Kalimantan: Cempaka Diamond Mine, Martapura

One of the largest diamond mines in the world and also Indonesia, it’s difficult not to get caught up in gem fever when exploring the Cempaka diamond and gold mine in Kalimantan’s Martapura.

A source of diamonds for centuries…

…Borneo’s Kalimantan region of Martapura is from where the biggest diamonds in the world have been discovered.

West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Exotic Borneo’s Kalimantan region

Where is Martapura?

Only 45 kilometres east of the bustling city of Banjarmasin, Martapura in 1998 seemed more like a sleepy town than a small city in southeastern Kalimantan.

Martapura’s proximity of only 15-minutes north of the Cempaka gold and diamond mine makes the city a haven for those seeking jewellery made with diamonds, gold, precious stones, silver, and even imitation precisely-cut stones. All of which are dredged from fathomless depths of Borneo’s earth. Renowned globally for its jewellery, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of gem fever when visiting Martapura.

Getting there

Banjarmasin to Martapura, South Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, SE Asia

Catch an early morning local bus from Banjarmasin bound for Martapura, for the almost 45-kilometre ride.

Transport in Banjarmasin is such a breeze and also very cheap. Opelets, tiny vans, or hitching a ride in the back of a Bemo-type utility vehicle, provide an efficient transport system.

On arriving at Martapura, all the hotels are fully booked so find one that agrees to hold our packs for the day, before heading to the local market for some food. This market includes the usual handmade goods and delicious regional food and is also full of intricate handmade rattan crafts.

Getting to Cempaka

Martapura, Cempaka diamond mine, South Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, SE Asia

From Martapura, we take a car to Cempaka for the 9-kilometre trip, south of Martapura.

The car stops short of the mine and without any signs, locals point us in the right direction along the way. A narrow dirt track leads over a haphazardly-built rickety bridge on stilts, sitting over the muddy water to “the” infamous area.

Cempaka Gold and Diamond Mine

Not sure what to expect as, in 1998, there isn’t any available information, but the working conditions of both mines is a shock.

Gold fever

On arriving, the gold mine is not at all what I expected, definitely not modern, and quite confronting.

Martapura gold mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Crude conditions

People are everywhere and panning for gold in teams. Under the scorching sun and stifling heat, panners work long hours in abysmal conditions, in the desperate hope of striking it rich or just finding a few nuggets to feed their family. Life is so very hard at the mine.

Martapura gold mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Teams of panners

Some workers rig old torn shirts between two bamboo poles or scrappy sheets of plastic in the hope of a little shade and shelter while sitting for hours in muddy water, digging and panning.

Martapura gold mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Sieving muddy water

There isn’t any respite from the arduous backbreaking work of searching frantically and relentlessly for gold – a disheartening and demoralising job.

Martapura gold mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Patiently panning

Never could I imagine that anything would be worse than the conditions in this gold mine, until making our way to the diamond mine. Cempaka is foreign-owned and for all its continual centuries-old wealth dug out of the ground, I see no wealth here – workers are so poor.

Diamond Fever

The diamond mine is extraordinary and extraordinarily dangerous!

Filled-in pits exhausted from diamond mining, scar the area and resemble a cratered moon surface.

Cempaka diamond, mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Waiting for the miner to surface for air

Old pits sit dangerously side-by-side with new holes containing makeshift shafts some 10-plus-metres deep. Everyone smokes the cheap Indonesian Kretek cigarettes to help pass the onerous and monotonous hours away, waiting. Perhaps a momentary respite of how hard life is at this mine.

Cempaka diamond, mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Lovely smiles regardless of hardship

Climbing in and out of these dangerous shafts is by using bamboo horizontal supports fastened to vertical bamboo struts. Muddy water fills the bottom of the deep hole that awaits the diamond miners. The bottom of the mine is panned for diamonds manually using crude bowls, these are then passed up manually to the surface for emptying, before starting all over again. Typically, only two miners are down the shaft at the same time.

