The capital of West Kalimantan, or Kalbar (short for “Kalimantan Barat”), Pontianak is a sprawling, grey industrial city of more than half a million people. Lying right on the equator on the confluence of the Landak and Kapuas Kecil rivers, it is a hot and noisy place, often smoky from the vast forest fires that recurrently rage inland. The most interesting thing about the city is its name, which translates roughly as “the vampire ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth” Most travellers stay just long enough to stock up on supplies before heading for a trip up the Sungai Kapuas, flying on to Balikpapan or moving straight on to Kuching.
To get your bearings, take a boat up the river from behind the Kapuas Indah building. Along the river, there are still several old buildings of interest: the eye-catching Istana Kadriyah, built in 1771, and the traditional Javanese four-tiered roof of Mesjid Jami stand near each other on the eastern side of the Kapuas Kecil, just over the Kapuas bridge from the main part of town.
On Jalan Jend A Yani, 1.5km south of the town centre is the worthwhile Museum Negeri which contains a comprehensive collection of Dayak tribal masks, tattoo blocks, weapons and musical instruments. Just round the corner from the museum, on Jalan Sutoyo, is an impressive replica of a Dayak longhouse.Read More
Dayak is an umbrella name for all of Borneo’s indigenous peoples. In Dayak religions, evil is kept at bay by attracting the presence of helpful spirits, or scared away by protective tattoos, carved spirit posts (patong), and lavish funerals. Shamans also intercede with spirits on behalf of the living. Although now you’ll often find ostensibly Christian communities with inhabitants clutching mobile phones and watching satellite TV, the Dayak are still well respected for their jungle skills and deep-rooted traditions.
Traditionally head-hunting was an important method of exerting power and settling disputes. It was believed that when cutting off someone’s head the victim’s soul is forced into the service of its captor. It is not practised now, but in 1997, West Kalimantan’s Dayak exacted fearsome revenge against Madurese transmigrants. An estimated 1400 people were killed in a horrific purge of ethnic cleansing which involved head-hunting and cannibalism. Similar violence reoccurred between the Malays and the Madurese in the Sampit region of South Kalimantan in 2001. The situation is relatively peaceful now, and head-hunting has once again been relegated to the past.
Journeying along Indonesia’s longest river, the Sungai Kapuas, is an adventure that few travellers embark on, and means travelling with the locals and sharing deck space with whatever is being carted in that direction. Starting in Pontianak and ending in Putussibau, the five-day trip involves meandering along the murky river, cruising past local stilt villages and getting an insight into local life. Cargo boats carrying passengers leave from behind the Kapuas Indah building and depart early in the morning. It’s best to enquire about departures in advance because the service tends to be irregular. The houseboat usually provides a thin mattress to sleep on, and snacks are served on board.