Friday, 23 November 2012

IN DEMAND- East Kalimantan, Indonesia

The only mention Lonely Planet makes of Muara Kaman is to say that there is a lake nearby, and that the losmen there is particularly dismal, so our expectations weren’t high. However, the six days we spent there were among the most memorable of our trip. 

We had stopped in the village to try to catch another boat up a smaller tributary of the Mahakam River. Arriving at 6 am, we asked around about the boat, and were directed to a pier in the village. Several people ensured us it would come, and although we were dead tired, we hung around at the friendly warung for the day. At around 7pm, it was pretty clear it wasn’t coming, and with assurances of a vessel the next day, we were generously offered a bed for the night on the floor of the warung family, alongside the married couple and baby.

This was our first experience staying in an Indonesian family home, and to say it was an eye-opener is an understatement. They were not poor, with the requisite big screen TV in the front of their two big rooms, but some things about the way they lived perplexed us. Firstly, the house was absolutely stifling, but all the doors and windows were closed, and the fan we wistfully stared at was not to be used. We were offered use of the mandi (bathroom), and weren’t sure what to do to shield ourselves from the street, which was in full view. We realized afterwards, they must squat down to shower. We were embarrassed to ask, but had to, where to pee in the night, as there was no toilet, and were shown a hole the size of a tennis ball in the middle of the kitchen floor- we never did find out where the family went when they needed a dump! Of course, we were very grateful for their hospitality, and happily adjusted to their way of doing things, even though it was a bit bizarre!

Warung family's front room, Muara Kaman

Warung family in the warung

Fun at the warung, Muara Kaman

Our hosts, Muara Kaman

Anyway, the next day, we waited again for the boat, and once again it didn’t show up. We decided to check into the local losmen (nothing particularly dismal about it), and hang around for a while. We ditched the idea of going up river, as the unpredictability of that route schedule had us worried for getting back in time for our flight. This turned out to be a good move, as the boat never showed up.

Tourists don’t stop at this village, because, although the public ferry passes here, it doesn’t officially stop here- something we found out when we wanted to leave. We were lucky to get a nice captain on our inward journey, who made the stop. It’s just an ordinary, Muslim village, with no sights or dayak highlights. The people of Muara Kaman, which is only a few hours away from the big city of Samarinda, are so sincere, welcoming and generous- we had several offers to stay at people’s houses while we were there.

We once again stumbled across another wedding- this one quite fancy, and we felt like the stars of the show- quite embarrassing! Luckily one of the family members spoke English (the only person in the village that we came across), and we spent hours answering questions, had fun taking photos with the crazy older women, and literally being dragged up on to the stage to dance to the awful, loud music.

Wedding family, Muara Kaman

Wedding guests, Muara Kaman

Instant new friends

With Dad in the bridal suite!

Funny lady, Muara Kaman wedding


Cuties at Muara Kaman wedding

Wedding guest

Wedding guest

Another memorable experience was being taken out on sunset ces (motorised canoe) trip with the warung family brothers and seeing several of the endangered pesut (freshwater dolphins) very close to the boat.

Starting our sunset cruise

Dolphin chasers, Muara Kaman

The down side of being famous and unusual in the village, was that everyone wanted us, and wanted us to do things with them, and we didn’t have much time by ourselves. The warung family was so devastated we had moved to the losmen after the first night with them, we had to promise to spend another night with them before we left.

Local wood carver, Muara Kaman

Rainstorm, Muara Kaman

Cuties, Muara Kaman

Crazy kids, Muara Kaman

Exhausted by the attention!!

Sunday market produce, Muara Kaman

Fish guts for sale, Muara Kaman

Typical "dunny" on the river- most residents have one like this

The morning of our escape (oh, I mean departure), we were told there was a boat at dawn. Of course, this didn’t work out, with the vessel steaming past us as we waved madly for it to stop. Fortunately, there was a colt (minibus) leaving within minutes, and although we were disappointed not to be able to finish our Mahakam travels by boat, we were glad to return to Samarinda on that day. The colt ride was atrocious on terrible roads in an extremely uncomfortable squeeze, and it did make us appreciate how wonderful our river travels had been.

