A visit to a theme park where the theme is the nation itself, and the tourists are locals. By Patrick Lau.

Jakarta’s Taman Mini Indonesia Indah cultural theme park

The view from a cable car over the scale map  of Indonesia  at TMII.
The view from a cable car over the scale map of Indonesia at TMII.

In the morning, there’s a little black ball out the front of my boarding house, seemingly rolling but somehow not moving from the spot. When I step closer, it explodes in my face, as thousands of flies spring off what proves to be a messily bisected rat.

I should have known by now. Roadkill rats are a fact of life in Jakarta. Realistically, there are three options for avoiding a walk through the filthy streets among such realities. You can haggle with a motorbike driver, an ojek, at a roadside stand. You can use an app to order one to your house – the ubiquitous green-jacketed Go-Jeks that are slowly taking over the nation, transforming the industry along the lines of Uber. Or you can get a taxi.

We get a taxi. A fleet of tens of thousands both contribute to and alleviate the city’s famous macet, the traffic jams that have turned surgical face masks into fashion accessories, and make a mockery of the term “rush hour”. 

There are transport alternatives, if you’re game. There’s the powered and unpowered cycle rickshaws, Bajaj and becak. There’s even a public transport system, although its timetabling is as ramshackle as its vehicles. If every bus were on schedule – a big if – it still would have taken four-and-a-half hours to get to our destination, Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park). 

The taxi needs less than half an hour, and the driver cheerfully throws in commentary. TMII is the jewel at the centre of Madame Suharto’s foundation, he says, using the popular name of the wife of the former presidential strongman: Ibu Tien. An enormous mosque and a museum dedicated to Suharto are among other nearby attractions, but the cultural theme park is undoubtedly the most popular, billing itself as “Indonesia in a Day”.

We’re here for the green space as much as the history, the demonstrations of East Javanese dancing, or the cultural centres. TMII is an escape from the shopping malls and open sewers of Jakarta, marketed as a tourist experience but offering lawns for family picnics alongside the natural history museums. We skip the monorail to the major museums and instead check out the aquarium, the butterfly and moth exhibits, and enjoy the rare pleasure of a walk in sunshine and fresh air.

The main drawcard is the series of village reconstructions comprising traditional houses, one from each of Indonesia’s then 26 provinces. Inside each, permanent exhibits show off architecture, clothing, culture and daily life from every corner of the multifaceted nation, and occasional art-making or cuisine classes are held. It’s a celebration of unity in diversity. 

But whispers of bule alert us to the fact that we may be of more interest than the attractions to some. Literally meaning “albino”, it’s a non-derogatory way to refer to any light-skinned foreigner. By myself I might stand out, but my fair German companion is a whiter shade of pale entirely. A few braver souls even ask for a photograph.

A friend will later explain the curiosity. Although visitor numbers crack 50,000 on a busy day, TMII is overwhelmingly an attraction for domestic visitors. It’s rare that even the primary tourist markets of Singapore and Malaysia contribute much foot traffic to what was conceived as Ibu Tien’s nationalistic pet project. 

The enormous monolith of the Monumen Nasional and the Dutch colonial districts are much more popular spots. But that’s in relative terms – compared with Bali or Yogyakarta, the bland decadence and urban squalor of Jakarta doesn’t attract many international visitors. Then again, it hardly needs them. Sixty years of internal migration mean “the Big Durian” now has a population half the size of Australia, and growing. 

Such explosive growth has led to massive planning and infrastructure problems, the semi-successful tackling of which launched former Jakarta governor Joko Widodo into the presidency. Businesses have their thinking caps on too – there are experiments under way in pizza delivery via drone, getting your slice to you in 30 minutes or less by avoiding the plebeian traffic jams below. 

The preferred sights of Bali and Yogyakarta are represented in TMII by models of those much-loved monuments, the ziggurat of Prambanan and the gargoyled puras. Surprisingly, the park manages to do large-scale ornamentalism without ugly ostentation. Courtyards and houses and temples quietly fold in on one another, leading you on a winding path through time and across cultures. I’m impressed by the understatement, not relying on spectacle. There’s little in the way of fanfare. Nothing demands that you find it awe-inspiring or even interesting. It’s a massive museum with modest ambitions. A theme park of idylls instead of thrills. 

Here are the sliced-log staircases of a Dayak longhouse; there the overlapping thorny eaves of a Minang roof; and in here the half a hundred swords and blades of the Batak. A mosque, Catholic and Protestant churches, Hindu and Buddhist and Confucian temples line up in a tangible demonstration of syncretic belief, all interwoven with millennia of local custom, or adat. After a few hours of slow saturation, I begin to feel a stir of the sublime, a sensation of glimpsing through a keyhole into something overwhelming and multitudinous, and I wonder why I never felt this feeling at Wet’n’Wild. 

Over lunch (deep-fried catfish, rice, water spinach – $3), I think about what an Australian version of this place would look like. Maybe Barangaroo could have been given over to something similar: a public playground packed with miniature Big Bananas, re-creations of our most celebrated brutalist buildings, and a man dressed as Ned Kelly for the kids to take photos with. Or perhaps Packer’s new casino does the job fine by itself.

The cultural centre at Uluru has a fair crack at a localised version, but I don’t know if something like that could be attempted on a national scale. Old Sydney Town, a historical theme park, was true to its name and shut its doors more than a decade ago.

When I’d first heard about TMII, I’d been expecting the expensive conceit of a spoilt dictator’s wife. Something along the lines of a Graceland with extra roadkill rats: a tacky paean to parochialism and commerce, a sad temple of self-importance. I’d read The New York Times’s obituary describing Suharto’s dictatorship as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. 

But I’d also read Paul Keating lionising the man as a capable figure in a nation’s trying formative years (with a Keatingesque call-out of his critics as “ning-nongs”). Even in Indonesia the verdict is still unsettled. Talking about the Suharto regime with Indonesians, there’s always a hesitant pause before the answer – sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, sometimes it was mixed. It’s unclear whether the reluctance to pass judgement comes from indecision, or just the simple difficulty of discussing a nation of a thousand peoples and innumerable islands with an Australian, an outsider who barely knows his Balibo from his Bintang.

We’ve saved the best bit of TMII for last. A cable car glides overhead from one end of the park to the other, passing over its heart, a lake with the titular miniature Indonesia. Laid out like a horticultural folly is the entirety of the Indonesian archipelago, a half-kilometre of water feature standing in for one of the world’s largest and most populous nations.

It’s a simple enough thing. It wouldn’t look out of place on a golf course, miniature or no. Beds of shrubs and flowers stand in for the forests, with close-cut lawn underneath. Bonsai volcanoes dot the islands. Laughing couples in paddleboats slowly navigate their way through the eastern straits, and two children play hopscotch across the Lesser Sunda Islands. Otherwise, there’s no movement to busy the water, nor details to decorate the landscape. From Irian Jaya to the Acehnese tip of Sumatra, it takes a few minutes of silent swaying.

Before we get to the station at the park’s exit, I look back over all the things we missed. There are open-air aviaries, a statue of the Mahabharata’s Arjuna, two castles, a water park, the planes and helicopters of an aeronautical museum, a gigantic IMAX theatre shaped like a golden snail. There must be a hundred more museums, rides, gardens and monuments. We’ve had a small dose, but there’s far too much here for a single visit. 

We return to my boarding house, where a pest remover pumps poison through the drains outside, and we leave our windows shut overnight despite the heat.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Nationals park".

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