Dense tropical jungle, murky village-lined rivers teeming with traffic and with wildlife so abundant it becomes the norm, Kalimantan is a jungle-cloaked landmass that appeals to those looking to venture into undiscovered territory. Occupying the southern two-thirds of the island of Borneo, Kalimantan remains largely untouched by tourism. With few roads, the interior’s great rivers are its highways and a trip up one of them will give you a taste of traditional Dayak life and introduce you to lush areas of dense jungle. More intrepid explorers can spend weeks on end navigating their way through seldom-ventured parts, and a visit to one of the national parks could bring you face-to-face with wild orang-utans. The provincial capitals of Pontianak, Palangkaraya and Samarinda are sprawling, dusty towns which offer little aside from their services. However, once out of the crowded, populated areas Kalimantan’s character starts to unfold.
For the independent traveller, Kalimantan can be expensive and a bit of a mission; time, patience, knowledge of Bahasa and effort are certainly required. But if you’re looking for a true sense of Borneo, then these obstacles are a small price to pay.
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.
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.
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.
Built around a huge petroleum complex, Balikpapan is Kalimantan’s wealthiest city, its residents enjoying a high standard of living thanks to massive oil reserves offshore, which shed a dim orange glow on the surrounding waters at night. For the traveller, Balikpapan is the transit point en route to Samarinda, Banjarmasin or the Mahakam River. The intersection of the main roads Jalan Ahmed Yani and Jalan Sudirman serves as the city’s core, where you’ll find hotels, restaurants and the best shops but, as almost everything is imported from Java or Sumatra, prices are generally much higher here than in the rest of Kalimantan.
Some 120km north of Balikpapan, the tropical port town of Samarinda is 50km upstream from the sea, where the Sungai Mahakam is 1km wide and deep enough to be navigable by ocean-going ships. It has become increasingly prosperous since large-scale logging of Kalimantan Timur’s interior began in the 1970s, its western riverfront abuzz with mills. The town is not particularly attractive, but it is the gateway to the interior and a convenient place to stock up for trips up the Mahakam.
Borneo’s second-longest river, the Mahakam, winds southeast for over 900km from its source far inside the central ranges on the Malaysian border, before emptying into the Makassar Straits through a multi-channelled delta.
There’s an established three-day circuit taking in the historic town of Tenggarong and the Benuaq Dayak settlements at Tanjung Issuy and adjacent Mancong. With a week to spare, scanty forest and communities inland from the Middle Mahakam townships of Mfak and Long Iram are within range; ten days is enough to include a host of Kenyah and Benuaq villages, as you venture up the changing Mahakam through the rapids towards Long Iram and Long Bagun. Unlike in Sarawak, less than a week on the Mahakam won’t get you as far as the traditional Dayak longhouses, and this experience does not come cheap; solo travel is prohibitively expensive. Most tours include a good mix of river trips, trekking and participation in some traditional activities, such as a day’s hunting with the Dayaks. If you don’t go with one of the recommended tour companies in Samarinda it’s easy enough to find freelance guides there, but the quality varies dramatically. The best guides are contracted to work for the tour companies; if you want to know whether a freelance guide is worth his salt, ask him to trace the intended route on the map.
Whatever your plans, bring as little as possible with you. A change of clothes, wet-weather gear, decent footwear, a torch and first-aid kit (with anti-malarial tablets) are adequate for the Lower and Middle Mahakam, as there are accommodation and stores along the way. After Tenggarong, there are no banks on the Mahakam capable of changing money. Guides are essential beyond Long Bagun if you can’t speak the language. Balikpapan, or Samarinda in particular are good places to hire a guide, though there may be opportunities to pick one up along the way.
Crowded, basic houseboats are the cheapest way to tackle the Lower and Middle reaches of the Mahakam if you’re not taking part in an organized tour. If you plan to disembark before the boat’s ultimate destination, make sure that the pilot, not the ticket collector, knows. Houseboats leave Samarinda’s Terminal Sungai Kunjang every morning for towns as far upstream as Long Iram. Unless you’re a real boat enthusiast, take a bus to Kota Bangun, and hire a ces (a motorized one-person-wide canoe) to start your journey from there. It’s possible to go as far as Muara Muntai in one of the motorized boats, stay overnight there, and continue on in the morning.
