Malaysian Borneo may get a lion’s share of the tourism, but Kalimantan—the Indonesian side—occupies 73 percent of Borneo, the earth’s third largest island! Kalimantan is also home to the largest population of remaining wild orangutans in the world.
For travelers, fewer visitors in Kalimantan means contending with less traffic in the national parks and enjoying some seriously rewarding adventures. But these experiences don’t always come easily. With less of an international-traveler infrastructure than the more-often visited Malaysian part of the island, you’ll need to learn to navigate the challenges.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Kalimantan is generally from June to September. Kalimantan receives abundant rainfall throughout the year, but summer months tend to be drier. Although less rain is obviously a good thing for trekking and exploring, sometimes the rivers used for transportation into national parks can dry up enough to slow boat travel.
- Language: At least 74 languages are spoken in Kalimantan! Bahasa Indonesia is the national language, however, the Banjarese language is widespread. Fortunately, the basic Latin alphabet makes reading signs and menus easier for travelers.
- Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR). Prices are usually written with “Rp” or “Rs” before the amount. Other than when making online bookings, plan to pay with cash in most places rather than card.
- Getting Around: With a rugged interior and roads prone to flooding, you’ll need to rely on regional flights for covering long distances. Traveling by boat along rivers is common, especially in national parks. In cities, ojeks (motorbike taxis) are often used for getting around town as are bemos, inexpensive minivans that circulate along routes.
- Travel Tip: You need extra patience and flexibility for moving around Kalimantan. Transportation often becomes delayed, canceled, or overbooked due to mismanagement or weather conditions. Build buffer days into your itinerary.
Things to See and Do
The best things to see and do in usually Kalimantan involve taking advantage of Borneo’s impressive biodiversity and local culture. The national parks and rainforests are home to orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and many other types of endangered species. The islands just offshore provide some of the best underwater encounters in the world.
- Enjoy the Derawan Islands: The Derawan Islands in East Kalimantan aren’t easy to reach, but they’re adorned with an astounding amount of marine life. The snorkeling and diving are unforgettable, and the archipelago is one of the largest nesting sites for green sea turtles in the world. Visitors can also go for a surreal swim in brackish lakes that are home to millions of stingless jellyfish.
- See Orangutans: Travelers can float quietly down the dark Sebangau River to see orangutans, gibbons, and other exciting wildlife that live along the banks in Sebangau National Park. The largest population of remaining wild orangutans lives in Kalimantan's treetop canopies. Tanjung Puting National Park is another popular place for spotting orangutans and other wildlife by boat.
- Explore Balikpapan: Borneo is blessed with many natural wonders, but not all of your time has to be spent sweating in the rainforest. Balikpapan is a large, modern city in East Kalimantan that’s home to nice beaches, shopping, and friendly local residents willing to share their culture. When the city begins to feel hectic, there are World War II sites, a mangrove park, and an impressive botanical garden waiting to be explored.
- Visit a Longhouse: You can opt to visit or even stay in a Dayak (indigenous peoples) longhouse on a tour. A stay usually includes a meal, cultural demonstrations, and lots of tuak (palm wine) drinking. Experiences are a mixed bag ranging from touristy to authentic. Generally speaking, the more difficult a longhouse is to reach (many are only accessible by river), the more memorable the experience.
What to Eat and Drink
Seafood lovers are really going to enjoy themselves in Kalimantan where fresh fish (ikan) of all varieties, shrimp (udang), and squid (cumi-cumi) are delicious and inexpensive. Chicken (ayam) and goat (kamping) are also common on menus. Vegetarians can find tempeh, a soybean product that originated in Indonesia hundreds of years ago, on some menus.
Although hot soup may not sound appealing when you’re pretty well atop the equator, local residents do enjoy several different meat-heavy soups (soto) with and without noodles. Homemade sambals are often available for spicing things up, but smell them first: some are made with belacan (shrimp paste), which can come across extra fishy to some people, especially if you've never tried it. Enjoy the many delicious tropical fruits that can be difficult to find at home.
Kalimantan isn’t known for its nightlife. In fact, some entire cities are completely dry or only serve beer to tourists (legally or otherwise). Bintang is the ubiquitous beer found throughout Indonesia; it’s a pale lager produced by Heineken. Tuak is a local spirit created from palm sap by indigenous communities.
Where to Stay
Balikpapan and larger cities have high-rise hotels. You’ll recognize a few of the big chains but many are Asian brands. In smaller areas, you’ll be staying in guesthouses and independently owned hotels. Family homestays with communal areas and shared meals are common. Although guesthouses will probably try to upsell you for national park tours and snorkeling trips, the reception desk is a great place to get information about local events and to book drivers when needed.
With closer proximity to the mainland, tiny Derawan Island has the most accommodation options and the only (sometimes) working ATM in the Derawan chain. If you’re up for taking another boat hop, Maratua Island is generally considered a more attractive place to stay—but accommodation is more expensive. Many of the smaller hotels, particularly on Maratua Island, don’t have online listings. Don’t worry too much if the one or two sizable hotels on booking sites are completely full.
Kalimantan Travel Tips
- The term “Dayak” is used to encompass more than 200 groups of indigenous peoples who live in Borneo. If you know the name of a particular ethnic group you're trying to reference (e.g., “Iban”), use that instead.
- The Erau Festival is an exciting celebration of indigenous culture held every September. Processions in full traditional regalia, feasts, ceremonies, and lots of partying take place. Tenggarong and Samarinda in East Kalimantan are two good places to see the event.
- Finding a working ATM isn’t always possible in remote areas such as base towns for national parks and in the Derawan Islands. You’ll want to stock up on cash when in major hubs. Consider carrying some U.S. dollars that could be exchanged in a pinch. As usual, stick to using ATMs that are attached to bank branches.
- Kalimantan can be a little more challenging for independent travelers than Malaysian Borneo, but that makes the experience feel extra rewarding. Knowing some key words in Bahasa Indonesia helps facilitate making travel arrangements. If you’re short on time or energy, you’ll be best served by taking advantage of local guides, drivers, and tours that can provide a smoother experience. Instead of booking online, wait until you arrive to arrange tours; doing so increases the chance your money will stay in local communities.
- Regional flights on small aircraft are subject to bad weather and overbooking with people and cargo. Much like the local hotels, many of the smaller airlines don’t have an online presence. You’ll need to visit their counter in the airport or book flights through an agent.
- Although Kalimantan is home to all sorts of potentially dangerous wildlife, the lowly mosquito is actually the most dangerous creature on the island. Take extra precautions to avoid bites, especially at sunset when mosquitoes most often transmit Dengue Fever.
- Drinking homemade arak can be dangerous. Methanol poisoning from consuming homemade spirits kills locals and tourists every year throughout Indonesia.
- Driving a scooter is a great way to get around in Kalimantan, but road conditions are chaotic in many places. Only rent a scooter if you’ve got plenty of experience.