Hitching a speedboat from Pangkalan Bun to Banjarmasin is an intoxicating 4-hours while zigzagging rivers interlinking canals, and crossing over from Central to South Kalimantan…
Traversing Borneo in 1998, the third-largest island in the world, is extremely slow and fraught with delays, cancellations, and no transport or accommodation information, but exhilarating nonetheless.
Mostly mountainous, Borneo also has extensive lowlands, especially in Central Kalimantan, which are often swampy along the coast.
At the tail-end of almost four months of exploring Indonesia, time is of the essence but travel in Kalimantan is not fast.
Following a perpetual and exhausting travel day taking three speedboats, one bus, and one 4×4 getting from Pontianak to Pangkalan Bun for the past eight hours, met Andy an Indonesian during the 4×4 leg of the journey. Andy lives in Jakarta (Java) but works in Kalimantan. Thinking he knows this small village of Pangkalan Bun, he leads us endlessly around the streets to find food until we realise he doesn’t really know the village at all. At least he tried with good intentions but at this point in time, sleep is the priority as tomorrow is another exhausting travel day.
Delayed in Pangkalan Bun
Checking out of the basic accommodation early at 7 am, discover that the bus for the 10-12-hour journey to Palangkaraya is completely full and instead, need to take the overnight bus at 4pm. What to do for a whole day in the small remote town of Pangkalan Bun?
Waste the day wandering around the town, checking out local shops and managing to buy some Manik – Dayak trading beads. One can only hope that they’re original beads but you can never tell in Indonesia.
Meeting a local that can speak a little English, she lets us know of a great 2-hour trip to a smaller village up the river but takes another 2 hours to return. Sadly, there isn’t any time to explore.
Many stone shops grace this small town and discover one that also sells Kalimantan diamonds. As we’re making our way to Banjarmasin and this is where Kalimantan’s diamonds are from, decide not to splurge just yet and wait.
Due to the flooding this past month, the river is higher than usual and just as in Sintang and other towns, tiny narrow timber planks overhang the water as makeshift paths to shops and home entrances.
Pangkalan Bun to Palangkaraya
Locals advise us to take the MP bus but somehow, manage to book tickets on the Yessee bus company, which we would regret later.
Finally catching the overnight bus, the journey is plunged into deep darkness after only a couple of hours on the road, as street lights are sporadic.
A couple of hours of light reveals a barren-cleared landscape with hectares of mostly Palm Oil trees in their infancy and scattered crops – tragic – it is, after all, 1998. I dread to think about what this region is like in 2022 and whether any jungle at all is left. People have to survive at any expense, including plundering Kalimantan’s natural jungle.
Bus trip saga
Of course, this being Kalimantan, the bus gets a flat tyre several hours into the journey. Surprisingly, the tyre is changed in only half an hour, and then it’s back on the road once more. But, not before the driver uses 2 jacks on the tyres as neither were good while three MP buses sail past us…the better bus line we were told to book. Not sure how long this tyre will last as it’s worse than the flat one.
Another half-hour on the road and the driver stops once more but this time to drop off the flat tyre as he only carries one spare. Another wait of forty minutes for the tyre’s repair so male passengers leave the bus to play cards and gamble by the roadside, under a plume of pungent Kretek cigarette fumes. Boarding again, trailing cigarette plumes follow passengers into the bus and so, the smoky journey continues. With such scarce and poor roads in Kalimantan, you would think that buses would carry a couple of spares…
Pull into Palangkaraya’s bus stop at 3:30 am while the rest of the city still slumbers.
Not a bad overnighter considering the bus stopped to offload and pick up passengers throughout the night, and also the tyre drama. The remaining passengers grab a roadside bench to catch an hour’s sleep and wait for the city to awaken.
Wander around the small city almost comatosed from the overnight bus journey and bump into a market. Splash out on what we think is an original Mandau – knife with sheath, which the non-Muslim indigenous Dayak tribes use for many things including head hunting. This one is sans blood. An original Mandau is also known to have magical powers but not sure if this one is old or real.
Enjoy a delicious breakfast of fresh barbecued fish. The cuisine here is different to other regions of Kalimantan – each seems to have its own unique style. Tea, a bowl of soup, rice (and more if needed) and the main dish are served as one portion all for just AUD$0.70 – so cheap.
Central to South Kalimantan – speedboat from Palangkaraya to Banjarmasin
As time is running out on the one-month Kailmantan visa, decide to forfeit the 130-kilometre boat trip leaving from Palangkaraya’s Flamboyan Pier in Central Kalimantan. This intrepid journey travels up Kalimantan’s second-largest river, the Kahayan, to the gold-mining town of Tewah.
The cost for this return boat trip is exorbitant. Instead, decide to grab a speedboat from Rambang Pier and head on another wild journey bound for the bustling city of Banjarmasin in Kalimantan’s south.
Interweaving rivers and canals
The overladen boat with passengers and cargo sinks precariously low at the stern, which is weighted with two 220HP motors, for the 3.5-hour trip.
Heading down the murky Sungai (river) Kahayan to the town of Pulau Pisau Regency, the speedboat’s motors pushes the boat along at an alarming speed.
The boat groans and sounds like it will crack under the strain of hitting even the smallest of river swells, but the captain ploughs on…
Crossing one of the many manmade canals to Mandawai, the boat speeds on until reaching busy Kuala Kapuas. The riverways intertwine with canals and are just like super highways – everyone owns a boat in this region – the lifeline of everyday life for locals.
As with all the canals in this region that the Dutch constructed, this 30-kilometre canal was built from 1880 to 1890 to connect the Kapuas with the Barito River. The area’s tidal swampland had the potential for cultivating wetland rice and was too irresistible for developers. The canals opened the area for agricultural development.
The captain pushes the boat hard and only slows down for mere seconds when dropping and picking up passengers along the way. From the Kapuas, it’s onto the Barito River passing amazing and fascinating river life before crisscrossing down a second canal to the Sungai Negara. Weaving back to the Barito River, the boat whizzes down the muddy Barito abundant with local life, until finally reaching the bustling city of Banjarmasin.
Every conceivable boat carts some type of wood – even the tiniest canoe. Logging is huge and lucrative (for some) in Kalimantan. Up and down the boats ply crossing canals and rivers to arrive at their next destination. Houses are built on stilts over the river and although the rivers are high from the past month’s floods, it doesn’t seem as bad as Sintang in West Kalimantan.
Landing in Banjarmasin
By the time the speedboat stops in Banjarmasin, exhaustion overcomes even the most toughened traveller, so check into the Borneo Homestay and crash for a few hours. Excited to explore Banjarmasin tomorrow but also stopping to rest for several days…