To sum up, our Kalimantan travels can be neatly divided into two parts. The first month was at times more frustrating and hard going than other places in Indonesia we have visited, but ultimately rewarding, as we had to work hard to get results. In many of the areas we visited the combination of logging, burning off cleared areas of land, roads full of polluting trucks and the ever-present rubbish was a less than pleasant scene, but it did make the more peaceful areas even more special. The second month was mainly on the Mahakam River trip and was one of the best experiences we have had travelling, and definitely the most enjoyable time we had in Kalimantan.

A few more notes on travel in Kalimantan:

Kalimantan is majority Muslim, with many charmingly different mosque designs, including some unusual types without domes. There are many Christians, especially in Central Kalimantan and along the Mahakam River, and their churches are often built to a traditional style. We were surprised, too, to come across a few scattered Hindu communities, complete with puras (temples), around Palangka Raya and Samarinda.

Banjarmasin mosque

Martapura mosque

Mosque on boardwalk, Palangka Raya

Palangka Raya mosque

Mosque near Banjarmarsin

 Palangka Raya mosque

Simple mosque on the Mahakam River

River mosque near Samarinda

Mosque, Muara Muntai

Mosque, Muara Kaman

Unusual church, Tering Lama

Church, Palangka Raya
Long Bangun church

Generally, the smaller the town in Indonesia, the more basic the food is. We tried to look out for BBQ fish warungs (food stalls) on the coast. Combined with rice, greens and sambal (chilli sauce), this was our favourite meal. In bigger cities, Padang food was another preferred fodder, with the delicious beef rendang a hit with us both. A new find was lalapan ayam, a dish of plain rice with a piece of spiced chicken, grilled eggplant, tofu, tempe (fermented bean curd) and sambal. Otherwise, we lived on basic rice/soup/noodle dishes, and the occasional satay meal.

Typical meal for us

Messy, delicious Padang feast, Samarinda

Accommodation was slightly more expensive than other parts of Indonesia we have visited. We always managed to find a cheap room, but the choice is small, and the quality is definitely lower than elsewhere in Indonesia we have been. On average we paid 100,000 rup (AU$10) a night for a fan room, sometimes with breakfast included, sometimes with a shared bathroom, and always with happily stunned staff.

Terrible bathroom, Long Bangun

Room Muara Kaman

Posh Banjarmasin room

Land transport in Kalimantan is frankly terrible. The roads are atrocious mainly due to the prevalence of large scale mines, and their enormous mining vehicles. They create pot holes and chew up the whole road. Richard made a good point, comparing how the mining companies in Australia are made to pay for roads and road maintenance, or build rail lines to transport their goods. Such a marked difference to here. On the road, we took buses- either big, old heat boxes, or smaller “Colts”- a minibus-type of vehicle. There were also Kijangs available (see Sulawesi blogs for information about these), but the price tended to be much higher, so we tended to stick to the buses. Angkots (minibuses with seats in the back facing each other) were available very cheaply for short trips around town, as were becaks, cycle rickshaws just big enough for two Western bums. The second part of our journey in Kalimantan was overwhelmingly boats, with our aquatic trips varied from tiny, rickety canoes for river crossings, to the great large wooden river boats and the huge Pelni fleet.

River boat Banjarmasin to Negara

Becak (cycle rickshaw)

"Colt" minibus

"Ces" boats (motorized canoes)

Kalimantan is one place especially where the inhabitants (reconfirming Indonesians place as the friendliest people in Asia), and the actual journeys (always interesting, if not always pleasurable) that were the highlights for us. This quote by Robert Louis Stevenson is especially relative for this journey of ours:
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

PS  After what seems like a long two months in Kalimantan, we are heading for the beach- to be more specific Southern Thailand, to a favourite place from past years, and we intend to fish (Richard), sun our pale bodies, eat yummy Thai food, relax, and not write any blogs for at least two months! So stay tuned at the end of January for what we’ve got planned next.......

