skull Deja Vu skull Kalimantan skull

For the first time, I am including a bit of an explanatory note at the beginning of a post. This one may come across as a bit negative, but that is because this was a bit of an unpleasant experience. It happens sometimes when you travel, and I hope I don't sound whiny. You live through it and move on. I'm sure Kalimantan has a little more to offer than what we got out of it. We had cut a few things out because we had, or were going to do, similar or better for cheaper during other parts of our trip. We only had one major thing we wanted to do, and didn't do it as it turned out to be just silly overpriced. Overall it was just a place that didn't live up to our hopes or expectations. It is worth mentioning that the people not involved in tourism were super friendly, and that helped a lot when our frustration would get the better of us.


July 18

Today started with a 15 minute walk to the bus stop, then a 30 minute local bus ride – after sitting for 15 minutes stuck at the bus station because the driver couldn’t get past the busses parked in front of him no matter how much he honked – then a few confused minutes at the bus station when we were put on another bus – after looking for the new seat tickets for 10 minutes because I slid them in my pocket and promptly forgot – then bussed to the Malaysia/Indonesia border where we painlessly passed through customs and immigration – despite a very persistent guy trying to force us into the VISA on arrival line up even though we already had a VISA, and a very friendly immigration guy who chatted me up about our trip, diving and would I take him – then back on the bus to finish our 10 hour bus ride where we got dropped off and had an almost 30 minute walk – with packs – looking for a hotel. I feel we are slightly off the beaten path, there is no offerings on Hostel World for where we are, Pontianak, Indonesia.

So we find ourselves in an overpriced hotel paying too much to have dinner in their lovely open air roof top restaurant which was picked for convenience. We have to catch a 7 am flight tomorrow morning and just want to be in bed. It’s been a long day.

July 19

Our alarm went off at 5:00 am (well 6:15 Malaysia time – lucky us!) and we got breakfast (not as luxurious as it sounds - it was toast)sent to our room at 5:15 courtesy of the hotel before we caught a cab to the airport, which was packed. I was still a little (a lot) dopey from being up at ..what time was it again…. and was a bit confused at the swarms of people. Such a small city and even smaller airport to be this busy. We checked in and waited for our flight. It was a bit late and to our amusement had no assigned seating. We figured this out a bit late and got crappy seats, but no worries…there were three stops (for the record we counted this as one flight in the transportation section) before we were to reach our destination and moved to better ones after the first. So the flight was 4.5 hours long and seriously had 3 stops before finally landing in Banjarmasin. The stops were tiny cities only reachable by bus or plane. Very cool.

Anyone For A Swim?

Once in Banjarmasin we went in search of a hotel room. We had read there isn’t much backpackers type accommodations and that the cheaper places/mid-range are a bit rough so we had looked on Agoda and in Lonely Planet and had a list of our three favourites. We tried those and were not impressed. We checked a few more in the area and gave up, walking to another area…with no luck. Most places that did have rooms were out of the cheap ones and the ones who had cheap rooms were dank, smelly and mouldy. Taking a few minutes to think we decided to pop into an internet café and check on-line again. We were at the point where you have to decide if you just suck it up, save some cash and go cheap, cheap, cheap or suck it up and splurge. I remembered one had a pool and we do love to splurge on pools so we found it on Agoda and to be safe just booked it. We jumped into another cab and went to our fancy, overpriced hotel. It did look pretty nice from the outside, but (and this seems to go for all of Kalimantan) most do, they spend so much money making the outside look good but the inside can be crap. Very deceiving. We checked in and were taken to our room by the bell boy. While he was showing James the air con and bathroom I looked out the window…..was the pool empty? The guy said yes, it’s under construction. What?!? Both James and I froze….our room, while big enough, was grungy, old and smelled – but we weren’t paying for our room, we were paying for the POOL! We walked down to the desk and asked why it wasn’t posted (a fair bit of the hotel was actually under construction) or posted on Agoda (we checked) and they said it was Agoda’s problem….hhhhmmmmm. Other than contact Agoda there was nothing to do so we went for dinner and a walk of the area…looking for a cheaper hotel. We found one, slightly cheaper, a wee bit cleaner and Puspa, the front desk girl, an absolute treat after all the grumpy hotel staff we’d encountered.

