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Kalimantan Travel Tips

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Protected Areas in Kalimantan Protected Areas in Kalimantan

The First Question: Visit Malaysian Borneo or Kalimantan? Well, which one you should choose depends on what you want and need. Malaysian Borneo is far more visited than Kalimantan, because its attractions are well-promoted and developed for tourism, nice accomodation and food are easy to find, English is widely-spoken and getting around is fast and comfortable.

Kalimantan is rather different. If you go there you had better speak at least some Indonesian, be prepared for often slow and uncomfortable transport, basic accomodation, people who stare at you and don't speak more English than "Hello Mister!" and, most troubling of all, a dearth of information about where to go and what to see in the first place. But if you overcome this, you will find people much friendlier, the culture more traditional, the forests deeper and the whole atmosphere more adventurous and less business-like than in the northern neighbour. Your choice!

PLANNING & INFORMATION

The First Question: Visit Malaysian Borneo or Kalimantan? Well, which one you should choose depends on what you want and need. Malaysian Borneo is far more visited than Kalimantan, because its attractions are well-promoted and developed for tourism, nice accomodation and food are easy to find, English is widely-spoken and getting around is fast and comfortable. Kalimantan is rather different. If you go there you had better speak at least some Indonesian, be prepared for often slow and uncomfortable transport, basic accomodation, people who stare at you and don't speak more English than "Hello Mister!" and, most troubling of all, a dearth of information about where to go and what to see in the first place. But if you overcome this, you will find people much friendlier, the culture more traditional, the forests deeper and the whole atmosphere more adventurous and less business-like than in the northern neighbour. Your choice!

Guidebooks

Unfortunately Lonely Planet's Kalimantan chapter is of very limited use, despite some improvements in the latest edition. It only really helps with the coastal cities which is obviously as far as their author got. The only inland area it describes "in detail" is the Mahakam River, however that section is so far off the mark describing longhouses where there haven't been any for decades, and giving such misleading info on public boats that it is better not to read it!

The Indonesia guides by the competition (Rough Guide or Footprint) are little better either. The Periplus guide to Kalimantan is more useful, but is also limited in its coverage to the few areas its author visited and is somewhat out of date now.

Tourist Offices

I visited the government tourist offices in the 4 provincial capitals and found all of them very helpful. They can give tips on finding attractions not in the guidebooks, and sometimes help find guides who charge less than those in LP. I did speak to them in Indonesian though - I am not sure all the staff would speak English!

For information on national parks visit the respective park offices listed on this site.

How Long?

Kalimantan is HUGE with a poor road system. It took me 9 months not to see all what I wanted. If you only have a limited time, pick one region only, rather trying to rush around the whole island, hitting only ugly coastal cities. It would be easy to spend 2 months just in one province, but you could still spend 1 week well by visiting only 1 city and a nearby national park. In any case, plan your trip carefully beforehand, but be prepared to be flexible!

Getting There

From other parts of Indonesia, there are both flights and ships to Kalimantan. Java (for all 4 provinces)and Sulawesi (for East & South) are the best connected islands, though you could find ships from the Riau Islands, too. Pelni is no longer the only operator of passenger ships here, there are many private companies on various routes - ask around! From Malaysian Borneo, you can cross the land border between Sarawak and West Kalimantan, or take a speedboat from Tawau in Sabah to Tarakan or Nunukan in East, though note that you need a visa in advance. From the rest of the world you would have to fly to Jakarta or Malaysia first.

Costs

Kalimantan is slightly more expensive than Java or Sumatra, but still cheaper than Malaysian Borneo. If you stick to public transport and travel alone, costs shouldn't worry you. Hiring a guide and chartering boats could make your expenses skyrocket though.

Language

Unlike in Malaysian Borneo, English isn't spoken by many people in Kalimantan. In fact away from the cities, you'd be lucky to find anyone who speaks it. Speaking at least some basic Indonesian is a must unless you travel with a guide. You could probably survive without it, but wouldn't get very far.

Guides

Speaking Indonesian, I only hired local villagers when hiking. However I have heard from others that "more proffessional" guides in Kalimantan (especially those recommended in LP, of course) charge very high rates, usually trying to sell a complete package rather than accepting a daily rate.

