…travelling in Borneo during 1998 is at a snail’s pace, challenging, frustrating, but alluring.
The addiction is to experience more of exotic Borneo – its remoteness is seductive and foreign travellers are rare.
After interweaving several rivers and manmade canals travelling from Central to South Kalimantan on several speedboats for a very long but fascinating day, finally, land in the city of Banjarmasin.
Where is Banjarmasin?
Nestled in the deep south-east of extraordinary Borneo island in the region of Kalimantan, the city of Banjarmasin holds any traveller captive, albeit not for its tranquillity.
Halved by the Martapura River, in the basin of the charming Barito River, tides affect Banjarmasin’s river system. Prone to flooding due to its location in a swampy region, typically, Banjarmasin is below water level.
A little on Banjarmasin
Known as the “Venice of the East” or “City of a Thousand Rivers”, Banjarmasin’s location near the junction of the Martapura and Barito rivers is interlaced with man-made and natural canals, which are susceptible to flooding. Locals live in the heart of these waterways, meaning that almost everyone owns a form of boat for transport, plying the waterways similar to a super highway.
Typically, homes are built on stilts, which sometimes hover precariously over sections of waterways. Others such as the traditional Lanting houses, form part of Banjarmasin’s riverside architecture. Lanting is from the Banjar language. Although traditional to South Kalimantan, these homes do exist in other regions of Kalimantan.
European trade between mostly the Dutch and the Banjar people started as early as 1596 after the Europeans attacked and stole Nutmeg from trading ships. The tumultuous Colonial era with the Dutch East India Company finally saw the Dutch ousted in 1638. Although it took the Sultan to pursue a war against the Dutch and the burning of much of the company’s riches around the port before the ousting.
Take a small traditional longboat to explore Banjaramsin’s captivating waterways while absorbing a little of the unique local life around the city. Locals are extremely friendly and wave while smiling warmly – this was in 1998, and not sure whether this has changed since then…
Surrounding suburbs are filled with iron-clad run-down buildings, which appear as a maze of crumbling chaos.
After two days bedridden from dreadfully nauseating stomach bugs and probably also a reaction from the anti-Malaria Doxycycline tablets – it feels as though someone is punching me in the stomach – we can finally do a little exploring.
What to see?
Just wandering around Banjarmasin on foot or boat is exciting and interesting enough, but this city offers so much more…
Pasar Terapung Muara Kuin
A longboat to the floating markets (Pasar Terapung Muara Kuin) is a must, although I’m not sure how touristy this daily market has become over the decades.
Cempaka gold and diamond mine – Martapura
Catch a local bus to Martapura (Land of Diamonds), only 45 kilometres east of Banjarmasin, then head to the Cempaka gold diamond mine to witness the appalling conditions in which locals work. This is home to some of the largest discovered diamonds in the world. Cempaka is foreign-owned, and there’s little evidence of the wealth flowing to locals.
Masjid Raya Sabilal Muhtadin
“The Grand Mosque”, completed in 1981 and costing USD$4.5 million, is on the west bank of the Martapura River in the Antasan Besar village, Central Banjarmasin district. Not so impressive, especially as this is the predominant mosque that blares out for most of the night, every night.
The city is dotted with locals that set up tiny portable stands or tables along the pavement to sell stones – either diamonds or semi-precious gems. One guy pulled out a bag and from it a lunchbox full of diamonds made up into jewellery – gem fever is everywhere.
Diamonds and gold are traded here at an alarming rate. You need to know your stones in this region as there is much fancy cut glass on the streets and open to expensive scams. A lot of money can be lost in Banjarmasin. This is the first area I’ve seen in Kalimantan where local women are dripping in gold and diamonds. Kalimantan is renowned for its riches, but it’s quite something seeing the trading on the corners.
Pasar Terapung Muara Kuin
Although in 1998, the Pasar Terapung Muara Kuin (floating markets) was a little touristy, aside from this, locals still do their daily shopping at these engaging markets.
Hire a sampan for the hour’s trip from any hotel or your homestay for an amazing trip through the stilted-homes in Banjarmasin’s watery suburbs. Life on the riverways is intriguing, but make sure you travel down these watery streets when locals are home from work.
Polish your trading and bartering skills before thinking of buying from a savvy marketeer.
The floating market at the junction of the Kuin and Boritao Rivers starts very early in the morning. Typically, after prayers and wrapped up well before midday, with only stragglers left behind still trading and offloading remnants of their daily goods.
Maybe a couple of hundred large and small boats, and canoes laden with pineapples, coconuts, and vegetables, others piled high with crockery, work the river looking for customers. Brilliant to watch.
Everyone does their shopping as though they’re shopping on the streets. Stopping at one boat selling tea and coffee but also cakes and unusual breakfast snacks, we indulge in a little breakfast. Another boat sells rice soup. Everything is up for barter in these markets.
The buzzing atmosphere exudes excitement with hustling sellers and buyers vying for the day’s best deal. The seller provides a long bamboo pole with a nail at the end, which you use to spike your purchase and drop it into your boat.
The slow sampan to the markets heads to Pulau Kemban only 20-minutes away for a quick visit to see the Long-tailed Macaque. The monkeys are quite cheeky and a couple of the males are quite aggressive. Especially as they smell our bag containing Paw Paw and bananas purchased from the floating market.
Return to Banjarmasin before the scorching midday sun, but not before passing the traditional large Pinisi sailing vessels waiting at the dock to be loaded, probably with timber.
Need a rest at the homestay after sitting on the sampan’s hard timber seat for three hours.
Where to sleep
Bumping into the Borneo Homestay shortly after the epic journey on three speedboats travelling east from Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan to Banjarmasin in the south of Kalimantan, decide to crash and relax.
Although the homestay offers dingy rooms, there are a couple of windowless rooftop floors where you can lounge around, relax and catch a breath of breeze while escaping the blistering stifling midday sun.
Sleep is ever-elusive as the city is full of mosques blaring the call to prayer, which starts at around 4 am. Not just one mosque, but from five booming in synchronisation around the homestay, with the reading in-between the earsplitting noise.
Venturing tomorrow on a local bus to Martapura’s Cempaka mine to learn how gold and diamonds are extracted in this part of the world. Hopefully, this won’t be too confronting…