We took a short walk of the city and found it to be quite unique. It is described as the Venice of the east, and I haven’t been to Venice, but I seriously doubt it looks (or smells) anything like this, but Hey! Maybe I’m wrong. It didn’t take us long to figure out Banjarmasin doesn’t get many tourists. Everyone would stop what they were doing, smile and wave. Some yelled HI! To us and more still tried to high five us. Funny. After a frustrating day I went to bed smiling, the people here seemed amazing.

Venice of the East

Modern Mosque

July 20

We had an early breakfast that I ended up lingering over while James popped out for a trip to the bank machine. When he came back he said a few guides approached him about tours and he made appointments with them. Great, maybe we could sort out the Makaham River tour. A cruise up the Makaham River was pretty much the only reason we were in Indonesian Borneo and we had yet to find a tour that fit our schedule and budget. We snuck in another quick walk to the beautiful Mosque before meeting the first guy.

The guide turned out to have very little information on the River but we got some prices for doing a tour to the diamond mining that was on our list. He was a bit expensive and we thought we could do it on our own so we told him we’d call him. Then we headed out for a bit more Banjarmasin site seeing. A large part of the city is on stilts (not uncommon in Asian near/on water) and we found it interesting to wander the small streets.

Banjarmasin Market

At one point a guy on a bike came riding up asking us about tours. We thought maybe he was a bit crazy so nicely said no thank you, and continued on our walk. We were roughly following a Lonely Planet walking tour but zig zagged on and off it as we saw things that caught our eye. We also stopped at an internet place and, without luck, tried to print some tickets. The heat eventually got to us so we went into a plaza with a grocery store and got drinks….why am I telling you all this in so much detail? Lol We came out of the plaza and again took a short cut through a parking lot coming up to a main street and there was the bike guy again. Yelling out to us! How did he find us? Were we the only white people walking the streets today and stood out that much? We had to laugh. He was saying his friend, who turned out to be the guide we spoke to earlier, says he can do our diamond tour for almost half the price. Now, we are smart people and know no guy who chases foreigners on bikes and offers such cheap prices will make a great guide…but we really just needed help finding the place (we’d read it can be hard to find). So sure, we asked him to add a trip to the market on and it was a deal. To recap – a private tour, in an air-conditioned car with an English speaking guide. Wonder what we’ll get (said with a smile).

We walked a bit more enjoying the city, the people and the interesting sights.

Salivating Over the Sparkly Wares

July 21

After a quick breakfast we met our bike rider guide in our lobby who took us to our crusty old jeep, windows down and/or missing and with a young guy from Britain in the back. I had a laugh. It was really no big deal, we weren’t that spoilt and Blue, the guy from Britain, turned out to be friendly and we had a great day. Once the jeep started (no air) our guide promptly fell asleep, what would be his usual state whenever in the jeep, and we enjoyed the passing views and chatting with Blue. We did an unplanned stop at a jewellery shop that processed diamonds and gemstones. We were all a bit on the defense but it was interesting to be shown the process. Also interesting was when the owner sat us down to show us his wares. He went through fake versus real versions of almost everything and added a few tips for buying. He had this cool gun thing he pressed to diamonds and stones and it read weather they are real or not – Dear Santa…. We had asked the guide to do the diamond mines first and then the market, so we could spend lots of time in the market (Blue liked to shop too!!) without worrying, but as would be the norm, our guide didn’t listen and took us to the market.

Just Watching Him Made Me Ache

Back in the jeep and down some interesting side dirt roads, into what seemed very rural, we pulled over, our guide woke up and we took a short walk through a field. Dozens of holes were dug deep into the ground with crude wooded structures over them and a handful of men in, on and around them. They were mining for diamonds and other gemstones. We walked around and even tried our hand at it.

The workers were so friendly, all waving us to come closer and see what they were doing. An added bonus was the guys selling beautiful polished stones for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home…what was I thinking I only bought TWO! We walked back to the road and then down it a bit passing friendly families. Everyone was so curious but so friendly.

We walked back into the field again and we had a better view point. As far as you could see there were mining holes. It is impossible to even guess at how many, we could see a couple dozen but there were small hills and valleys hiding many others, all with 10 -15 men working them. It was quite a site. It looked like hard, back breaking work but to be honest we thought maybe it would be slightly better than the dirty, noisy, rough city life we’d seen in the bigger cities. Either one is not something I think most of us could do for a lifetime. Very humbling.

As we walked to/from the sites we were on a dirt road with small wooden houses. People were sitting out on their “front porches” and were excited to see us, waving and yelling hello. One lady held up her beautiful baby so she could see us, we were rewarded with a cute grin. We loaded back in the jeep for our ride back to town.

