Kalimantan is Indonesia’s share of Borneo, an island of impenetrable jungles, endangered orangutans and the Dayaks, former head-hunting tribes with long earlobes. Covering some 540,000 sq km (200,000 sq miles), Kalimantan represents nearly 30 percent of Indonesia’s land area, but barely six percent of the population live here. From its hinterland of low-altitude mountain ranges, great rivers cascade from the interior and those on the coast. Improved road and air transport have superseded the traditional commercial river traffic, but the rivers now attract tourists seeking to travel deep inland to visit surviving forests and Dayak communities.
The best travel tips for visiting Kalimantan
Tanjung Puting National Park’s orangutans are Kalimantan’s biggest tourist draw. First brought to the world’s attention by Birute Kaldikas, who started studying them at Camp Leakey in the 1970s; this is the most accessible area for wildlife-viewing, and as the nature-loving world continues efforts to protect some of the planet’s oldest forests, interest in the furry red apes is not likely to wane.
Few tourists visit South Kalimantan, but its capital, Banjarmasin, is one of the island’s most colourful towns. West Kalimantan is the most unexplored of all Indonesia’s Bornean territories, though upgraded infrastructure makes inland journeys here increasingly straightforward. Welcoming Dayak longhouse settlements and national parks are the rewards.
Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan) is the destination of choice for ‘soft’ adventurers happy to travel by air-conditioned houseboat up Sungai Mahakam (Mahakam River) to see Dayak settlements, while doing a bit of wildlife spotting en route. For extreme trekkers, however, the possibilities are endless, with the only limitations being time, money and stamina.
Kalimantan is an off the tourist trail destination, waiting to be discovered.
Best things to do in Kalimantan
This vast, wild territory used to be known for its headhunters. Today orangutans head the list of attractions. Here are the best things to do in Kalimantan.
#1 See orangutans at Tanjung Puting National Park
At orangutan rehabilitation centres across Kalimantan, the race is on to protect the apes’ habitat from deforestation and to educate the community. Orangutans have grabbed world headlines not only for their endangered status but also because their numbers have dropped dramatically over the last few decades. The best-known centre is Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan.
The centre's job is to teach the orangutans basic skills so they can survive in their jungle habitats, and to release them back into the wild. Whether or not orangutan rehabilitation programmes are successful is debatable, but through their work they attract global attention to the problem, thereby forcing state and local officials to take action. Nowadays, in addition to orangutans, most centres focus on protecting remaining forests and replanting which, in turn, helps to secure the futures of hundreds of other species that play vital roles in forest ecosystems.
#2 Cruise the Mahakam River
The most popular way to reach Dayak country is by houseboat up the Mahakam River. The main destinations of nearly all Mahakam cruises are Tenggarong, Muara Muntai, Danau Jempang, Tanjung Isuy, Mancong and the Melak area (Eheng and Kersik National Park). Nowadays houseboats cannot travel further upriver than Tering in mid-Mahakam. One Samarinda tour operator, De’gigant Tours, includes Muara Pahu in its cruises due to the excellent wildlife spotting on the Bolongan River, with freshwater dolphins as the highlight.
Stops at Dayak villages and watching life along the river are also attractions, as well as the changes of the river from vast and wide to narrow channels, while small hinterland villages are replaced by towns, and rather solitary travel becomes crowded with ships of all sizes getting ready to haul cargo through the Makassar Strait.
#3 Go trekking in the Kersik Luwai Nature Reserve
The 5,000-hectare (12,355- acre) reserve is ideal for trekking, sheltering 100-plus species of orchids, including the famous ‘black’ variety, Coelogyne pandurata, which blooms April through December. Nearby Dayak villages Pepas Eheng and Ombau Asa have lived-in longhouses. Pepas Eheng can be reached in one hour by car from Melak. There’s a beautiful waterfall, Jentur Gemuruh, at Ombau Asa. Ask around if you wish to witness a funeral ceremony in progress; the rituals feature the sacrifice of a water buffalo performed with spears.
#4 Go shopping in Singkawang
Just outside Singkawang are a couple of huge ceramic kilns turning out vases and jars. The large Chinese population in this area descended from the miners who arrived here to work during the gold rush at the beginning of the 19th century. There are several striking Buddhist temples in the area. Nearby, Pasir Panjang beach is ideal for swimming. Also in the vicinity, the Gunung Poteng hill resort is a great place for nature-lovers with its cool, fresh air. Raya Pasi is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including the parasitic Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world.
#5 Visit the longhouses of Putussibau
Putussibau is the last town in West Kalimantan on the Sungai Kapuas. It is a pleasant, surprisingly sophisticated town with a lively market and an array of accommodation options. There are many impressive longhouse communities, easily accessible from a good road running upstream from the town along the Kapuas. The fabled ‘Cross-Borneo Trek’ passes this way. There are further attractive longhouses off another road that runs north from Putussibau to the Malaysian border, most of which accept guests for overnight stays.
