Transvestite soup, swamp fish stew or crocodile bread anyone? Take a walk on the culinary wild side on Jakarta’s (in)famous Jalan Jaksa Street. The Jalan Jaksa Festival brings out the best (and sometimes worst) of local Betawi food, dance, art and a little good old fashioned carousing into the night.
It all began in the 1990’s as a way to promote tourism in Jakarta but if anything, is more of a local happening; a celebration of a gradually disappearing culture. Such is the cosmopolitan nature of the city, authentic Betawi traditions are now a dying art and the Jalan Jaksa Festival offers Jakarta’s youth a chance to reconnect with their “roots” once a year. Just as importantly, it’s also the perfect excuse for an all-day inexpensive booze-up.
Since the 1970’s Jalan Jaksa (Jaksa Street) has been a cheap and cheerful travelers’ haven; a little oasis of (comparative) calm in the midst of a madcap, beguiling metropolis. This is Indonesia’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. There are abundant no frills hostels, hearty western food at rock bottom prices and best of all, a profusion of late night bars serving up cheap ice cold beer. It is an affordable sanctuary for rupiah-lite backpackers yet has a real urban edge and a little dash of inner city sleaze. It is a vibrant place populated by a peculiar mix of transvestites, ageing good time girls and eccentric old western hippies.
Jalan Jaksa is right in the heart of the city center, just a 15 minute stroll from the main travelers’ stop off point at Gambir train station. During festival weekend, the street itself is closed to all traffic and is awash with food stalls, craft workshops, street artists and musicians in typically haphazard fashion. It is the food that catches the eye first. Row upon row of brightly decorated glutinous cakes, hot steaming soup, stew and noodle dishes containing all manner of fish, fowl and fiery spices. Along with little known local Betawi specialties, there are some traditional dishes originating from Aceh, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and far flung Papua. Some of these glow-in-the-dark dessert snacks are so sweet they’ll literally make your eyes water.
After a chance to grab a bite and browse, the real fun starts. There are chaotic demonstrations of Palang Pintu, a traditional martial art with two brightly attired “warriors” in mortal combat complete with crowd-pleasing acrobatics. All along the street you can hear the incessant hum of the ‘tanjidor’ (Betawi orchestra) competing with tuneless street buskers strumming Bob Marley classics.
The festival also features batik making workshops and traditional dance troupes hailing from Kalimantan and Sumatra. The festival also brings out plenty of opportunist hawkers after a quick buck. Among all the high quality wood carvings and trinkets, there is no shortage of cheap souvenirs, pirated DVD’s and dubious tattoo artists.
Mingling with the crowds are huge “ondel-ondel” life sized puppets, which somehow combine the qualities of a cuddly Disney character and a grotesque mythical giant. Like any self-respecting carnival, there is a parade of local lovelies in a delightfully prim beauty pageant followed by a string of local bands enthusiastically belting out cheesy Indonesian pop songs or raunchy “dangdut” anthems late into the night.