Kalimantan is one of Indonesia’s least-visited provinces. Covering two-thirds of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, it’s divided into four counties: East, South, West and Central Kalimantan. Home to more than a few secreted jungles, muddy rivers and isolated beaches, Kalimantan’s greatest draws lie in its impenetrable interior. Travellers have given the region a pass in recent years since the area remains a void on the tourist radar, but in truth Kalimantan’s a red flag for those keen on a little adventure.
The region’s best attractions are tied to its waterways – the mighty Sungai Mahakam is surrounded by rich rainforests and longhouse villages while Banjarmasin’s water villages draw in travellers looking to experience Kalimantan’s Tomb Raider-esque floating market. Meanwhile some of the world’s best diving can be had off the east coast where Pulau Derawan lies while the Tanjung Puting National Park sees river boats that ply routes that run past great apes, proboscis monkeys and vibrant jungle.
Modern Kalimantan has a tough time living up to Borneo’s romantic ideals. Spread across more than 500,000sqkm Kalimantan boasts few tourist destinations and even the provincial capitals of Pontianak, Palangkaraya and Samarinda offer little. The only exception is Banjarmasin which seems to beckon with true Southeast Asian charm – the bright, colourful serene and friendly floating market is a sight to see indeed plus you’ll get the chance to witness plenty of street performances. Accommodation options in Kalimantan are abundant especially in major towns. Most of them are business hotels but you’ll also be able to find upmarket resort-style lodgings.
Kalimantan is usually visited as a stop over on traveller’s itineraries to Sabah and Sarawak. The region’s not known for its modern facilities like Pulau Labuan nor is it a relatively-prosperous province like oil-rich Brunei. Its experienced steady progress and development in recent years but there are still a lot of unexplored quarters; one of the last refuges for orang utans, Kalimantan, in a nutshell, is an adventurer’s haven. The untamed wilderness is one of the few places in the world where you can go to sleep in a hammock to the sound of cicadas chirping lullabies and awaken to the sound of raucous gibbons’ whooping in the morning as your alarm.
There aren’t many international flights that take you directly into Kalimantan – in fact it would be easier, and cheaper, to take a flight into Malaysia’s Sabah or Sarawak and then fly into Kalimantan. The region is primarily served by local Indonesian airlines – each province has its own airport and there are several low cost carriers that operate here.
Batavia Air, which operates the most flights to Indonesia, has flights that traverse from Pontianak and Kuching; Silk Air flies between Balikpapan International Airport and Singapore’s Changi International Airport. From elsewhere in Indonesia there are direct flights from Java; air schedules are fairly reliable but you should check with your travel agent for the best information, deals and prices.
Boats & Buses
There are daily boats that ply the route between Tarakan and Nunukan in East Kalimantan to Tawau in Sabah plus those that travel from Tewah in Sabah to north-eastern Pulau Nunukan. Additionally there are half-dozen Pelni vessels (the national shipping company of Indonesia with passenger ships that ply major routes within Indonesia) that stop over in Kalimantan on their Java-Sulawesi-Maluku runs. Alternatively there are air-conditioned buses that link Pontianak and Kuching. Taxis can be hired from the airport and hotels can arrange van services.
Getting around Kalimantan
The main mode of transportation around Kalimantan is planes and boats. The airport in each province (East, South, West and Central Kalimantan) has flights that ply routes around Kalimantan and Indonesia as well as carriers that can take you beyond. Within the cities, taxis are the main mode of transportation as bus service options are pretty thin on the ground – in fact it would probably work out cheaper (as well as more convenient) for you to hire a car if you plan to cover much ground around the city.
Good to Know
Crossed by the Equator, Kalimantan’s climate imitates neighbouring Sabah and Sarawak’s hot and humid weather. Average temperatures climb to high twenties throughout the year and January to March sees the region experiencing the height of its rainfall. The best time to travel to Kalimantan is during the dry season between April and September; at other times of the year, you’re likely to come across towns inaccessible due to flooding and planes grounded for weeks on end. However the drier season also sees its fair share of hitches as boats can get stranded by low river levels.
Kalimantan’s national language is Bahasa Indonesia. The language shares similarities with Malaysia’s Bahasa Malaysia but there are subtle differences. Although most of Kalimantan’s residents’ lingua franca is Bahasa Indonesia, there are plenty who speak English especially in bigger towns and major hotels.
Money & Taxes
Kalimantan’s one of Indonesia’s least visited regions. The province is dominated by sizable tracts of forested interior and few roads thus making its waterways the main highways. With only scrappy infrastructure, it’s no wonder that travelling costs within Kalimantan are high – especially transport in remote areas. Accommodation doesn’t necessarily have to come with high price tags – especially in the cities – as long as you scout around and book in advance.
Kalimantan’s coinage is referred to as the Indonesian Rupiah (Rp). Notes are available in denominations of Rp100, 000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000 and 500. Coins come in denominations of Rp1, 000, 500, 200, 100 and 50.
It’s best to carry around cash in small denominations especially around Kalimantan’s remote areas. Major credit cards such as American Express, MasterCard and Visa are accepted at upscale establishments in big cities but there is limited merchant acceptance. Traveller’s cheques also suffer the same fate but there are a few banks and larger hotels that will still accept them.
Visas & Permits
Getting to Kalimantan is relatively easy – the region’s airport, the Balikpapan Seppingan Airport is the only point of entry that offers visas upon arrival. If you’re coming into the country from outside Indonesia – either by land, sea or air – by any other entry points, you’ll be required to obtain a visa in advance. If Kalimantan’s a spur of the moment trip when you’re on Borneo Island, then the Indonesian consulate in Sabah – either in Kota Kinabalu or Tawau – will be able to issue visas to foreigners.
Consulate officials may ask to see a valid return airline ticket, or proof of sufficient funds to cover your stay when you arrive in Kalimantan. There are some travel agents who can arrange visas for business travellers; visa regulations change regularly so check with your travel agent or the Indonesian embassy for the latest guidelines.
The visa-free border crossing between Kalimantan and the Sabah’s Tawau is open from Monday to Saturday. The Indomaya Express ferry departs from Tawau and takes approximately three hours to reach the Mulundung Harbour in Tarakan; tickets can be bought at Indomaya’s office at the Tawau harbour. There are also boats that head from Tawau to Nunukan, 100km north of Tarakan – these carriers are slightly cheaper but a little inconvenient.
If you’re thinking of visiting one of Kalimantan’s parks (Gunung Palung National Park, Danau Sentarum National Park and Tanjung Putting National Park to name a few), then you’ll have to contact the respective park offices to arrange for permits to explore the tropical forests.