Borneo's Derawan Islands: The Complete Guide

Derawan Island in Kalimantan, Borneo

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The Derawan Islands in East Kalimantan are one of the most exciting, biodiverse places to travel in Borneo. Even with a short stay, you may get to see giant mantas, whale sharks, dolphins, stingless jellyfish, and endangered sea turtles. Getting there requires patience, so travelers more often choose to stay in Malaysian Borneo and dive Sabah’s islands to the north.

Only two of the 31 islands in the Derawan chain have accommodation: Pulau Derawan and the larger, hook-shaped Maratua Island. Pulau Derawan is closer to the mainland and therefore more developed, whereas Maratua Island is comparatively pristine and enjoys a lot more room. No matter where you base yourself, though, you’ll be taking speedboats to enjoy memorable adventures throughout the chain.

The small airport on Maratua Island only handles irregular, chartered flights, but authorities hope to change that soon. Use this guide to the Derawan Islands to get there before the tourism floodgates swing open.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The Derawan Islands receive consistent rainfall throughout the year; however, July, August, and September are often driest. Weekends and holidays are busiest.
  • Language: Bahasa Indonesia is the national language, but the many ethnic Bajau people living on the islands speak the Indonesian Bajau dialect. A lot of people who work with tourists speak some English.
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR). Prices are written with “Rs” or “Rp” in front of the amount.
  • Getting Around: Traveling between the islands requires taking bumpy speedboat rides. Although there are a few scooters and small trucks on Maratua Island, renting a bicycle is an enjoyable way for tourists to explore the island. Tiny Pulau Derawan can be circumnavigated on foot in about an hour.
  • Travel Tip: Nearly all food and supplies have to be carried over from the mainland by boat. Prices are significantly higher on the islands, and you’ll have fewer choices for toiletries, snacks, and other items. Bring everything you need with you from the mainland.
Green sea turtle swimming in Derawan, Kalimantan, Indonesia underwater
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Things to Do

Skip the tours that encourage unnatural behavior (e.g., feeding whale sharks), and avoid following in the footsteps of the many visitors to the Derawan Islands who have made a bad habit of handling the jellyfish and baby turtles to take photos. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the marine life without accidentally endangering it.

  • Go Diving: Along with the Togean Islands in Sulawesi and Raja Ampat in Papua, the Derawan Islands are part of a “coral triangle” that is considered one of the richest areas for marine life in the world. The biodiversity beneath the surface is unbeatable—potential sightings range in size from mantas and whale sharks to pygmy seahorses. Dive shops typically offer bundled accommodation packages.
  • Visit Sangalaki Island: Taking an excursion to Sangalaki Island is one of the most popular things to do in the Derawan Islands. Sanglaki is home to a sea turtle sanctuary, and visitors can also snorkel a point where big manta rays frequent. (Although the snorkeling is good, seeing a manta isn’t guaranteed.)
  • See the Sea Turtles: You can spot green sea turtles (endangered) and hawksbill sea turtles (critically endangered) at any time while snorkeling or even just walking on the beach! Be watchful for nests and eggs.
  • Swim with the Jellyfish: Kakaban Island and Maratua Island are home to brackish lakes where jellyfish have lost their ability to sting, meaning that visitors can swim in surreal swarms of harmless jellyfish. Even the box jellyfish, an exceptionally dangerous jellyfish in other places, is harmless here.
  • Explore by Bicycle: If you need a day out of the water, rent a bicycle on Maratua Island and begin riding. You’ll get to see scenes of daily life and meet new people. Getting lost is unlikely, but ride with caution on the sandy roads. The big monitor lizards you’ll pass look like Komodo dragons, but they're harmless unless cornered. The macaque monkeys, on the other hand, may be interested in whatever you’re carrying and organize a raid!

What to Eat and Drink

Seafood is an obvious choice for eating in the Derawan Islands, but being able to see the sea from the restaurant doesn’t always guarantee freshness. Pay attention to a restaurant’s volume of traffic—fish is sometimes transported from markets on the mainland, and ice doesn’t last long near the equator.

