Indonesia Travel Information - Kalimantan

Kalimantan: Borneo Without the Tourists!

Kalimantan is Indonesia's share of the great island of Borneo. It is by far the biggest part of the island, covering about two thirds of it. You would think that the very name "Borneo" alone is enough to attract crowds of visitors here, but that is far from being the case - the crowds go to the more developed Malaysian third of the island instead.
All the better for those who still make the effort: Kalimantan remains raw, unexplored and almost totally unspoilt by tourism. Sure, it has had its share of the evils of our era, with logging companies, plantations and miners all taking their share of its mighty rainforests, and modernization penetrating its coastal cities. But its huge size alone ensures that there is plenty left to experience: in the centre of the island the rainforests can still seem endless, Dayak culture retains its authentic flavour with hospitality still genuine, and even coastal national parks offer good chances to spot exotic wildlife like orangutans and proboscys monkeys. Even the cities, most of them traditional seats of Malay sultanates can be worth a look, with attractions ranging from nightlife through palaces to Asia's best floating markets.
One word of caution though: travelling around Kalimantan takes time - plenty of it. Plan carefully, and don't even think of "seeing it all" in one trip!

Attractions Off the Track Local Culture Getting There
Main Attractions

The amazing floating markets of this city in South Kalimantan is the very best and most authentic in Asia.
No less interesting are the city's canals, lined with stilt houses built over the water.
And Banjarese cuisine is the most mouthwatering in Indonesian Borneo!

The area around the small town of Loksado, nestled in the Meratus Mountains of South Kalimantan, is the most popular trekking destination in Indonesian Borneo.
Apart from the surrounding forests and waterfalls, the main attraction here is the culture of the local Bukit Dayaks, who still preserve their original tribal religion. Many of them still live in large communal "balais", whose main hall is dominated by ornate ceremonial carvings and decorations.
Mahakam River

This long river in East Kalimantan offers the easiest chance to gain an insight to the varied Dayak cultures of Borneo.
While longhouses are now few, festivals are common and interesting crafts can be bought. While the culture is more interesting downriver (!), the upper Mahakam reaches some beautiful hilly areas of unspoilt rainforest.
Sangalaki Marine Reserve

This stunning archipelago off the coast of East Kalimantan includes Sangalaki, where groups of tame Manta Rays can reliably be seen even by snorkellers, Kakaban with its unique jellyfish lake, and Derawan with its plentiful turtles. Brilliant coral reefs abound, too.
The local people are mostly Bajo "Sea Gypsies" - shown here holding an offering ceremony to the sea.
Off the Beaten Track
West Kalimantan

The entire huge province of West Kalimantan is well off the tourist track. Most people only go there to cross into neighbouring Sarawak.
However those who do take their time will find Kalimantan's best Dayak longhouses and national parks, historic Malay sultanates and lively Chinese culture here.
Central Kalimantan

Central Kalimantan is also almost completely off the beaten track. The only place regularly visited by tourists is the overrated Tanjung Puting National Park.
However this province is more interesting for traditional Dayak culture, especially funerary rites and related carvings.
There are also a few longhouses in upriver areas.

Up in the centre of South Kalimantan, the river town of Negara offers a great insight to river-oriented, traditional Malay life. The town has a great example of a traditional, carved Banjarese house, and plenty of blacksmiths producing everything from farm tools to Dayak-style mandaus.
In the wetlands just outside the town, buffaloes are kept in a truly unique manner: they spend their day swimming in the swamp, munching on water-plants, and are herded up to raised wooden platforms to sleep at night.
Pulau Laut

Way off any tourist routes, the cluster of islands off the east coast of South Kalimantan, centred on Pulau Laut, offers a great spot to rest up for a few days if you are on a long journey around Borneo. There are some pretty good beaches down in the south of the island, and some so-so coral reefs, too.
Tourist Traps
Tanjung Puting National Park