Adorable Local With Her Mom

On the way home the guide stayed awake for a few minutes to give us all one last sales pitch, you have to give him points for persistence, but we were a little tired of saying no. Blue admitted that he planned to a canal tour but didn’t really need a guide and told the guide if he could match the price he already had for a boat he’d do it with him. The guide got angry. Blue then asked to be dropped off a few minutes before his hotel on the road we were on…the guides answer was “you can walk, it’s only a 5 minute walk from your hotel”, then promptly fell back asleep. Nasty. Blue’s stop was first and after he was gone the guide told us he was a bad boy. Why, we asked? He won’t do a canal tour with me at my price- was his answer. Hmmmm

Back in town James popped out to book us a bus ticket for the next day, no one – not the hotel staff, tour agencies or full on travel agencies – could book us a bus ticket for us…..another reminder we are off the well-worn backpacker path.

Push Starting the Bus

July 22

Our bus wasn’t scheduled to leave until late afternoon so we slept in, had a late breakfast (small, nothing was left) and picked up a few things for lunch/dinner on the 10-13 hour upcoming bus ride. We also tried to get a few things booked for the next week or so. We still were at a loss as to how to do the Makaham River cruise. We’d been pricing it and were shocked at the prices. To do a private tour on a basic houseboat, with a guide, local meals and no real entry fees (just hikes and villages) we could only get it down to $300 /person /day for 5 nights. Yes, that was per person per day! What the hell are they adding into to the package to make it that expensive? We’d sent emails back asking for a budget trip, local transportation, local guesthouses and a guide. It was likely the only way we could do it. On your own it is very hard and takes twice as long meaning we wouldn’t get past the touristy part which resembles Upper Canada Village – but dirty and filled with beggar kids and toothless old ladies selling made in China jewellery. Not really something we enjoyed. The river cruise was what brought us to this part of Borneo – so we hoped we could get things sorted soon.

About 4 pm we caught a cab to the bus station and, only about 30 minutes late, boarded our bus. It was a bit rough around the edges, filthy and almost full – full being with a few baskets of chickens and a handful of kids. Yeah! At our dinner stop we ate pb on chocolate swirl bread (OMG! It is tasty!) and traded our meal coupons for pop, the only thing sealed. After dinner is when the fun started. The men started to push the bus…..apparently it needed to be push started….so James joined in. So funny, and a first for both of us.

Back on our way we bounced and weaved our way down the narrow road, dangerously passing trucks, bikes, cars other busses, cats, dogs, chickens, cows…... It was a bit scary and we are pretty used to busses. It didn’t help that we’d be stuck in traffic early on in the trip for a car accident that looked really bad and missed a scooter accident by only a minute or two and very early on in the trip (still full day light) we almost hit another scooter and the lady in the front seat screamed. So I was a little jumpy. We finally dozed a bit.

Crossing The Mahakam By Ferry - The Closest We Got To Our Cruise

July 23

We pulled into the Balikpapan bus station at the fourteen hour mark. UGH! The bus smelled like stale people, cigarette smoke (they still smoke EVERYWHERE in Indonesia) food and who knew what else. We knew we had at least a few more hours. What we didn’t know was that after traveling all night in a broken bus they planned on fixing it here. WTF! So we sat for 1.5 hours before spending 4 more hours in heavy traffic before getting to our final destination, Samarinda. We practically leapt off the bus, dropped our bags and ran for the toilet, they had quit doing bathroom breaks. Once relieved we took a break to figure out where we were in the city. Of course every male in the area with a bike cab offered help. According to them we had to cross the river and they could take us to the ferry for only $1 /person. Hmmmm…I thought we had just passed the sign for the ferry so we walked to the road. Yup, kiddie corner to the parking lot was the path to the ferry. Assholes. They were going to have us load up onto their bike and drive us the 10 feet out of the parking lot and across the road. A few minutes later we were on a wooden boat. Back on land we headed in the direction of our first pick hotel. We couldn’t pre book anything but at least were prepared. We had a very detailed list of hotels, address and prices. At one point we paused to make sure we were going in the right direction and a guy asked James where he was going. James told him the street name and his reply was….for 20,000 IDR (about $2.50) I can tell you where it is. What? Another first, a “friendly local” charging to give directions to the lost foreigners. As it turned out we were about 10 steps form the road we wanted, and could literally see the street sign once there was a gap in the crowd. At our first pick we priced it (more than the online price) and took a look at the room, not bad actually. But we decided to look around first. James settled me in their lobby café and headed out. I ordered a café latte and by about half way through it was relaxed and ready to tackle whatever else Indonesian Borneo had in store for us. Our first choice turned out to be the best so we checked in. During my latte a guide approached me and asked if we would like information on a river cruise so he waited and went over it with both James and I. We told him we’d think about it. His 3 day tour wasn’t a bad price ($187 /person /day) but we wanted to go way up the river, not just do the touristy part. The 4 night tour was still way out of our budget (still almost $300 /person /day), but that’s what we’d come all this way for.