Pretty much every meal involves rice by default. Chicken, fish, and eggs are common on menus, but vegetarians shouldn’t have much trouble locating delicious tempeh. The fermented soy protein is sometimes fried in sambal, an Indonesian chili paste, which can be made with belacan (fermented shrimp paste). Western food of varying quality can also be found at guesthouses and resorts.

Drinking fresh coconuts is a good way to replace electrolytes lost while sweating. Unfortunately, the Derawan Islands suffer from a plastic bottle problem. Take advantage if your hotel or guesthouse offers bottle fill-ups.

Indonesia, Derawan island, East Kalimantan
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Where to Stay

Accommodation is cheapest on Pulau Derawan, the most densely developed of the Derawan Islands. Although Maratua Island is pricier, most visitors agree the beauty is worth paying more.

You’ll find romantic resorts and diving resorts listed on booking sites, but smaller homestays can be found on Derawan and Maratua after arriving. You can potentially save money and enjoy more personal interaction by booking a night or two with an Indonesian family.

Travel tip: "Losmen" and "rumah tamu" are Indonesian words for inn or guesthouse.

Getting There

Unless you’re lucky enough to finagle one of the rare flights into Maratua Island (TRK), you’ll need to take a combination of flights, minibuses, and boats to reach the Derawan Islands. Regional flights and boats are often delayed by weather—keep a flexible itinerary.

Option 1: Fly into Kalimarau Airport (BEJ), 6 miles from Tanjung Redeb in Berau. From there, take a taxi or shared minibus to Tanjung Batu (three hours), and then a boat to Derawan Island or Maratua Island (45 minutes).

Option 2: Fly into Tarakan in North Kalimantan (TRK), then take a four-hour boat to Derawan Island. This option cuts out a lot of overland travel and waiting; however, the long boat trip can be expensive and uncomfortable.

Depending on sea conditions, speedboat journeys can be bumpy and wet. Waterproof your passport, phone, and luggage. Take precautions for sea sickness; Dimenhydrinate (branded as Dramamine in the United States) can be found in local pharmacies. For a more natural solution, try sucking on a piece of shaved raw ginger from one of the markets.

Culture and Customs

  • Although you should try to learn a few words of Bahasa Indonesia, not everyone living in the Derawan Islands speaks it. The ethnic Bajau people have their own dialect. On group excursions, friendly travelers from other parts of Indonesia will often volunteer to translate a menu or boatman’s instructions for you. Communication may be more of a challenge in smaller homestays, but that can become a fun learning experience.
  • Domestic travelers in Indonesia usually love to meet international travelers. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to star in a few group photos together!
  • As elsewhere in Indonesia, cover up when leaving the water. Local dress is conservative, and the equator isn’t far away—your skin will thank you.
  • The home-cooked meals in family homestays are often the most memorable. Eating is done communally at set times. Guests may have the option to use utensils, but locals often eat with their hands. Use only your right hand when eating. To show respect, wait for the eldest person at the table to begin their meal. Trying at least a little of everything is polite, but do your best not to waste any food or sauces.

Money Saving Tips

  • Weekends on the Derawan Islands are a mixed blessing as Indonesian travelers head out to experience the marine life. Snorkeling tours and accommodation are much busier, but you can save a lot of money by teaming up to share boat costs with weekend travelers. Traveling solo on weekdays is the most expensive way to visit the Derawan Islands; you may have to charter an entire boat yourself or wait a long time for other passengers to join.
  • The Derawan Islands get busy during Chinese New Year and on local holidays such as Indonesian Independence Day on August 17. Finding accommodation will be more of a challenge.
  • There is a bank with an ATM on Maratua Island (the BPD Kaltim just north of Maratua Dive Centre), but the ATMs on Derawan Island may be subject to network outages or maintenance problems. Bring enough Indonesian rupiah with you to avoid paying for a boat to the mainland and back just to use an ATM.
  • You can save money by opting to eat away from your guesthouse. Derawan Island is home to plenty of warungs, simple restaurants that serve basic Indonesian dishes.
  • Tipping is not expected while traveling in the Derawan Islands.