Embracing the Southern Lifestyle

51 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Some of the skyscrapers in South Jakarta

If you think this post is about the American South or Southern Europe, it is not since I have never been to those parts of the world. Rather, this is a story about the southern part of Jakarta, a city I have called home for almost 12 years.

Although it is Indonesia’s smallest province by land area, Jakarta’s status as the nation’s capital and economic center makes it the most densely-populated, with an average of more than 15,000 people crammed in one square kilometer. Comprising six subdivisions that are Central, South, West, North and East Jakarta as well as the Thousand Islands – not the salad dressing, but a small archipelago out in the Java Sea – Jakarta is a sprawling megalopolis which seems to endlessly attract people, opportunities, and disasters. I have written about the city’s transformation in a 2017 post and another in 2018 about some of the qualities it has that keep me from leaving. This ongoing change is perhaps most visible in Jakarta’s southern neighborhoods.

First, let’s talk about the brand-new MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) line Jakarta badly needed to alleviate its traffic problem. In the first few weeks after its inauguration in March 2019, people lined up with their families to try a transport system Indonesians could previously only experience abroad. The track stretches for 20 kilometers from the city’s main roundabout in Central Jakarta’s CBD, underneath the main avenue that connects Central Jakarta’s and South Jakarta’s business districts, all the way to the southwestern edge of the city. Although the closest MRT station is only around 4 kilometers away from where I live (I moved from West Jakarta to South Jakarta in 2012 and have been living in this part of the Indonesian capital since then), I waited a few more months until the euphoria died down a little before trying the new MRT with James for the very first time.

Surprisingly, the stations were practically spotless and almost everyone seemed to obey the rules, like standing on one side of the escalator. As I stepped inside the Japanese-made train, I had to pinch myself for it was a dream come true to take an underground metro system right here in Jakarta. I used to think that having the MRT would simply help people commute faster between their homes and offices. However, at M Bloc Space I learned that the mass transport system can actually bring a lot more benefits to the city and its people.

Formerly a 1950s-era warehouse and housing complex for the employees of the state-owned banknote printing company, M Bloc Space was abandoned in 2005 when the company moved to a production facility in a small city outside Jakarta and relocated its employees. As the MRT project unfolded, the government saw the potential to revive this derelict property as it would then be located within walking distance from two MRT stations once they were completed. Eventually, this newly-renovated compound was opened in October 2019, less than a year after the MRT trains began plying their route.

Designed as a family-friendly creative hub, M Bloc Space provides Jakartans with an alternative to air-conditioned malls. The former terraced houses were transformed into restaurants serving an array of Indonesian and Western dishes, a shop filled with items from local independent brands, an Indonesian comic book store, a gelato café that serves unusual flavors (from speculaas – spiced biscuits the Dutch introduced to the Indonesians – to kale and red cabbage), another café specializing in jamu (Indonesian traditional herbal drinks), and a shop selling all manner of vintage items, among other things. What makes those shops even more exciting is the fact that some of them also act as discussion spaces, bringing experts, aficionados and the general public together in one place. Behind the row of former houses, the old warehouse has been turned into a money printing-themed restaurant that has kept its industrial ambiance, albeit softened by tropical plants, as well as a hall for both big-name and independent artists to perform.