Workers still smile even in these horrendous conditions while enduring slow and tedious work, without any machinery or automation. When labour is cheap, there isn’t a need for machines.

Both men and women work the mine but also children have the responsibility of working the mine.

Cempaka gold and diamond mine, Martapura, Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, SE Asia

A 6-year-old boy with a damaged left eye, probably due to an accident – already a little man – draws on a Kretek cigarette like it’s his last breath. So tragic to see this child starting up the pump, which in turn pumps out the muddy water from the bottom of the mine.

Cempaka diamond, mine, Banjarmasin, Kalimantan, Borneo. Indonesia. SE Asia
Pump worker

Starting the pump by connecting 2 wires together and making sure the pump keeps running, is the boy’s job all day long every day. The noise is deafening. No shelter from the blaring sun. No protective clothing. Just his little hat and shorts. Extremely proud of his job and its importance, I doubt that in his short life he has ever been to school.

Cempaka gold and diamond mine, Martapura, Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, SE Asia
Manual labour

Everyone holds a pouch full of unpolished diamonds at the mine and is willing to trade for absolutely anything. The only problem is that we don’t know what is real or imitation, so only splurge AUD$10 for pieces of what turned out later to be cut glass. Guilt sets in but the miners are desperate to trade. Everyone is in a bartering mood. A group of miners gather around, so we trade a leather hat bought a few months earlier in Yogyakarta and a pair of old sunglasses for 3 tiny uncut diamonds. Most diamonds at the mine are in their natural state – uncut and unpolished – before going to the polishing houses.

Polishing house

As the only foreigners here today, a motorbike takes us to a polishing house.

The craftsman shows how diamonds are cut and polished with ancient precision. Then, several 5-Carat pink diamonds are proudly displayed on a rolled-out royal blue velvet mat. At thousands of dollars for each diamond, we back out of the polishing house quickly while thanking our host and bidding farewell.

After a fascinating and interesting but confronting day, catch a local bus back to Martapura to pick up our packs from the hotel’s storage locker.

Returning to Banjarmasin

Decide to take another local bus bound once more for Banjarmasin and the Borneo Homestay. The owner will be happy to see us again as no one is staying at his homestay.

At the tail-end of the 4-month Indonesian island-hopping sojourn, the time has finally come to start heading back to Pontianak, Singapore, then Australia, but not before spending a day or two in Banjarmasin…

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

28 responses to “Kalimantan: Cempaka Diamond Mine, Martapura”

  1. equinoxio21 Avatar

    And yes, working conditions are always infra-human

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes, we need to stop and think about where everything comes from these days…

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Just went to the store in Paris this morning. There is a shortage of mustard. Seeds are grown in canada or God knows where. as a result, the only scant jars of mustard on the shelf were from Poland. The French can’t do mustard any more… crazy…

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        How bizarre!
        The Polish mustard is quite good but I don’t remember a hot one. I also like Coleman’s English mustard, which can be quite hot when in the UK, but the one we get in Oz is very different.
        Apart from COVID, have a good trip or still travelling?

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Bizarre indeed. I have to check another store just out of curiosity.
        Trip is good, but I’m sticking to Paris for the next two weeks. (I thought about Florence for a bit, but I’m up to here with hordes of tourists. At least here I know how to avoid them…) 😉

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, gotta watch out for those hordes of tourists – seems as though everyone is travelling again! 😉

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Yes, it looks so. Americans are back. definitely. And a few Asians.

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, I see loads of travellers again to Italy also…

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I was tempted to hop to Italy for a few days, but gave up on the idea. London and Brussels were enough. Europe is a transport chaos right now.

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        What a shame you didn’t make it to Italy but it seems as though everyone is flocking to Europe right now – understandably so as it’s summer there now and an escape from harsh winter. 😉
        Next time…

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Next time indeed. I’m thinking of changing my priorities next trip. Far less time in France, more time elsewhere. italy is an obvious candidate.

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Sounds like a good plan!
        Some places are just too touristy. I continuously seek out the less-traversed places as I don’t like to be swamped with tourists.

