A journey up the mighty Mahakam River finds friendly locals, extraordinary creatures, no tourists, and a rapidly disappearing natural environment in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan State.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
After years of dreaming, months of buildup, two days on a plane, one day in a van, and 15 hours on a riverboat to the heart of Borneo, my teenage daughter uttered the words on everyone’s minds.
“So where’s the jungle?”
The clanking of our Indonesian klotok-turned-tourist-houseboat spurted to a halt along a floating dock in the village of Muara Muntai. The purply crack-of-dawn on the Mahakam River revealed nothing of the headhunter’s headwaters I expected: No towering trees. No monkeys. No bustling Dayak longhouses.
But what our tech-addled family witnessed was equally otherworldly: A creek-clinging village buzzing to life. Fishermen revved moto-canoes to their nets. Girls in hijabs biked to school. A mom bathed her young son in the river.
Over our week on the mainland in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan state, we saw few tourists and few glimpses of the rapidly disappearing rainforests of “old” Borneo – hornbills, proboscis monkeys, and Dayak totems.
But what fascinated us was the vivid “new” Borneo – one in which nearly every Muslim villager smiles and waves to the Americans passing by. (Can you imagine the reception a boat of hijab-clad Muslims would receive after taking a boat up a river into the wilds of America?)
To enjoy a trip to Borneo, you need to forget everything you think you know about the world’s third largest island. You’ll photograph epic riverfront villages, not rainforests, meet friendly locals, not headhunters, and be serenaded by tape recordings, not birds.
We had landed two days prior in Balikpapan, the bustling capital of East Kalimantan and a pleasant, gleaming business center that will replace Jakarta as the nation’s capital in the next decade. Indonesia’s Kalimantan states on Borneo are a bit like the American midwest – a large expanse of land and natural resources to power the rest of the country. The rainforest is rapidly being cut down to plant palm oil plantations (largely due to U.S. policies) and gather the coal that lays near the surface.
Like all rivers in Borneo, the storied and mighty Mahakam is the lifeblood and main transportation artery for the area, moving people and goods to tiny and huge towns throughout the state. The river that used to carry intrepid explorers, traders, and more recently, tourists, into the heart of Borneo to study the rainforest and Dayak life now serves as a highway for unbelievably giant barges loaded down with logs or coal heading to the port in Samarinda.
These barges and an almost unbroken line of towns were all we saw during our first afternoon on the houseboat. “Just wait!” I had said to my daughter. “Tomorrow morning we will wake up in the jungle.” I had been mistaken.
Our houseboat home for four days was tricked out for tourists – spotlessly clean with a friendly crew and darling grandma cook. Our eating and sleeping quarters were huge – the whole boat was huge – and we felt like a rajah’s entourage until we saw an older German couple the next day who actually had booked the “rajah” houseboat. I think their deck hands had uniforms and their chairs were not made of plastic.
Wandering Muara Muntai and other Mahakam villages, we encountered motorcycles, bikes and other townspeople moving around on raised hardwood boardwalks. We realized that the entire town was built to float during high waters of the wet season. The river was truly the heart of the town, with locals coming to the dock for all of their needs.
“Hear the birds? So amazing!” I said, trying to psych up everyone – including myself – and get the kids to forget it was their third day of the trip without wifi and jungle.
“Oh no, those are not birds,” said our guide. “Those are tape recordings.” Indeed, the entire Mahakam basin was filled with the sound of chirping swallows, a recording that was broadcast 24 hours a day from the top of huge windowless buildings that look like the Jawa Sandcrawler transports on Tatooine in Star Wars. The locals build these barn-type structures in hopes of attracting swallows to live there, return every year, and harvest their nests to sell to the Chinese for soup. We then remembered our friend Kris had shown us similar structures in southern Cambodia. Soon, I’m sure, the call of pre-recorded swallows will reverberate throughout rural Southeast Asia.
We headed out for the day in a moto-canoe. Instead of rainforest, we traversed across a massive marsh, Jempang Lake, with grasses and egrets as we see near home in San Francisco. The lack of trees was made up for by scenes of fishermen up to their necks in water, placing poles, hanging nets, and shoving a hand in the air to wave “hello” as we passed.
After a couple of hours, we reached Mancong village, where a group of sweet high school kids waiting for a bus got up the courage to chat with our teens.
Our destination was the Tanjung Isuy Dayak longhouse, one of the oldest and most impressive in Borneo. These massive buildings are surrounded by hundreds of carved figures and served as the centers of village life. And though today’s tourism folks downplay the “headhunter” talk, our guide told us that the skulls of enemy tribes used to hang from the rafters. Families cooked and lived in apartment-type rooms along the main floor and livestock underneath.