Trying Jakarta’s long-awaited MRT system

Once an abandoned compound, M Bloc Space is now a lively place thanks to the MRT

City dwellers at M Bloc Space, an alternative to the typical mall

It’s home to unique restaurants and cafés

Inside Katong, one of the tenants at M Bloc Space

Artisanal products at Mata Lokal

Exploring the former state-owned banknote printing company’s warehouse

Murals at M Bloc Space

Inside the former warehouse, now a restaurant

Hydroponic vegetables grown at M Bloc Space

Pumpkin and speculaas gelato at M Bloc Space (left) and Beau’s turmeric latte

Farther down the MRT line to the south are some areas I rarely went to in the past because of the distances I had to cover to reach them. One interesting locale is Cipete, a mixed residential area with houses, trendy cafés, some supposedly good restaurants, as well as the Lycée Français de Jakarta – the city’s French international school. Living in a city where less of 15% of its land is green space (far below the minimum 30% many urban planning experts recommend), I always appreciate a place that provides a little greenery, and I found L.O.F. Kitchen and Plants in Cipete to be one such venue. It started as a neighborhood store that sold plants and gardening tools. However, one day the owner decided to open a small restaurant as well, turning this place into a little lush oasis for friends to hang out together. After all, what’s not to love about having a big kimchi and cheese burger, served with gochujang mayo and fries, surrounded by all kinds of plants? Who wouldn’t enjoy this peaceful ambiance in a hectic city like Jakarta?

A little off the MRT line, but still easily accessible by TransJakarta buses is, in my opinion, one of the coolest places in South Jakarta, if not the entire city. Pasar Santa was built in 1971 as a modern two-story structure for a traditional market. Over time, its upper floor became largely deserted as most trade activities happened downstairs. However, in 2014 a group of young Jakartans saw its low rents as an opportunity, and soon enough they came in droves, setting up a new crop of small businesses on the previously quiet upper floor. Then came greed. Tempted by the sudden influx of money and visitors Pasar Santa was receiving, the market’s management company decided to raise the rent four to fivefold, subsequently resulting in the exodus of many tenants to other places with more reasonable rates.

We came to Pasar Santa in May 2019, long after the hype was over and the rental prices had gone down again. When I first walked inside the building, I thought we had arrived at the wrong market because all I could see were vegetables, spices, meat and poultry vendors. Then I looked up a staircase at the stalls above and realized that this was the right place. It couldn’t have been a starker contrast with the traditional market down below, with shops selling vinyl records, clothes from independent labels, and tiny cafés serving fusion dishes filling the second floor. However, there was one place I was particularly eager to visit: Post. An independent bookshop run by our blogging friends, Teddy and Maesy, it started as a place where people can buy books that can’t be found at major stores. However, today it has evolved into a community space where bookworms meet and authors share the stories behind their creations. In fact, the day we went there, a book club made Post one of its stops on a day-long itinerary exploring spaces in Jakarta for literature enthusiasts.

“When Pasar Santa was at its peak, this place was packed with people,” Teddy recounted. “It was very hot and crowded – people barely had space to sit.”

“It’s more bearable now,” Maesy added.

I agree with her. Although it’s no longer the trendiest place in Jakarta, Pasar Santa has now attracted the ‘right’ kind of people – those who are genuinely interested in the sort of items sold at this place. I loved the independent spirit of this market and its tenants. I could sense that most, if not all, of the people who do business at this place do it with a certain degree of idealism. It felt to me that they wanted a platform to showcase their ideas, creativity and passion, not merely a place to seek profit. Despite the heat and humidity on the day we were at Pasar Santa, I remember feeling refreshed and inspired when I left the market. This visit made me ponder over the things I could have done and can do to encourage more young people to have the courage to go down this unconventional path.

Within walking distance from Pasar Santa, the cityscape changed again. Jalan Cikajang is a world away from the down-to-earth atmosphere of Pasar Santa and its immediate surroundings. A neighborhood street known to foodies, Jalan Cikajang is lined with restaurants serving a wide array of dishes, from Indonesian regional cuisines and modern Asian fare to Louisiana-style seafood. They all share one thing in common, though, as these businesses all occupy spruced-up houses and buildings. Thanks to James’s obsession with bread, this time we opted for Beau, a bakery and café owned by Talita Setyadi, a young entrepreneur who studied jazz in Auckland, New Zealand but found her passion in making bread. After returning home from training in Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, where she graduated top of her class, she started this business which has proven to be a great success.

“This is the best croissant in town,” James declared, while I was sipping on the surprisingly delightful turmeric latte. We also tasted Beau’s version of smørrebrød which I believe was my first time trying this Scandinavian open-faced sandwich – unless I had actually tasted it before without realizing what it was.