We got checked in and went for a quick bite to eat and discussed the tours. We decided to try to talk the guy down a bit for the 4 night tour, everywhere you read it said we should be bartering and if that didn’t work than try to get him to lower the 3 day touristy tour into our budget and just do it. We had the hotel call him and he was there in less than five minutes. We started by explaining that if we did the 3 day tour on our own it would less than $50 /person and we could do that perfectly fine on our own, but we really wanted to go further in a knew we needed a guide. We asked him to come down a bit. He got totally pissed at us, and a bit nasty. We tried to ask him why it was expensive and his reply was that Kalimantan (the area of Indonesia we were in) was expensive. What? He could give us no real reason why it was so much more. All local busses, ferries, guesthouses, meals….we had those prices….what was the difference for? We really wanted to do it and were basically looking for a good reason to spend this kind of money, and a small discount. He wasn’t having any of it. He finally just picked up his stuff and left. We just happened to bump into another guide when out for dinner (I think there is a watch that announces foreigners arriving) and we priced the same tours with him, he was more expensive. After a frustrating day (well almost 48 hours now) we decided to do the touristy bit ourselves. We’d still see some culture, even if was a bit fake.

Tired, sore and cranky we headed to bed.

July 24

Well rested and with a belly full of noodles (I’m starting to get use to noodles for breakfast) we decided to go to the local Dayak ceremonies today and then pick up a few supplies for our adventure up the river. We had the directions to the place from the guide book, and doubled checked them at the hotel then headed out. Of course the first 5 mini bus guys tried to rip us off horribly but we stood our ground, on the side of the road, and finally found one that only slightly ripped us off. We got dropped of at a bus terminal where we were supposed to catch another mini bus for the hour ride to the festivities. We started asking around and a few old men told us the only way was by private cab – at $25 each way. Yikes! The mini bus was only going to cost $1 at the most and we knew they went regularly, so this was a bit of a shock. We asked around a bit more and they all agreed, we could only go by private. This is where I lost it. They were obviously lying, not even just the usual trying to charge us more. We either paid the $50 to go see a ceremony that was not even really for tourists and should only cost us about $5 in total for the return trip - or didn’t go. I was fuming, so decided to walk back to the hotel. James, just as mad, was fine with my decision. (James’ Note: These are the times I really miss actual public transportation. Get on bus X it goes from point A to point B for this price. This has happened to us before, like in Raneau where they wouldn’t let us get on the mini bus that had big letters that read “Poring” because “no bus goes to Poring, only private charter”. After dealing with guides, some of which tried to charge us over a thousand dollars a day for a tour, and another who said “don’t worry about price I’ll just meet you at the airport and we’ll leave from there” our patience was a bit thin.) Once I could finally talk without stomping my feet and swearing I made a suggestion. How about we change our flight out of Indonesia, Borneo for ASAP and spend the extra days in Lombok? James fully agreed.

I have had a hard time writing this section. I start and stop and re-read and delete. It sounds like we are doing nothing but complaining, and I have toned it down and left out so much nastiness. We knew this part would test us, we knew it would be slow going, a bit expensive, few conveniences, lesser food choices and all round uncomfortable. We were prepared for all that. What we were not prepared for were the people in the tourism industry. And I have to make myself clear – anyone not in the tourism industry has been overly friendly, helpful and I smile now just thinking about it. But anyone involved in tourism has been nasty. To be honest it has been quite an adventure, the busses, trying to figure things out, finding safe (for our bellies) places to eat and that might make us laugh or tired or sore or cranky but that is all part of traveling. The lying to my face so you can rip me off is not something I will put up with. So we are leaving a week early. (James' Note: We should be clear that we can, and have, put up with quite a bit while travelling, and have always found it worth the hassle. This was just about the first place where we both found that the money and effort really wasn’t worth it. For the record so it doesn’t all sound negative, Malaysian Borneo is one of the most spectacular places I have ever been. North Sumatra Indonesia, which we visited last year, was fantastic as well. Kalimantan doesn’t have as much to offer as either of those places, other than lots and lots of KFCs, but charges way more for it)