Women Alone

Some of the few women I met who had travelled in Kalimantan told me they had often felt uncomfortable there. They didn't experience any real trouble, but lots of hassles of the stares and whistles type. Kalimantan has a lot of single men from all over Indonesia working in the logging and mining industries which might explain the above. Dayak villages are more relaxed. For seasoned female travellers there should be no serious worries.

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF KALIMANTAN

Dayak Culture

If you go expecting to see head-hunters in loinclothes and feathers living in rustic longhouses you'll be sorely disappointed. All Dayaks wear modern clothing nowadays, and most of them live in modern houses. But much of their culture remains alive and well, which is best witnessed during traditional festivals and ceremonies when they still don traditional garb, play traditional music and perform traditional dances. Weddings, harvest, illness or even New Year can be occassions to host such festivities. Of course, seeing an authentic festival requires time and luck - though along the Mahakam River it is possible to arrange paid performances. An important thing to realize is that the culture doesn't get more traditional the further inland you go. The regions near the border have been heavily influenced both by fundamentalist Protestant missionaries and by the proximity of more developed Sarawak where many Dayaks go to work. In both East and West Kalimantan the more traditional areas are actually downriver.

Longhouses

While most have vanished from Kalimantan, those that remain are invariably far more traditional and friendlier than the ones in neighbouring Sarawak. West Kalimantan easily has the most, with a few remaining in Central and East. I am not going to single out any to recommend for obvious reasons. Since longhouses are scarce, people here do understand why visitors are interested in seeing them. If you pay a short visit during the day, most people will probably be away working. An overnight stay is more rewarding, but don't expect Western comforts! There is no need for a formal invite to be allowed in, but certain courtesies should be followed: - To be able to communicate, you should be able to speak Indonesian - if you don't, take a guide to avoid becoming a head-ache for your hosts.
- After arrival see the Kepala Kampung to tell him why you've come and ask for a place to stay (if needed).
- Try not to become a pain by pushing your camera into everyone's face, and do ask for permission when taking photos.
- Do not play Father Christmas or try and buy cheap popularity by handing out gifts like pens or candies to children!!! This has encouraged begging elsewhere in Asia. If you do want to give presents, give them to an adult to distribute.
- Before leaving, make sure to offer a cash "donation" to compensate for your keep. Don't be ashamed of doing this - give the money discretely to the Kepala Kampung's wife (or the wife of whoever you stayed with) the morning you leave.

Malay Culture

 

Malay sultantes long dominated Kalimantan's history, and their royal palaces and mosques are always interesting to visit. West Kalimantan has the most of these, with a few more in East. Everyday Malay culture is at its most colourful in South Kalimantan, with its stilt villages, floating markets and craft-making. Malay weddings can also be splendid affairs with traditional costumes, music and dances.

Chinese Culture

West Kalimantan has the highest concentration of ethnic Chinese in all Indonesia, with the town of Singkawang having a 90% Hakka Chinese population. Here there are ceramics workshops using age-old technology and great Chinese restaurants. There are even Chinese becak drivers! Dragon and lion dances may be seen at festivals in cities throughout Kaimantan.

Wildlife & National Parks

Though subject to widespread logging, Kalimantan also has far more extensive nature reserves than Malaysian Borneo. While parks in Sarawak may be nice to visit but often cover just 10 sq kms (like Niah or Tanjung Datu) and have little conservation value, national parks in Kalimantan cover hundreds or thousands of sq kms and are far more important! There are only 7 national parks, but their size ranges from 900 sq kms (Gunung Palung) to 16.000 sq kms (Kayan-Mentarang)! There are also lots of other nature reserves, often with a huge area, like 1.600 sq kms Gunung Niyut. However visitor facilities in most Kalimantan parks are primitive or non-existing, no doubt largely due to the fact that visitors are unknown. A few do have some basic facilities however, and if you have a spirit of adventure and a serious interest in Bornean wildlife, a visit to any is possible and rewarding. Note that while remote inland parks like Kayan Mentarang, Betung Kerihun or Bukit Baka Bukit Raya have the best scenery and most pristine forests, they also serve as hunting grounds of the surrounding Dayak population, which has made wildlife rather scarce and elusive in them. In contrast, more acccessible coastal parks like Gunung Palung, Tanjung Puting and Kutai have all been damaged by illegal logging to varying degrees, but the Muslim population living around them has little interest in hunting, so wildlife - including the famous orangutans and proboscys monkeys - remains plentiful and quite easy to see. For more information on Kalimantan's nature reserves see my article on Seeing Orangutans in Southeast Asia [Tenggara: this article will be added shortly] and Ed Colijn's excellent website on the Nature Reserves of Kalimantan where I have contributed much of my info on practical details.