Is this a plant shop or a restaurant?

It is in fact both

L.O.F. Kitchen and Plants’ kimchi and cheese burger

The upper floor of Pasar Santa

Some of the indie shops at the market

Teddy and Maesy at Post, Pasar Santa

A peaceful afternoon at nearby Beau

Beau’s smørrebrød

If you’ve read this far, you might already understand why South Jakarta is a trendsetter in this bustling megalopolis. It offers many things other parts of the city can only dream of (or eventually follow). However, there is one particular area of South Jakarta called Kemang that truly epitomizes its progressive, experimental inclinations. It is home to loads of cafés (from simple ones where getting a cup of coffee is an unassuming matter to more sophisticated venues which offer all sorts of beverages you didn’t know you needed), restaurants (serving a wide variety of food, including some that can’t be found in other parts of the city), vibrant nightlife, a thriving expat community, and … a dog park.

Jakarta can feel hostile to humans, let alone pets. So when I found out that a dog park had been opened (this may not be a big deal in your part of the world, but it certainly is in Jakarta), I knew I had to check it out. Situated in the eastern part of Kemang, Como Park – as this place is known – is a collection of small offices, cafés, restaurants, independent retailers, and of course, a fenced outdoor lawn where pooches are free to roam. It is home to a retailer that focuses on vintage and secondhand goods, a café with one of the best chai lattes in town, a dog salon, and a zero-waste shop with an impressive product offering that encompasses all kinds of nuts, beans and dried fruits to spices, salt, flour, rice, honey, olive oil and even sambal (chili sauce) made with torch ginger, to name a few. Customers have to bring their own bottles, jars and bags, although the store sells them too for those who forget to bring their own.

Moving over to the southern part of Kemang, there’s a plant shop for those who want to take home a few pots of oxygen producers, or to simply make their abode more cozy and less of a suffocating, claustrophobic box. A self-styled “plant barn”, Kojo x Cayenne is hidden from plain sight as it is located behind a home furnishings store and a small restaurant. What I love most about this place is its unexpected location, the colorful murals that decorate the shop, and the ever-changing selection of potted plants it provides.

This, however, is not the only plant shop in Kemang. In East Kemang, you’ll find the recently-opened Hunter & Grower, a restaurant with a plant-dedicated corner where patrons can choose plants and planters to bring home. The restaurant itself serves Indonesian food with a modern twist, as well as some Western dishes. I love the fact that their bold experiments trying to present traditional food in a different way actually work, so much so that we have eaten there three times in the past month. The popular sayur asem salad takes inspiration from a sour, savory and spicy soup dish with the same name which originates from the western part of Java. In an unexpected twist, it’s served as a salad with all the components separate from each other, but when mixed together with the tamarind reduction everything tastes surprisingly authentic. The Manadonese sautéed beef is lovely for its rich cream sauce mixed with sambal rica, one of the many types of sambal from the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, home of the Minahasan people. But the winner so far is the perfectly grilled salmon with sambal dabu-dabu, another take on Minahasan cuisine – mostly because of its fragrant nasi bakar or “grilled rice” (steamed rice seasoned with lemon basil leaves and other ingredients, then wrapped in banana leaf and grilled) which to date is the best I’ve ever had.

South Jakarta is indeed a trendsetter when it comes to fashion, lifestyle and anything new for that matter. When a new business is successful in this part of the city, others usually follow. But if one digs deeper, there are indeed many things other parts of Jakarta can learn from their more chic sister. South Jakarta shows how having an MRT line running through your area can be good not only for getting around the city more easily, but also for the preservation of historically significant but otherwise derelict buildings, and why it is a good idea to have greenery inside business premises to create little oases in this incessantly busy city. It also proves how providing young entrepreneurs a platform with which they can explore their ideas and creativity can have a positive impact on the local economy. It demonstrates how giving pets a safe and secure place to play correlates with the improvement of a city’s livability for its human residents. And lastly, it sets an example for aspiring restaurateurs that experimentation, when done correctly, can elevate traditional dishes and make the city’s culinary landscape even more alluring.