Made famous by Birute Galdikas' work with orangutans, this park can now only be visited with an expensive chartered boat, and overnighting and hiking inside are forbidden.
The main attraction will be the chance to watch tame orangutans being fed, with practically no chance of seeing wild ones.
Though it is also a good place to see Proboscys Monekys, there are far more interesting national parks elsewhere in Kalimantan.
A more genuine experience is to visit one or more of Kalimantan's other national parks, where you are free to explore the forest on trails and can see wild orangutans instead of tamed ones.
Gunung Palung, Kutai and Betung Kerihun NPs are all good alternatives.
Local Culture
Dayak Culture

While mostly wearing modern dress and living in modern houses nowadays, the Dayak tribes of Kalimantan preserve spectacular traditions of dance, music and dress for festive occasions.
Seeing one of these requires time and luck, but is an essential part of the Borneo experience.
Malay Culture

While often overlooked by visitors, the native Malays of coastal Kalimantan also have their own colorful traditional culture. Just like with the Dayaks, you need some luck to catch a traditional festival or wedding ceremony, but if you do, you will see colorful costumes and possibly stately dances accompanied by music played with drums and gongs.
Getting There and Around

By Air

You could try and check if border-hopper flights from Kuching in Sarawak to Pontianak in West Kalimantan, or from Tawau in Sabah to Tarakan in East Kalimantan are still operating when you need them, but both of these borders are easy and much cheaper to cross overland. Air Asia also flies from Kuala Lumpur to Balikpapan, a potentially much more useful route!

By Sea

There are hydrofoils every day, with the possible exception of Sunday, between Tawau in Sabah and Nunukan or Tarakan in East Kalimantan - remember that you need an Indonesian visa issued in advance to enter the country this way.
Departures to Nunukan are more frequent and it is the shorter hop, but Nunukan is such a hole that you are better off heading straight to Tarakan. You can catch a Pelni ship to other islands of Indonesia from either of these towns.

By Road

You can travel by bus between Kuching in Sarawak and Pontianak in West Kalimantan, and most nationalities can now get a visa on arrival when entering the country this way.


By Air

Most flights from Kalimantan go to one of several important cities in Java.
You could also fly between Kalimantan and Sulawesi and maybe Bali.

By Sea

Kalimantan is pretty well-connected to the rest of Indonesia by sea.
As usual, the widest range of connections are to Java, connected by Pelni ships and private operators to all provinces of Kalimantan.
From West Kalimantan, you could also catch ships to Sumatra's island provinces of Bangka-Belitung or Riau, while ships from East Kalimantan can take you to Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, and - less frequently - even to Maluku and Papua!


By Air

Flights within Kalimantan are somewhat limited, and are more likely to operate within the same province, especially in huge East Kalimantan, where they remain the only way to reach some remote interior settlements.
To go from one part of Kalimantan to another, you may well need to fly via Java!

By Sea

East Kalimantan is the only province where taking a boat to cover longer distances along the coast is still practical, elsewhere roads have taken over.
The few nearby off-shore islands of Kalimantan can mostly be reached from the mainland by ferries or speedboats.

By River

Riverboats are traditionally an important way of reaching Kalimantan's interior, though with the advent of roads, services have been replaced by buses and shared taxis on many routes.
The classic trip up the Mahakam is still easily doable by cheap public riverboats though, and possibilities remain in all other provinces, too.

By Bus

You can now travel almost all the way around Kalimantan by road, and all provinces have roads to the interior, too. Be prepared though that on the whole, Kalimantan's roads tend to be among the worst in Indonesia, rivalled only by those in Papua, or on remote, small islands.
The only really good stretch is between Banjarmasin and Balikpapan, where you can find good, air-con buses. Elsewhere, you'll be lucky if the road has tarmac on it at all, and transport along it will be either in a cramped old bus or in a Kijang shared taxi. Ojeks might be the last resort on truly remote roads.


Probably because Kalimantan's main attractions are mostly either in the roadless interior or among the islands off the coast, renting a car is uncommon and makes little sense here.