But in August 2018, this longhouse was a ghost town. We had been cringing with dread about having to watch a fake tribal dance but we actually saw no one. The longhouse is a preserved national monument now, so no one has lived inside for a long time, but there were no other tourists there and no one running the place.
We walked through the adjacent village in the sweltering heat and saw where the original villagers now live, but in the midday heat, there wasn’t much life going on at all. And my natives were getting restless – or listless – or both.
I had always wanted to visit Borneo. I remember reading about the virgin rainforest and rough going in Into the Heart of Borneo. But when I first began backpacking around Southeast Asia in the 1990s, Borneo was too expensive to get to and too massive to get around.
After Don and I got married, we took an amazing vacation to Sabah, the Malaysian state on the northeast coast of Borneo. We climbed Kinabalu, visited virgin rainforest in the Danum Valley, saw the orangutans, and dove Sipadan – still the most amazing place we’ve ever been diving. Tragically, shortly after our visit, Filipino Abu Sayef pirates invaded the island and took hostages.
We knew taking our teens to Borneo required some careful planning. We learned most tourists do one of three things: Visit Sabah in the Malaysian north, houseboat through the heavily touristed orangutan conservation area of Tanjung Puting National Park in the Indonesian south, or head to East Kalimantan, where visitors can see wild orangutans in Kutai National Park. That chance, together with the Mahakam houseboat and the Derawan Islands for R&R pushed us to go east (Nabucco and Nununkan were unreal!)
But I never did a good job, pre-trip, reconciling the Borneo in my mind with the reality of Borneo today. Granted, our family had endured a horribly sad year, losing both of my parents unexpectedly. And we would have welcomed the chance to go anywhere to take some time to heal.
But the poor Kutai National Park has had a horribly sad decade. It seems the rest of its trees and its orangutans are just waiting to be bulldozed. Sleeping overnight in the horribly run down park guest house, you can hear chainsaws and earthmovers at work. A devastating forest fire consumed the area in 2015 and the government used it as an opportunity to get the coal and lumber and shrink the park boundaries. The “Oops, we started a forest fire” method of land clearing reignited another tragic blaze in 2019.
We hiked two different days through old-growth rainforest and saw a host of fantastic jungle creatures, including the biggest tarantula we’ve ever seen. We watched the fist-sized creature come in and out of its burrow on a night hike full of creepy creatures, including a big scorpion in a tree that our local guide said had bit and killed his grandmother.
And we were lucky to see many orangutans still living in the wild. We got to see mamas with babies. We got to see the big apes move from treetop to treetop, dropping an avalanche of leaves and branches along the way. But their territory is so small now that it’s only a matter of time before their time is up in Kutai.
Back on the houseboat, we had spent a whole day heading up a different, smaller creek through even smaller villages and finally escaped civilization. There we saw the Borneo of legend: troops of macaques and proboscis monkeys in the trees, hornbills flying overhead, and big monitor lizards on the riverbank. But our time there felt fleeting – and after a couple hours, we returned to the houseboat.
I met a Dutch mom later on the islands who had brought her teens to Borneo twice. “It’s just too spread out,” she accurately observed. “There’s an amazing floating market or an amazing cave or an amazing village, but you have a full day in a boat or van in between.” And very often, there is not much public transport so only long-term backpackers have time to get around independently and cheaply. Trying to plan our trip, locals told us there was really no choice but to fly between Kalimantan’s cities or spend 3-5 days on a bus.
But the real problem we faced in Borneo was the “getting sick.” Not just sick, but “India sick.” I was so worried about the kids getting eaten by mosquitos that I took my eye off the ball: The river. So when Don suddenly went running for the bathroom and spent the next 12 hours curled in the fetal position in various locations around the houseboat, I became a nervous wreck: We were all on the same boat eating the same food and drinking the same water. Never mind that the galley was so clean I would have eaten off the floor, Don got sick. And that meant we would all be sick too. Any minute. And our kids would never want to leave home again…
But as travel mysteries happen, no one else got sick. And Don rejoined the land of the living the very next morning. But my traveling-mom poker face was gone. I had shown my hand to the kids and they realized I was on edge. “Don’t eat that shrimp.” “Wipe the water off the edge of that dish.” “No more fruit.” Then, as if on cue, the houseboat’s generator quit working, which meant no fan at night. The temperature outside was actually cool and nice but we had to shut the windows to keep out the mosquitos. So sleeping sorta quit happening, too. Morale sank accordingly.