Trekking

Many travellers imagine Kalimantan to be a great trekking destination, but this needs some correction. Most settlements in Kalimantan are either along the coast or along rivers, so locals use boats, not trails to travel between them. The only major areas where walking trails between villages are used are in the Krayan district around Long Bawan in East Kalimantan, or the Loksado area in the Meratus Mountains in South. Otherwise trails may connect the last upriver villages on two sides of a mountain range, like along the border between West and Central, or West and East Kalimantan. These will take you through uninhabited land, not remote communities though. More interesting would be trekking in the interior national parks (Kayan Mentarang, Betung Kerihun, Bukit Baka Bukit Raya) for which you should also be able to find guides in the surrounding villages or via the respective park offices.

River Trips

Trips up the Mahakam have long been recommended by all guidebooks, though many travellers are disappointed when they realize that places described in LP as "longhouse settlements" are in fact modern villages where there has been no longhouse for decades! ;-) While you won't find longhouses along any of the large rivers of Kalimantan, river trips can still be fun, often involving shooting rapids in a longboat. The Mahakam is still a good option, with large public boats with sleeping berths travelling up to Long Bagun daily, and longboats upriver from there to Tiong Ohang. There are no longer public boats up the Kapuas as there is a road to the interior there, but you can find boats up its tributaries like the Melawi. There are also boats up most other major river in East and Central Kalimantan. In general, you can find public longboats as far as the last kecamatan (district) centre upriver, but you may have to charter beyond that. While public boats are cheap, chartering is usually very expensive.

Beaches, Islands & Diving

Much of Kalimantan's coastline is muddy with mangroves, with the only notworthy beaches in the north of West Kalimantan, notably Pasir Panjang near Singkawang. More inviting are beaches on the offshore islands. The pick of these is the Derawan-Sangalaki archipelago off Berau in East Kalimantan, which also offers Borneo's best diving with huge, tame Mantas, lots of turtles, great coral reefs and even a unique inland jellyfish-filled freshwater lake on Kakaban! The Karimata group in West Kalimantan is also noted for coral reefs and should be worth investigating, as should be Pulau Laut and Sebuku in South.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF KALIMANTAN PROVINCES

West Kalimantan

This province is in many ways the island's best kept secret. Guidebooks make it sound dull, so most travellers just use it a transit stop between Java and Sarawak. In fact West Kalimantan has more and better longhouses and national parks than any other province, palaces of many historical Malay sultanates (notably in Pontianak, Mempawah, Sambas, Tayan, Sintang and Ketapang), the most lively Chinese culture in all Indonesia, and also the most extensive road-system in Kalimantan which makes getting around relatively easy.

 

Central Kalimantan

This is probably the least-visited part of Borneo, despite easy access from Java. Hardly any tourists ever go beyond the overrated Tanjung Puting National Park. The unique feature of Central Kalimantan is rather its active Dayak culture. This is the only province where traditional religion is still followed by many, and the funerary rites of the local Dayak groups ensure there are plenty of tiweh fesitvals and unique wooden mausoleums and other carvings to marvel at. Longhouses are few and only found upriver.

 

South Kalimantan

The highlight of this smallest of Kalimantan provinces is its friendly capital Banjarmasin, which has an amazing river scene with stilt houses and the best floating market in all Asia. There is more river-life to experience upstream, and trekking possiblities in the Meratus Mountains near Loksado where the best-known traditional Dayak groups of this province live.

 

East Kalimantan

Long the most popular travel destination in Indonesian Borneo, East Kalimantan is the darling of travel writers who have lead many tourists believe that a trip up the Mahakam or into the Apokayan is the ultimate ticket to "deepest-darkest Borneo". While this isn't exactly so, this large province does have Kalimantan's most extensive forest cover, Borneo's best offshore islands, fascinating Dayak festivals and artwork (but hardly any longhouses!) and 2 national parks, one of which offers easy wildlife-sightings, the other great trekking.

Selamat Jalan!

Note: László Wagner is a Hungarian traveller focusing on Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. This article originally appeared in the Thorn Tree travel forum. It has been posted here with prior permission of the author. Tenggara will publish Czech version of this article shortly.