And I, a registered East Jakartan by ID card, but South Jakartan by domicile, can happily tell other Jakartans that embracing this southern lifestyle (or at least a little bit of it) will make your area a little more interesting to explore.

Como Park in the eastern part of Kemang

All kinds of dog treats

A zero-waste shop at Como Park

A “plant barn” in southern Kemang

The green goodness inside

At Hunter & Grower, Kemang

A modern interpretation of sayur asem

Perfectly-cooked salmon served with fragrant nasi bakar, sambal dabu-dabu and vegetables

As always, for me a cup of matcha latte, please

As I have mentioned in the About page of this blog, all posts published here are not sponsored, including this one.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

51 thoughts on “Embracing the Southern Lifestyle”

    • Glad you enjoyed this, Edwin. I’ll be honest. Jakarta is not a city one would fall in love with easily. So, my suggestion for anyone visiting for the first time is to not have high expectations.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. You are doing your very best to get all of us to check out Jakarta! I see your suggestion above to not have high expectations, but this post makes your city look very cool and fun! The restaurants in south Jakarta look trendy and delicious, the local arts and crafts places are appealing, and that MRT is way better than any public transport we have here in Houston, where we desperately need some. I loved reading about this developing part of town!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I might do a blog series on interesting places in other parts of Jakarta one day because this idea actually helps me push myself to go out and explore the city when the weather is nice. Visiting those places I mentioned in this blog post really inspired me to contribute something for the Indonesian capital — I don’t know yet what that would be, but I have some vague ideas in my mind. American cities should learn from their European and Asian counterparts when it comes to public transport because what I know is there’s only a handful of places in the US that have adequate mass transit system, and Houston is not one of them. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Lex! I keep crossing my fingers for your upcoming trip.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The M Bloc looks cool and as you say, a way for a public works project to revitalize a disused space. It has a lot more character than yet another boring mall.

    Have you noticed any impact on the traffic yet?

    Liked by 1 person

    • In my past trips to Hong Kong and Singapore, I kept wondering when Jakarta would have urban renewal projects like in both cities. So when I learned about the opening of M Bloc Space and the history behind it I was ecstatic.

      Because the MRT only has one line, the traffic in the city in general is still pretty much the same. However, I did notice quite a lot of people taking the MRT to go to their offices. And in fact, a few days ago I met the CEO of an insurance company who took the MRT from the station closest to her office to a mall in Central Jakarta to have lunch. I imagine to do this in the past, she would have to ask her driver to take her to that mall.

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  3. I really appreciate this very informative post Bama. When we were in Jakarta for a few days a while back, as Ben had work meetings, it was hard for us to get a sense of the city beyond the sprawl, the traffic, the shopping malls. And Im thrilled to read about the Japanese train as this definitely changes navigating a city that has so many traffic jams. Even though we did our research and there were areas we wanted to explore, the traffic factor was definitely off putting.

    Your post has amazing in depth exploration with all the details I enjoy, such as where the creative food is at. Love the modern interpretation of traditional dishes. That kind of restaurant always interests us. Sounds as though the new spaces/area are being used in interesting and thoughtful ways. Terrific post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Next time you and Ben are in Jakarta, please let me know. I would be more than happy to show you around to make up for your disappointing trip to this city in the past. Going with a local is always the best way to explore a place, like what I did with James the first time I went to Hong Kong, and with Madhu from The Urge to Wander when James and I visited Chennai.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience, Peta!

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  4. I just visit some of the places in this post and I agree that because of mrt some of the places have become more accessible than before. Pasar Santa still one of my lists together with Beau. Thank you so much for this post so I know where I need to explore again when I have time to go to Jakarta.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Aku pun baru cobain MRT Jakarta kuartal pertama 2019 setelah dia beroperasi normal, mas. Untuk LRT, baru tgl 25 Januari kemarin kucoba juga.

