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...........


  1. Thanks so much for your blogs, I am off to Kalimantan in 4 weeks and you have given me some great ideas.

  2. Hello, guys!!
    Very great to know people like you... I like the story of your life.
    We are know in Philippines. We have decided that our next step will be Kalimantan. We have 4-5 weeks for that.
    We want to see the orangutans (probably Tanjung Puting) and to have some river experience as you had.
    We do not know where to fly to and to do it. I know that transport there is kind of hard.
    Can you guys help us with that?
    You can write also write to:

    Carlos and Patri

  3. what a great read!!!! i'm off to east Kalimantan in august - doing the mahakam and kutai. your photos, info and funess were very inspiring.

  4. great read and photos - question - if you had a week to travel the river what would your itinery be? thanks

  5. wow nice cool...thx you like borneo...

  6. Great blog guys. Intending to travel from Samarinda to Pontianak via the Mahakam and Kapuas R, hiking across the Muller Mtn in June 2014.

  7. I'm in Yogyakarta now, planning to go to Kalimantan. Thanks for the details info and report!

  8. Wonderful tale....three of us will be doing the same trip..perhaps going further up late October, 2016..looking forward to seeing a bit of what you have seen!

  9. Great photos and happy to read all your journeys upriver of Mahakam. Thanks

  10. I lived in Samarinda and Melak as a kid. Enjoyed so much the pictures and comments of this land and traveling the river. If they ever drain the river you will find my Timex wrist watch which I lost in the murky muddy water. It was either it or me as I hung on to the side of the boat. Wish I could take a trip there someday.