Kalimantan: Putussibau, Sintang, Pontianak

After wasting visa days in Putussibau waiting, the time has come to reassess the non-existent travel plan and backtrack to Sintang, then Pontianak.

The clock is running out on the one-month Kalimantan visa, after travelling through Indonesia for the previous three months.

What is it about Borneo that conjures up images of intrepid travel exploring untouched exotic regions?

-West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Alluring Kalimantan

The problem is that with limited or outdated information and no internet in 1998, travel is slow and intended destinations change direction…often. But, isn’t this what travel is all about? The unknown? Being thrown into a totally different route? An unexpected path? Out of your comfort zone?

Plan B

Anna, the agent in Putussibau from MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) known as Air Missi to locals, divulges the agent/pilot strategy for ripping off tourists. This is after mucking us around and wasting time for the past days. Regardless of the country, there always seems to be a scam, doesn’t there? And, this one goes something like this…

When chartering an old Cessna from Putussibau to Datah Dawai (a distance of just under 400-kilometres), pilots insist on only taking two passengers at one time on the flight, as the cost is the same as taking five passengers. To make more money flying to this isolated region, pilots force passengers to separate across several flights but still charge for a full plane on the one-hour flight. More flights, more money.

Frustrated and with no available boats for any journey due to the past month’s flooding, decide that Plan B is to return to Sintang by a flight as this is much cheaper than flying to isolated Datah Dawai. The hope is that Sintang will be better placed for transport to Samarinda as there is still much to explore and experience in Kalimantan.

Putussibau to Sintang

Putussibau, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia

With the flight to Sintang leaving in only an hour, Anna the (painful) MAF agent approaches us with an alternate flight to Datah Dawai. After mucking us around for several days with pricing, resulting in losing more time, we stick with the flight to Sintang.

Flying through thick voluminous clouds, we nearly choked on thick voluminous smoke fumes in the tiny Cessna, from the pilot’s cigarette. Of course, there is always one person that smokes when you catch any transport in Indonesia. Luckily, only 3 of us enjoy this flight.

The passing Kalimantan jungle below reveals patchy burnt out jigsaws without patterns in isolated jungle areas, amidst the stained Kapuas River winding across Borneo. Dirt roads cut the jungle in veinlike tracks, tentacles reaching out to nowhere and stopping abruptly, nowhere. Perhaps these are future settlement sites, but as the pilot only speaks Bahasa, I can’t ask.

Exploring Sintang once more

Finally landing in Sintang again after the bumpy plane ride, catch the wrong Opelet only to backtrack an hour from out of town and return to the Setia Hotel. Floodwaters haven’t receded much since the last visit. Narrow timber boards suspended over floodwaters, still serve as paths to houses and the hotel’s entrance. Déjà vu is the only way to describe this second visit.

Decide to take a Sampan today for a couple of hours to explore a little more of life on the Kapuas River. You never know whether you will revisit the same destination in the future, so try and see everything you can while there…

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
River transport

More often than not, you don’t and sometimes, it’s best not to return but instead, to remember how a place in time was…

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Mobile home

Life on the Kapuas is fascinating and armed with only a 35mm film camera, river life vistas pass by too swiftly.

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Child’s work

Existence seems simple and relaxing along the river, but then again, this is only my perception as an outsider looking in and catching glimpses of a local’s day.

Gliding further along on this late afternoon, locals bathe after the sultry day’s heat or wash clothes in the Kapuas. The river is the lifeblood for so many.

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Traditional homes

With the past month’s major flooding, a boat is the best place to live and the Kapuas is full of boats of varying sizes and makes.

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Jungle home

Every evening, fresh rain pours down to wash the earth but no one collects this pure rainwater. Instead, water is collected from the brown-stained and filthy Kapuas, then boiled for drinking and cooking – bizarre.

Sintang to Pontianak

Reluctantly, book a bus back to Pontianak, which is where the journey started from since landing in Kalimantan. Going backwards and running out of time fast.

Sintang, Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia

Instead of the 7.5 hours that the previous bus took, this overnight bus takes 12 long and painful hours.

The hopeless bus driver taking road turns erratically, hasn’t learnt how to drive. And, doesn’t know where the brake pedal is although does manage to stop every hour for a toilet stop.

Passengers pour out of the bus on the hour for a pee stop, then clamber onboard again, light up a cigarette and smoke as though they’re drawing their last breath. With over thirty men smoking, windows shut as the rain continues to pour, the awful Indonesian Kretek (cigarette) smoke fumes, choke the air and nauseate. A blend of cloves, other flavours and tobacco make up the Indonesian Kretek, which permeates everything on the bus and crackles when smoked. Seats are ingrained with this stench. Reeking from cigarettes after the 12-hour journey, it’s a relief when the bus finally pulls into Pontianak at 7am.