We finally found an in-town mini bus that charged us the going rate and we got dropped off at the shopping plaza. I treated myself to an iced-mocha from KFC and James had a slushy. Again, about half way though I was back to normal, feeling a bit defeated, but happy. I was on an adventure of a lifetime with my hot, dive instructor husband – it was hard to stay upset.

Last Sight Of The Mahakam

July 25

We had an early breakfast and jumped on a bus to go back to Balikpapan where we’d have to spend one more night, then catch a flight to Bali …. Then a ferry to Lombok. We decided we could use some peace and quiet. Including our bus today, we’d been traveling to, in and around Kalimantan for 7 days and racked up 40.5 hours travel, 34 hours on busses alone. We’d bussed, cabbed, ferried, flew and even did bit of walking with not much to show for it.

We’d pre- booked a hotel and when we were checking in the girl informed us that our medium room (not the cheapest for once) was across the road in the same building as the Bar and it stayed open (and loud) until 3 am so would we like to downgrade? Huh? For real? She also informed us that building had no internet….even though our booking clearly said so. Nope. Oh and the free airport shuttle was only for a group, the kettle not in all rooms, not yours for sure…and the list goes on. Blah! While checking in we started talking to three other foreigners. A girl that had been working, living and traveling abroad for a few years and two guys who’d been traveling for over four years…and, if you can believe it, were all leaving early too. They too had had enough. We ended up grabbing lunch from the bakery and had a great meal by the water trading horror stories of Kalimantan. How sad is it that five seasoned travellers are all giving up? We all agreed on one thing, it was the tourism industry that chased us away.

After our great meal we headed back to the hotel to try to book some stuff for the next week or so. It’s high season in Bali and we had nothing booked. Yikes! After being in our room about 30 minutes we figured out it had cockroaches. Could I put up with them for one very short night? Nope…so I went down to the desk. The bitchy lady informed me they did not have cockroaches so I offered to go catch a few, bring them to her….and she agreed to switch rooms. The second was two doors down and carpeted like the first, the third a long way away and tiled….we still slept with the bathroom light on – James says cockroaches don’t like light. Our room squared away we went in search of a movie theatre. Funny, we didn’t end up going but we had a hard time finding the cinema so had help from the security guards. The first one we talked to, who had a walkie talkie, must have radioed the next security guard we should meet and so on and so on….so all we did was walk off an escalator and a guy waved us in the right direction, then off an elevator and another guy waved us on…until we found it. In our defence it was hard to find, especially if you couldn’t read the signs. It was a bit creepy but funny. As I mentioned we didn’t see a movie, nothing great was playing. We found out the next day that the Indonesian government has suspended the import licenses for Hollywood movies due to unpaid taxes. Things were in the process of being worked out, but we likely wouldn’t be seeing any decent movies any time soon.

I crawled into bed with a sigh of relief. We were headed to Lombok – and everyone loved Lombok. I am a little embarrassed to admit I am looking forward to a break.

Early Departure (our 19th flight)

July 26

After our noodles and coffee we caught a cab to the airport. Our flight today, actually the connecting flight, from Surabaya to Denpasar is our 19th since we started March 6. It’s with Wings Air, a subsidiary of Lion Air, which is one of 14 different airlines so far. Wow!

After landing we priced the airport cabs and decided Lonely Planet was right – they were very expensive. We walked the 3 minutes to the main road and caught one for 1/10th the price of a cab at the airport curb. Hint hint. And then we drove into the Kuta area. Hmmmm….. It was busy, noisy, filled with shopping, restaurants and so many modern conveniences – I was doing a happy dance in my seat. Again, a little embarrassed. We found our hotel, checked in and were laughing at how different the pictures were on the internet but it was budget and everything we expected. We went out to confirm our ferry booking and grab a bite to eat and caught a small glimpse of Bali. It really was a busy place. So many tourists! The beach was packed and I thoroughly enjoyed walking back to our hotel along it, watching everything going on. We went to bed early with the gently thump thump thumping sound of the bars in the area.

Prev. Home Next