Slow train coming!

Monday, 19 November 2012

THE MIGHTY MAHAKAM RIVER- East Kalimantan, Indonesia

The undisputed highlight of our trip to Kalimantan was the 3 weeks where we undertook an incredible trip up and down the Mahakam River- one of the longest rivers in Kalimantan. For travellers, the river is an easy and relatively cheap way to experience a little bit of what life must have been like here many years ago, with public ferries (kapal biasa) plying the waters every day, and stopping in at most villages, big and small. Many dayak (original inhabitants of Borneo) people reside along the river, and it is one of the few places to see some of their culture.

After thoroughly checking out which boat went where at the harbour in Samarinda, we decided on the easiest option of a public ferry boat upriver to the end of the line to a small village called Long Bangun. We were extremely lucky that the boats to the far reaches of the river had only begun with the monsoon weather about a week before. Visiting communities further upriver from Long Bangun is possible, but as there is no access by public ferry, prices for chartering small motorised canoes are high.

Ferry boats in Samarinda port

We turned up at 6.00 am, were shown to the spacious, organized and rain-proof sleeping quarters, with fans, mattresses, pillows, and windows that opened (always a bonus in Indonesia!) by the shyly friendly crew. A look around took in the large kitchen (complete with food bubbling on the stove, a fridge with cold drinks, snacks, drinking water, and table and stools), clean toilets, and a large, open downstairs area for people on shorter journeys to sit or lie. We settled in for a long wait as people and their possessions boarded, and were very surprised when the boat began to pull out at the actual departure time of 7am!

Lower deck

Upper deck



The journey could not have been more different to our preceding ones in Kalimantan. We knew we had two days and two nights aboard, so we settled in, found a great place to sit up the front of the boat, made friends with the lovely crew, ate rice soup, and slept when we were tired in our extremely comfortable beds.


Richard distorted

Richard contemplative

Our sleeping space

Sal on poop deck

For the first  two days, the scenery was a mixture of industry (first huge coal barges up and down along side us, and then logging tug boats towing vast rafts of hundreds of logs) and towns filled with precarious stilt house over the river, women washing clothes, kids playing in the river, and mosques wailing in the background. We loved sitting up the front and watching all this life and activity.

Coal barge

Logging boats

Scenery out of Samarinda

Life on the river

Goods waiting to board

But when we woke up after the second night, we found we had mostly left the industry behind, and had entered a narrower part of the river, where the forests and mangroves came down to the river side, the captain had to negotiate rapids in the river, giant limestone cliffs filled with graves loomed over us, and the villages became smaller and more rustic. This remarkable part of the Mahakam is only accessed by boat, and it was what we had come to see.

Forested river banks

Mahakam River scenery

Dramatic sky over river

Typical river dwelling

Sunset from back deck

Misty morning

River life

Canoes on the river

Giant cliffs

Having read a bit about this river trip on travel forums, it appeared to be the number one attraction that brought tourists to Kalimantan, and we were expecting a much more touristy experience than what we encountered. Apart from the crew not sure what to make of us, the passing boats and people on the banks of the river stared at us with the wonder we are now used to, and many of our fellow passengers approached us to see how much info they could pump out of us with our limited Indonesian.

  • SIDE NOTE- The top 10 questions asked of us by most Indonesians we have just met (in order):

  • 1.       Where are you from?
  • 2.       Where are you going?
  • 3.       Do you speak Indonesian?
  • 4.       How old are you?
  • 5.       Is that your husband/wife?
  • 6.       Do you have children?
  • 7.       How long have you been married? (This is in confusion to us not having any kids)
  • 8.       What is your name?
  • 9.       What is your religion? 
  • 10. What you doing in Indonesia?

Arriving at the dayak village of Long Bangun in the afternoon of day three, even after 54 hours onboard, we definitely did not want to get off, although the village looked attractive. We were sad to leave our little viewing balcony, and the crew, and the wonderful peaceful feeling of travelling on the waters.

"Our" boat, the Akbar Amanda, from penginapan

We found a penginapan (boarding house) on the river, and were surprised to bump into one of two bule (foreigner) couples we met along the river. 

Outside the longhouse, Long Bangun

Outside the longhouse, Long Bangun

Outside the longhouse, Long Bangun

Local cuties

Village houses

Church carving, Long Bangun

Local girl

We were very fortunate to be in time for a “huduq” festival the next day. Because no one speaks English, and our Indonesian is limited, we were only able to find out it was something to do with the rice planting season. It was a fantastic affair, with young boys rhythmically banging on long drums and a gong for hours, before an old lady in traditional costume lead young girls around in a sort of dance in front of the village long house (place for gatherings). The real feature came down the road in the form of men dressed as creatures unknown to us. We had seen people making the costumes the day before, but couldn’t have dreamed the dramatic affect it would have when it all came together. Small children were running scared, as the creatures danced and strutted their way down the street. Everything moved inside the longhouse, and continued for a couple of hours, when suddenly the music stopped, and everyone left in a matter of seconds!

A short video of the festivities (unfortunately you can’t hear the great drumming, but gives some idea):

Long drums, Long Bangun

Long house, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

Dayak festival, Long Bangun

“Our” boat was leaving the following day, so we decided to leave with them and start our cruise slowly back down the Mahakam stopping at some small places on the way. This time, we were to sit on the bottom deck with the short trip passengers, which was interesting as we could see the loading and unloading procedure.

River scenery

Beautiful river

Boat floor

Long Hubung was next, and although we knew it was a small dayak village, we didn’t realize quite how tiny, and that a stay at the local penginapan would involve an hour’s “conversation” with the friendly owner, before being showed to a basic, but clean room with only mattresses on the floor above his shop. It was almost an impossible challenge for Sally to keep up with him, but he definitely expected us to know some of his language, which is fair enough.

Our host with his whiskey concoction- we declined a taste

Our room Long Hubung

We loved the little village, especially when we finally found the one warung (eating place) in town, and spent a couple of days wandering around the limited tracks enjoying the local’s smiles and the brilliant carvings- both outside the local church, and people’s houses. Being Christians, there was a church, pigs, and dogs galore- these were mostly scabby specimens that should have put out of their misery. Dodging the shit all over the paths was not a highlight. The men of the village whizzed around on motorbikes, with traditional round hats on, and home carved knife sheaths in their belts.

Totem outside house, Long Hubung

Totem, Long Hubung

Totem, Long Hubung

Old woman, Long Hubung

Long Hubung house

We were especially lucky here to see an old woman with earlobes stretched down past her shoulders, filled with multiple silver hoops, and tattoos on her wrists and ankles. There are only a few of these women left, and although we asked her politely in Indonesian for a photo, she wasn’t keen, so we respected that, even though we were disappointed. However, it won’t be hard to remember her lovely, smiley, wrinkled face with red stained teeth, and her amazing ears and tattoos.

One strange thing happened on our departure from the floating warung at the pier in Long Hubung. The grandmother of the family we had made friends with held out the back of the baby’s nappy and asked us to spit down it! Apparently it’s good luck- that’s a first!

Warung, Long Hubung

Leaving Long Hubung

Baby carrier, boat to Long Iram

Boat to Long Iram

From Long Hubung, we again took a kapal biasa to Long Iram, a slightly bigger town, that was Muslim and not dayak (the dayaks are mostly Catholic or Protestant, being converted to Christianity by missionaries in the early 20th century). It was in this small town we had our worst room, although the family who ran it were so over-the-top welcoming- even bringing us huge plates of fresh, hot donuts and coffee in the mornings (would have been good if it wasn’t at 6 am!), that we still enjoyed it. 

