I wish I liked this place better. Indonesia as a whole is wonderful, but Jakarta itself switches from being chaotic and run-down to just another featureless Asian city, unidentifiable thanks to its imitative glass-fronted highrises. If I knew it better, I would probably like it more. But I only tend to come here on my way to and from other places, and this time it's to get a decent night's rest after a difficult trip elsewhere in the region. Yet there is one odd and, to a Brit, rather charming thing about Jakarta: the cars, buses and lorries drive on the left.
Too much fuss is made about which side of the road we drive on — usually by people who don't get out of their own countries enough. Characteristically, the most fuss used to be made by the French (though they are much better-travelled now), the Americans (who seem to be less well-travelled than they used to be) and the British (who were habitually put in a fluster at Calais by having to change sides).
Equally characteristically, all three countries assumed there was something morally or culturally absurd about those who drove on the other side of the road. The French and Americans wanted other people to do exactly as they did; the British, probably wrongly, identified driving on the right with dictatorship and autocracy. My father, who loved both America and France, nevertheless brought me up to believe that Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler had forced the world to drive on the right, and that America did so of its own accord out of hatred for Britain.
Some of that is true. Napoleon certainly regularised the traffic in the countries he conquered, and Hitler made Austria, previously left-driving, conform with Germany. The young American republic, which kept surprisingly friendly with the autocratic French monarchy in its dying days, switched from driving on the left to the French side. Like a lot of my father's theories, though, this one is a bit hyped up.
And anyway, none of it explains why Indonesians should drive on the left. The answer to that comes not from my father but from my deeply Anglophile but Afrikaans wife, who tends to bring up the question of concentration camps when we have arguments.
'Wherever you go in the world,' she says, 'you find the British are responsible for what happens.' Over the years, half a dozen Iranian religious extremists have said much the same thing to me. If you trip over a stone in the road, a familiar proverb in Iran warns, you can be sure an Englishman has left it there.
And indeed it certainly was an Englishman who made the population of Jakarta, and Indonesia as a whole, drive on the left. Two hundred years ago, from 1811 to 1816, the spectacularly glamorous Thomas Stamford Raffles governed several of the territories that afterwards formed part of the Dutch East Indies, and he decreed that they should drive their carts and coaches on the same side of the road as in Britain; and they have done so ever since. Throughout almost all of the former British Empire, the same rule applied, so that now well over a third of the world's population drive on the left (in terms of countries and territories, 76 are left-hand drive, and 164 right-hand drive). Left-driving India may soon have the world's biggest population (two years ago it was 1.16 billion and growing, compared with China's 1.34 billion), while left-driving Indonesia has the world's fourth-biggest.
Why, anyway, do people drive on different sides? Something to do with keeping your sword arm or your riding arm free, experts have suggested. The Romans seem to have driven on the left, though the evidence is contradictory. Tracks from a stone quarry in England indicate the left, evidence from Turkey the opposite. Perhaps, as with us, it depended where you found yourself in the Roman Empire. The city of Rome made its citizens drive on the left — until as recently as 20 October 1924 (my father was right to think this was on Mussolini's orders).
The British, for their part, seem always to have driven on the left. When the superb medieval London Bridge, with its crowded shops, houses and offices on either side, was completed in 1209, the roadway across it was so narrow that the traffic required special regulation. The bridge was 26ft wide, though the houses stuck out over the river. The shopfronts took up 7ft of space, which left only 12ft (4m, if you're that way inclined) for the roadway. Regulation for the carriages and carts was essential, and it seems that driving on the left was enforced. Centuries later, in 1756, this was officially codified.
It all seems delightfully antiquarian and a bit irrelevant, here in the heat and fumes of Jakarta, but in fact it's suddenly intruded into my personal life in the pleasantest of ways. In June I was given the signal honour of being made a Freeman of the City of London. Surrounded by my family and friends, and a group of grandees wearing magnificent coats, I swore a tremendous oath to uphold the City's customs and warn the Queen if I came across any plots against her. In return I now have a beautifully inscribed piece of parchment on my wall, and privileges that apparently include freedom from arrest for drunkenness within the Square Mile. The police, it seems, have to escort me to the boundaries and release me into the wild.
And of course there is the much more famous right, nowadays heavily restricted and controlled, to herd sheep and cattle across London Bridge. Being city-bred, I'm unlikely to take advantage of this. But if I do, I will of course try to drive them on the left.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.