Wasting time in Pontianak

Disappointed to be in Pontianak once more, although really shouldn’t be as there is still exploring to do – backtracking is wasting time on the visa.

Waking up with a throat that feels like sandpaper from yesterday’s smoky bus trip, this morning feels just like a hot muggy oven as sweat pours profusely from my skin. I can honestly say that I’ve been more of a passive smoker in Indonesia these past few months than in a whole lifetime. Everyone smokes in Indonesia, even 6-year-olds!

Venturing out for a feast of prawns and squid at our favourite market by the canal for dinner, disappointed this time as intestines, liver, and tripe (I think) are thrown into the dish – surprise seafood? Not impressed but perhaps I ordered the wrong dish.


Locals say they can’t afford to buy food, especially for their children but a cigarette is always in their mouths. Men are happy to wallow away the day in Kopi (coffee) shops playing chess, gambling, or just talking the day away while houses crumble and fall down around them, without a care in the world. Or is this being too judgmental? Is this problem too big and overwhelming for some? Think I’m becoming cynical, which is never a good thing but not much has been going right since landing in Kalimantan.

The canals that stem from the Kapuas River and follow around Pontianak, extend into the surrounding suburbs but never seem to be flushed out with tides, so remain filthy and polluted. Outdoor makeshift tin-clad toilets drain straight into the canals. Locals bathe, wash their clothes and even clean their teeth in the festering chocolate brown and murky waters of the Kapuas.

Leaving Pontianak again

Travelling at a snail’s pace with time running out and floodwaters receding too slowly for overland travel, decide to book a 10-hour ‘speedboat’. The MV Francis Express goes out to sea from Pontianak and follows Kalamantan south until reaching Ketapang. What could possibly go wrong?

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia

12 responses to “Kalimantan: Putussibau, Sintang, Pontianak”

  1. Felik Junvianto Avatar

    Even as an outsider, you
    have accurately described my hometown.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Felik

      Thank you for your kind feedback – very humbling!
      Which town are you from?
      I would love to visit Kalimantan again.

      Thanks again

      1. Felik Junvianto Avatar

        Hi Nilla,

        It was fun reading your perspective as well. I am from Pontianak so I can deeply relate with your view, and yeah Kapuas river is so dirty yet a lot of people’s livelihood depends on it.

        I hope you have more fun in your next visit.


      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        This travel was in 1998 so I would imagine things have improved?
        I remember that Pontianak had wonderful prawns and cuisine but was fascinating to visit, it was just quite hard back then. Please feel free to share my posts on Indonesia with friends and colleagues. I’ve published 32 posts so far and still going from the 4 months of travel through your amazing country.

  2. equinoxio21 Avatar

    These images reminded me of the Amazon. a mixture of tranquility and despair… Don’t know why. I also suspect the water must bring on a host of tropical disease, not to mention high infant mortality…

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      The region did resemble the Amazon in many ways, however, I’m not sure how much of this natural jungle is left due to Palm Oil.
      Yes, the water does bring on tropical diseases and was a breeding ground for Malaria – not sure if it’s still the same. Although, when I check places online, they seem so much bigger and more populated than when I was there in 1998. I’d love to go back but don’t think I’d enjoy the changes.

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        You can’t swim in the same river twice. Better not…

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar


  3. Yetismith Avatar

    Yes. I had forgotten the crackling. A ship we were on was crewed with Indonesians. They were sweet and funny and ha the loveliest smiles. They were very friendly and sometimes we got to eat Indonesian food in their mess. It was sooo good.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, brought the memory back for you. 😉
      That’s a lovely story. I found that once you got out of the cities and everyone trying to rip you off, the locals in the villages were lovely and welcoming. I guess this is in most countries really…

  4. Yetismith Avatar

    Oh dear. I suspect quite a lot could go wrong. Those clove cigarettes are diabolical and I seem to remember that they are seriously bad for the lungs. A lot of frustration, clearly. I don’t wonder you had some negative feelings!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Do you remember the crackling sounds of those cigarettes while they were being smoked?
      Yes, they’re pretty bad for the lungs but that doesn’t stop anyone from smoking these, maybe locals have moved to more upmarket smokes these days…

Leave a Reply

Own one of my Limited Edition photographs or prints. Click this #saatchiart icon for my page.

Saatchi Art

Follow my blog by email!
Never miss out on a fabulous photo deal or travel update.

Join 8,287 other subscribers

I'm currently in Kosovo

Global visitors since February 2017 - thank you!


Visitors since May 2016 - thank you!

Flag Counter

©2015-2023 Image Earth Travel

This website's content cannot be copied and/or published in any way, without written permission from
Image Earth Travel.

Feel free to use excerpts and links, provided that you give full and clear credit to Image Earth Travel,
with appropriate and specific direction/link to the original content.

Follow me on...

pinterest logo circle P in Red png
%d bloggers like this: