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!


  1. Greetings from Thailand (we are back from the cold having finished our third tour of Red China)and many thanks for another great blog entry with awesome pics. As if you were writing a textbook about travelling Kalimantan! Everytime, when when we are asked about the difference between "tourists" and "travellers", we tell people about you two: you guys are a wonderful example of really independent 21st-century travellers! - We wish you a very good time in Thailand. Happy Solstice and enjoy the end of the world, Konni & Matt.

  2. I've been "on the road" since the early sixties traveling much of the world (one stretch was 10 years out of the states mostly in Asia) but never made it to Borneo.. now planning a month long trip up and back the Mahakam in Oct. 2016. Thanks for doing all the prep work for me!