    Aku ke Pasar Santa di tahun 2014 bersama teman-teman Travel Bloggers Indonesia (TBI) setelah kami menghadiri Skyscanner Blogger Gathering, jadi memang sedang hangat-hangatnya. Awal Desember lalu ke M Bloc, but ended up makan di kedai nasi padang di situ instead of sipping coffee at a trendy cafe 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • LRT malah saya belum cobain. Pengennya sih nunggu LRT Jabodebek selesai yang katanya tahun depan. Lumayan kalau itu udah ada mainnya bisa agak jauhan.

      Tempat makan Padang yang di M Bloc Space itu yang paling ujung kan ya? Cobain resto Manadonya deh. Enak! Saya penasaran sama Mbok Ndoro sama _Oeang sih.

      Like

  6. Lovely places, Bama! You should get paid by those shops for shooting such great photos.

    Metros always bring benefits, methinks. I lived in Turin when M1 was being worked on. If you were to listen to local shopkeepers, it was going to be Armageddon, election day and the 10 plagues of Egypt all rolled into one. No space for parking! Barriers! Dust! Noise! Customers can’t drive!
    And lo and behold, once it was all said and done, with estate prices increasing, footfall multiplied and so on… no one spoke. How surprising huh?

    Now, Matcha Latte. Gotta talk about that. Other Half loves it, I tried it once and it tastes of algae. Seriously?! 😉

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe. But I’m always happy to share with other people the information about places I genuinely enjoyed.

      Some residents of Jakarta also protested during the construction of the MRT, especially those who live near the line. But now everyone seems to be happy. This kind of reactive response unfortunately happens too often, including toward projects that are supposed to save people’s lives. Only after they understand the benefits they can get and experience those improvements themselves do they stop complaining.

      Where did you have your matcha latte? And do you enjoy matcha in general? But then I never try algae, so I can’t really say. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh… too bad! I love everything matcha: matcha KitKat, matcha mochi, matcha lava cake, anything. I guess if you ever give it another try, you should go for the one from Uji, a city in Japan famous for its matcha.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I believe there are still parts of the city you will still recognize if you go back. One day I might write about Jakarta’s grittier places, but I’l have to wait until the rainy season is over.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mireya says:

    Wow Indonesia is a beautiful place. This felt a little like Los Angeles, just a little. Only this is far more beautiful. I do live near Los Angeles.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is such a refreshing post Bama and I think dispels some of the perceptions that many people (including myself) have of Jakarta. It is certainly different from what I experienced many years ago as a backpacker. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a large city like Jakarta has trendsetting areas like the South. You are really making me want to return and see the changes, not to mention eating at those restaurants you feature (wow that salmon looks good!). I’m happy to read about the new MRT. Only positive can come out of a good public transportation system.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jakarta certainly has grittier parts (which I might write about one day), but since the day I moved to this city in 2008, Jakarta has changed quite a lot. It’s been particularly encouraging to see the constant evolution of the culinary scene here, and the MRT has certainly brought a lot of unique eateries and cafes into people’s attention. I hope when the LRT (which is closer to where I live) opens next year — fingers crossed — local businesses and independent shops near the line will benefit from it. You should come back one day, Caroline.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What an interesting part of the city, Bama. I think Jakarta can be quite intimidating for visitors, but this post on the south part certainly tickles my curiosity. It looks like it offers a fairly good quality of life to its residents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Imagine a fierce-looking stranger with a scruffy appearance talking to you. His voice is croaky and his speech is terse. Every single thing you see is intimidating. But after a while, you realize that he has a lot of interesting stories to tell and he doesn’t see you merely as a stranger. Rather, you can sense that to him you are like a long-lost friend whom he embraces wholeheartedly. And when you part your ways, you miss him immediately. That’s how Jakarta feels to me, especially since my eighth year living in this city, and one of the reasons why I wrote this post is to show my readers that there are other sides of Jakarta that are rarely reported in the media. I might do a part two of this post one day.