Here is video of our dumpy accommodation:

Long Iram kids

Strange statue, Long Iram

Long Iram kids

House, Long Iram

On one of our long, hot walks around town, we were surprised to come across another long-eared woman sitting out the front of a house, this being a Muslim town. This woman’s earlobes were only a few inches long, and she said a straight out no to a photo, but didn’t mind us stopping for a chat to escape the heat for a few minutes.

We spent a day visiting a nearby dayak village called Tering Lama. The village was quite interesting, with an marvelous church with totem poles out the front showing a pictorial history of the village (except it only started when the missionaries arrived!), and lots of what were now becoming familiar cute wooden house, with flower gardens out the front. The most remarkable part was the slip-sliding along the muddy path for nine kms to reach Tering Lama, and as a result we decided to splurge on the way back with a ces boat (motorised taxi canoe) for 100,000 rup (AU$10), and enjoy the river scenery.

Dayak statue, Tering Lama

Dayak statue, Tering Lama

Tering Lama

Outside church, Tering Lama

Biblical carvings, church, Tering Lama

Carvings outside church, Tering Lama

The coming of the missionaries carvings, Tering Lama

Missionary speaking to dayaks, Tering Lama

Church, Tering Lama

Tering Lama house and garden

Ces ride back to Long Iram

Every evening in Long Iram we loved going down to the river, and soaking our dirty, tired feet in the waters, whilst watching the kids have their mad half hour playing and washing before it got dark.

Pushing the limits of our camera lens!

Long Iram pier

School boys, Long Iram

Sunset, Long Iram

Only one kapal biasa travels the upper Mahakam each way every day, so the time was bound to come on our slow trip back that would arrive in the middle of the night somewhere, and Muara Muntai, the next town, was that place. Arriving at 3am, and finding a completely shut up town, we decided to sleep the rest of the night on the pier. 

Bed for the night, Muara Muntai

Dawn, Muara Muntai

A somewhat bigger town, Muara Muntai is interesting in that it is set entirely on boardwalks. It’s quite amazing to see huge houses and shops on what at first glance appears to be an ordinary street. Many motorbikes whizz up and down these, and we had to accustom ourselves to “traffic” again. We luxuriated in 24 hour electricity, with a fan in our room and cold drinks in the shop's fridges.

Rich, Muara Muntai

Big house built on boardwalk, Muara Muntai

Boardwalk, Muara Muntai

Muara Muntai

Schoolkids, Muara Muntai- notice the interesting hand signs!

Boardwalks, Muara Muntai

Ridiculously photogenic kid

Basket maker, Muara Muntai

Again, we were fortunate with our timing to visit two different weddings along the boardwalk in one day! Although the reception wasn’t quite as over the top as our experiences in Aceh and Sulawesi, we were still treated to some delicious food, and posed for numerous photos with the bride and groom. The second wedding had some dubious entertainment in the form of two scantily clad (for here) women dancing and singing very sexually- the kids seemed to enjoy it, though!

Groom with scary bride

Well fed at wedding, Muara Muntai

Who invited them?!

Floor show, wedding, Muara Muntai

Due to the kapal biasa departing in the middle of the night, we opted for the shared speedboat to our next destination, Kota Bangun. Unfortunately, when the vessel came it was so overloaded there wasn’t room for us to join them, so we were happy when a ces driver offered to take for the same price. The back jolting one and a half hour journey was not the most comfortable, but it was fast.

Kota Bangun was the biggest town on the Mahakam so far. The losmen across the river from where we were dropped off was great for the price (50,000 rup/AU$5), and we met two bule (foreign) women travelling upriver, so we chatted our hearts out for the few hours they were in town. Our main aim in visiting Kota Bangun was to connect to a town slightly further north, where we hoped to take another river trip up north. Information was very hard to come by, our lack of Indonesian being particularly frustrating at this point in the trip. Eventually we found out what we needed to know, and set off (at 4 am!) for Muara Kaman.

TO BE CONTINUED...........