Looking back, I’d go again in a second – but I’d go eyes wide open. Places like the villages of the Mahakam River may as well be on the moon, they seem so fascinating and foreign. And the houseboat tours make it easy to get there. And anyone like me who has long dreamed of seeing Borneo’s wildlife and forests has no choice but to go now and see what’s left – before it, too, is gone.
And a ridiculous amount of book reading happens when wifi disappears for an extended amount of time – that alone is reason for most parents to head off the grid.
We never figured out if there used to be a lot more tourists and the deforestation and development had decimated tourism, or if logistics on the world’s third biggest island did not make it easy to cultivate it as a “destination.” Most certainly, Kalimantan tourism has always played a distant fiddle to the big-money industries of coal and lumber.
Back in Balikpapan, a shower felt great after a week of rivers, roads and rainforest. Wifi warmed my teens hands and hearts. Snap Maps showed their location as hundreds of miles from any other friends. The handful of Dutch, Belgian and French tourists we met at the hotel were as intrigued and excited about East Kalimantan as we were. They’d had different highs and lows but vowed to come back, too.
Traveling in Borneo is still a truly amazing adventure – even if it’s not the adventure we thought it would be.
- Travelers: Maryann & Don Thompson and their kids age 15 and 17
- Date: 1 week in August 2018
- Cost: $2,250 for all transport, meals, guides and entrance fees for four people for five days with Borneo De ‘Gigant Tours
Good to Know
Choose Your Tour Lucas of Borneo De ‘Gigant Tours knows Kalimantan like the back of his hand. Originally from the Netherlands, he has lived in the area for years and has all the connections you need to plan your trip. He can send your family to the houseboats of Tanjung Puting, up the Mahakam, or on a cross-Borneo trek if you dare. There are plenty of smaller operators on Trip Advisor, as well, but choose carefully: We met a group whose guide took them trekking overnight in the jungle and had them drinking creek water. They all became quite ill, of course.
The Houseboat The boats are massive. I had told the kids to pack lightly and leave everything else at the hotel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The entire top floor was our bedroom, with room to have bags explode everywhere and still make room to sleep. The mosquitos weren’t bad either, for all our worrying.
What to Bring Definitely pack light, long sleeves, long pants, socks and tennis shoes for the jungle and nights on the boat. Wipes are super handy because there are no showers. Also bring every possible medicine, including upset tummy meds, dramamine, and antibiotics for travelers diarrhrea. The closest hospital will usually be a day away, best case.
When to Go Borneo is great during the typical summer break for northern hemisphere students. Holidays can also be busy but can be dampened by monsoons.
Book Early Because the area is not a huge one with tourists, houseboats and other resources are stretched thin during the high seasons. Best to book early.
Hotel in Balikpapan We stayed at the Grand Senyiur and enjoyed it. Beautiful breakfast buffet, rooftop bar and restaurant, and close to everything. There are plenty of big business hotels for reasonable prices in town but this one seemed the most Indonesian, even if its long corridors seemed a little like The Shining.
Welcoming Locals Given America’s climate of extreme intolerance and anti-Muslim fervor today, I was concerned about traveling to the majority Muslim country as Americans. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Almost every person we met was extremely friendly and welcoming. Sure, I wouldn’t let my kids bring any obviously-American clothing so people didn’t really know we were from the U.S. And because almost all tourists are from Europe, we were taken for Belgian (for whatever reason). But even when we did need to identify as American, people were still kind and hospitable.
Clothing I drove my teens crazy but insisted they dress modestly everywhere until we arrived on the islands later in the trip. The people of Kalimantan dress modestly and it is respectful to do the same. My daughter and I did not wear shorts or sleeveless tops.
Food The meals on our tour were plentiful and exceptional. Each one came with several dishes so that my picky-eater son always had something he liked – whether it was a soup, fried noodles, or my favorite, fried bananas. If you go, I would stop at a shop before boarding the boat and buy kid snacks like chips, cookies and nuts, just to keep the hangry at bay between meals. We also visited during dragonfruit season, which has the beet-red flesh in Kalimantan.
Must Reads Definitely pick up the new and utterly compelling, Last Wild Men of Borneo, as well as the 1980s travel classic, Into the Heart of Borneo for pre-trip reading or to enjoy while you’re there. Both books will inspire you to go – and both will sadden you when you realize how much Borneo has changed in the last two decades alone.
Maryann Jones Thompson – March 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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