      Like

      • I am so glad you did write this post, Bama, as it is such a personal take on the city, and like you say highlights what is hardly ever reported in the media. I love how you describe the city as an intense stranger with interesting stories to tell. Your writing always manages to speak both to my heart and mind – something I love.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I had no idea Jakarta has this wonderful area. I have a friend who lives in Jakarta and from what I can tell, he has this love hate relationship with the city. I’ve never traveled to Jakarta and with the MRT now in place, it looks a lot more feasible to get around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In my first few years living in this city, I hated it more than I loved it. However, now things are quite different as I’ve found places across Jakarta that are inspiring, relaxing, and intriguing — sometimes I stumble upon venues that have all those qualities. Despite its problems, I do sense hope in this city.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Was living in Jakarta for about a year and went back last November and got to try out the MRT for the first time! Do you think it has indeed create less traffic and proved significance? Because traffic still persisted when I stayed at South Jakarta last time…, then again South Jakartans traffic (especially Kemang area) are just really bad, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly, I don’t have the data. But from what I observed, the MRT trains are quite full during rush hour. Assuming that most of the people who take them are not new comers to the city and have been working for quite some time at the offices along the route, I believe there must have been a reduction of traffic. How significant? I can’t tell for sure. Speaking of Kemang, the problem with this part of Jakarta is that the public transport serving this area with many narrow streets is just not adequate.

      Like

      • Not the narrow street size too? I’m glad though that MRT is now an option and more options to be added, I hope. Yet with Jakarta reported to be sinking slowly, I am wondering though what would be the future of it. I have this love and hate relationship with Jakarta, unfortunately.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hopefully, the LRT Jabodebek system will be fully operational by next year as promised because that will help those who live in places like Cibubur to reach their offices in the CBD a lot more easily. About the sinking, that’s also one of my biggest concerns. Something drastic needs to be done before it’s too late.

        Like

  12. How cool that you have MRT in Jakarta! The neighborhoods you showed look lovely – I love all that greenery. I think I’d never heard of such plant-themed restaurants where customers can even take the plants home. That’s a cool idea! The matcha latte looks delicious – is it served cold or hot? I’ve never tried it, I don’t know if they even have it around here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, finally after the long wait. The government is going to start extending this line to the north of the city, and another line that runs east-west is currently being planned. I’ve seen how interesting retail places pop up along the MRT line, which helps makes the city an even more exciting place to be. I had the matcha latte hot, although I like it both ways. I’m actually curious how popular matcha-related things are outside Asia.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Bama, I love that you take us through all these interesting little places in South Jakarta that most tourists will never get to see. It just goes to show that it really pays off to scratch the surface of any city, even if they come across as daunting and chaotic and not very visitor-friendly. Thanks for suggesting M Bloc Space and all those plant stores/restaurants that you found on Instagram. The MRT was such a game-changer, wasn’t it? I hope the extension and the east-west line both get built very soon: we need them pronto!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The idea for this post came out of my own feeling toward the city which has changed a lot since the year I moved to Jakarta. I’ve been thinking of writing similar posts about other parts of Jakarta, but I haven’t got the time to explore more of the city. And now because of the pandemic I shouldn’t even bother to plan anything, at least for the next few months. I hope the MRT extension as well as the LRT are not postponed due to the current circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow. Jakarta sure has changed a lot from the days I lived there. I hung out a lot at nearby Blok M because I was working as a journalist and spent my time mostly at the National Police Headquarter and The General Attorney’s office. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even in the past five years, there has been quite a lot of changes in the city. Blok M really is a strategic place for journalists given its proximity to those two institutions you mentioned. However, these days it’s becoming more of a trendy place thanks to M Bloc Space. You should check it out yourself, when the pandemic has passed.

      Like

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