Khao Sarn Road, Bangkok; Street 172, Phnom Penh; Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta. The list of famous and cheap backpacker streets in Asia goes on. Well, actually it goes on without the last one. Jakarta’s Jalan Jaksa is no longer the sort of place where it seems like a raucous, boozy funfair has come to town. This once-infamous Mecca for those seeking cheap food, drink and digs in a lavish atmosphere of colourful seediness, excitement and menace (yes there were prostitutes and rogues and drugs) is now just another street.
Jaksa means attorney. Back in the Dutch colonial era law students used to gather on the street, and then in the 60s it became a favourite destination for backpackers. These days Jalan Jaksa is packed with assorted warung and street-food stalls catering to local office workers. There aren’t many foreigners around anymore. But, before I say “so long” Jaksa and thanks for all the missing memories, here’s a spot of reminiscing. These were my favourite Jaksa bars back in the day.
This small bar had a faint nautical theme, being run as a home-from-home by a gentleman in the shipping industry. On some nights it certainly would have been advisable to enter wearing an aqualung and face mask, owing to the fog of tobacco smoke that was as unbreathable as water in a tank. It made the eyes sting after only a few seconds. But Romance was as popular as it got, packed to the gills every night with a crowd of hard-core regulars whose eyes were as tough as their livers. It closed several years ago.
For a while the jewel of the street, Q Bar was run by an outlandish Australian who appreciated the value of a good brick pizza oven and had a designer’s eye for style. It was also notable for an ornamental fountain and pond located unexpectedly just inside the entrance, into which many a foot accidentally trod. The pool table was always busy, often generating fist-fights. Q Bar began to flounder when the price of its beer went up from Rp12,000 to Rp17,000 a bottle in one unstaggered overnight jump. To the regular customers – skint English teachers who counted their salary in numbers of beers – this price hike was an outrage, and they boycotted the place. It closed shortly afterwards.
The loudest and liveliest place on Jalan Jaksa by far, Memories was a long-established bar and hostel in the backpacker tradition, complete with budget travel agency and second-hand book store. It was also where the girls and the not-so-girls hung out, if you know what I mean. Live music and partying went on late into the night. Most of the bands had the standard Indonesian line-up – a dolled-up female singer, a guitarist with a half-dozen effects pedals at his feet, and a plump middle-aged man who provided all other notes and rhythms on a harsh and piercing electronic keyboard. In the old days Memories had legendary Christmas eve celebrations – tinsel, fairy lights, streamers, staff dressed up as elves and Santa. Last time I was there for Christmas, there was not a sprig of holly in sight. It’s currently up for sale.
Years ago a trio of English brothers were prominent figures on Jakarta’s bar-managing scene, particularly on its seedier fringe, and P’s Place was run by the youngest of them. Like Romance, this place had a homely feel about it (you could be in London) and was always busy with a mixed crowd of locals and expats. But I remember it as one of the venues for the regular pub quiz compiled and hosted by a certain Mr JD, one of the street’s famous scholars. Indeed, the quizzes were like academic exams. There were no multimedia aids – no music in the music rounds, no videos in the video rounds. Just teams sitting round with pencils and answer sheets, solving esoteric questions about history and geography. But these fun beer-sipping events were appreciated by all, and are fondly missed.
You wouldn’t have known much about Ali’s Bar unless you were West African, it being the main hangout of men and women from countries in that region. These mainly courteous patrons were known for their loudness. Perhaps this tendency to talk at the fullest volume a human voice can reach without shouting was a cultural phenomenon, one exacerbated by the effect of cheap Bintang beer. Even with the door to Ali’s shut, which it was most of the time, it sounded as though furious arguments were taking place inside – a bedlam of raised voices. West Africans were once barred from Romance for being too noisy.
Like Memories before the “For Sale” sign went up, Pappa Cafe was a survivor too. But its survival was more in the manner of a cockroach’s. Pappa Cafe was always open, its chunky circular wooden tables spilling over with empty Bintang bottles day and night. It was the drunk’s bar of choice, a place for serious and desperate drinkers with thin wallets. Sense-numbing drunkenness offered a degree of protection against the repellent toilets, with their black stains, fungus and oily graffiti. In the mornings the tables would still be fairly full with drinkers who’d been there for 12 hours – pasty-faced, red-eyed, unkempt, talking the sort of slurry, over-orated nonsense which, should you overhear it when you were sober, would put you off drinking forever. Pappa Cafe moved to the opposite end of the street and survives like a rotted severed limb – all that’s left of it – in the post-apocalyptic concrete shell of an abandoned hotel construction site.
Those were the days.