Buzz for Your Buck in Indonesia

Good food, relaxing massages, and lovely sightseeing on a budget in Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Oct. 24, 2008 -- Indonesia's capital city is a bustling travel hub. Spend a little time in Jakarta, with its traffic congestion, pollution and heat, and you'll discover that ways to detox are as vital as a healthy diet and exercise.

"When you are in a bad mood in Jakarta, you are in the worst place in the world. You will wonder what made you ever come in the first place," according to the CultureShock! travel guide. "The heat will make it difficult to breathe. Your head will get hot. You feel sweat running down every crevasse and cleavage."

To cope, options to revitalize and rejuvenate in the developing country -- where $1 equals about 10,000 in local currency rupiah -- can be delightfully affordable, luxurious and creative.

Some people simply flee.

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago made up of more than 17,000 islands, offers some of the most rich and rewarding travel excursions. Local tour guides with the mantra "anything is possible" create bargain itineraries such as trekking to the tops of volcanoes, photographing rice paddy fields, exploring ancient temples, and scuba diving to the ocean's depths.

Budget airline Air Asia boasts low-cost flights around the region. A one-way ticket from Jakarta to A-list detox destination Bali is about $50-$70, or $150 roundtrip. Seats are unassigned, so invest an extra $5 to join the priority boarding line -- worth the race for a window seat to peer into the mouths of volcanoes.

To escape the chaotic city, Panorama Tours offers day trips by bus for $25-$60 to go to a tea plantation, botanical garden or even Sea World. Other highlights are Taman Mini, an Indonesia miniature park, and Taman Safari, where an affectionate baby orangutan poses for pictures with tourists. Fork over a little more hard cash and travel by boat to the Thousand Islands, or Pulau Seribu, north of Jakarta.

For those who opt to stay in the city, stress therapy spas are a treasure. Treatments are not limited to the environment-induced sauna from Indonesia's close proximity to the equator, or to hole-in-the-wall finds.

At the posh Four Seasons hotel in Jakarta, pay $13 for a manicure, or $20 for an hour-long reflex massage or ginger and hibiscus skin energizer. At the same hotel chain in Beverly Hills, starting prices run $50 for a manicure and $165 for a massage. At the Four Seasons in New York, prices start at $45 for a manicure and $210 for a massage -- and the massage is 10 minutes shorter.

For food and drink, Jakarta luxe guides have yet to be written -- and the high turnover rate of eateries doesn't help. For a deal on Sunday afternoons, dish out $30-$37 at the Marriott or Grand Hyatt hotels for an all-you-can-eat-buffet, which includes Western fare and hours of free-flow wine and champagne.

At a fraction of that cost, locals and expats in the know turn to no-frills street food. Sate Ragusa, in demand for more than 50 years, barter chicken and goat satay at less than $2. Open daily from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., the cash-only operation is located at Jalan Veteran I No. 10. Using the same space, another seller diversifies by cooking up vegetarian fare. To round off a complete meal, their neighbor is Es Krim Ragusa, or Ragusa Ice Cream.

Indonesia's most famous dish, nasi goreng, or fried rice, is popularly sought after at Nasi Goreng Kebon Sirih locales throughout Jakarta for the same budget prices.

Alcohol can be outrageously expensive in the mainly Muslim nation due to high import tax; so savor the free mini bottles of wine from that international flight.

The cocktail locals swear by in Indonesia is Jamu. Made with natural ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon and sugar, it is an acquired taste. Generations, especially Javanese women, drink Jamu as a medicine to improve lifestyle, beauty and health. Advertisements promise the mixtures will "maintain vitality in wife-husband relationships" and "retighten stomach and uterus muscles."

"We believe that it will make our body fresher -- when you feel fatigue or tiredness, it makes us energize, like [an] isotonic drink," says local Evi. "It makes symptoms of [the] flu go away." Men drink a different Jamu for the "man thing," she laughs, likening it to Viagra.

Street vendors deal colorful bottles of Jamu for 10 to 20 cents apiece. Packaged powders and pills are also sold for less than a couple of bucks, though Evi cautions buying only popular brands.

Still need to take the edge off in the gritty city?

Cruise around for the day in a Silver Bird taxi. Often black Mercedes, the former government delegate vehicles render a quiet air-conditioned sanctuary, muffling out the city buzz and mosque loudspeakers. These drivers know the fastest shortcuts through the maze of Jakarta's streets and most of them speak English. Paying the higher 35 cents per mile is worth the smooth ride on uneven roads.

Step it up a notch and rollick in an overnight stay to explore another part of town. This is a city, after all, with regularly worse bumper-to-bumper traffic than rush hour on the 405 in Los Angeles or in midtown in New York. Room rates, some for as low as $50 a night, may well be worth saving lost hours in transport.

Spend a little more time in Jakarta, and become immersed with the culture and the people, and stress more easily washes away with laughter. The need to detox still exists but occurs less frequently, and that initial instinct to flee has been known to transform into a desire to never leave.