Where to stay
All of the big cities on Kalimantan have a selection of places to stay that range from cheap hostels to luxury, five-star spots that are worth blowing the budget for. Many visitors to Kalimantan will aim to stay on a Dayak longhouse or stay overnight at a forest camp. Away from the big towns, accommodation is a little more basic with homestays and guesthouses par for the course.
In this area you're likely to be staying on a river boat. However, Pangkalan Bun has a decent range of places to stay, including business hotels near to the airport. Elsewhere, expect basic guesthouses or homestays.
East & North Kalimantan
If you're here to dive, Derawan has a number of great resorts with bungalows that hang over the water. Balikpapan, Berau, and Samarinda all have decent accommodation for most budgets. Beyond these places, guesthouses are your best bet. Most are basic.
Most people will stay in Banjarmasin. It has budget and mid-range hotels in the middle of town.
South of the river, Pontianak has a lot of accommodation choice. Else, you're likely to be kipping either on a Dayak longhouse or in the forest.
How to get here
There are numerous ways to reach Kalimantan from across Indonesia and from neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia and Brunei. It may work out cheaper to use Kuala Lumpur or Singapore as your long-haul destination rather than Jakarta or Bali. You can then book a flight with a regional budget airline such as AirAsia directly to your final destination in Kalimantan.
Many travellers enter Kalimantan via Balikpapan, which has daily flights from numerous Indonesian cities, as well as ferries from Java. The West Kalimantan gateway is Pontianak, connected by air with Kuching in East Malaysia, as well as major Indonesian cities. Visitors seeking orangutans in Central Kalimantan can fly to Palangkaraya or Banjarmasin. Internal flights link these major cities with various smaller inland towns such as Putussibau.
PELNI ferries call at Banjarmasin on the run between Surabaya and Semarang in Java. There are also PELNI services to Makassar in Sulawesi and to Tarakan in northern East Kalimantan, near the Sabah border. Other ferry ports on Kalimantan include Balikpapan, Kumai (for Tanjung Puting National Park), Pontianak, and Samarinda.
There are buses from Brunei as well as the Sarawak coast and Kuching in Malaysia which go to Pontianak and/or Putussibau. You may need to board a new bus at the border crossing.
How many days do you need in Kalimantan?
As Kalimantan is a large island, which can take some time to move around, you may need several weeks or even a month to visit all of it. With intercity flights, the top highlights and most population destinations can all be covered in a week to 10 days. This would include visiting orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, sailing up the Mahakam River, hiking in the Meratus Mountains and staying with the Dayak.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Indonesia travel experts.
Tips for getting around
Where once you would have to travel by river to cross most of Kalimantan, the island now has plenty of ways to get from end to end. There are several airports across the island which are reachable using cheap, domestic airliners. The road network is both expanding and improving (though still limited and in poor condition in places), which means public buses and private minibuses take travellers to most spots.
The Trans-Kalimantan highway extends from Batakan, south of Banjarmasin, to Balikpapan and then to Samarinda. It eventually connects to Bontang and Tarakan. Buses run from Banjarmasin to Balikpapan and Samarinda, as do ‘travel’ (pre-booked door-to-door minibuses or cars). Boats – taksi sungai (river taxi) or bis air (water bus) – are popular forms of transport for short hops, but have largely vanished as a form of long-haul transport.
Most major cities are connected by regional flights in less than an hour. Some flights will go via Jakarta. Cheap, regular and mainly hassle-free, it's a good way to get around. Smaller prop planes are still used in more remote destinations.
By bus or 'travel' (pre-booked minibuses)
Intercity buses in Kalimantan are generally comfortable, modern and ply routes across the country. However, 'travel' (pre-booked door-to-door minibuses or cars) are becoming an increasingly popular way to get around for many Indonesians. Around five times more expensive than long-distance buses, 'travel' are much more convenient and will pick you up from your hotel.
Aksi sungai (river taxi) and bis air (water bus) are two of a variety of watercraft that travel along rivers. For some river trips, it is possible to charter boats. Ask at your hotel.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Kalimantan depends on what you're here to do. The wet season (November to January) means you're unlikely to be hiking, but you'll have a better chance of spotting orangutans as this is when forest fruits tend to grow. Peak season is July to September and it is usually dry with consistent tropical temperatures. This is the best time to go diving in Kalimantan as the visibility is usually better. Note that Kalimantan is largely Islamic and will celebrate Ramadan at some point in April or May (depending on the Islamic calendar) which can close restaurants during the day.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.