On from Samarinda, the Mahakam River is broad and slow, with sawmills and villages peppering the banks. Tenggarong is 45km and three hours upstream – or just an hour by road. This small, neat and very prosperous country town was, until 1959, the seat of the Kutai Sultanate, whose territory encompassed the entire Mahakam basin and adjacent coastline. It’s a good place to stay if you want to escape big cities and is a convenient location to start trips up the river.
The former palace, just opposite the ferry dock on Jalan Diponegoro, is now Museum Negeri Mulawarman which includes statuary from Mahakam’s Hindu period (pre-fifteenth century), which replicas of fourth-century conical stone yupa, which are Indonesia’s oldest written records. Dayak pieces include Benuaq weaving, Kenyah beadwork and Bahau hudoq masks.
The river narrows perceptibly as it continues to Kota Bangun, a small town three hours from Samarinda by bus. A single short stretch of tarmac marks the centre of the town’s commercial area. Market stalls and warung line the street either side of the main pier. There are plenty of opportunities to charter private boats from the town to explore villages upstream. It’s essential to arrive by 3pm so you’ll reach the river villages before dark.
Beyond Kota Bangun, there’s a definite thickening of the forest along the banks as the river enters the marshy lakelands. Sadly, even here the jungle isn’t as lush as it used to be and the effect of years of logging is evident. Around two hours from Kota Bangun, and twelve from Samarinda, is the 8km boardwalk, candy-coloured stilt village of Muara Muntai. A massive fire here in July 2004 destroyed more than 250 homes, but it has now been completely restored and is back to the charming wooden village it once was, complete with losmen, convenience stores, mosque and even its own hospital. Muara Muntai is the last place along the Mahakam to buy any supplies, though prices are often more expensive than in Samarinda.
Tanjung Issuy is the first Dayak village on the Mahakam and a boat ride away from Muara Muntai. The river ride takes you further into the jungle, passing hornbills, sweeping kingfishers and pot-bellied proboscis monkeys along the way. Tanjung Issuy is a small township of gravel lanes, timber houses and fruit trees. Here the villagers live in kampong houses rather than traditional longhouses, but it’s still a good place to catch a traditional dance performance in full costume.
Turn right off the jetty, past a couple of lumber yards, stores and workshops, and follow the street around to Losmen Louu Taman Jamrud, a restored Dayak longhouse which is maintained as tourist accommodation. It’s a bit like staying in a museum, but the place is surrounded by carved wooden patong posts (spirit posts) and does give you a sense of the community. Out the back is a six-tier mausoleum where Tanjung Issuy’s founder was laid to rest in 1984, decorated with carvings of dragons, hornbills and scenes from reburial ceremonies. Moving on from Tanjung Issuy, you can either return to Muara Muntai, or hire a ces to take you across the northwest towards Mancong.
Northwest of Muara Muntai, along the Mahakam, you’ll pass a number of Dayak villages that still practise the traditional Kaharingan religion; funerals here involve the sacrifice of water buffalo. You can access some traditional villages via motorbike from the settlement of Melak. West of Melak by road is the small community of Barong Tongkok, from which you can travel southwest to Mancimai, worth visiting for its museum showcasing traditional farming methods, and Eheng, the site of a fantastic traditional longhouse and a good place to buy local handicrafts. Further northwest of Melak along the river, the villages have a more traditional character, though the missionaries have done a thorough job and some of the groups are Christian converts. It’s challenging to travel by public transport beyond Long Iram – an attractive little town with some remnants of colonial Dutch architecture – since there is little demand for it and the water is not high enough during dry season. However, if you do travel beyond it towards Long Bagun, you will pass through increasingly dramatic scenery dotted with Kenyah villages.
A twenty-four-kilometre spread of low hills just off the coast northeast of Tanjung Selor, Pulau Tarakan floats above extensive oil reserves: offshore rigs dot the horizon, while the west-coast town of Tarakan is surrounded by smaller-scale “nodding donkey” pumps. An island still physically scarred by the World War II battles between the Japanese and Australian forces, this is a convenient hopping-off point for Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, just a stone’s throw from Pulau Nunukan and the open border with Malaysia.
If you’re visiting Kalimantan from outside of Indonesia you must make sure you have a valid visa before entering. Balikpapan is the only airport in Kalimantan that will offer visas on arrival, usually for thirty days. If travelling overland from Malaysian Borneo, you could pick up a thirty-day visa at the border (this was the case at the time of writing but check before you set off from Sarawak, as rules may change); in Sabah, the visa is available from the consulates in Kota Kinabalu and Tawau; sixty-day visas are at their discretion.