  2. equinoxio21 Avatar

    I visited a similar mine in Brazil ages ago. The pump engine was a mercedes lorry engine…
    All well?

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Working onditions in many countries are woeful – exploitation at its best.
      Saw a Netflix doco last night on the avocado farmers in Chile. They have more rights to water than the locals, which have to truck (and pay for) their water in as the riverbed has dried out due to farming and drought.
      All’s well and you? How are the COVID symptoms? Ready to explore again in the sweltering heat?

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Water and access to is gonna be a major issue…
        COVID over. Thank God. Just like a mild cold. As soon as I was positive I went to Brussels. Just got back… (It was much fresher than paris and the beer is wayyy better…)

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Back in the ’80s, I said that water would become liquid gold, especially after seeing all the big companies bottling water then selling it back to locals at a price they coulnd’t really afford – criminal. And, all because of corrupt governments selling water rights to big conglomerates.
        Good to hear you only had mild symptoms. Chocolate, Mussels, waffles, and beer are much better in Belgioum. 😉

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Good examples. (Chocolate was “invented” by Mexico who now buys back imported chocolate by Nestlé… LOL)

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, I’ve heard that and it’s criminal!
        I refuse to buy Nestlé because of how the company brainwashed Indonesian mothers in the 1990s to stop breastfeeding their newborns and turn instead to Nestlé’s formula, which many couldn’t afford – evil!

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Oh yeah. I did some research on powder milk, formulas. That was a major screw-up. Including using dirty water to fill the bottles…

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, that’s what I mean. The whole thing was a screw-up and quite evil – it’s the money-churning machine again.

  3. gillmorris Avatar

    A sombre tale. We sometimes forget where the lovely things for sale in shops etc., come from. Also tragic to see that 6 year old smoking! Grown up before his time. Interesting stuff Nilla. Hope you are well.. Glad you can get back onto my site now! xxx

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      A very sobering story to witness and yes, we do forget where our goods come from and how hard life is in many countries.
      I often wonder whether that little boy is still alive.
      Thank you, all is good just working too hard. Hope all is going well with you also…;-) x

  4. Stella, oh, Stella Avatar

    I doubt that much has changed in the mines. Poor people are exploited all over the globe.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Agree and doubt anything has changed – tragic.

  5. Bahanur Avatar

    My husband and I are planning to travel to Southeast Asia soon, and Borneo is one of the places we’ve been meaning to visit. It was lovely to read a piece on a place I might see this year!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for reading my post and leaving me your great feedback.
      You’ll have a wonderful time and I’m sure travel is so much easier than when I spent 4 months there in 1998. I have more posts on Borneo if it helps. 😉
      Tried to check out your site, but was unable to load your URL.

  6. Yetismith Avatar

    I did not even realise Borneo had these mines till I read your post last week. Who were the people staying in all those hotels? Are the diamonds sold to foreigners? It makes me feel a bit sick to think of someone wearing a glittering diamond “worth a lot of money” that some poor person sweated to dig up and probably got paid peanuts for. It must have been hard to see.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Carolyn
      Neither did I until landing in Banjarmasin and chatting to locals.
      I have no idea who the people were staying in the hotels but there were traders in Martapura from what I could see, not foreign. I suspect there’s always a local trader that is hired by foreign companies to handle deals with locals.
      Not sure what happens these days but then, the gold and diamonds were exported globally. This mine has been active for centuries so probably exports everything. Not many locals spoke English in this region, so it was hard to glean accurate information apart from what I saw with my own eyes. Some may say my view is subjective and open to interpretation but I feel that the photos speak for themselves.

      Living on a boat for 21 years, the only indulgence I had was jewellery and yes, gold and diamonds, so guilty as I have no idea where the diamonds or gold came from for my jewellery. I do recycle stones and gold as pieces break to design new pieces but originally, I have no idea where anything came from – everything is hidden.

      Appreciate your comment as always.

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 destination update.

Join 8,279 other subscribers

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: