Wednesday, 7 November 2012

SLOW BOAT COMING- South Kalimantan

It was a relief to return to Banjarmasin and escape the smoky air of Central Kalimantan, and prepare for our river trip to the village of Negara. It was exciting for us, not just because we were looking forward to the journey, but also because something we wanted to do was finally coming to fruition! We were glad we had arrived early at the wharf to nab a spot on the strangely sloping and low-ceilinged sleeping platform on the boat, and we watched the skinny guys work under the boiling sun loading up the vessel. The boat filled up with very curious (about us!) country folk, and was only a few hours late leaving. Sitting outside on the front of the boat watching village life and the agricultural scenery gliding by was so tranquil, and at night we reluctantly moved inside to “sleep”, due to inadequate room on the outside deck (the boat was primarily a cargo boat, stacked from floor to ceiling with goods). The usual Indonesian habits of closing all the windows in a vehicle, chain-smoking, talking at the tops of their voices, and blasting out bad karaoke were all in evidence on this trip, so needless to say, we didn’t get a lot of sleep. As we grew closer to Negara, the vessel stopped more and more often, dropping off and picking up people and goods, and our approach appeared to be imminent (we had absolutely no idea when the journey would end!) As much as we were looking forward to the next part of our trip, we were sad to be concluding the first pleasurable transport experience in Kalimantan! Amazingly, this eventful and pleasant 20 hour boat trip was 20,000 rupiah, or AU$2.

Sleeping quarters, Negara boat

Negara boat

Negara boat

Negara boat


Typical river-dweller's home

Villages along the river

No privacy- bathing in the river

For some reason Negara appeared to have a very high proportion of the mentally challenged, all of whom seemed to make a bee line for us. We made a quick exit to Kandangan where we spent another night- this time without bed bugs.

The journey to the port town of Batulicin was long, hot, dusty and tiring (that actually sums up all our bus travel to date in Kalimantan!) The town itself was small and uneventful, but we had a charming room, which, at AU$5, happened to be our cheapest yet, and enjoyed some of the best fish we’ve had in Kalimantan.

It looked much better in real life!!

Enjoying a refreshing mango shake

We were hoping to catch the twice monthly Pelni ferry from here to Samarinda, a big town in East Kalimantan, and for once luck was on our side- there was a ferry leaving in a few days time. The down side was the trip was via Pare Pare on the west coast of Sulawesi, a slight detour of a mere 22 hours, but we decided it would be an experience to spend two days and two nights on a big ferry, and went for it. We may have rethought that if we knew what we were in for!!

Sal taking our gear to the Pelni ferry

Having being on one Pelni ship before- last year in Sulawesi, we were under no illusions about the standard of the ship. They are certainly not luxury vessels, and the KM Binaiya from Batulicin to Pare Pare was a big, old, dirty beast. 

Half of the Pelni ship

The boarding process was not too chaotic, and we scored back to back wooden seats under cover at the back of the boat, where we could spread our stuff out, and enjoy the fresh air. As in Sulawesi, we opted out of an inside mattress, finding the stifling air, cigarette smoke and noise from mobile phones too much to bear.

Our bed on the Pelni

"Down below"- ekonomi class

Scene from ship

Of course, the fares are not expensive, but for 515,000 rupiah/AU$50, we thought we should at least be entitled to running water in the taps, and more than four working toilets for the hundreds of economy passengers. As grim as the facilities were, we enjoyed the trip greatly, looking out the back at the island scenery, and then the open water, having our photos taken dozens of times, and many hesitant conversations.

Pelni toilets

Pelni kitchen

Sunset from deck

Boys on the ship

One of hundreds of photo posing sessions

·         Richard’s progressive photos of the running of the porters, as we arrived in Pare Pare:

The majority of the passengers were disembarking in Pare Pare (everyone thought we were completely mad choosing to stay on for another 24 hours!), and we spend time planning whether we should stay in our seats for the next journey portion, or change to a different part of the boat. It turned out to be irrelevant, when we were informed that the ship was not going to Samarinda as scheduled (due to engine problems), and we were requested to change to a non-Pelni ferry, the “Prince Soya” for the remaining part of the journey. The only thing majestic about this heap of crap was the name (it made the Pelni seem like pure opulence), and we were hoping it would make it the 24 hours back over the Makassar Straights to Samarinda. We could have put up with the sardine-type mattress structure on the floor, with people walking all over the beds in their shoes, and turned a blind eye to the crappy life boat filled with holes, the stuffy, cigarette smoked filled air, and also the fact that we didn’t leave until five hours after the Pelni was supposed to, but when we met (with very unfortunate timing) the start of the monsoon, and the entire boat began leaking from the roof and soaking everyone and everything, Sal lost it a bit. Eventually realizing this was our only option for returning to Kalimantan and continuing our journey, we settled down, tried to sleep, and dodge the subsequent downpours.

Prince Soya sleeping deck

Cargo/sleeping area on Prince Soya

The solo highlight of the trip was the entry from the sea into Samarinda’s river, and watching the industry and river dwellers from the back of the boat. It could have also been that were just very relieved to be so close to our destination!

Industry around Samarinda

Industry around Samarinda

Coming into Samarinda

Coming into Samarinda

Disembarking the Prince Soya

Needless to say, we were relieved to finally arrive in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan two days and two nights after starting from Batulicin in the south. I have new found respect for those of my parent’s generation, who braved the open seas for weeks at a time to get to Europe and back! Despite the turmoil, we were still glad we took the boat- the idea being sea travel is more pleasant, but much longer, than land travel on the rough Kalimantan roads.

Samarinda was just what we needed. A clean room with our own bathroom to scrub up in, WIFI to catch up on badly needed internet stuff, and a choice of great street food, or a modern mall for Western treats and a supermarket. We recharged our batteries for a few days before yet another watery expedition.

Now showing at a Samarinda cinema

Fallen away road, Samarinda

Latest fashions, Samarinda

Mango man, Samarinda

Rain shower, Samarinda

Local girls, Samarinda

The morning market was possibly one of the bloodiest we have seen, with happy men waving around fish and various meat parts for us to look at.

Meat market, Samarinda

Meat market, Samarinda

Meat market, Samarinda

Meat market, Samarinda

Meat market, Samarinda

Meat market, Samarinda

A visit to the stunning Islamic Centre was a must- we love mosque architecture, and Richard has enjoyed photographing the many different styles here. This one is suppose to be the biggest in South-east Asia, but we think the blue mosque in Shah Alam, just outside Kuala Lumpar would give it a run for its money.

Islamic Center, Samarinda

Islamic Center, Samarinda


  1. Sally and Rich,
    another great blog entry, thanks for sharing and keeping at least our minds traveling! ;-)
    Hugs from Munich,
    K* and B.

  2. We were so close to each other when you touched Pare-Pare and we were in Tanjung Karang at the same time. Pity, that we have missed each other. See you next time! - Keep up the independent travelling! Greetings from Bac Ha (N Vietnam, c. 10 km from Yunnan Province). Cheers, Konni & Matt.

  3. Great insight into the lived experience of boat travel. The Pare Pare certainly puts the international travellers' tales into context of those liminal spaces that are shared with local travellers.
    Nice depictions.