazil’s most recognisable city.

Now try this one – Jakarta? Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock ... Permanent gridlock, a fresh-faced Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously and a boom market for walk-through metal detectors is certainly one set of words to define the city but one could also add dizzying boomtown, excellent bar scene, the best hotel swimming pool in southeast Asia and an all-round pleasant surprise as well.

On Sunday I flew out of Bangkok, touched down in Singapore for a very long connection (why hasn’t Singapore Airlines got to grips with the concept of the 45-60 minute connection?) and eventually boarded an absolutely rammed 777 bound for Jakarta.

There are many ways to measure the temperature of an economy but perhaps one of the best is to sit back quietly in your seat and just observe. The Singapore-Jakarta route in itself is a peculiar one as it’s only 90 minutes’ flying time but Singapore Airlines run a full first class on the route in addition to a long-haul configured business class plus economy. “The wealthy Indonesian passenger absolutely demands that we offer first on this route,” was the solemn response of one flight attendant when I inquired about the configuration.

As the cabins started to fill up it looked as if Bottega Veneta, Roger Vivier and Hermès had all held closing-down sales in Singapore over the weekend: some passengers had so many shopping bags that they had to negotiate for extra space in the forward wardrobes for all the handbags, summer sandals and clothing they’d purchased.

Around my row I counted six women with Kelly and Birkin bags in assorted sizes and colours, while as many men had brought on woven Bottega Veneta shoulder bags, duffels and briefcases. As we rumbled along to our take-off position it seemed pretty clear to me that business analysts should be paying more attention to the tastes of the Indonesian premium shopper.

A couple of hours later we were fortunate enough to make a clear run from Soekarno-Hatta airport into the city. Having braced ourselves for an evening in traffic, the absence of gridlock made for a positive first impression of the capital.

Thirty minutes after settling into the hotel the skies exploded into a most dazzling light-show accompanied by an epic downpour. As lightning and thunder cracked all around a message arrived from my friend Bruce: “You might want to rethink dinner transport plans and swap the car for a boat. If this keeps up any longer you’ll definitely be floating to dinner. See you soon.”

Back out on the streets of Jakarta, the 20-minute drive to dinner turned into an hour-and-15-minute odyssey but we more than compensated with fine food and good cocktails when we sat down at the restaurant E&O.

Hosted by a lively crowd from the city’s retail, media, design, art and restaurant scene, much of the dinner table discussion focused on first impressions of Jakarta (hard to make a call after just four hours, aside from the aforementioned lack of traffic jams) and perceptions of Indonesia abroad (misrepresented by too many stories about radical Islam and not enough about a new generation of entrepreneurs reshaping the economy).

The following day offered further examples of how a new class of savvy operators is bringing world-leading projects to market – from smartly crafted fashion collections made in Bandung to a new hotel and beach club in Bali designed by the Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan, to original food and drink concepts from the folks who run Goods Diner.

I had the opportunity to collaborate with one such brand, Aksara, with whom we were launching a Monocle seasonal shop. Part of the reason we chose to work with the retailer is because of its clever book/magazine/media/café concept, an illustration of how to sell print in a well-designed retail environment. Here’s hoping such companies lead the charge for both regional and global expansion of their business models.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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